October 22: Even before the World Series began, even before either the Mets or Yankees had qualified to play in it, the hottest topic Subway Series topic was Clemens vs. Piazza Round 2. The men had not faced each other since Piazza took a Clemens shot to the head during the two-stadium doubleheader in July. FOX replayed the incident numerous time during game one (there's lots of time to fill in a 4 hour, 51 minute game), which only ramped up the anticipation for their impending confrontation even further.
The Mets remained furious about the event, for two reasons. 1) Many of them thought the beaning was intentional (Piazza included). 2) The Yankees in general and Clemens in particular offered no apologies or expressed any remorse, which would seem appropriate if it truly was an accident.
"If anybody thinks that's the biggest thing here, they're incorrect," Bobby Valentine said just prior to the World Series. "And if they think it will be totally forgotten, that's also incorrect....It happened and it's something." Like almost every other Subway Series subplot, the Yankees wanted to ignore it as much as possible, and paint the hype as the media's fault. Once Joe Torre announced that Clemens would start games two and six, both at Yankee stadium, he was asked if he was glad Clemens wouldn't have to start at Shea Stadium and come to the plate as a batter. The manager snapped back, "Am I glad to avoid what the media has created?"
Clemens' struggles against the Mets were well publicized. Including two starts in the 1986 World Series, he was 2-4 lifetime against them with a 7.75 ERA, by far his worst showing against any team. The Mets had thumped him during their first three Subway Series meetings, until he bested them in the game where Piazza was beaned. Coincidentally, from that point forward, Clemens pitched his best baseball since becoming a Yankee, going 10-4 the rest of the season.
Then, after some hiccups against Oakland in the divisional series, he pitched the best he'd ever thrown in pinstripes, and one of the best games he'd ever had, period: a one-hit shutout against Seatlle in game four of the ALCS. That contest was not without controversy; Clemens had come up and in to Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez, coming dangerously close to doing to him what he'd done to Piazza. He and his teammates complained during and after the game about the potentially lethal move, but could do nothing to retaliate with their bats.
As for Clemens himself, when he spoke of the Piazza incident at all, he protested his innocence, swearing he didn't mean to hit Piazza. But like Torre, he also betrayed a lack of remorse for something he insisted was an accident. As game two began, FOX analyst Tim McCarver recounted an interview he did with Clemens shortly after the Piazza beaning. He repeated Piazza's statement what the catcher "lost a lot of respect" for Clemens. "I don't care if Mike Piazza respected me or not," Clemens said, in a voice McCarver described as being "devoid of emotion." "I'm not out there to get a hitter's respect."
Nor anyone else's, apparently, if his actions in this game were any indication.
Valentine complained after game one that the grounds crew had deliberately softened the dirt in front of home plate to benefit Andy Pettite, a groundball pitcher. Torre denied the accusation and blamed the unseasonably humid weather. That sort of atmosphere would not affect play in game two, which began at the more autumnal temperature of 49 degrees.
As for non-groundskeeping strategy, Valentine made only slight changes to his lineup. Piazza would go behind the plate again, since Todd Pratt had caught all 12 innings in game one. Lenny Harris would DH in his place. The rest of the Mets lineup was exactly the same, as was the Yankees'. After his heroic turn in the series opener, Jose Vizcaino earned another start at second.
Two things were obvious from the very beginning: Clemens had his A-game, and he also had a chip on his shoulder. Timo Perez attempted to bunt Clemens' first pitch of the game, and the pitcher, in the Times' euphemistic phrase, "breathed two words, one syllable apiece." He fanned Timo on a 97 mph fastball, then did the same to Edgardo Alfonzo on a splitter in the dirt, one clocked at 94 mph, an insane velocity for such a pitch.
Then, the heavyweight bout everyone had been waiting for, Piazza vs. Clemens. The catcher took two fastballs on the inside corner, then a pitch that was low and outside. He shattered his bat on the fourth offering, and the camera followed the ball as it rolled toward the Yankees dugout. Only when a collective "whoah!" erupted from the crowd did FOX cut back to the field.
* Skip forward to 2:25 for The Incident.
The barrel of Piazza's splintered bat landed near Clemens' feet. In one motion, the pitcher picked it up and hurled it toward the first base line. The projectile skittered in Piazza's path as he ran out his foul ball. A foot to right and it would have nailed Piazza in the leg.
Piazza began to walk toward Clemens, the nub of his bat handle still in his hand, stunned by what just happened. "What is your problem?" he repeated, with no reply. On replays, Clemens appeared to say, "I thought it was the ball," a protest he would repeat in the years to come despite all sane evidence to the contrary. But he said it not to Piazza by way of apology, but to home plate umpire Charlie Reliford, for fear of getting ejected. Both Joe Buck and Tim McCarver were shocked, almost beyond words (if only). "Clemens, in essence, throws a jagged wooden object that lands, what, two feet from Piazza?" Buck said. "It's basically a weapon."
The entire Mets dugout spilled onto the field, anticipating a fight, and the Yankees dugout did the same. The umpires got between the two factions, and in less than a minute everyone had returned to their seats. Clemens had been ejected from a playoff game before: in the second inning of the 1990 ALCS, game four, he argued balls and strikes with home plate umpire Terry Cooney threw a fit, and was tossed. (In the Times, Harvey Araton wrote, "Those of us who covered his 1990 ejection from a playoff game in Oakland can attest to how unhinged he seemed by the prospect of losing again to his then-nemesis, Dave Stewart.")
Ten years later, though the consequences of his actions could have been catastrophic, Clemens was allowed to return to the mound. Umpiring crew chief Ed Montague later said, "It was an emotional reaction," and saw no reason to eject the pitcher. Sideline reporter Keith Olbermann tracked down Bud Selig and asked his opinion. The commissioner said it "required no attention" because the incident had died so quickly.
The crowd cheered when Piazza, swinging defensively, dribbled a groundout to Vizcaino to end the inning, but not with the roars of game one. Thanks to Clemens, a pall had fallen over the game. The stands would remain subdued for the rest of the evening. Clemens had not simply shut down the Mets, but the fans and their enthusiasm as well.
In the broadcast booth, Buck and McCarver could not stop talking about what had transpired. "Just an indefensible act," McCarver tsked, and commenting on the muted reactions of the crowd, "it's almost like the Yankee fans don't know what to do now." McCarver's assessment drew the ire of Yankees GM Brian Cashman, who angrily confronted the analyst about it between innings. The Yankees were already annoyed by FOX's incessant replays of the Piazza beaning, saying it had whipped viewers into a frothing frenzy over the Clemens-Piazza battle.
"It has certainly taken the life out of this crowd," Buck agreed. "You have to ask the question, if during the regular season Roger Clemens did something like that...if he would've stayed in the game after that act...and I think the answer is no."
On the field, Keith Olbermann shared the story of an incident during the 1999 World Series. On a travel day in Atlanta, Clemens got into a heated confrontation with a man who'd provoked him, the two of them almost coming to blows. Olbermann said there was video of the incident but it had never been broadcast because "it was so unfair," since the footage didn't include the provocation. (Clemens could thank his lucky stars this tape did not exist in the TMZ era.)
Regardless of intent, Clemens had succeeded in doing what he set out to do: confuse, distract, and above all intimidate the Mets. From the moment he hurled that bat, they were rendered a virtual non-factor in this game.
In this insane atmosphere, Mike Hampton was tasked with taking the mound. After dominating the Cardinals in the pennant clincher, hopes were high that he could even the series. He started out well enough, retiring Chuck Knoblauch on a fly out to center (Jay Payton making a great sliding catch) and striking out Derek Jeter on a rising fastball.
But then the lefty, who'd struggled during the cooler months earlier in the season, seemed to lose himself in the fall air. He kept blowing on his hands, unable to get a good grip on the ball. The strike zone eluded him, and he walked David Justice and Bernie Williams on eight straight balls.
After a mound conference, Hampton found the strike zone again and got ahead of Tino Martinez. But he found a bit too much of it as Martinez poked a single to left to bring home Justice with the first run of the game. Hampton fell behind Jorge Posada as well before giving up a single just past Alfonzo's outstretched glove. Wiliams came around to score to make it 2-0 Yankees. Payton bobbled the ball in center and threw the ball to third, allowing the slow-footed Posada to advance to second.
As Rick White began to warm up in the Mets' bullpen, Hampton finally got the third out by fanning Paul O'Neill. But the Mets were now in a two-run hole that looked like it would be difficult to climb out of. Clemens dispatched Robin Ventura easily on a comebacker to start the top of the second. Todd Zeile got the first Met hit of the game when he lined a ball past Vizcaino, but Clemens struck out Benny Agbayani and Lenny Harris, after the latter nearly tied the game on an opposite field fly that went foul by inches.
The Mets looked a bit lost at the plate, and even more so in the field in the bottom of the second. To lead it off, Hampton gave up a home run to Scott Brosius, one that landed a few feet behind the spot of Zeile's near-longball in game one, expanding the Yankees' lead to 3-0. Jose Vizcaino hit a bouncer to shortstop that Mike Bordick gloved, then dropped on the transfer, allowing the second baseman to reach on his error. A botched hit and run allowed Piazza to throw out Vizcaino as he attempted to steal second, but Knoblauch walked on the very next pitch, already Hampton's third free pass.
Jeter followed with a single to right field. In trying to scoop the ball and come up throwing, Timo Perez overran it, allowing Knoblauch to go to third and Jeter to go to second. As the ball came in, Knoblauch tried to catch the Mets napping and score, but Alfonzo fired a throw home to nail him at the plate. Fonzie made another run-saving play on a Justice grounder, diving well to his left, then throwing from his knees get the force and end the inning.
The Yankees had lost two baserunners with mental errors almost as bad as those the Mets committed in game one. But unlike the Mets, they had a win under their belt, a three-run lead, and Clemens on the mound. In the top of the third, he struck out Payton, then got Bordick on a pop up and Timo on a groundout. He hit Alfonzo to start the top of the fourth, prompting some barking from the Mets' dugout, but retired the next three batters with little incident, and set the Mets down in order yet again in the top of the fifth. The Mets couldn't get so much as a good swing against him, let alone a scoring threat.
Hampton seemed to calm down a bit, working around a two-out single and walk in the bottom of the third, then finally retiring the Yankees 1-2-3 in the bottom of the fourth. But after retiring the first two men in the bottom of the fifth, he gave up a double to Martinez. The Mets opted to walk Posada intentionally so Hampton could face the lefty-batting O'Neill, but the gamble didn't work. O'Neill lofted a single into the right field corner, bringing Martinez home and expanding the Yankees' lead to 4-0.
Hampton got a pop up from Brosius to end the inning, and in the bottom of the sixth worked around a two-out double off the wall from Jeter and a hit batter (Justice, interpreted by some as retaliation) to keep the Yankees' lead at four runs. But considering Clemens' skills, four runs might as well have been 400. Even when the Yankees made a few fielding mistakes over the next two innings, the Mets could not capitalize.
With one out in the top of the sixth, Timo tried to bunt his way on. Clemens fielded the ball, but Martinez could not handle his low throw, and the runner reached safely. Clemens stranded him at first with fly outs from Alfonzo and Piazza. In the top of the seventh, Zeile knocked a one-out single, only the second Mets hit from the night. He even advanced to scoring position on a wild pitch as Agbayani struck out (aided by an unnecessary throw to first from Posada; he'd forgotten that the batter couldn't advance with first occupied). But Harris hit one back to Clemens, and this brief whisper of a rally quickly faded away.
The Yankees struck in the late innings against the Mets' bullpen for runs that, at the time, seemed like mere window dressing. Glendon Rusch took over for Hampton to start the bottom of the seventh and gave up a one-out single to Posada, then a double to O'Neill down the first base line, barely past a diving Zeile, to move him to third. Valentine removed the lefty in favor of Rick White, but he allowed Brosius to lob a sac fly to right field, as Posada scored and O'Neill moved to third.
White managed to catch Vizcaino looking to end the inning, but got right back into trouble in the bottom of the eighth. With one out, Jeter hit a ball just over Zeile's head that rolled toward the tarp, and the shortstop legged it out into a double. In the dugout, pitching coach Dave Wallace sighed, "That kinda hit, that's the kinda night we're having." Few of the Yankees' hits had been hard, but they had all been hard enough.
After a groundout from Justice, with first base open the Mets intentionally walked Williams. It was the second time they'd tried this move, and for the second time, it wouldn't work. Dennis Cook came in for a lefty-lefty matchup against Martinez, but the first baseman floated a single behind second base, hit just far enough and just slow enough to allow Jeter to scamper home with the sixth Yankee run. To add insult to injury, FOX showed a shot from the Yankees' dugout, where Luis Polonia held up a balloon that contained this message in Sharpie: METS IN 3000. (It was unclear if the number referred to an amount of games or a year.)
In the top of the eighth, as he had all night, Clemens took care of the Mets easily, with a strike out and two weak groundouts. He'd struck out nine and allowed only two hits, but a lengthy bottom of the eighth and a six run lead made Torre decide against sending him back out for a top of the ninth looking like a mere formality. (The fans agreed; crowd shots showed significant numbers of empty seats.), Jeff Nelson was called on to finish off the Mets.
Unfortunately for him, the Mets weren't quite finished. Alfonzo lofted a single to left-center to lead things off, then Piazza turned on a fastball and banged a home run high off the left field foul pole, trimming the Yankees' lead to 6-2. Once Ventura lined a single to center, the remaining Yankee fans began to boo Nelson's effort. Torre would take no chances that this game could get away from him and brought in Mariano Rivera, despite the fact that he'd pitched two innings the night before.
In game one, the Mets almost broke through against the closer, thanks to hit batter and a ball O'Neill misplayed into a double. They'd do better in game two without such help. The first batter he faced, Todd Zeile, crushed a ball to deep left-center that Clay Bellinger (just put in left for defense) jumped and snagged for the first out. It was the second Zele hit in as many nights that missed being a home run by mere inches.
Agbayani followed with a single past short, and he and Ventura each moved up a base when Posada couldn't handle a check swing from Harris. The DH then bounced a ball back to the mound that Rivera eventually tossed home to nail Ventura as he tried to score.
The Mets were down to their last out, but Jay Payton decided to make things interesting by taking a Rivera cutter the other way, lining a shot into the right field stands for a three-run homer. Just like that, it was a one run game, and the tying run would bat in the person of Kurt Abbott (who took over at shortstop in the eighth).
But as if a switch had been fipped, Rivera returned to form. He poured in a cutter for strike one, got Abbott to swing wildly at another for strike two, then nicked the upper reaches of the zone for a called strike three. Abbott argued with the home plate umpire, to no effect, as the Yankees congratulated each other on the field for holding on to take a commanding 2-0 series lead.
But the postgame hubbub did not revolve around the Yankees' 14th consecutive World Series win, or a dominant starting performance. It was, of course, all about Clemens' bizarre bat chucking episode. Suddenly, the accomplishments of a team on the verge of doing something truly historic--win three World Series in a row, all of them sweeps--were overshadowed by one moment of insanity.
"He seemed apologetic and unsure and confused and a little bit unstable," Piazza said of the incident after the game, and also called for an investigation into Clemens' conduct. MLB's executive VP of operations, Sandy Alderson, promised one, but the chances of the pitcher receiving any kind of sanction were slim.
The Mets had held their emotions in check and did not try to start a brawl--the responsible thing to do, and yet it came across to some people as a sign of weakness. The questioning of their manhood began during the game--analyst Bob Brenly wondered why Piazza "hadn't charged the mound more forcefully," though he was careful to add that he shouldn't have started anything physical--and continued in the New York tabloids in the days to come.
"You're damned if you do and damned if you don't," Piazza said. "We punch him, guys get thrown out, we're selfish. We back down...we look gutless." Doc Gooden fanned the flames we he implied the 1986 Mets team would've reacted differently to such an affront. ("We were a different team.") Even Hampton thought Piazza should've charged the mound.
Such opinions incensed Todd Pratt, driving him to a profanity-laced tirade the next day during afternoon workouts at Shea. When the locker room was opened to the press, the backup catcher went ballistic ("Fuck all of you fuckers," his opening statement), then, after calming down, advanced a more reasonable argument.
What were we supposed to do to Clemens? Jump him and dogpile him? I read and hear on the radio that we're intimidated, or the Mets have no heart. Have you watched us all year, or the last two or three years? That's why I'm upset. The bench players didn't do anything? What were we supposed to do? Was I supposed to run out there and tackle Roger?...And make myself look like an idiot in front of millions of viewers? I can't do that. I'm a professional player. I was out there to protect Mike, not to cause any fights. None of us were. We just wanted to protect our leader. The only way to get back at [Clemens] is to play hard and beat them...I'm just tired of all the excuses I keep hearing from him. 'I was in a zone, I didn't know what I was doing.' How about, just don't throw bats.
"The Mets aren't certifiable lunatics," Lisa Olsen wrote in the Daily News, "unlike, oh, a certain other figure in this series who continues to get free passes for abhorrent behavior simply because he's what sports people euphemistically call 'intense.' Devoid of all social responsibilities and ignorant of consequences, would be another way to put it."
Zeile blamed the bat flinging incident for the game's outcome, but mostly because it took the Mets out of their normally patient approach at the plate. "The bat incident probably incited a little extra emotion out of our guys," he said. "And Roger used it against us to a degree. He got guys to chase the high strike and the slider in the dirt. If you're more relaxed and you stay with the game plan, those are things you might not do."
But if the Mets' reputations took a hit in some circles, so did the Yankees'. Though they had little choice to defend Clemens--team loyalty being one of the most sacred tenets in all of sports--they did themselves no favors in the effort. In trying to excuse an act that seemed inexcusable, the Yankees came across as callous, indifferent, and occasionally delusional.
It was one thing for some Yankees fans to act like bullies (as captured in Filip Bondy's nauseating Bleacher Creature columns, the troglodyte denizens of which screamed at children who dared cheer for another team and viewed Mets fans with an attitude that bordered on genocidal). But the Yankees themselves were supposed to go about their business with class and professionalism. The incident was unseemly, beneath the Yankees, and defending it even more so.
The Yankees were supposed to win at all costs, but did that have to include nonsense such as this? Apparently it was, according to their owner. As Jack Curry wrote in the Times:
If Mike Hampton picked up a chunk of wood and flung it near Jeter, George Steinbrenner would have been in the Yankees' clubhouse last night bellowing for Commissioner Bud Selig to suspend Hampton. Instead, a happy Steinbrenner, the Yankees' principal owner, called Clemens's performance ''fantastic'' and also told one Yankee: ''They're looking for excuses. We'll just keep playing; playing and winning.''...[The Yankees] should have shaken his hand for the splendid game, then shaken their heads and told him that they disapproved of his dangerous behavior. They did not. So, like a bully, they are tarnished, too.
In his postgame interview with Olbermann, Clemens said he had a hard time keeping his emotions in check because of "all the stuff I had to hear the last week"--implying that it was the fault of ESPN and FOX that he'd flown off the handle. His manager took this cue. Joe Torre mustered as much of a defense for Clemens as anyone could, but he seemed less mad at Clemens for causing the brouhaha than he was at the media for, in his opinion, blowing the incident out of proportion.
"Roger is wearing our uniform," he said, "and we're going to go overboard to back him, not necessarily agreeing with everything that happens, okay?" As reporters' questions continued, Torre grew increasingly testy. "You guys ask me questions," he said. "Somebody answer mine. Why would he do it? Because he's angry with [Piazza]?"
When asked how he would have seen the incident from the perspective of the broadcast booth (he'd been an announcer for the Angels right before taking the Yankee job), Torre incredulously responded, "The same as I do now." He may have believed that in his heart of hearts, but it didn't jibe with his alternate excuse: explaining away Clemens' act as a result of his "need to win." "If some guys take that competitiveness and put another tag on it, then I can't help it," said Torre. "These guys have a need to win."
It was classic Steinbrennerian obfuscation, proclaiming that any fault you had, any mistake in judgment you might commit, could be excused because of an unrelenting desire for victory. Everything we do, we do to win. You don't understand because you couldn't possibly want to win as much as we do.
"Too bad Jeff Torborg could never come up with an excuse like that," Mark Kriegel wrote. "Then again, it probably wouldn't have worked. Joe Torre manages the Yankees. After three championships, you wonder if the rules are different for him than for other managers."
Eventually, Torre said "I'm outta here," and threatened to storm out of the interview room, but stuck around to steam at reporters some more. Mike Lupica responded, "If Torre wants to go into the tank for Clemens because Clemens is one of his own, fine for him. But Torre doesn't get to act indignant and nearly storm out of an interview room because everybody won't go along with him."
If Clemens had any remorse or regret, he didn't show it after the game. He repeated his "I thought it was the ball defense" and his "I was caught up in the moment" defense (without considering they were counterindicative), then tried the "poor me" gambit. "I can't believe this," he said to reporters after the game. "We win Game 2 in the World Series, and all they ask about is this shit."
No apology or explanation was forthcoming the next night, when he appeared at the Meadowlands for a Home Shopping Network event prior to the Jets-Dolphins game (one later known as The Monday Night Miracle). He was intercepted by Monday Night Football commentator Dennis Miller, who tossed a bat at his feet and asked him to break it in half and sign it. Clemens responded that he could only break bats in half with a ball. When queried by reporters about the Piazza incident, he had nothing new to add except, curiously, "I wish it had been somebody else. I wish it had been Mike Bordick's bat."
In other words, he wasn't sorry about doing it, but he was sorry he'd done it to person most likely to cause himself a hassle.
Naturally, opinion split down partisan lines throughout the city. Mayor Giuliani ascribed Clemens' act to "instinctual reaction," while City Council speaker and Mets fan Peter Vallone called it "childish and violent behavior." Even Clemens' old teammate Bill Buckner weighed in on it. In New York for a Steiner Sports event, the former first baseman chalked up his behavior to "frustration" over being labeled an ineffective postseason starter. Amazingly, Buckner said he was rooting for the Mets, since he'd roomed with Bobby Valentine in the minor leagues. At the same event, ex-Brooklyn Dodger Ralph Branca (who was also Valentine's father-in-law) was still steamed at Clemens for beaning Piazza. "I watched his reaction after he hit Piazza," he said. "He took a defiant pose, like 'Let's see you go 7-for-12 with three homers against me now'."
Soon, the anger and outrage would fade. Any Met (or Met fan) who brought up Clemens' two anti-Piazza assaults in 2000 was derided as a crybaby. Clemens' continued excellence on the pitching mound was its own excuse. He just wants to win so bad, defenders said. If you tried to argue otherwise, you were someone who hated excellence.
Before long, several Clemens scandals would paint this incident--and all of Clemens' headhunting--in a brand new light. But it would be ten long years before someone could put into words how the man who called himself The Rocket showed his true colors on October 22, 2000. For SI.com, the great Joe Posnanski took another look at the bat-flinging incident and came to this conclusion:
That Roger Clemens could throw a bat directly into the path of Mike Piazza on national television, during a World Series game, for tens of millions of people to see, and, instantly and vehemently believe that he could convince the umpire and everyone else that he didn’t mean it, might give us just a small peek into the inner workings of the man. The fact that he got away with it (no ejection, no fine, unqualified support from his manager, Joe Torre, who happily parroted the ludicrous "He thought it was the ball" story) might give us a slightly larger peek.
But perhaps the most revealing thing of all is that just seconds after he threw the bat, seconds later, with things getting hot all around him, Clemens did not want to fight, and he did not want to argue. All the Rocket wanted was his day in court.