1999: At weak's end

Rick Stewart/Getty Images

This week in 1999: When the Mets go winless at home, Bobby Valentine finds himself on the seat of heat.

In the initial weeks of the 1999 season, the Mets had their fair share of ups and downs. Mike PIazza, Rick Reed, and Bobby Jones had all spent time on the shelf, while Bobby Bonilla demonstrated why he was so maligned during his first tour of duty in Queens. On the plus side, the team received surprise contributions from Roger Cedeño and Benny Agbayani, an amazing amount of production from a 40-year-old Rickey Henderson, and iron-clad defense from its infield.

All told, the Mets had experienced more good luck than prior to their six-game homestand that began on May 28. By the end of that homestand, there wouldn't be a shred of good luck, or good will, left.

The Mets' slide into the abyss started with a frustrating loss in the first game of three against Arizona. The Mets trailed by a run with two men on base and one out in the bottom of the ninth when Benny Agbayani hit a sharp grounder that would have gone for a game-ending double play if second baseman Jay Bell hadn't flung the ball wide of first. That was the good news. The bad news was the errant throw bounced off a photographer's box and into the waiting arms of first baseman Travis Lee, a quick carom that prevented Mike Piazza from dashing home to score the tying run. After a walk loaded the bases, backup shortstop Luis Lopez took a 3-1 pitch that appeared to be at his knees. Home plate umpire Gary Darling didn't agree and deemed it a strike. Flustered, Lopez watched strike three to end the game, a 2-1 defeat.

Little went the Mets' way the next afternoon, as they lost another close-but-no-cigar affair. Starter Allen Watson faltered after taking a Greg Colbrunn liner off his foot, and the usually airtight bullpen endured even more damage by allowing six runs, the big blow a three-run shot by Bell. The Mets scratched away in the late innings and pulled within a run before Arizona called on 20-year-old rookie Byung-hyun Kim to make his major league debut. It was a bold move, asking a young pitcher to make his first big league appearance against the heart of the Mets' batting order, but it worked. The hitters flailed helplessly at Kim's submarine delivery and went down in order, capping an 8-7 loss that required 3 hours and 40 agonizing minutes to unfold.

There were no close calls in the series finale. Arizona batters blistered Masato Yoshii for seven runs in less than three innings of work. Diamondbacks ace Randy Johnson (a lifetime .114 hitter at the moment) enjoyed himself by collecting two singles, while also collected 10 Ks against Mets batters over eight innings. A healthy crowd showed up at Shea for a Sunday matinee that was also Beanie Baby Day, but few remained until the conclusion of the 10-1 drubbing.

As the D-Backs slithered out of town triumphantly, Bobby Valentine was blindsided by a slew of personnel issues. First, Rey Ordoñez proclaimed he was dealing with a knee injury and would have to take a few days off. Though aware that Ordoñez was dealing with some knee pain, no one on the Mets was aware of the extent of Ordoñez's injury, least of all his manager, who asked him to pinch hit during the middle game of the Arizona series and was shocked to hear him refuse. The shortstop had already defied him publicly once this year, and had few qualms about doing so again.

Then, the beat writers jumped all over griping from an anonymous veteran perturbed by Valentine's ever-changing lineup. Valentine was infamous for shifting his lineup around from day to day, and this unnamed player was sick of it. "There are a lot of guys who are upset that there is no set lineup," quoth The Mystery Man. "Look around at the other teams. They have the same lineup every day."

Called on to respond to these charges, Valentine nearly eye-rolled himself to death and countered with his own evidence. Exhbit A: No, most other teams did not have the same lineup every day. The Yankees just fielded a different lineup three games in a row with no complaints. Exhibit B: Lineup machinations hadn't prevented his team from hitting the cover off the ball for most of the season.

The press deemed these facts irrelevant to what they saw as the larger issue: Valentine's clubhouse was beginning to chafe under his yoke.

In an effort to clear the air, Valentine was forced to meet individually with his five outfielders (Henderson, Bonilla, Agbayani, Cedeño, and Brian McRae, opening day center fielder who'd been largely forgotten since). He informed the quintet that, for squeaky wheel reasons, the team's vets would be getting some more playing time at the expense of youngsters Cedeño and Agbayani. Betraying the fact that he was doing this against his will, Valentine grumbled to the press, "The two young guys are, as they should be, a little confused. They can't play any better and they're losing time."

In the first game hosting the Reds on May 31, Valentine started a superannuated outfield of Bonilla, Henderson, and McRae and watched it sink to a lethargic 5-3 loss. Al Leiter made his first start in seven days after resting a persistent knee issue, and both the pitcher and his manager said they were pleased with the results, conceding only that he'd made a few mistakes. These mistakes were presumably inclusive of a two-run homer by Pokey Reese and a 423-foot moonshot off the bat of Greg Vaughn that put the Reds on top to stay. All season, Leiter had proclaimed he was pleased with his performances despite the fact that they were uniformly mediocre. With each middling start, his words rang more and more hollow.

The veteran outfield started yet again in the second game against the Reds, as did the miraculously healed Rey Ordoñez. They were shut out 4-0 by Reds starter Pete Harnisch, who'd already pitched one gem against the Mets in Cincinnati, and who delighted in defeating his former manager Valentine. The two had an ugly public feud back in 1997, when Harnisch pitched in Queens. The last straw came when Harnisch called up WFAN like an angry fan to tell all the listeners how nobody on the Mets could stand playing for Bobby Valentine.

During the Harnisch game, Bonilla was booed mercilessly by the Shea crowd when two balls sailed over his head for triples. And yet, Valentine hinted he'd continue to play the mobility challenged outfielder. "We're kind of into the set-lineup mode,'' Valentine said after the game, drizzling healthy portions of sarcasm on every word. "We'll see how that works. I've been criticized a lot for changing my lineup lately." A players-only meeting was held after the loss, fueling further speculation that Valentine's grip on the team was slipping.

In the final game against Cincinnati, the Mets found themselves locked in a back-and-forth battle. The Mets and Reds traded advantages until a four-run rally in the bottom of the seventh gave New York a 7-6 lead and a narrow path to a much needed win. In the top of the ninth, John Franco came on for the save. His performances thus far in 1999 had hardly been perfect, as he continued to dance with danger in the ways that had given Mets fans agita for the last decade. For all his trademark drama, Franco was 14-for-14 in save opportunities, but this ensured he was overdue for a correction. He got one, at the worst possible time for himself and his team.

Things didn't appear to be going that way when Franco retired the first two batters in the ninth. Then, he pitched carefully to the dangerous Greg Vaughn and walked him. Barry Larkin followed by hitting a ball to the shortstop hole, the kind of ball Robin Ventura or Rey Ordoñez usually gobbled up. But with the third baseman playing the line against the threat of a double, and Luis Lopez playing short instead of the intermittently injured Ordoñez, Larkin's ball went for an infield hit. Shortly thereafter, Vaughn and Larkin executed a double steal to put the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position.

Franco nearly dodged this bullet by backing the next batter, Mike Cameron, into an 0-2 hole. But Cameron fought back to even the count before slapping a ball up the middle that spun Franco around like a top. The Mets closer didn't bother to turn back around to watch the two runs score, or to catch the softball a disgusted fan threw in his general direction. Shellshocked, the Mets went quietly in the bottom of the ninth.

The stunning 8-7 loss sealed a dubious franchise first. No Mets team had ever been swept six straight at home before, not even the hapless 1962 squad. The team that had spent and traded like crazy to ensure a trip to the playoffs was now one lousy game over .500 on June 2. Fans and media alike were apopleptic, and most of their ire was aimed at Bobby Valentine, who appeared to have lost the respect and attention of his charges.

A team that just suffered through such a lousy homestand could have done with a road trip away from the pressures and headlines of New York. At the nadir of their season, the Mets did have three games scheduled away from Shea. Unfortunately for them, they would be played at Yankee Stadium.

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