By Anna Merlan
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There's a tiny bathroom directly behind the Mets' dugout at Shea Stadium. It's the closest bathroom to the field, the one the players use when they can't hold it till the end of the game. The 4-foot-by-9-foot, black-and-white tiled space is damp and noxious, housing a small sink, urinal and toilet. On the last weekend of the regular season, it held no toilet papermaybe the Mets had spent too much of the last two weeks crapping out.
After the Mets gave us the most exciting baseball in 13 seasons in Flushing, it looked like Elvis was leaving the building. Elvis used to read the Bible on a bowl similar to the one behind the Shea dugout. And Elvis died on that bowl.
But the Mets ain't an Elvis team, I kept telling myself. They spent the season invoking the ghost of Jim Morrison, even going as far as inviting his witch-wife Patricia to batting practice. With their rallying cry of "Mr. Mojo Risin', " the Amazins were about to enter their first postseason since '88. Then their bats turned as flaccid as the Lizard King's sex organ.
It looked like another blow for Long Island's hapless sports fans, who spent the month of September suffering the pain of a heart ripped out of a chest. Testaverde went down early to kill the Jets. The Islanders started training camp, which is just another invitation to a season of hockey hell. And the Mets were on the verge of what was destined to be deemed in baseball circles as "the choke of '99." Something had to be done.
All Choked Up
During the depths of the Mets' losing streak last week, I paid a call to the catalyst behind one of the biggest chokes in baseball history. Tommy Holmes, an old-timer of 80 who lives in Woodbury, has been running the Mets' sandlot baseball program for the past 25 years. But 50 years ago, he was known as one of the best line-drive hitters in an era when baseball players lived hard.
Holmes admitted to the line driveswhile playing for the Boston Braves he held the National League record for consecutive games with a hit (37) until Pete Rose broke it in '78but insisted he never drank or smoked; his only vice was ice cream. Maybe that relatively clean living was the reason he played a part in the baseball drama of '51. Holmes was managing the Braves while the Brooklyn Dodgers were in the midst of their infamous slide. The New York Giants trailed the Dodgers by one game, with one game left. All the Dodgers had to do to avoid a one-game playoff for the pennant was beat Holmes' Braves.
"They were down to one game to go," Holmes recalled, "and Charlie Dressenhe was the Dodger managersaid, 'There'll be no playoff.' You don't say that in the press. Boy, were my guys mad. Well, we pulled them into a tie. It's like they say: Let a sleeping dog lie."
Bobby Thomson has never thanked Holmes for giving him a chance at immortality.
Just before they were to face the Braves' ace Greg Maddux in a make-or-break game, I asked Holmes, "Why are the Mets doing so bad?" Holmes didn't understand the slide either, but he knew that trying to hit a five-run homer on every swing wasn't going to do it. Hey, it's a simple game: The Mets needed to put the bat on the ball. "Where is Seattle with Griffey?" barked Holmes. "Where is Chicago with Sosa? Where is St. Louis with McGwire? Nowhere. Look at Sosa, what did he strike out, 150 times?"
Another grumpy old man? No, Holmes practiced what he preached. In 1945 he hit 29 homers in 636 at bats. He struck out only nine times. Nine friggin' times!
"The key to hitting is, you give the pitcher one quarter of the plate and you take the other," Holmes said. "You will put the bat on the ball. The beauty of the whole thing is, if you make an out, it's your fault. What are the home runs? You gotta have hits."
He paused for a second and said, "You cannot stop the bat."
The Mets' Sept. 29 game was the absolute end of the line. They had lost seven in a row and had fallen one and a half games out of the playoffs with just a handful of games left. And they were facing Maddux.
The Mets, playing at home, jumped out to what seemed like their first lead since the Nixon administration, but Al Leiter loaded the bases in the second, and young slugger Brian Jordan stepped to the plate. I had wanted to watch the game with Holmes but he had begged off because his house was too messy. We had agreed to talk by phone during the game. If Ross Perot lived in Brooklyn, he would sound like Tommy Holmes.
"When you have a hitter like that up, I would rather walk him, pitch around him," Holmes advised. "If you hit that corner, you could get him out. If you don't, we're still only down by one. But if he gets under it, we're down by four."