October 16: Even during a postseason where Shea Stadium had hosted many loud, wild crowds, the one assembled for game five stood out. The fans could not contain themselves as they waited to witness an event that now seemed inevitable. The Mets players wouldn't even mention the name of the series they'd play in if they could win just one more game, fearful of jinxing things. Todd Zeile said, "We have something close enough we can almost taste it," though he couldn't bring himself to say what that something was.
Despite this superstition, they appeared confident, determined. During the broadcast, Tim McCarver said, "Bobby Valentine looked more relaxed than I've ever seen him." This despite the fact that there was already open speculation about who the Mets might be interested in hiring if they didn't bring back Valentine; Dusty Baker's name had already surfaced, and now apparently Lou Piniella was a candidate. To corroborate McCarver's observation, FOX showed footage of Valentine in the dugout before the game, air-drumming along to the music from the stadium PA.
If the Cardinals remained alive, the FOX broadcast didn't consider that possibility for too long. Most of its pregame segment was dedicated to the Mets, as Keith Olbermann praised Timo Perez and Edgardo Alfonzo ("a potential future NL MVP"), and narrated a montage on their players and the journeys they'd made to get to this point. Talk of the Cardinals was limited to criticism: questioning Tony La Russa's decision to start Darryl Kile on short rest, the team's bad approach at the plate and in the field, and why Mark McGwire spent all of game four on the bench.
Pat Hentgen was poised to make his first playoff start of the year, and he pronounced himself confident, having pitched several postseason games in his career. The obvious question that followed: If Hentgen was such a quality pitcher, why didn't he start game four instead of an exhausted Kile? Hentgen hadn't started a game since September 30, and hadn't won one since September 14, so he was not exactly the ideal man to send up in this spot. In an attempt to make him more comfortable, catcher Carlos Hernandez eschewed his usual gray catching gear for the red equipment worn by Mike Matheny.
There was air of resignation about the Cardinals now, the same kind that enveloped the Giants after Benny Agbayani's 13th inning homer won game three of the division series. FOX showed footage from the visiting dugout, where hitting coach Mike Easler gave out batting advice to his charges. The entire bench ignored him, as if any effort they made would be pointless.
Mike Hampton would take the mound. It could not have been scripted better: The big-time ace the Mets acquired in the off season, pitching in the exact spot he'd been traded for. A slight drizzle prevailied just before the game, but as Olbermann noted, "It cannot rain hard enough to rain out the game." Rain or shine, Hampton declared himself ready: "I'm looking forward to pitching the game of my life."Fernando Vina led off the game against Mike Hampton and singled up the middle, his third leadoff hit in as many games. The enthusiasm of the crowd sagged slightly, but this is was as close to a rally as the Cardinals would get all night. As Hampton kept Vina close to first with a few judicious pickoff throws, Placido Polanco flew out to right, Jim Edmonds struck out swinging, and Eric Davis ground out to Robin Ventura. It was the only scoreless top of the first in the entire series.
In stark contrast to the game four starter, Pat Hentgen took the mound on 16 days' rest. But he was not the only player who looked rusty in the bottom of the first. Timo Perez fell behind 1-2, then rifled a single just beyond the reach of Edgar Renteria at shortstop. As Alfonzo batted, Timo took off for second, and Carlos Hernandez's throw skipped past Vina into centerfield, allowing him to go to third. Immediately thereafter, Alfonzo hit a ball to short that went just under Renteria's glove; not an error, but a play he definitely could have made. Just like that, the Mets were up 1-0. The crowd got loud, and would only get louder.
With Mike Piazza (aka The Monster) up next, Hentgen pitched carefully and walked him, perhaps hoping for a double play ball from the slow-footed Robin Ventura. The third baseman foiled that plan by lacing a single into right field. Alfonzo came around to sore, Piazza went to third, and the score was now 2-0.
Hentgen nearly got a double play ball from Todd Zeile, who hit a grounder right to Vina. But the second baseman struggled to pick up the ball, then shoveled it to Renteria to force out Ventura. In a rush to get the ball to first, Renteria's throw was wide. Piazza trotted home in the confusion, making it 3-0 in favor of the Mets. Sideline reporter Bob Brenly surmised that the slick infield might be responsible for the miscues. If that was the case, the home team was immune to such effects.
A four-pitch walk to Benny Agbayani and a single by Jay Payton loaded the bases, though Hentgen was able to wriggle out of the inning without any further damage when Mike Bordick popped out, then Hampton struck out looking. A potentially huge inning was bypassed, but the way the Cardinals were playing, it barely seemed to matter.
For the rest of the game, St. Louis would barely raise a whimper, completely mastered by Hampton. Despite colder temperatures than in game one (56 degrees at game time), Tim McCarver believed Hampton was throwing harder than he had in St. Louis. He was definitely more commanding. Whereas he'd danced between the raindrops all night in game one, flirting with disaster in almost every inning, Hampton was now overpowering.
Will Clark, Renteria, and Ray Lankford went down quickily in order in the top of the second. Hentgen managed a one-out single in the top of the third, but Hampton got Vina to ground into a fielder's choice, then struck out Polanco looking. In the top of the fourth, Hampton sandwiched a harmless two-out single from Clark with strikeouts of Edmonds and Renteria. "Mike Hampton in complete control at this point," Joe Buck said, sounding both annoyed and bored by this development. (Throughout the broadcast, despite the roaring crowd and the import of the event, Buck sounded like he would rather be doing anything else.)
Hentgen seemed to settle down after his rough first inning, retiring the Mets in order in the bottom of the second (despite a potential home run from Alfonzo knocked down by the wind), then working around walks of Ventura and Agbayani in the third. No lead was safe against the powerful Cardinals lineup, as the Mets found out in game four. But any chance of a St. Louis comeback disappeared in the bottom of the fourth.
It started, of course, with Timo Perez, who came up with one out and hit a sharp grounder right back to Hentgen. The ball glanced off of the pitcher's ankle and bounced to shortstop. Renteria fired a throw to first, but it bounced in the dirt and Clark could not grab it in time. After Alfonzo popped out, Piazza belted a double into left field, and Ventura walked on four pitches to load the bases. Todd Zeile was up next, and though Mike TImlin was ready to go in the Cardinals bullpen, La Russa stuck with Hentgen. Like many of his decisions in this series, it was the wrong one.
Zeile later admitted he felt extra motivation because Hentgen had pitched around Ventura to get to him. ("There is a little added motivation when you see that happen.") On a 2-2 pitch, Zeile went the other way on a Hentgen fastball and drove it to the base of the wall in right-centerfield. (Buck called it "a right cross to the chin of his former organization.") Perez scored easily, then Piazza and Ventura right behind him. As he pulled into second, Shea's upper deck literally swayed from 56,000 fans jumping up and down with delirium. The Mets were now in front 6-0. Any hope the Cardinals had of coming back died at that moment.
"I have announced in this stadium for 21 years," McCarver (a former Mets announcer) said, "and I have never felt this booth shaking, until tonight. And I mean literally shaking." From the field, Bob Brenly added, referring to the frequent flights from La Guardia Airport, "I think the pilots have to hold their ears as they fly over the stadium."
With the outcome all but a foregone conclusion, the only question was how long could Hampton continue his mastery over St. Louis. (As early as the fifth inning, even Buck began to note, "The Mets are one out closer," with each put out.) The answer was, as long as it took.
The Cardinals went down in order in the top of the fifth, with strikeouts of Lankford and pinch hitter Fernando Tatis. He struck out Vina to start the sixth, then, after a walk of Polanco, struck out Edmonds yet again and got Eric Davis to pop out. A fly out from Clark and groundouts from Renteria and Lankford ended the top of the seventh.
"Hampton is just too much for St. Louis tonight," Buck said as the lefty stalked off the mound, six outs away from a pennant. FOX gave up any pretense of supposing the Cardinals could come back. An on-screen graphic promised to show the trophy presentation and locker room celebration, without adding the caveat of "if the score holds up."
Offensively, the Mets remained quiet until the bottom of the seventh, when La Russa made another ill-advised decision. After using relievers Mike Timlin and Britt Reames to navigate the fifth and sixth, Rick Ankiel began to loosen up in the bullpen. "I think it would be too risky to bring Ankiel into this game, with this atmosphere," Buck opined, but La Russa could not hear him.
Presumably, La Russa wanted Ankiel to get some last work in so he wouldn't have to think about his disastrous game two start all winter. If anything, the move had the opposite effect. As Shea's t-shirt cannon gunners ran off the field at the conclusion of the seventh inning stretch, one of them had to duck when an Ankiel warm-up throw whizzed toward the backstop and nearly hit her in the head. It would not get much better.
FOX showed pitching coach Dave Wallace talking in the dugout, saying, "I hope our fans do the right thing here." Some did, and some did not; as Mike Bordick came to bat, portions of the crowd chanted "wild pitch!" (not the proudest moment in Shea history). Bordick walked, then went to second on a sac bunt by Hampton. Timo Perez took a called strike three, but as Alfonzo batted, Ankiel uncorked two consecutive wild pitches, the crowd roaring at each one. Bordick moved to third on the first, then scored on the second. Fonzie walked, and La Russa was finally forced to yank Ankiel in favor of Mike James.
If the idea was to boost Ankiel's confidence, this would not be any sort of cure. Buck and McCarver debated what the outing might do to Ankiel's psyche, but by this point, it was a question whose answer would have to wait until spring training.
The top of the eighth brought another 1-2-3 inning. Eli Marrero (now catching) lined out to centerfield. Pinch hitter Shawon Dunston popped out to first. Vina grounded out to Alfonzo. It seemed the only reason the Cardinals were come to bat was because, technically, they had to. Hampton headed for the dugout as the PA system blared "Taking Care of Business." The Mets were a mere three outs away now.
But if St. Louis was sleepwalking on offense, their pitchers weren't about to down so easily. In the bottom of the eighth, following a two-out single from Agbayani, reliever Dave Veres came up and in to Jay Payton twice. On the second occasion, the ball struck him squarely on the temple, ripping a gash in his head. Payton crumbled to the ground briefly, then shot right back up and started toward the mound as blood ran down his face. As he was held back by Marrero ("What are you doing? Are you stupid?" Payton shouted, almost as baffled as he was angry), the benches cleared and some tough-guy shoving ensued, but no further violence.
Veres later swore "I'm not a headhunter," and that the incident was an accident. The Mets seemed to take him at his word, and with a date with history just three outs away, none of them were interested in starting a brawl. Payton even regretted getting angry. "My emotions got ahold of me," he said. "You want to tear somebody apart. But that wasn't the time or place for it." It would be the last bit of drama in this series. Joe McEwing ran for the injured Payton and Bordick ground into a fielder's choice for the third out, giving way to a fateful top of the ninth.
Hampton proceeded as he had all game. Leadoff hitter Craig Paquette (pinch hitting for Polanco) hit a slow liner to left field, where Benny Agbayani caught it for the first out. With one last futile chance to go deep, Mark McGwire (pinch hitting for Edmonds) swung at Hampton's second pitch, and grounded out to Alfonzo.
Makeshift confetti rained down from the stands as the crowd ripped up scorecards, napkins, hot dog wrappers, beer bottle labels, and sent it floating down to the field. FOX's cameras showed the dugouts flooded with NYPD officers, ready to storm the field and prevent any fans from doing the same. They also showed closeups of Mike Hampton who, for the first time all night, betrayed some emotion. Briefly, as he waited to face the last batter of the game, he looked almost choked up.
Just 12 months earlier, the Mets pulled off one unbelievable comeback after another until their luck ran out in the most excruciating way possible in game six of the NLCS, a loss that might've killed a lesser team. Now many of those same men--along with some newcomers--were one out away from going where no Mets team had gone since 1986.
Bobby Valentine, 2,524 games in the majors--1,885 as a skipper--a promising playing career marred by injury, a managerial career marked by second-guessing and controversy, who'd led the Mets to the playoffs for two consecutive years for the first time in the team's history.
John Franco, an entire decade in Queens, often for terrible teams, owner of 400 saves, who'd quietly stepped aside with the arrival of Armando Benitez, then gotten huge outs in the 2000 playoffs when the flashier closer faltered.
Bobby Jones, another longtime Met who suffered through some awful seasons and humbled himself with a trip to Norfolk a few short months ago, only to come back and pitch the best postseason game any Met ever had.
Benny Agbayani, who'd almost gone back to the minors at the end of spring training, and who had virtually no champions within the organization--save for his former manager at Norfolk, Bobby Valentine--now part of a revamped outfield, with a hit in every playoff game the Mets played so far, including the thrilling game-winning homer in game three of the NLDS.
Jay Payton, who suffered through one grueling surgery after another before even setting foot on a major league field, now the everyday centerfielder, with game-winning RBIs against the Giants and the Cardinals.
Mike Piazza, playing through an insane amount of nagging injuries--now including a bout of patella tendinitis, the same ailment that sidelined Mark McGwire--and getting hot exactly when his team needed him the most.
Todd Zeile, once dumped by the Cardinals, now on his eighth major league team, playing first base full time for the first time, who belted a bases-clearing double to kill the last traces of St. Louis's chances.
Todd Pratt, who once gave up baseball altogether and managed a Domino's Pizza franchise, now backing up the best catcher in baseball, and with a heroic moment on his resume.
Edgardo Alfonzo, who moved from third base to second without a word, won the Silver Slugger award at that position, had one clutch hit after another, and was only now getting the attention he deserved.
Timo Perez, who came to New York by way of Tokyo and still knew more Japanese than English, and only played his first game in the bigs on September 1, now the sparkplug at the top of the lineup the team had been looking for all season.
It was only right that it should come down to Timo. (In the Times, Murray Chass wrote, "who would have ever conceived of a series where a pestiferous Mighty Mouse of a leadoff hitter named Timo Perez would make a greater impact than a Man Mountain of a home run hitter named Mark McGwire?") Batting for J.D. Drew, Rick Wilkins skied a high fly ball to centerfield. Timo had just moved there from right field to take over for the injured Payton. The ball stayed in the air long enough for him to leap for joy twice, before putting up his glove for the last out of the NLCS. On October 16, 2000, 11:39pm, the Mets were National League champions.
The dugout emptied, and the Mets ran to the mound to hoist Hampton on their shoulders. Nine innings, three hits, one walk, no runs, eight Ks. The Cardinals didn't reach base after the sixth, and didn't have a hit after the fourth. Not a single Cardinal baserunner got as far as second base. True to his word, Hampton had pitched the game of his life.
As the Mets put on brand new NL Champion hats and t-shirts and took a victory lap around the stadium, Tim McCarver seemed blown away by the insane, joyous atmosphere. "Joe, I was in a Cardinal uniform in 1969 when the Mets clinched the pennant against the Cardinals," he said, "and I can't remember it being this big." Buck noted that, though Bobby Valentine was often called "Top-Step Bobby" for his eagerness to insert himself into the action, he stayed in the dugout as his players soaked up the glory they so deserved.
Of course, many of the questions in the champagne-soaked clubhouse concerned the looming possibility of a Subway Series. Did the Mets want to face the Yankees? What about Roger Clemens? For the moment, most of the Mets deflected the questions. This was a day to celebrate themselves, not speculate about another team. Some allowed themselves to imagine what it would like to meet the Yankees next. Interviewed on the field right after the game, Robin Ventura told Steve Lyons, "We're just happy to go--although it'd be nice to stay home."
Al Leiter snuck up on Bobby Valentine and poured bubbly all over his head. "That stuff is cold," he said. "It's bubbly. It stings your eyes. And it feels great. Give me some more of that." Asked if the team had treated him fairly, particularly in light of recent talk about his potential replacements, Valentine said, "I was just standing on the stage with Nelson Doubleday, Fred Wilpon and Steve Phillips, holding a National League trophy. How can I feel anything better than that?"
Darryl Hamilton, a 12-year veteran headed to the World Series for the first time, advised younger players that going to the World Series "doesn't happen too often. Better enjoy it." Mike Piazza reported of the Mets' on-field celebration, "I couldn't even feel the ground while I was running around the field after this was over."
John Franco, Brooklyn native, remembered watching the Mets on TV in his family's home on Bath Avenue the last time they made it to the Fall Classic. He also recalled watching ex-teammates move on to greener pastures and celebrate postseason victories. "I've sat in front of the television and watched a lot of my friends celebrate, for a lot of years," he said quietly. "Dwight Gooden and Bret Saberhagen. Al Leiter and Bobby Bonilla. David Cone. Maybe tonight they can finally watch me."
For one glorious day in 2000, only one team in New York was going to the World Series, and it was the Mets.