1999: Bobby Jones blasts, Franco gets 400

Go Johnny, go

In part two of our 1999 retrospective, Bobby Jones goes deep on opening day, Shea renovations are undone by faulty plumbing, and John Franco earns save number 400.

The Mets began the 1999 season with a roadtrip that felt far more grueling than their 5-2 record would imply. Both Mike Piazza and Rick Reed were injured during their series in Montreal and forced to hit the 15-day DL. It also didn't help that the press was quick to jump all over the Mets when they lost the openers of their series against the Marlins and the Expos, two not-great teams they often failed to best in 1998, and slow to offer praise when they rebounded to sweep the remainders of each series. So the team was eager to return to Queens and play some games in front of a home crowd against...the Marlins and Expos.

The Shea Stadium that greeted the Mets for their home opener on April 13 was markedly different than the facility they last saw in September 1998. Ownership ponied up $250K to upgrade the facilities, with most of that cash going to create new high-priced seating areas that would fund the team's large payroll in general and Mike Piazza's contract in particular. (The seven-year $90 million deal Piazza inked over the winter was the biggest in baseball history for a few nanoseconds, until Kevin Brown's contract with the Dodgers beat the mark.) A maintenance tunnel behind home plate was covered over with permanent seating, box seats were added near each dugout, and bleachers were installed beyond the left field fence, near the visiting bullpen. Some scratch was left over to give a facelift to the infield, the source of much grumbling over the years from fielders forced to play on it.

The Mets' clubhouse also received a modest overhaul, and Bobby Valentine told reporters he was anxious to check out his remodeled office. Upon arrival, he found it dominated by a new desk so enormous that it left little room for visitors. Since Steve Phillips was fond of dropping by after each game to discuss strategy, Valentine probably welcomed this feature.

The home opener began with over 52,000 fans in full throat, a national anthem played by Itzhak Perlman, and a ceremonial first pitch thrown from Tom Seaver to Piazza (who continued to insist his injured knee felt well enough to play on). Mayor Rudy Giuliani made an appearance and even dared to briefly swap his omnipresent oversized Yankees jacket for a Mets jacket and hat for the occasion, though Steve Phillips noted, "He looked like he was in pain."

As for the game itself, Robin Ventura dazzled with the glove by scooping up several bunt attempts by speedy Marlin Luis Castillo, and also drove in two runs with a double. But the hitting star of the day was pitcher Bobby Jones, who initiated a big fifth inning rally by taking Livan Hernandez deep, tucking a home run just over the left field fence (not too far from those brand new bleachers). The Mets scored three more times in the frame, giving Hernandez an early exit for the second time in a week, and cruised to an 8-1 win. Feelings were so good that even Bobby Bonilla (a little loved Met in the early 1990s who was reacquired in the offseason for reasons that have yet to be determined) received a few cheers for his three hits and RBI.

The sweet smell of victory was overpowered when a sewer pipe burst in the Mets' clubhouse, filling it with a few inches of foul water and ruining much of the offseason renovations. The home team was forced to relocate to the old Jets locker room, which no longer had running water but did have the added amenity of no raw sewage on the floor.

After a much needed day off, Orel Hershiser, Turk Wendell, and Armando Benitez took advantage of an overanxious young Marlins lineup and handed a 4-1 lead to John Franco in the ninth. He earned the save in very un-Franco-like fashion, striking out the side and inducing no agita among the paying customers. It was also his 400th career save, a milestone that only one other reliever had yet surpassed (then-all-time saves leader Lee Smith). After the game, Franco handed out Dom Perignon poured into plastic flutes, promising, "This is the first of many celebrations, boys."

The Mets failed to sweep Florida, losing the last game in embarrassing fashion, 11-4, with Masato Yoshii getting the roughest treatment. In their first game hosting the Expos on April 16, Al Leiter bid his time during a one-hour rain delay (bad weather had messed with his starts so often that Franco had taken to calling him Rain Man), only to be undone by a series of weird bounces and bad breaks when he finally did take the mound. The "biggest" blow was a Michael Barrett single that hugged the line while Ventura stared at it, incredulous it wouldn't roll foul. This opened the door to a four-run fifth inning that put the game out of reach for the Mets. To compound the 6-4 loss, Rickey Henderson tweaked a hamstring that had bugged him since spring training, putting his future playing time in question.

More injuries popped up in the next game. Though the Mets squeaked out a 3-2 victory thanks to another solid outing from Bobby Jones, Brian McRae collided with rookie pitcher Carl Pavano in a play at first base and would miss a few days of action. In the last game against Montreal, Queens native Allen Watson received the starting nod in the place of the injured Rick Reed and performed with brutal efficiency; his first pitch of the game was turned into a single by Orlando Cabrera, his second was clubbed 418 feet by Jose Vidro, and his eighth was converted into a solo shot by Rondell White.

Watson settled in after that rough start, but Expos pitcher Javier Vazquez limited the Mets to two bases-empty homers by John Olerud, as the home team went down, 4-2. After facing the Marlins and Expos 13 times to start the year, and 12 matchups in spring training, the Mets appeared more anxious to move past their opponents than overcome them. Bobby Valentine conceded, "I think they were sick of seeing us and we were sick of seeing them." The Mets would finally get a chance to see some different faces in the coming week, as they traveled for a quick midwest jaunt to Cincinnati and Chicago.

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