1999: Steve spends, Rickey runs, Piazza plummets

Run, Rickey, Run

Join us on our first weekly look back on the 1999 Mets, wherein Steve Phillips spends madly, Rickey Henderson runs wild, and everyone gets hurt.

It can be argued that the 1999 Mets were the most fascinating team in franchise history, a team that was both a definitive product of its era and an exemplar of a timeless feeling of Mets-ness. To celebrate what this team meant to so many fans, all season long Amazin' Avenue will take a weekly look back at the 1999 Mets to see what they were up to at roughly the same moment 15 years ago.

There are many reasons why the 1999 Mets were so important, factors that include the team's internal and external dynamics, the changing landscape of MLB's post-strike years, the evolving realities of life in New York in the late 1990s...and that's just for starters. It's a rich tapestry deserves its own book. (I'm writing such a book at the moment, though I know that saying you're trying to write a book is like saying you're trying to lose weight: it doesn't mean a whole lot until you've actually done it.)

For the tl;dr crowd, here's what you absolutely need to know about the Mets as they headed into 1999:

  1. In 1998, the Mets lost the last five games of the season and missed out on a wild card berth by one game.
  2. When the 1990s began, the Mets "owned" New York and the Yankees were an afterthought. By the end of the decade, years of Mets mediocrity had opened the door for the Yankees to claim the city as their own. The Yankees' historic dominance in 1998 (114 regular season wins and a drama-free road to another World Series title) further solidified the two teams' reversal of fortunes.
  3. With the NBA on strike for most of the winter, the collective New York sports media had a considerable vacuum of airtime and column inches to fill. They primarily filled it by relentlessly reminding the Mets of Facts 1 and 2.
  4. The Mets spent early and often for the 1999 season, in direct response to Facts 1, 2, and 3.

First, general manager Steve Phillips re-signed Mike Piazza and Al Leiter, who'd both joined the Mets in '98. Then he signed perennial All Star and Gold Glover Robin Ventura to play third base. By 1998, Edgardo Alfonzo had finally settled in at third following several years of being shuffled around the infield, but he shifted back to second base without a word of protest. In 1999, Ventura, Alfonzo, Rey Ordoñez, and John Olerud would form one of the greatest defensive infields in baseball history (and with the the exception of shortstop Ordoñez, they weren't too bad at the plate, either).

To bolster the outfield and the leadoff spot, they signed Rickey Henderson, 40 years old human years but much younger in baseball ability. A three-way deal with the Dodgers and Baltimore brought Roger Cedeño from LA (who'd prove an invaluable Henderson-like weapon on the basepaths) and fireballing reliever Armando Benitez from Baltimore. Two key pieces of the bullpen also re-upped for 1999: veteran lefty Dennis Cook and eccentric righty Turk Wendell. Apart from their infield defense, relief pitching would be the Mets' most valuable weapon.

The reason relief pitching and infield defense would be so important is because the Mets' starting pitching was its weakest link. Al Leiter could be called a legitimate ace (17-6, 2.47 ERA, and 1.15 WHIP in 1998), but after him came three unglamorous control artists: Rick Reed, Bobby Jones, and Masato Yoshii. When spring training began, the Mets were banking on former phenom Hideo Nomo for the fifth spot in the rotation, but Nomo pitched miserably in Port St. Lucie and was released.

Free agency held few viable alternatives. The biggest pitching names that winter were Randy Johnson and Kevin Brown, and they went to the Diamondbacks and the Dodgers, respectively. If the Mets wanted a top-line starter, he would have to be acquired via trade, and that proved an issue. Though the Mets were rumored to be in interested in every supposedly available pitcher from Curt Schilling to Chuck Finley, they were loath to part with what little jewels their farm system had. Their list of prospects with any value included Octavio Dotel, Jae Seo, Jay Payton, and not much else.

The problem was underscored the day the Mets reported to spring training, which was also the day the Yankees traded for Roger Clemens, another pitcher they coveted all winter but could not afford, prospect-wise. (Mets ownership grumbled the trade was timed specifically to draw attention away from Mets camp.) That the Yanks had to part with David Wells to net Clemens underscored just how little the Mets had to trade. Thus, they were forced to be creative and add another 40-year-old to their roster. Orel Hershiser, let go at the end of spring training by the Giants, was picked up off the scrap heap to fill the fifth hole in the rotation as the Mets crossed their fingers and hoped for the best.

Even without signing another frontline starter, the Mets began 1999 with all the expectations implied by a huge-for-1999 payroll of $74 million. The amount of money spent on the roster put both Phillips and manager Bobby Valentine on the hot seat. Sportswriters would speculate all season that each man's job hung by a thread, though Valentine—infamous for baiting umpires, starting feuds in the press with players like Todd Hundley, and having almost no filter between his brain and his mouth—always seemed closer to the guillotine than Phillips. Before every series the Mets played in 1999, the team was told they had to win it. The reasons supplied would change, but never the threat: Win to stave off the prophets of doom for one more day.

When it came to the seven-game road trip that started the regular season, the Mets were told they must win these games because they would be played against opponents that bedeviled them in 1998. First up: three games in Miami against the Marlins. The Mets barely managed a winning record against Florida in 1998 (7-5), and by all rights should have won more. After winning the 1997 World Series, Florida disassembled itself and played patsy to everyone in the league except the Mets, accumulating a mere 49 wins against all other teams. Critics surmised the Mets played down to such meager competition.

The results on opening day on April 5 did nothing to dispel this notion. Mets batters loaded the bases in the top of the first against Alex Fernandez—a pitcher who hadn't climbed a mound in 18 months due to shoulder surgery—yet failed to score. By day's end, they stranded 14 runners and finished 0 for 9 with men in scoring position. When Al Leiter took over in the bottom of the first, he watched Robin Ventura commit two uncharacteristic defensive miscues and Mike Piazza allow a passed ball. The errors led to three Marlins runs, a deficit too deep for the Mets' batters to overcome, and New York went down in defeat, 6-2.

This, of course, prompted great weeping and gnashing of teeth in the back pages. As far as the media was concerned, the Mets still hadn't broken the losing streak that closed out 1998. The New York Times summed up the mood of the press, while also capturing a shot across the bow from Steve Phillips, one fired at his manager.

[T]he Mets are built to win now. Their starting lineup averages 31 years of age, their starting rotation 34; their closer is 38. Phillips had talked before the game about his only expectation being that his players perform to their average capabilities.

If that happens, the general manager was asked, is this a playoff team? "It should be," Phillips said, well aware that the Mets have not qualified for the post-season since 1988. "It better be."

The Mets exacted revenge in the final two games in Miami, pounding Livan Hernandez and all other Marlins pitchers in a 12-3 rout, then blanking Florida 6-0 in the finale. Rickey Henderson loomed large in both contests, stealing bases at will like a man half his age. In the last game, he went 4 for 4 with two doubles and two homers. Henderson couldn't recall ever collecting so many extra-base hits in one game but admitted, "I can't remember half the things I do in this game." For those who were so quick to bury the Mets after a sloppy opening day loss, Steve Phillips suggested the headline "Money Well Spent."

From Miami, the Mets headed off to chilly Montreal for four games against another team that gave them fits the year before. Like the Marlins, the Expos had trouble against everyone in 1998 except for the Mets, who they beat in 8 out of 12 matchups. So once again, the Mets were told they must prove they could defeat a presumably inferior opponent.

And once again, they failed at the task, dropping the first game on April 8 by the score of 5-1. In his Mets debut, Orel Hershiser allowed five runs in only four innings of work and also got picked off the basepaths during a botched bunt attempt, killing a potential rally. With Expos fans angered by whispers that MLB wanted to relocate the team to the States as soon as the 2000 season, an unusually healthy crowd of almost 44,000 showed up at Olympic Stadium for Montreal's home opener. Despite a win for the home team, the official attendance announcement received the loudest cheer of the day.

As in Miami, the Mets rebounded to take the remaining games in Montreal, although each game brought with it another sobering bit of bad news. Mike Piazza belted a titanic 442-foot homer in the second game as the Mets clubbed the Expos, 10-3, but he also injured his knee on the basepaths and had to be flown back to New York for an MRI. In the third game, the Mets overcame early deficits, took the lead in the 11th on an RBI single by Piazza's backup, Todd Pratt, and went on to win 4-3. But by the game's conclusion, the team learned that Piazza had a mild knee sprain and would be placed the disabled list. Yet another blow came in the Montreal farewell. Though the Mets took the game, 6-3, Rick Reed suffered a torn calf muscle while running the bases and would join Piazza on the DL.

As instructed, the Mets proved they could defeat the mighty Marlins and Expos by winning 5 of their first 7 games against the two teams before heading to Shea Stadium for their own home opener. And yet, between the damaging injuries and the relentless expectations thrust on them, a 5-2 record felt like treading water.

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