October 21: One day after the Mets punched their ticket to the World Series, the Yankees upheld their end of the bargain by winning the ALCS. "Only in their heart of hearts," George Vecsey wrote in The New York Times, "did Mets' fans know if they truly wanted a piece of the Yankees, or have the Yankees humiliated in some epic home-field collapse. It would have been a fascinating choice, but they have no option now."
There began a torrent of hype seldom seen before or since. While the rest of the country protested their apathy toward or hatred of the matchup, New York went insane over the Subway Series. In the series opener pregame show for FOX, Keith Olbermann called it "baseball's Armageddon." At the time, it seemed only a slight exaggeration.
The press reminded Bobby Valentine that, back in June, he'd said this about the Yankees: "If we had to write the perfect postseason, I think everyone in the organization would have the opponent be from the Bronx." His response now? "I have strong beliefs," he said. "Sometimes they're just feelings and sometimes they're convictions." In 1979, Joe Torre (then managing the Mets) had cut Bobby Valentine from his team just as it left spring training. Now they were managing opposite each other in the World Series.
Politicians from various boroughs immediately got into some (mostly) good-natured trash talking regarding the merits of their respective teams. There was no question where the mayor stood, however, since Rudy Giuliani had been a fixture at Yankee playoff games throughout his administration. In the hotly contested Senate race between HIllary Clinton and Rick Lazio, the Subway Series was already an "issue". Long Island native Lazio attended game five against the Cardinals, so his loyalties seemed clear, while Clinton's insistence that she was a Yankee fan seemed a tad suspect.
The city's Parks Department had a claim on tickets for games at each stadium (200 a game for Yankee Stadium, 150 a game for Shea), which caused a small war over which city officials would get which seats. For regular, unconnected folks, the NYPD cautioned against buying tickets on the street, as counterfeit examples had already been seized outside Yankee Stadium.
The teams themselves were free to gouge all they wanted. Parking fees at both ballparks ballooned to $14 (double their usual rate), and a pair of field level seats for game one was going for as much as 10 grand. The teams weren't the only ones raking in the cash; FOX anticipated $20.8 million in advertising revenues for each game.
If New York reaped Subway Series benefits in certain areas, they lost in others The state lottery reported a 40% drop in ticket sales compared to the same period the year before, which they blamed on World Series fever. And traditionally, a long October for either the Mets or Yankees translated to rough weeks on Wall Street; therefore, the Times anticipated a slow month for the Dow. To make sure that fever didn't translate into truancy, schools chancellor Harold Levy issued an edict warning that the series would not "excuse absence from school for children or staff."
At the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria, presidential candidate George W. Bush was asked who he was rooting for. "I'm for the New York team," he said. (A few days later, when cornered with the same question, his opponent, Al Gore, had a similarly evasive answer.) As a former owner of the Texas Rangers, Bush had once employed Bobby Valentine--and also fired him. Both Bush and Gore answered more broad baseball questions for the official World Series program, such as their opinions on the DH and interleague play.
The Baseball Hall of Fame already laid claim to some unspecified piece of memorabilia from the Series, to be used in a New York-centric exhibit. "We'd love to turn the room into a subway car, but we can't," the museum's chief curator said. There was at least some talk of having a "parade" of the players in actual subway cars, which never came to fruition, but the MTA did paint some 7 and 4 trains with the colors the respective teams they served. Ironically, since so many baseball fans now lived well outside subway range of the city, more of them would get themselves to the games in cars than in public transportation.
There were plenty of people in this series with ties to both teams. Doc Gooden--"A Yankee in His Soul, and a Met in His Heart," in the words of the Times--remembered 1985, the first time there was serious talk of a Mets-Yankees World Series (both teams missed the playoffs by a hair). "My Subway Series was supposed to be 15 years ago," he said. Yankees bench coach Don Zimmer--a former Brooklyn Dodger and an original Met--recalled the city's atmosphere during the Subway Series of the 1950s, which he described as "bedlam". Yogi Berra (Yankee legend and former Mets manager) recalled playing against the Dodgers year after year. "We hated the other team on the field, but we were friends when we were off," he said. "I went barnstorming with a lot of those guys." He also predicted Yankees in six. One notable absence among this fraternity: Mel Stottlemyre, Yankees pitching coach and mentor to the Mets' 1986 staff, would miss the Series as he received treatment for bone marrow cancer.
Bob Murphy, the Mets' radio announcer, had been with the team from the beginning and seen some unbelievable things in his time, but even he was amazed by what would soon take place. "It just seemed that [a Subway Series] would be so darn hard to happen," he said. "Not until two weeks ago did I believe there was a chance for it to happen. It's an exciting time. And I'd much rather be riding a bus to Yankee Stadium than flying to Seattle."
One important subplot developed before either team had even qualified for the Series: Would Roger Clemens dare pitch at Shea, with the Mets still steaming over his apparently intentional beaning of Mike Piazza? Bobby Valentine both muted and accelerated the debate: "If anybody thinks that's the biggest thing here, they're incorrect," he said. "And if they think it will be totally forgotten, that's also incorrect....It happened and it's something." For anyone who thought the incident was forgotten, Todd Zeile had a simple response: "Like hell it is."
Joe Torre defused the issue as quickly as possible--Clemens would start game two at Yankee Stadium. "I guess if it was a 50-50 situation, you'd probably stay away from it," Torre said. "But I'm going to line my pitching up the way I think they best line up to win." When asked if he was glad to skirt the confrontation, Torre responded, "Am I glad to avoid what the media has created?" ("It wasn't the media who slung the forehead-high pitch in July that knocked Piazza to the ground," Lisa Olsen retorted in the Daily News.)
On the other side of the coin, Tino Martinez said he'd let go the anger he felt toward Armando Benitez, when the then-Orioles closer plunked him in the back, seemingly on purpose. Of course, there's a very big difference between getting hit in the back and getting hit in the head.
As for the players themselves, the talking was done almost universally by the Mets. Many of them had never been to the World Series, and considering their relative age, many thought they'd never get another shot at it. The Yankees appeared to have zero interest in speaking to the media or hyping the event beyond its already ridiculous bounds. While Benny Agbayani was unwisely goaded into making a Series prediction on the Howard Stern show (he said Mets in five, though he later insisted this was a joke), Derek Jeter refused to make any counter-predictions. They even deflected all questions about their current dynasty, how they had a chance to become the first team to win three championships in a row since the 1972-74 Oakland A's.
The closest the Yankees came to controversy is when Torre implied he might not start Denny Neagle in the series, based on his performances in the ALCS, and Neagle took offense to that contention. Even George Steinbrenner had relatively little to say. "We'll be ready for them when they get here," was about the extent of what the normally talkative Boss would say.
Of course, an event this huge spilled over into other sports and public arenas. The excitement extended to football, since both the Jets and Giants were in first place in the still-young NFL season. New Nets coach Byron Scott insisted he was rooting for the Yankees. When polled, most of the glitterari picked the Yankees, though some notable Mets backers included John Leguizamo, Lauren Bacall, and John McEnroe.
Hoping for a glimpse into the future, the Daily News ran a computer simulation of game one using a program called Diamond Mind Baseball. Their conclusion: The Yankees would outlast Al Leiter and prevail against the Mets bullpen by the score of 4-3.
Valentine opted for Al Leiter in game one, which came as a slight surprise, considering Mike Hampton had just won the NLCS MVP award. But Leiter had more playoff starts than anyone else on the Mets' staff, most of them outstanding efforts (even if he'd been robbed of wins in many of them). Leiter, who came to the majors as a Yankee but was traded for Jesse Barfield in 1989, said he had "no hard feelings" for his old team. Even so, he'd pitched like a man possessed against them since coming to the Mets.
Hampton would pitch game two and (if necessary) game six, both at Yankee Stadium, which meant he would get no chance to bat for himself. Leiter conceded, drily, "An argument could be made that I'm not quite as good a hitter as Mike...But don't forget, I'm the only one in the clubhouse with a World Series hit." (As a Blue Jay, Leiter hit a double (!) during the 1993 World Series.) In the bullpen, Dennis Cook (the Mets' most experienced and reliable postseason pitcher) said he'd be available despite suffering through a kidney stone.
Torre would counter with Andy Pettite, despite the fact that he'd struggled at Yankee Stadium in World Series past, for reasons he couldn't figure out. followed by Clemens and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez. David Cone relished the chance to start against his former team, but Torre had yet to announce if he'd opt for him or Neagle in game four.
The Mets wielded much the same lineup they had in the first two round of the playoffs against lefties, with Timo Perez and Edgardo Alfonzo at the top, and Mike Piazza, Todd Zeile, and Robin Ventura batting 3, 4, and 5. In the AL park, Piazza took the DH slot and left catching duties to Todd Pratt, who was glad to get some at bats after Piazza played nearly every inning of the playoffs so far ("I started getting some spider webs and cobwebs.").
The Yankees lineup included all the usual suspects, with the only surprise ex-Met Jose Vizcaino at second base. Chuck Knoblauch, the former second baseman who was experiencing some baffling problems with his throwing, would DH. Vizcaino started over Luis Sojo because of his monstrous numbers against Al Leiter (10-for-19 lifetime). As Olbermann noted in the pregame show (prophetically, as it turned out), in Subway Series past, it was usually not the Mickey Mantles and the Duke Sniders who were the heroes, but relative no-names like Cookie Lavagetto, Al Gionfriddo, and Don Larsen.
The first Subway Series in 44 years began on an unseasonably warm October night (68 degrees at game time). Hoopla and pageantry galore preceded the action. Team introductions were intoned in Bob Sheppard's timeless monotone; despite being the "visitors," the Mets got hearty applause and, amazingly, a surprisingly small number of boos. A moment of silence was observed for the servicemen and -women who lost their lives on the USS Cole, the bombing of which had happened only nine days earlier. The national anthem was sung by Billy Joel, as a bald eagle was released for a fly around the playing field. Don Larsen threw out the first pitch to Yogi Berra.
And then finally, the game could be played. As cameras flashed throughout the Stadium, Timo Perez led off and got ahead 3-0, before two strikes from Andy Pettite, then an easy groundout to second base. Edgardo Alfonzo hung in for a tough at bat, fouling off several Pettite offerings, before flying out to right. Mike Piazza got ahead 3-1, then sent a fly ball to the same spot, and the Mets were retired in order.
Al Leiter returned the favor in the bottom of the first. Chuck Knoblauch fell behind and sent a soft fly ball to center. Derek Jeter flailed at a cutter for strike three. David Justice, hero of ALCS game six, popped up to Benny Agbayani in left field. The first inning of the Subway Series passed without incident.
The Mets got the first baserunner of the series in the top of the second when Todd Zeile singled to lead it off. Robin Ventura fouled off a number of tough pitches before striking out. Agbayani followed by taking a called third strike on the inside corner, and Jay Payton flew out to center on the first pitch he saw, stranding Zeile at first.
Then it was the Yankees' turn to make some idle threats. After a Bernie Williams groundout to shortstop, Tino Martinez singled up the middle for the home team's first hit. Jorge Posada followed with a bouncer to Ventura that forced Martinez at second, but Paul O'Neill worked a full count, then singled to move Posada to third. Leiter bore down by inducing a dribbler from Scott Brosius, who collided with Zeile as he picked up the ball, but the first baseman held on.
Todd Pratt led off the top of the third and fell behind 0-2 before he was grazed by a Pettite fastball and took first base. While Joe Buck and Tim McCarver wondered who might catch if both Piazza and Pratt were hurt, slumping shortstop Mike Bordick laid down a sac bunt to first. Timo could not deliver, popping up on the infield, and though Alfonzo literally had nothing but two-out RBIs throughout the playoffs, he only managed a groundout to short when Jeter backhanded the ball and fired a throw to first just in time.
In the bottom half, Leiter got right back to work and struck out Jose Vizcaino on three pitches. He went full to Knoblauch and lost him on a walk, but the runner was caught stealing when Leiter picked him off first. Jeter sent a grounder to third and was thrown out by half a step. Once again, little noise from the Yankees.
By the fourth inning, the crowd had settled into a hush, calmed by the end of the major fanfare and the relative inaction thus far. On the field, the Mets began a pattern that would continue throughout the game: Getting men on, then running themselves out of rallies. The top of the fourth started positively when Piazza bounced a first-pitch single just past Jeter. But it took an immediate bad turn when Piazza was caught leaning by Pettite and tagged out in a rundown. Things got downright weird when Zeile hit a slow ground ball up the third base line. It went foul for most of its route, then suddenly rolled into fair territory. Zeile hadn't run, thinking the ball would remain out of play. Brosius grabbed it and threw him out easily. Ventura capped off the inning by grounding out meekly to the pitcher.
After another 1-2-3 inning for Leiter in the bottom of the fourth (with back-to-back strikeouts of Williams and Martinez), the Mets watched another chance go up in smoke in the top of the fifth. Or perhaps lack of smoke, since it was once again due to bad baserunning. Agbayani doubled down the left field line, and a "let's go Mets!" chant broke out in the stands.
It was extinguished when the next batter, Jay Payton, became the second batter in as many innings to not run out a grounder. The center fielder got a piece of a ball that trickled foul, then came back into play right in front of the plate. Posada picked the ball up and tagged him for the first out. Payton protested the call, but it was clearly a fair ball. Pettite easily dispatched with the next two batters, Pratt and Bordick, with strikeouts to end another threat.
But the most crushing baserunning blunder of them all would follow the next inning, after Leiter dispatched the Yankees in order yet again in the bottom of the fifth. In the top of the sixth, the Mets manged to get the leadoff man on base for the fifth straight inning when Timo Perez singled up the middle. After Alfonzo and Piazza were retired, Zeile made up for his error on the basepaths by smacking a ball deep down the left field line. It looked to all the world like a home run--so much so that Zeile pumped his fist as he neared first base. Thinking the exact same thing, Timo did not run as hard as he could have (or should have).
Unfortunately for the Mets, a reverse Jeffrey Maier occurred. (Ironically, Zeile was on the Orioles when they were victimized by Maier.) Seeing that the ball would land close to the wall, the fans in the left field stands backed away. The ball plopped right on top of the wall, then scooted back onto the field. Justice was waiting for it. The Mets' dugout, almost to a man, popped out onto the field signaling "home run" with their index fingers, but their opinion was of little consequence.
Seeing that it was not a roundtripper, Timo finally turned on the jets and tried to score, but Justice's throw to shortstop was dead-on, as was Jeter's throw to the plate. Timo was tagged out with room to spare, and an inning that should have produced at bare minimum one run was just another zero.
"It's alright for the guys on the bench to think it was a home run," Tim McCarver tsked in the FOX broadcast booth. "It's not alright, however, for the guys on the bases to think it was a home run...Inexcusable." After the game, Timo offered "no excuses." All he could say was he said he saw the fans' hands go up and assumed Zeile's shot was a home run. Still new to this country, he was apparently unfamiliar with the American axiom regarding what happens when you assume.
Naturally, the Yankees immediately made them pay for their mistakes. Vizcaino led off with a single just past an outstretched Ventura. The Mets caught a break when Knoblauch failed to bunt him into scoring position and Vizcaino was forced at second. But Leiter walked Jeter on four pitches, and Justice knocked him and Knoblauch home with a booming double to the wall in left-center.
Williams received a free pass so Leiter could face the lefty Martinez. He grounded out unassisted to first as two men moved into scoring position. A mound conference between Leiter and pitching coach Dave Wallace followed, and they opted to pitch to the next batter, Posada. The catcher did him a huge favor by swinging at the first pitch and sending a lazy fly ball to center field, keeping the score at 2-0 Yankees.
Amazingly, considering all the opportunities they'd wasted so far, the Mets bounced back in the top of the seventh. With one out, Agbayani slipped a single between first and second, and Payton bounced his own single past Pettite and into center field. As warmup action began in the Yankee bullpen, Pratt walked to load the bases, and Valentine sent up Bubba Trammell to bat in Bordick's place, since he had great numbers against the lefty (7-for-18, 1 HR, 5 walks). The success continued here as he slapped a single into shallow left field. Agbayani and Payton came around to score, and the game was tied at 2.
Timo followed with a bunt toward first that he failed to beat out, but which did move two runners into scoring position. Pettite finally gave way to a reliever, Jeff Nelson, and he would have to face Alfonzo. The second baseman managed another huge two-out hit--although it was only huge in impact, not in distance. Fonzie squibbed a slow roller just past the pitcher's mound. Brosius ran in on it, barehanded the ball, and flung it to first, but too late to get the force. Pratt jogged in to score on the play, and somehow, the Mets had gone ahead, 3-2.
After Piazza flew out to end the inning, Leiter returned to the mound, working with a lead for the first time, and started off with a bang by catching O'Neill looking yet again. But Brosius followed with a single that bounced just over Leiter's head, putting the tying run on base. Vizcaino followed with a hard hit ball to third, but Ventura was perfectly placed on the line, and he snagged it and threw to first in time to retire him. With his 125th pitch of the night, Leiter fanned Knoblauch to strand Brosius at second and maintain the lead into the eighth inning.
The Mets went down in order in the top of the eighth, and in the bottom half Leiter gave way to John Franco. (In this Subway Series, he was the only native of the five boroughs on either roster.) The veteran lefty immediately put himself in hot water by going full to Jeter, then giving up a bloop single. But he recovered with three straight fly outs from Justice, Williams, and Martinez to escape danger.
In the top of the ninth, the Yankees brought in Mariano Rivera to keep the deficit where it was. Amazingly, the Mets threatened against him when Mo hit Pratt with a one-out pitch. Kurt Abbott (now playing shortstop) followed with a hit to right that O'Neill played into a double. With men at second and third, the Yankees played their infield in. Timo Perez could've expanded the lead with a fly ball, or even a well-placed grounder, which is what he hit to Vizcaino. The ball clanked off of his chest, but he recovered in time to throw out Perez. Pratt was not running on contact for some reason, so he stayed anchored to third. There was no two-out magic for Alfonzo this time; he struck out to end the inning (after a delayed appeal to the first base ump on a check swing). Yet another scoring chance tossed aside, one that would seem especially costly in a few moments.
Armando Benitez took the mound in the bottom of the ninth to try and close out the win. His postseason career was spotty at best (seven home runs allowed in his playoff career), and the Yankees had abused him more than a few times when he was with the Orioles. But his outing started out well enough when he induced a fly out from Posada for the first out. It was a loud out, hit well into the left-center gap, but an out nonetheless.
That brought up O'Neill, who'd looked bad at the plate and in the field for much of the night. After battling hip injuries throughout the season, he'd had only one extra base hit since September 6. Benitez got ahead of him 1-2, then O'Neill fouled off a fastball. Then a pop up a few rows into the third base stands (Ventura just missed making a spectacular catch). Then two balls well out of the strike zone, one wide, one high. Then another pitch slapped foul. Then another. Benitez kept throwing the ball on the low outside corner, and O'Neill just kept making contact.
Finally, a pitch too wide for O'Neill to offer at. Ball four. The tying run was on base. With Brosius up next, Torre opted for a lefty pinch hitter, Luis Polonia. He lined a single to right, just in front of Perez, and the tying run moved up to second. Dave Wallace trotted slowly to the mound for a conference. In case anyone forgot the closer's longball woes, FOX showed a montage of huge homers he'd given up in the playoffs (including the infamous Maier-aided one in the 1996 ALCS).
Benitez fell behind Vizacaino 2-0 and lobbed a single into left. Joe McEwing (now in the outfield) hurled the ball back in quickly to keep O'Neill at third. But now all the Yankees needed was a fly ball to tie up the game, and that's exactly what they got. Knoblauch lofted a ball deep enough to left-center to allow O'Neill, sore hip and all, to tag up and score. The game was tied at 3. Yet another gutsy performance from Al Leiter would not be rewarded with a win, though typically, the lefty blamed no one but himself for this. "If you really want to keep it in your hands, you throw the whole game," Leiter said.
Though Benitez struck out Jeter to end the inning, and it's easy to invest the past with knowledge of what happened later, I don't think any Mets fan felt good about this game--or this series--once the game got away from Benitez in the ninth. Especially as the game dragged on into the night with no resolution, and the Mets could not muster a single baserunner. Rivera returned in the top of the tenth and retired the Mets in order, striking out Piazza and Zeile looking, then getting Ventura to fly out to center. Mike Stanton took over in the 11th and set down McEwing, Payton, and Pratt in succession, then stayed on to do the same to Abbott, Perez, and Alfonzo in the 12th.
As for the Yankees, they bypassed several chances, but it seemed as if they were merely toying with the Mets. It was not a question of if they would score, but when. In the top of the 10th, Dennis Cook took over the pitching duties. He was the team's most experienced postseason reliever, but he walked Justice and Williams to open the inning. The Mets quickly lifted him in favor of Glendon Rusch, but a slider in the dirt got away from Pratt, moving the runners to second and third. The winning run was on third with nobody out, prompting the Mets to play both the outfield and infield in.
They got a huge break when Martinez hit a fly ball to very shallow left that McEwing barely caught up with, forcing Clay Bellinger (pinch running for Justice) to hold at third. With first open, the Mets walked Posada and opted to face O'Neill, and it paid off. O'Neill bounced a hard grounder to Alfonzo, who shoveled it to Bordick at second, who fired it to first to complete the double play. The right fielder slammed his helmet to the turf in disgust as the Mets ran off the field.
In the bottom of the 11th, more tension and weirdness ensued. Vizcaino hit a one-out single, then was almost thrown out when he went too far around first and Ventura threw behind him. Pratt made a good play on a Knoblauch pop up by the Yankees dugout, but couldn't handle a wild pitch from Rusch on a ball four to Jeter. It bounced off the plate and skittered to the backstop. Pratt took so long to locate the ball that Jeter was able to get all the way to second while Vizcaino advanced to third. Rusch gave way to Turk Wendell as the FOX cameras zeroed in on the surprising number of celebrities still on hand (Jennifer Lopez, Matthew Broderick, and Tom Cruise to name a few). Wendell induced a fly ball to shallow right from pinch hitter Glenallen Hill to extinguish the threat.
After dodging bullets all night, the Mets finally got the one with their name on it in the 12th. Martinez lobbed a one-out single to right, and Posada scorched a ball that bounced just past Alfonzo's glove and rolled all the way to the wall. Once again, the winning run was on third with less than two out. Wendell intentionally walked O'Neill and nearly danced out of danger when Luis Sojo (now playing third) popped up behind the plate for the second out. But Vizcaino lined his first pitch into left for a single. Martinez trotted home to score, and nearly five hours after first pitch, game one went to the Yankees.
The reliever seemed philosophical about being the losing pitcher. "This is what it's all about,'' Wendell said, referring to his first World Series appearance. ''This is what I always envisioned--but it usually didn't end this way."
The manager could do little but comment on the length of the game, and the odd turns contained within it. "We came with very little World Series experience, and we got a lot of it in one night," Bobby Valentine said.