Offense exploded. A grand total of 139 grand slams were hit in the major leagues in 1999, the second highest total in baseball history to that point. It became unremarkable for anyone to hit a grand slam at any time in 1999. It was even more unremarkable for Robin Ventura, whose three grand slams that year, his first and best as a New York Met, gave him 13 for his career.
Ventura was uncomfortable being known as The Grand Slam Guy. It was luck of the draw, he said, coming up with the bases juiced. He said this when he hit two grand slams in one game for the White Sox in 1995. He said virtually the same thing when he hit a grand slam in each half of a doubleheader on May 20, something no batter had ever done. But then, a few weeks before Ventura's twin-bill anomaly, Fernando Tatis of the Cardinals hit two in the same inning against the same pitcher. No one had done that before, either. It was that kind of year.
Every fan in the ballpark, warding off the steady rain for innings on end, surely thought grand slam.
When Robin Ventura walked between the raindrops pounding Shea Stadium to take his at bat in the bottom of the fifteenth inning of the National League Championship Series, the bases were loaded for him once again. Every fan in the ballpark, warding off the steady rain for innings on end with hoodies and panchos and sombreros fashioned from empty popcorn buckets, surely thought grand slam. Every fan watching from the warm comfort of home surely thought grand slam.
Robin Ventura did not think grand slam. First of all, the Mets did not need a grand slam. With only one out on the board and the score tied at 3, all the Mets needed was a long fly ball and they would live to play another day. That was the way they'd been playing all season, each day digging their own graves and hopping out before the priest arrived.
Robin Ventura just wanted to avoid an inning-ending double play. He'd done this once already, a million years ago in the bottom of the eighth, as fans moaned and groaned and let out scattered boos. They did the same when he mishandled an infield hit in the top of the ninth. They cut him no slack for playing with a shredded left knee and a sore ankle and a barking shoulder and a year's worth of accumulated wear from acrobatic play at third base. No allowances were made for an infield that grew muddier by the minute. Shea Stadium's infield was impossible to negotiate even when bone dry. Wet, it was a terror.
Most of all, Robin Ventura did not think grand slam when he stepped up in the bottom of the fifteenth, with a chance to give the Mets another improbable victory in a season full of them, because that was not his style. He excused his grand slams more than celebrated them. Dumb luck. Grand slams were for sluggers and superstars, the guys who needed to be noticed. That wasn't him.
He recalled a time back in August, back when it wasn't raining and he was tearing the cover off the ball and his knee hadn't rendered him a shell of his former self. Shea was being paid a visit by the Cardinals and Mark McGwire, fresh off his record-breaking home run season and on pace to wallop another 50 homers this year. Ventura spotted Big Mac during batting practice swamped by autograph seekers. There had to be a hundred fans, maybe more, all of them thrusting pens in his face. Here was the pinnacle of fame. An athlete was supposed to want this, the adoration of a huge, hungry crowd that could never be satisfied.
Ventura shuddered at the sight. It was bad enough being The Grand Slam Guy. Imagine the kind of attention you'd get if you went deep with the frequency of a McGwire. Some players might relish the thought. To Ventura, it looked like a living nightmare.
"I wouldn't want that for anything in the world," he said.
* * *
Only a few times did Ventura come close to that. As a sophomore for Oklahoma State in 1987, he batted .469 and hit safely in all but four games in which he played. He'd managed to do this so quietly that he racked up a hitting streak approaching 30 games without his coach taking notice. When the coach nearly pulled Ventura from a game in which he'd gone hitless, Oklahoma State's media relations rep had to sprint down to the dugout and stop him from pulling the switch. The manager was astounded to be informed of this fact.
Ventura stayed in the game and singled in his final at bat, then confessed embarrassment over the flap. Why such fuss over him? He went on to hit in 58 straight games, an NCAA record that still stands today. Joe DiMaggio thought the feat so impressive that he sent his regards, one streaker to another.
The streak was broken during the college world series. The only time he reached base that night came when the opposing second baseman fired a throw wide of first. Fans chanted hit, hit, hit but it was ruled an error. Ventura shrugged at the near miss.
"It doesn't matter," he said when it was all over. He meant the streak didn't matter because Oklahoma State won the game and was still in the hunt for the national championship, which was what really mattered after all, wasn't it?
But the utter calm he displayed throughout the streak, the way he turned any outside focus away from himself and onto his team, as teammates testified on his behalf...maybe he really thought hitting in 58 straight games didn't matter. Maybe you had to have the preternatural cool of a DiMaggio to do such a thing.
His coach, the one who almost removed Ventura from a game and prevented that streak from happening in the first place, picked up on something about the young man's performances. He was an artist when hitting during the game, but he was even better in the batting cage, hours before the game began. As if he couldn't bear to do too much in front of a crowd. Something in him hated to be noticed.
* * *
Hurricane Irene hit Florida on October 16, flooding the streets of Miami, eroding the Atlantic beaches, submerging the cattle farms and orange orchards. The morning of October 17, Irene worked its way up the eastern seaboard, dumping more rain on the Carolinas and Virginia, losing steam as it traveled. By nightfall, whatever was left of Irene would arrive over Long Island. Game 5 of the National League Championship had a scheduled first pitch of 4:09 pm. The game would proceed unimpeded by weather, provided it didn't run too long.
The Mets were less concerned with the storm brewing down south than the one brewing in their clubhouse.
The Mets were less concerned with the storm brewing down south than the one brewing in their clubhouse. Eccentric relief pitcher Turk Wendell—he of the shark tooth necklace and between-innings tooth-brushing ritual—called out Rickey Henderson for leaving the stadium before the end of the Mets' comeback win the night before. The 40-year-old Henderson, who put up stunning numbers and displayed diva behavior in equal measure in 1999, threw a fit after being replaced for defense late in Game 4. "This is a real team effort except for one guy who quit," Wendell said after the Mets' comeback victory. Asked by reporters to elaborate, Wendell pointed to Henderson's vacant locker.
Henderson did return, if for no other reason than to confront his accuser. He fired back that Wendell "should be happy he's in this position. He wouldn't be here if it wasn't for me," then invited the pitcher to "kiss my black ass." When NBC recounted the whole mess for their audience, they cut to Wendell sitting in the bullpen, where he subconsciously commented on the affair by aggressively picking his nose.
If manager Bobby Valentine had any thought of replacing Henderson, those thoughts were precluded when outfielder Roger Cedeño, the team's top base stealer, arrived at Shea complaining of back spasms. Valentine also had to deal with anonymous sniping, as a nameless "prominent Met" told Bill Madden of the Daily News he believed the manager "wants to get fired and go get a job in Japan." Madden intimated there was resentment in the clubhouse against Valentine for using a pinch hitter in Robin Ventura's place two nights earlier, "a slight to the player who has carried the team much of the season and is playing on guts and a torn-up knee."
Those who'd been following the Mets all year could agree with Valentine's reaction to the strife. "Just business as usual around here," he said.
Ventura himself said nothing. "Characteristically," in Madden's words.
What could Ventura say? The results spoke for themselves. He hadn't hit a lick in weeks. The heart of the Mets lineup flatlined in the first four games of the NLCS, but even among this flailing group, Ventura looked more helpless than most. The Mets opened the championship series against the Braves by dropping two crushers at Turner Field by the scores of 4-2 and 4-3. In both games, Ventura came to bat against Atlanta closer John Rocker late in the proceedings with a chance to do some damage. Each time he went down on strikes.
Rocker had yet to share his thoughts on the 7 train with the world. He was known more as a fireballing lefty who worked as kryptonite on the Mets. By the conclusion of Game 2, he'd decided that baiting fans would provide more of a challenge than any New York batter could. "To hell with Mets fans," he said. "They're a bunch of stupid asses anyway. They keep saying we suck. If we suck so much, how come they can't beat us? They're a tired act."
Rocker feigned shock when his words necessitated the presence of an additional 500 NYPD on hand for Game 3 at Shea Stadium and a personal police escort for himself. In truth, he was delighted he'd gotten under the skin of an entire city. He was even more delighted when he pitched a scoreless ninth in the Braves' 1-0 win, the only run scoring on two Mets errors in the top of the first. Ventura was dropped to sixth in the batting order, for all the good it did. When his spot came up against Rocker in the ninth, Bobby Valentine sent backup catcher Todd Pratt to bat in his place.
The Daily News began its coverage of Game 3 with a Charlie Brown-like wail of "Arggghhh!" The Post wondered if the Mets "might wake up this morning and decide that the reward isn't worth the price, that revving it up to win one game only buys them three more opportunities for suffering."
Ventura, who'd suffered more than most, refused to believe that. "You learn until you're dead, you're still alive," he said. He woke up the morning of Game 4 not with wishes for a swift end, as the Post assumed, but to the sound of his daughter singing "Tomorrow" from Annie. The sun will come out tomorrow....
He told his teammates about his daughter's serenade. Coming from someone else, it might have sounded corny, too on the nose, but Ventura had a way of convincing his clubhouse. It was hard for teammates to convey his powers of persuasion to outsiders because Ventura confined these performances within the clubhouse. But his teammates believed.
The Mets won Game 4 after John Olerud drove in the tying and go-ahead runs with two outs in the bottom of the eighth. Olerud's game-winning hit barely qualified as one, a pathetic dribbler that barely eluded the shortstop. But he'd hit it against John Rocker, giving this "single" the feeling of a towering home run for a team desperate for a break, and a Shea Stadium crowd desperate to rub Rocker's nose in it. Rocker stalked off the mound flashing three fingers at the stands. We've still won three games, stupid asses.
Robin Ventura was happy to provide the inspiration because he was incapable of providing any offense. Through Game 4, he was 0 for the entire series in 12 at bats. He'd struck out five times.
* * *
New York would eat Robin Ventura alive, said the tabloids who took it as their job to eat him alive. New York was supposedly on his no-trade list when he played for the White Sox. Which New York team? Any one, didn't matter.
Gotham sportswriters deemed the native of Santa Maria, CA too much of a California Guy, the worst epithet they could hurl at an athlete.
Gotham sportswriters deemed the native of Santa Maria, CA too much of a California Guy, the worst epithet they could hurl at an athlete. It implied sun-drenched whatever-itude in a town that, according to their dictates, demanded unrelenting focus. The back pages called Mike Piazza a California Guy whenever the slugging catcher slumped and looked too nonchalant about slumping. In truth, Piazza grew up near Philadelphia, but he also used to play for the Dodgers. Close enough, said the back pages.
When Ventura found himself a free agent in the winter of 1998 and Chicago told him thanks but no thanks, Ventura did his best to be a California Guy. He let it be known he'd welcome a call from the Padres, but San Diego was shedding payroll rather than adding it (so much so, Sports Illustrated dubbed them "Marlins West"). The Dodgers and Angels both spent money like drunken sailors before the 1999 season, but neither gave Ventura the time of the day. He'd wielded a powerful bat and won five Gold Gloves in Chicago, but teams were spooked by an ankle injury he suffered two years earlier. His numbers since then—once a perennial .300 hitter, he batted just .263 between the injury and free agency—indicated he'd lost a step or two.
When the Mets came calling, Ventura's choices were down to New York or oblivion. The Mets also had a choice that was no choice at all: Spend or die. They'd come agonizingly close to making the playoffs in 1998, only to drop the last five games of the season and finish one game out of the picture. It was a crushing blow to a fan base that had spent many years in the wilderness and had watched its city's fickle allegiances tilt from the Mets to the Yankees.
With a farm system bereft of talent, the Mets would have to spend if they wanted to best their rivals in the National League and the Bronx. Ventura was but one part of that plan. Ahead of the 1999 season, the Mets also resigned Piazza and ace lefty Al Leiter to hefty contracts, traded for hard-throwing reliever Armando Benitez, and bolstered their roster with pricey veterans like Rickey Henderson.
The team they threw together was less melting pot than powder keg, prone to personality crises and mood swings that mirrored the rollercoastering between the lines. It didn't help that they were helmed by Bobby Valentine, who specialized in infuriating the opposition, the media, his players, his front office...anyone in his line of sight at the time.
Imagine a band full of amazing musicians with volatile personalities, destined to make one iconic album and never be heard from again. You will then approximate the 1999 Mets.
* * *
Masato Yoshii, late of Japan's Yakult Swallows, was the starting pitcher for Game 5 of the NLCS. He was starter in name only, though, because this was an all-hands-on-deck game. Asked which hurlers were available for the game, pitching coach Dave Wallace answered "everyone but Rick Reed," the righty who'd started Game 4 a few hours earlier. Hearing this, Reed protested he too was available if needed.
Clouds gathered but did not yet threaten when Yoshii took the mound and used a sharp splitter to negotiate the first three innings with little trouble. The Mets' offense got off to a quick start for once when John Olerud belted a two-run first inning homer against Greg Maddux, who'd bedeviled New York batters all year.
After hurdling Olerud's homer, Maddux went back to his bedevilment, while Yoshii's flirtation with dominance came to an end with three straight doubles that scored a pair of runs in the top of the fourth. The Mets called on 40-year-old Orel Hershiser to prevent further damage. The last year the Mets were in the playoffs, 1988, he opposed them as a Dodger and had practically beaten them all by himself. Now he was charged with saving them from extinction. Hershiser slowed the game down to a glacial pace and drove the impatient Braves batters to distraction, retiring three batters in a row to keep the score tied at 2.
Thus began a cold war of a ballgame. Each team continually threatened action but never quite progressed to actual hostilities.
Thus began a cold war of a ballgame. Each team continually threatened action but never quite progressed to actual hostilities. In the top of the sixth, the Braves loaded the bases with one out and ruined their chances by botching a suicide squeeze play. Maddux, an accomplished bunter, flat out missed a pitch for strike three, leaving the runner advancing from third a dead duck.
Such a crowd-pleasing screwup could inspire a home team to victory. It nearly did, when the Mets loaded the bases with one out in the bottom half of the inning on a series of fielding miscues by Atlanta. But they too came up short, as Rey Ordoñez bounced into a double play. No one was winning this game that easily.
With Atlanta threatening again in the top of the seventh, Bobby Valentine used four pitchers to negotiate a scoreless frame. Veteran lefty Dennis Cook replaced Turk Wendell mid-batter to throw the final two pitches of an intentional walk and make the Braves burn a righty pinch hitter. Then, Cook was yanked. Officially, he faced no one. By the end of the inning, a light rain was falling.
Robin Ventura's first three at bats: Foul out, groundout, strikeout.
* * *
The Mets' heavy outlay of cash for 1999 brought with it heightened expectations, but an eight-game losing streak at the start of June nearly ended their season before it began. The front office responded by firing three of Bobby Valentine's hand-picked coaches, and seemed to hope Valentine would quit in protest. Instead, the manager promised his team would win 40 of its next 55 games, and if they didn't, he should be the next man to get a pink slip.
It sounded like madness. One writer compared Valentine's vow to him aiming a gun at his own head, daring ownership to pull the trigger. But over the summer, the Mets fulfilled his prophecy to the letter, winning exactly 40 of their next 55 games, one of the hottest streaks in franchise history. As if it all had been scripted beforehand.
Ventura tore the cover off the ball over that stretch, putting up a slash line of .337/.405/.633 with 16 homers and 48 RBIs. When he stepped up to the plate at Shea, fans responded with chants of M-V-P! M-V-P! The papers marveled at his gorgeous swing, the way he splayed his bat behind him on the follow through and arrested his left hand as it let go of the bat. It was more choreography than power stroke, a Bob Fosse routine at the plate.
The ankle injury that scared away so many suitors proved no impediment at the hot corner. Ventura was his old Gold Glove self at third base, his defense even more impressive than his offense. National League batters who'd never dealt with Ventura before tried to sneak bunts past him. They did double takes when he ran in on the grass, barehanded the ball, fired and threw to first in one gorgeous swoop. Always in time to nail them.
Along with shortstop Rey Ordoñez, second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo, and first baseman John Olerud, Ventura formed one of the greatest defensive infields in baseball history. It was an offensive defense. They charged balls aggressively, made the spectacular look routine and the impossible look doable. Nothing could get past them, a valuable asset for a team whose starting pitchers recorded few strikeouts.
Some credited Ventura for rounding the infield into its stellar shape, for being the last piece of a puzzle the Mets didn't even know they were completing until he arrived. Ventura refused to concede it. I just do my job, he said, before offering plaudits for the Ordoñez, human vacuum. The shortstop was flashy, he wasn't. Let him get the applause.
One writer dared say Ventura might be the best player in New York, better even than Derek Jeter, also putting up MVP-caliber numbers in 1999. He deflected all praise. "There's no way that's true," he said of the Jeter comparisons. But surely he could admit he was having an amazing season and just enjoy it? "It's a lot better than stinking up the place," was all he would say.
He went out of his way to appear boring so the questions would stop altogether.
He'd done this since spring training, twisting himself into contortions to transform any question about himself into a response about his team. He went out of his way to appear boring, one writer suspected, so the questions would stop altogether.
It soon became apparent the shy, retiring act was just that, an act. Ventura was the team's chief cheerleader and cut-up. If the bench seemed listless, it was Ventura who slid in the dirt on the warning track to wake them up. It was Ventura who spurred awake the team when its members seemed more concerned with an imminent off-day than the game at hand.
And it was Ventura who ventured, in the middle of the Mets' super-hot summer, that the team had "a nice mojo working here." Mojo became the word for what the Mets had. It was something different than chemistry or good vibes, because they were too volatile a mix to warrant those words. Mojo signified something weird, wild, and ephemeral. It was the Mets to a tee.
Soon wins were celebrated with a clubhouse blasting of The Doors' "L.A. Woman" and its mojo risin' coda. Ventura wasn't comfortable with any of this leaking out of the clubhouse, but it's hard for reporters to miss an entire clubhouse singing mojo risin', or an entire clubhouse wearing THE MOJO'S RISIN' t-shirts that Ventura had specially made for them. By September, the Shea Stadium PA system blasted the end of "L.A. Woman" each time the Mets won. For most of the month, that was quite often.
Patricia Morrison, widow of Jim, read of the mojo risin' phenomenon in the Daily News and made a trip to Shea to give Ventura a copy of her memoirs. The third baseman sheepishly admitted he wasn't much a Doors fan. The singalongs were more ritual than anything else. More deflection, of praise away from himself, of focus away from the magic.
You see, before Austin Powers, before Jim Morrison, before even Muddy Waters, mojo was associated with a magic that had many names. They called it voodoo in New Orleans, hoodoo elsewhere. The magic said if you wanted good luck, you stuffed a mojo bag with various talismans and hung it around your neck.
Most importantly of all, you didn't tell anyone you were wearing it. That was the key: Keep it to yourself. No good came of talking about such things. If Robin Ventura would reenter the limelight, it would have to be kicking and screaming.
* * *
The war had raged for years and all the shots had been fired by the other side. It started as retaliation against Craig Grebeck, a pint-size Chicago batter who belted a home run off of Nolan Ryan early in the 1990 season and looked a little too happy about it while rounding the bases. Ryan didn't take kindly to that sort of thing. He came of age in the era of Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale, when pitchers didn't allow themselves to be shown up, certainly not by backup infielders who stood 5'7". Grebeck was plunked in his next at bat.
Ryan also didn't take kindly to his plate being crowded by White Sox batters. So he chased them off that plate by throwing up and in. If batters got hit, well, them's the breaks. He did this for four seasons. His fellow pitchers on the Texas Rangers staff followed suit.
Chicago offered token resistance that was always reactive, responses to their own hitters getting beaned. They knew more action was called for but they weren't sure what to do, or who should do it. The thought of retaliating directly against Ryan, future Hall of Famer and an intimidating presence on a ballfield though he'd left the age of 40 behind a long time ago, seemed unthinkable. Silently, the White Sox decided whoever Ryan hit next would have to do something. Each one of them hoped he wouldn't draw the short straw.
During a game on the evening of August 4, 1993, Nolan Ryan nailed Robin Ventura in the back with a pitch. The ball tailed inside to the left-handed batter and belted him between the shoulder blades. It was unclear if the plunking was intentional, but it was clear that Ryan wasn't too broken up about it in any case.
Ventura took a few steps toward first, then turned in the direction of the pitcher's mound instead. He ran toward Ryan before losing some steam, as if suddenly reconsidering his rash action. That gave the pitcher enough time to prepare his defense. As the benches cleared, Ryan grabbed Ventura in a headlock and furiously punched him in the head.
They were soon engulfed in a sea of scuffling teammates and separated, but the damage was done. Ventura would endure a punishment far longer than the two-game suspension handed down by the league office. He would be featured in every future of discussion of baseball's most hilarious brawls, the clip of him being pummeled by Ryan played during every local sportscast's Wacky Highlights Special.
Those who guffawed over the video wouldn't recall the long, ugly history between the teams that precipitated the brawl. They would only see a 46-year-old man giving noogies to a young whippersnapper 20 years his junior. Ventura's teammates would praise his guts, but most observers thought Ventura had lost his mind and praised the elder statesman for taking him over his knee. Remember the Alamo!, yahooed Rangers owner George W. Bush.
Ventura withdrew from the spotlight even further after that, even though he knew he'd never be able to scrub out the humiliation. Sometimes, he didn't even try. The September 6, 1999 issue of Sports Illustrated ran a cover story on the Mets' impeccable infield, with a focus on their third baseman. It was filled with praise for Ventura from teammates and opponents alike. John Franco called him "the best signing in the history of the franchise." (Said franchise had only recently signed Mike Piazza.) Ventura himself spared only two quotes for the article—one praising Rey Ordoñez, the other sharing which batters best disguised their intent to bunt.
And then the cover, with its headline THE BEST INFIELD EVER? Ventura was front and center, seated on a stool. Ordoñez, Alfonzo, and Olerud stood above him, with the first baseman trapping Ventura's head in the crook of his elbow. It was a pose a lot like the one he was once subjected to by Nolan Ryan.
Ventura's first SI cover and he couldn't resist reminding everyone of the most humiliating moment of his life.
* * *
Ventura finally collected his first hit of the NLCS in the bottom of the eleventh, a two-out single that went to waste when rookie Melvin Mora struck out behind him. The longer the game dragged, the less likely it seemed anyone would ever score. The Braves teased chances before retreating, the Mets were turned aside with nary a whimper.
All the while the rain continued to fall. The infield turned a slick dun color. The outfield had all the traction of a Slip & Slide. The warning track gathered puddles. With the tenacity of plate spinners, the grounds crew sped out onto the infield between each half-inning to soak up the water with Diamond Dry, then watched helplessly as play restarted and new pools bubbled up.
In the top of the thirteenth, Chipper Jones belted a two-out double into the right field corner. As Melvin Mora tiptoed through slick outfield grass after the ball, Keith Lockhart lumbered around the bases. Mora caught up with the ball and fired a relay to Edgardo Alfonzo, who threw home well in time to nail Lockhart and keep the game tied. The soaked crowd went berserk. Mora's teammates would call it the play of the game. He collected high fives from the fans along the first base line as he went to the dugout.
Robin Ventura settled for smaller triumphs. He flew out against John Rocker in the bottom of the thirteenth, satisfied at having collected his first fair ball against him. Every other at bat he'd had against Rocker this year, he'd gone down on strikes. He could even tell himself he put a charge into the ball against Atlanta's mouthy closer, though it was nowhere close to leaving the yard. On a night like this, you really had to wallop the ball to push it through the raindrops.
* * *
It all adds up. Six months of running in on bunts and diving for grounders and leaping back to your feet to fire a throw across the diamond. Each play collects its toll. And that's just the routine stuff, never mind the injuries. The shot he took off his foot in a game against Montreal in July. The ball he fouled off his ankle against the Phillies in September. The left knee that had to be drained shortly thereafter.
He did his best to keep these woes under wraps, heading to the trainer's room as soon as he got to the ballpark so he could receive treatment before the media arrived. He did want to be seen hobbling around swaddled in ice. He'd been doing this all year with the stealth of a spy on his way to a dead drop. No one suspected he had any health issues until late September, when his at bats grew increasingly futile, a string of oh-fers undoing a season's worth of ungodly stats.
Ventura's last full day off came on July 8. He would have gotten a few days on the bench down the stretch if the Mets cruised to the postseason like they were supposed to. They needed him in the lineup every day because every day they had to postpone their own funeral.
The Mets headed to Atlanta on September 21 just one game out of first place. They were swept out three days later, each loss more humiliating than the last. Then they went to Veterans Stadium and were swept again, by a Phillies team that had won four games in the previous month. Back home at Shea, they lost two out of three against the Braves, a pair of defeats that seemed to seal their fate.
Ventura went 5-for-33 during the slide. He made the last out in a crushing extra-inning loss to the Braves on September 30 that pushed his team two games out of the wild card picture with three games left on the schedule. The perennial division champs relished the chance to push the Mets to near-elimination. Chipper Jones—taunted to distraction by the Flushing faithful—told Mets fans to "go home and put their Yankee stuff on." He said this because he was sure he wouldn't have to face those fans again until the year 2000.
Only when the Mets' season appeared all but lost did Bobby Valentine spill the beans about Ventura's injuries. The scribes now noticed that sweet stroke of his, that choreography—it was all out of whack, wasn't it? He couldn't kick forward with his right leg when his left leg was compromised by a torn-up knee.
So they asked Ventura about the injury, knowing the surest way to get no answer was to ask him about himself.
"It's fine," he said, about the knee, the shoulder, about everything else. Nothing was fine, clearly, but he would say no more on the subject.
What happened to your precious mojo? reporters asked him.
"It's stunted," he said.
He'd never wanted them to know about the mojo in the first place. The only way to get the mojo back was to mention it as little as possible. Of this, he was sure.
* * *
The bottom of the fifteenth began with rookie hurler Octavio Dotel, now in his third inning of work, allowing a single to Braves shortstop Walt Weiss. After so many innings of unrelenting rain, the sound of Weiss's bat hitting the ball was less a crack than a damp squish. One stolen base and two outs later, Keith Lockhart turned on a low, flat fastball and rocketed it toward right-center field.
The fans had seen this act many times in the last month. The Mets were only comfortable with a knife at their throat.
Veteran outfielder Shawon Dunston—playing out of position in center after a flurry of futile substitutions by Bobby Valentine in the earlier innings—sprinted and made a good route toward the ball, at first. But he had little chance to catch it in a puddling outfield. The ball dropped. Dunston's momentum carried him past it as it bounced toward the wall. Weiss trotted home and continued on his way into a jubilant Braves dugout that was three outs away from a trip to the World Series.
When Dotel struck out an overanxious Brian Jordan for the third out, the remaining crowd erupted, as loudly as if the score were reversed. The roaring continued and was still present when the bottom of the inning arrived. The fans had seen this act many times in the last month. The Mets were only comfortable with a knife at their throat. Now the fun could start.
* * *
The Mets' slide at the end of September required them to sweep their final three games against the Pirates and hope for help from others. So they swept the Pirates, and the help followed when the lowly Brewers took two of three from the wild card-leading Reds. That forced a play-in game in Cincinnati, which the Mets won behind a complete game shutout by Al Leiter.
A hobbled Robin Ventura was only a bit player in the proceedings. He hit a home run and drove in the winning run in the bottom of the eleventh against Pittsburgh on October 1. After that he was quiet, a bases-loaded walk in the Reds game the pinnacle of his contribution to the effort.
The first round of the postseason against the Arizona Diamondbacks offered more chances for heroics, but those chances were seized by other players. When a grand slam beat Randy Johnson in Game 1, it was Edgardo Alfonzo, not Ventura, who hit it. When a solo homer clinched the series in the bottom of the tenth in Game 4, it was hit by Todd Pratt, not Ventura.
He finished the division series with a single RBI to his credit, and even that didn't tell the whole rough tale. During Game 2, Ventura was picked off of second base on a close play. (Replays showed he might have been safe, but did it matter?) In Game 3, a pitcher covering first base fell on top of him as he beat out a grounder. In Game 4, given a chance to drive in a run with a runner at third and only one out, he hit a comebacker instead.
The Mets had regained some of their mojo but neglected to give any to Ventura.
* * *
Shawon Dunston led off the bottom of the fifteenth by feigning a few bunt attempts and fell behind in the count, 1-2. Calling the game for NBC, a befuddled Bob Costas wondered aloud what the batter could possibly be thinking, trying to bunt on a soaked infield with his team three outs from elimination. Patience had never been one of Dunston's strong suits. He'd walked only twice all year, and not once since a midseason trade brought him to New York. But he watched a pitch go just wide for ball two, and another sail even wider for ball three.
Rookie pitcher Kevin McGlinchy, the Braves' last line of defense in this marathon, challenged Dunston with a high fastball. Dunston fouled it off. McGlinchy did it again, and Dunston fouled it off again. A third challenge fastball met the same fate. So did a fourth. And a fifth. And a sixth. Dunston could barely keep up with the heat, but he kept up with it just enough to stay alive.
Twelve pitches and nine minutes into the at bat, with the remaining fans on their feet to a man, with last night's starter Rick Reed warming up in the Mets bullpen as if his earnest tossing could make the sixteenth inning an inevitability, McGlinchy threw yet another fastball. This one, Dunston sent skipping up the middle for a single.
Bobby Valentine turned to Matt Franco, his go-to lefty bat off the bench, to hit for Dotel. Dunston swiped second, despite the soaked infield, while a distracted McGlinchy walked Franco. Edgardo Alfonzo bunted them both into scoring position. The tying run was 90 feet away, the winning run in scoring position.
With first base open, John Olerud received an intentional walk to load the bases. Normally, this would invite a confrontation with Mike Piazza, but a season's worth of catching-related pain drove Piazza to the bench after the fourteenth inning. Todd Pratt would bat in his stead. Roger Cedeño, gritting his teeth through back spasms, scrambled out to second to pinch run for Franco.
With each pitch, McGlinchy looked more and more the inexperienced 22-year-old he was. His first two pitches to Pratt were down and in and high and wide, nowhere close to the plate. His third was even higher. John Franco, Mets closer in perpetuity, stepped out of the dugout, flailing his arms overhead in a get up! gesture toward the crowd. He needn't have bothered. Everyone was already standing, screaming themselves hoarse.
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After a generous strike call, McGlinchy's fifth pitch was far too wide to benefit from such pity. Ball four. Pratt jogged to first and Dunston trotted home with the tying run. "Don't Stop Believing" poured from the speakers.
And Robin Ventura would come to the plate with the bases loaded. Dumb luck.
Ventura took a pitch down and in for ball one and fouled off the next one weakly. McGlinchy's third offering sailed so far outside that the Braves' catcher had to stretch far to his left to prevent a wild pitch. McGlinchy then threw one right down the heart of the plate. And for one brief moment, the old choreography was back. "It just seemed like my swing got smoother there all of a sudden," he said later.
Ventura hit the ball so deep so quickly that by the time the NBC cameras picked up its trajectory, right fielder Brian Jordan was already running back toward the visiting dugout, toward a clubhouse where attendants were hastily ripping down down the plastic they'd hung in front of lockers to protect them against a champagne-spraying celebration that would not come tonight. Jordan knew the ball was hit over his head and thus the game was over. When and where the ball landed was of little consequence to him. He didn't stop to watch it sail over the 371 mark on the outfield fence in right-center field, rustling a tarp at the base of Shea's humongous scoreboard.
On television, Bob Costas called Ventura's hit a grand slam. An on-screen graphic flashed a final score of 7-3 accordingly. On the radio, Mets play-by-play man Gary Cohen also called it a grand slam. The red home run apple popped up beyond the outfield fence, another indication of a grand slam. Anyone watching from the drenched stands or the dry comfort of their homes would have seen it was a grand slam.
At least two people at Shea Stadium didn't see Ventura's shot as a grand slam. One was Bobby Valentine. In all the insanity, the manager merely noted the ball sailing into the night and the Braves outfielders running off the field. When told later that the ball left the yard, he expressed genuine surprise.
The other was Todd Pratt. Like his manager, he watched the ball only long enough to see it was a game winner. Roger Cedeño forgot his bad back for a moment, leaping into the air as he sprinted home with the only run that mattered. John Olerud trotted dutifully toward third base and continued on toward home plate. But Pratt only advanced as far as second before pivoting on the bag like a runner's block. He wanted to be the first to give Ventura a rib-crushing bear hug.
Ventura allowed himself a pained smile as he put his head down and jogged to first. He raised his gaze as he rounded the bag and saw Pratt advancing on him. He waved the catcher along. Keep going, you idiot. But Pratt's nickname was "Tank" for a reason. He could not be moved.
The catcher grabbed Ventura by the waist and hoisted him into the air. The rest of the Mets who spilled onto the field descended on them, mobbing the pair. They hugged and laughed and cried for a few moments in this strange territory between first and second and made a few triumphant gestures toward a soaked crowd that literally shook the rafters of Shea.
And then they trailed off toward the dugout, any thought of completing a circuit around the bases fogged by their delirium, the question of the exact margin of victory unsettled. If Ventura hit the ball over the fence, surely it was a grand slam. Except Pratt went no farther than second, and he made sure Ventura didn't even make it that far. So the score was ... what?