Long Game, Long Ball Go Down in Mets Lore

The Apple said it all. As the rain turned to deluge and the fans filed deliriously to their flooded $14 parking spaces, it stood there engorged, defiant behind the outfield wall, a red delicious testament to the be in Robin Ventura's bop. "Red Foley be damned," it protested. "If it's over the fence, it's a home run."

And yet, somehow, it all made sense: the grounds crew swooping in to take second base before some rain-addled fan— or Robin Ventura— could beat them to it. It was a real New York moment, but not the kind that you'd ever see at Yankee Stadium.

For the second consecutive night, the Mets had made the visiting clubhouse guys scramble like Martha Stewart's caterers. Braves score. Duct-tape the plastic sheeting over the lockers. Put the champagne on ice. Mets score. Rip down the plastic. Stash the champagne until tomorrow. Braves score. Retape the plastic. Crack open the champagne. Mets score. Trash the plastic. Send the champagne packing back to Atlanta.

The dry-erase boards in the corners of the home clubhouse traced the Mets' odyssey: "Nobody said it would be easy," read one. "We travel on Monday. Bags in the bullpen, 1:00," announced the other.

"If you don't like this fucking game," said a dripping wet pitching coach John Wallace, to no one in particular, "you don't like Christmas." But while Wallace trumpeted the Yuletide analogy, actually, it was more like Yom Kippur baseball: with Sandy Koufax watching on, the Mets played a game of atonement. On Sunday, the second chances came early and often.

"ASS-hole, ASS-hole," the Mets faithful chanted in the midafternoon, as their team took their first turn at the plate. The obscenities weren't aimed at John Rocker or Larry Jones, but at their own leadoff hitter, Rickey Henderson. The fans had all but forgotten about the previous night's four-outs-from-defeat victory— courtesy of Ozzie Guillen, 1999's answer to Bill Buckner. Fueled by the tabloids and sports radio, they focused instead on Henderson's Keith Hernandez­esque retreat to the clubhouse while the Mets took their last licks. What did he pack and when did he pack it? they wondered collectively.

Rickey's infield single followed in short order by John Olerud's knock— the last runs the Mets would score for 14 innings— turned the chants to cheers. As the rain fell and the scoreboard filled up with zeros, each of the Mets' designated scapegoats would earn something rarer than a run in the bottom of the 15th: an opportunity at redemption.

When Masato Yoshii lost it in the fourth, Orel Hershiser, who lasted all of one-third of an inning the last time he faced the Braves, turned into a poor man's Pedro Martinez. Over three and a third innings he baffled the Braves hitters much the same way he had made Mookie and Darryl and Gary shake their heads 11 LCSs ago. How'd he do it? "Mirrors," he confessed later (in the old days, he'd do it with smoke). "I threw them pitches that started out looking like strikes and ended up as balls." And when Armando Benitez was pulled for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the 10th, all eyes focused on the Mets bullpen: Would he? Could he? Yes, Bobby Valentine was bringing in Ed Whitson, uh, Kenny Rogers. And miracle du miracle, Rogers, too, quietly shut down the Braves. After the game, he seemed more relieved than happy, glad that he could talk about a home run that wasn't hit by Brian Jordan. "Red Foley should give him a grand slam," he said of the official scorer as he pulled on his sneakers.

More zeros. More heroes. Edgardo Alfonzo? Sure he was oh-for­New York. But in the top of the 13th he made the relay that nailed Keith Lockhart at home, the tag applied by Mike Piazza, who'd been getting hit behind the plate more often than he'd been getting hits at it.

And then there's the beleaguered skipper of the Good Ship Metropolitan. Throughout this Ring- cycle of a game, Bobby Valentine's moves ranged from a baroque pitching change— bringing in Dennis Cook to finish an intentional walk— that baffled even veteran beat writers to an out-and-out blunder— a failure to double-switch that cost him an extra inning with Benitez. But down to his last three outs with the tying run 270 feet away, he didn't analyze, he listened. "I didn't know if I had anybody to pitch the 16th," he said in his office just before a very pumped Kurt Russell, doing his best Snake Plissken routine, walked in. "Orel answered the phone. 'You got an inning,' he said. And then he said, 'Remember, you've got to score a run before you need it.' " And with those words, a sacrifice bunt turned into a walk which turned into a grand slam which turned into a single.

Al Leiter, who 48 hours earlier deconstructed his Game 3 throwing error for the hungry press— "I was throwing to first but I was thinking about throwing to second"— watched it unfold from the bullpen and got to riff about it. "If I ran quickly enough I would have caught the ball," he said as he pulled a beige knit shirt over his head. "I was going to get the ball, too, but a cop was over there, and I didn't want to mess with New York's finest."

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