Fifteen years ago today I received one of the best birthday presents ever when the Mets acquired lefty Al Leiter from the Florida Marlins for pitchers A. J. Burnett and Jesus Sanchez and outfielder Robert Stratton. (The Mets also received infielder Ralph Milliard.) I would argue (and believe me I have) that Al Leiter pitched the greatest game in the history of the Mets. His masterful complete-game, two-hit shutout of the Reds in Game 163 of the 1999 season eclipses Santana’s no-hitter and Bobby Jones’s NLDS-clinching one-hitter because of its context.
In that game, an entire season was on the line — winner takes all, loser goes home. To make matters more urgent, just 12 games earlier the Mets had been only one game out of first with a four-game lead on the Wild Card. Then they went into a free fall and it began looking like a repeat of 1998, when the Amazins blew their shot at the Wild Card by losing their last five games.
It was also a measure of redemption for Leiter who, after a career year for the Mets in 1998 (17–6, 2.47), was less than an ace in 1999 (12–12, 4.41 through 162 games). Had he performed a little better that year they wouldn’t have needed a Game 163 — but they did, and Al Leiter, who five days earlier had snapped the Mets’ horrendous seven-game losing streak, was more than equal to the task.
He continued to pitch well in the postseason until, working on three days’ rest after compiling a career-high 227.2 innings, he failed to get out of the first inning in Game 6 of the NLCS against the Braves. He bounced back in 2000 (16–8 3.20) to help lead the Mets to the World Series, in which he pitched quite well against the Yankees, but to no avail.
The Mets gave up a pretty good pitcher in A.J. Burnett to get Al Leiter, but in his seven years with the Mets Leiter’s WAR averaged 3.8, while Burnett has had only one season in which his WAR was higher than 3.7. Leiter also holds the fifth best winning percentage in Mets history (minimum 100 decisions) and is seventh in ERA and strikeouts. He also has the worst all-time slash line among Mets with at least 300 at-bats: .084/.107/.145.
Since there are no Mets with whom I share a birthday, I wish to bestow honorary Mets status to the Pirates’ Richie Zisk, who turns 64 today. His being nailed at home plate on the famous “ball on the wall” play on September 20, 1973, reversed the fortunes of the two teams and helped propel the Amazins to the division title.
Amazin’-ly Tenuous Connection
Aaron Burr, America’s third vice president, was born on this date in 1756. He is most famous for shooting and mortally wounding Alexander Hamilton in a duel on July 11, 1804. A namesake of Hamilton’s exacted a small measure of revenge on June 15, 1966, when Jack Hamilton, pitching with the bases loaded, two out, and his team leading by only one run, induced the Braves’ Hank Aaron to hit a harmless fly ball to center field to kill the rally and secure the win for New York.