Like many Mets fans of a certain vintage, I have a soft spot in my heart (and head) for the 1999 season. Because I am so retroactively enamored of this team, and insane, I devoted a huge chunk of last year to commemorating its tenth anniversary by surveying every single game they played in something I called The 1999 Project.
Among those who love the 1999 team, it is an article of faith that this squad was vastly superior to the 2000 Mets, even though the latter managed to go one step farther and make it to the World Series. (The fact that said World Series resulted in a gut-wrenching five-game loss to the Yankees doesn't help their image, either.) The 2000 Mets are said to be devoid of much of the drama and personality of the 1999 version (said by me, anyway).
However, as October nears, I keep wondering if this was really true. Had I simply mythologized the 1999 Mets to the point where no other team could measure up? After all, the 2000 Mets had some amazing moments, especially in the postseason (until the World Series, anyway). Could I really say they didn't measure up to 1999 if I didn't put them under the microscope as well?
Of course, the answer is no. So I want to at least give 2000 a brief examination to see if it too is worthy of canonization. I can't study it in the excruciating detail the way I did with 1999, but I do want to perform a month-by-month overview, picking out the high- and low-lights along the way.
As was the case with the aforementioned 1999 Project, this survey will be largely "of the moment". It will look at the season how it was experienced, rather than editorialize or inform it with What We Know Now-type asides. For instance, any mention of Roger Clemens will be based on contemporary reports, and any mention of his "work ethic" shall be recounted as-is, leaving it to the reader to fill in the irony.
First, a look at what changed for the Mets between 1999 and 2000. Because the 2000 Mets were defined as much by who they lost as who they gained: who did not return, who was traded away, and who they failed to acquire.
Once the sting of the NLCS loss to the Braves faded (if such a loss could ever truly fade), the Mets turned their attention to improving themselves for 2000. Resigning first baseman John Olerud was said to be their first priority, but his departure for Seattle (his hometown team) was so inevitable and drawn out, it seemed anticlimactic when he finally did sign with the Mariners. The possibility of moving Mike Piazza to first was at least discussed, but not yet seriously contemplated.
Olerud's absence left a huge offensive hole in the Mets' lineup (not to mention his defensive contribution to The Best Infield Ever), and thus began the Mets' search for a big-time bat. The biggest potential acquisition was Ken Griffey, Jr., who not only had demanded a trade from the Mariners, but was also rumored to be targeted by the Braves. Every name from Armando Benitez to Edgardo Alfonzo was tossed out as a potential trade chip for Griffey.
All speculation came to a halt in December, however, when Griffey flat-out refused to be traded to the Mets. (Griffey later said he initially had the Mets on his list of desired teams but was told they had "other priorities.") Various Mets called Griffey in an attempt to change his mind, to no avail. Bobby Valentine admitted he'd gone so far as to write out a lineup with Griffey's name in it. ("It did look pretty good," he said. "He was hitting third.") The slugging outfielder would eventually be dealt to Cincinnati, where his father had played during the Big Red Machine years.
Even with this disappointment, the big-bat possibilities seemed endless. Going into 2000, the majors were filled with sluggers entering the last year of their contracts, and it was generally thought that certain teams would be desperate to unload these players before losing them to free agency. Griffey's teammate Alex Rodriguez (who'd expressed interest in playing for the Mets more than once) was rumored to be available, as were players such as Manny Ramirez, Mo Vaughn, and B.J. Surhoff.
But ultimately, the Mets' biggest (and sole) offensive acquisition of the winter was Todd Zeile, late of the Texas Rangers. He would replaced Olerud at first base despite the fact that he'd played a grand total of 65 games at that position in his career. Zeile would work with former Met and defensive wizard Keith Hernandez in spring training to improve his play. (Keith would only be with the team for the two weeks; he had no interest in being a full-time coach because "I don't know if I really love the game that much anymore, to be honest.")
Zeile said he decided to sign with New York--despite being asked to play out of position, and despite the lack of a no-trade clause--because they offered a better chance at reaching the World Series. Zeile also rued the fact that he'd played in the postseason three times and never had a chance to go past the first round, because his teams lost to the Yankees on each occasion.
The Mets also wanted to add an ace to a pitching staff that had an overabundance of back-of-the-rotation starters--and even those were fleeing. No serious effort was made to resign Kenny Rogers, despite a decent regular season, after his bases loaded walk in game 6 handed an NL pennant to the Braves. After some solid work in the postseason, particularly in the NLCS, Orel Hershiser returned to the Dodgers via free agency. The team's first target was Toronto's David Wells, but they were rebuffed in their efforts. A potential deal was scotched which would've sent Octavio Dotel, Masato Yoshii, Roger Cedeno, and Jay Payton to the Blue Jays in exchange for Wells and slugger Carlos Delgado.
So the Mets acquired a different southpaw: Mike Hampton, who'd gone 22-4 for the Astros in 1999 and finished second in NL Cy Young voting behind Randy Johnson. "We feel this transaction certainly catapults us beyond the team that won 97 games last year," a gushing Steve Phillips told reporters via conference call.
The deal was not exactly one-sided. Dotel (the team's best pitching prospect) and Cedeno (who'd stolen 66 bases in 1999) were shipped to Houston, and New York was forced to take on the contract of Derek Bell. Once a feared run producer, Bell had just suffered the worst offensive year of his career, and was also another right-handed batter, a commodity the Mets now had in abundance. A team that was already a bit old got just a bit older, and lost a young flamethrower and its best basestealing threat in the process. The Mets' biggest source of speed was now Rickey Henderson, who would be 41 years old by the time season started.
Nonetheless, the trade was seen as a huge net gain by most writers and fans. Hampton seemed open to a long-term deal with the Mets, in a way he had not been with the Astros, but such a pact was no forthcoming.
Despite missing out on big ticket items like Griffey, the mood among the fanbase was hopeful, even enthusiastic. On January 22, they lined up overnight in frigid temperatures to snag tickets for the upcoming season. By 5 pm, 103,000 tickets had been sold, beating the previous year's first-day record by 3,000.
The Mets were less optimistic about their ability to rid themselves of professional malcontent Bobby Bonilla, though it became obvious that they needed to do so post-haste. During his own charity bowling tournament at scenic Port Authority Bus Terminal (which you may have seen on an episode of Cheap Seats), Bonilla declared "there will be some fireworks" if he did not get a chance to play every day in 2000. (By contrast, at the same event reliever John Franco declared he wanted to stay with the Mets, even though he'd been supplanted as closer by Benitez).
Shortly after the new year, the two sides came to terms on a deal that not only made Bonilla a free agent, but would pay him in nigh-perpetuity to stay far away from Flushing. The deal's finer points were not announced at the time, probably because the fact that he'd receive $1.19 million a year for 30 years would've brought pitchfork-wielding mobs to Shea Stadium. To add insult to pocketbook injury, Bonilla wound up signing with the Braves.
There were also indications the Mets wanted to get rid of Rickey Henderson. Though Henderson had an amazing offensive year in 1999 (particularly for a man his age), he'd become a defensive liability, and also alienated some of his teammates when it was later discovered he was playing cards in the clubhouse during the excruciating game 6 of the NLCS. For his part, Henderson denied the card playing story, and publicly at least, the Mets insisted Henderson would be their leadoff hitter in 2000.
Apart from the defensive Henderson, spring training was relatively calm, save for a few roster moves. The Mets shipped Masato Yoshii to Colorado in exchange for Bobby M. Jones (not to be confused with longtime rotation staple Bobby J. Jones, who was injured for most of 1999). This, combined with Bonilla's departure, led to speculation the Mets were shedding contracts to make room for Jim Edmonds, but the centerfielder signed with the Cardinals instead. St. Louis also signed two Mets contributors from the previous season: Brian McRae and Shawon Dunston, whose improbable walk opened the fateful bottom of the 15th inning in game 5 of the NLCS.
The Mets also moved to lock down some of the players they already had. Slick fielding shortstop Rey Ordonez received a four-year, $19 million contract, despite the fact that he had the lowest OPS of any regular player the last two seasons and was already being told my Valentine that he needed to step up his offensive game. The pact's lack of a no-trade clause led to speculation the Mets were still interested in Alex Rodriguez (if not this year, then perhaps when free agency came calling).
New York avoided arbitration with Armando Benitez by giving him a four-year deal. Relievers Pat Mahomes and Turk Wendell, both huge contributors to the Mets' excellent bullpen n 1999, each signed one-year deals. The Mets briefly brought back ancient lefty Jesse Orosco, then dealt him to the Cardinals in exchange for jack-of-all-trades Joe McEwing. And backup catcher Todd Pratt, he of the division series-clinching homer, received his own one-year deal.
Another signing flew under the radar: Jay Payton, the team's often injured outfield prospect, signed a one-year deal to remain with the team. This despite the fact that Payton had already had two elbow surgeries and shoulder surgery during his minor league career, and his chances of major league success looked iffy at best. But he would make an impact in the majors before the year was out.
As for non-player personnel, both manager Bobby Valentine and GM Steve Phillips had contracts that expired after 2000. Mets ownership insisted they would not discuss new contracts for either until season's end, thus making it abundantly clear that each man's future depended on the outcome of the 2000 season. Valentine made no secret that he was displeased by this. "Shame on somebody if they think they need another year to study and analyze me,'' he told the New York Times. ''If they don't know by now, then they'll never know.'
At the end of spring training, the fifth spot in the starting rotation went to Glendon Rusch, acquired from the Royals in the middle of the previous season. He beat out the newer Bobby Jones and ex-Generation K member Bill Pulsipher, who made a valiant but ultimately fruitless attempt to regain past glories.
The last spot on the bench came down to Benny Agbayani and McEwing, with the more versatile McEwing seen as having the upper hand. Agbayani feared he would be exiled to triple-A Norfolk again, and went so far as to request a trade if that happened. But he would be with the team on opening day, as the Mets were allowed expanded rosters to start the year.
This was because they would hit the road for the first games of the year, in the extreme. The Mets would face the Cubs in a two-game series in Tokyo, the first regular season contests held outside of North America. For Valentine, it was a chance to return as something of a conquering hero. He'd spent one season managing the Chiba Lotte Marines to respectability, earning the love of fans and the resentment of ownership. He saw this series as a chance to both promote Japanese baseball and pave the way for some kind of "world cup" competition (a desire shared by Commissioner Selig).
But at least some of the players were less thrilled to be on the trip (most notably, Henderson). The hoopla, hectic schedule (which included exhibition games against Japanese teams), and resultant jet lag did not add up to an ideal way to begin the season. When the Cardinals were rumored to be going to Japan, Mark McGwire did everything in his power to prevent it from happening, saying the series was based purely on "greed".
"That's a very limited thought," Valentine said in response. "This is much bigger than that."