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1999: Ruffled Rey and the knuckleball express

In the third week of the 1999 season, the Mets dealt with frigid temps, all manner of turbulence, and the undeniable mojo of Sammy The Bear Beanie Baby Day.

It's a shame about Rey
It's a shame about Rey

After playing their first two weeks of the 1999 season exclusively against the Expos and Marlins, the Mets were anxious to face other competition. They finally got their chance with a six-game Midwest roadtrip, beginning on April 20 with a visit to Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium, then dubbed Cinergy Field.

The series opener saw an unlikely pitchers' duel between Orel Hershiser and Pete Harnisch, an ex-Met who despised Bobby Valentine so much he once called up WFAN to say so over 50,000 watts. (The animosity stemmed from Valentine treating Harnisch's diagnosis of depression with callous disbelief.) The game stayed deadlocked at one run apiece until Bobby Bonilla cracked a solo shot in the top of the seventh. The Mets stretched their lead on a Robin Ventura RBI double in the eighth, which proved crucial in the ninth, when John Franco did his best to give away the game. Only an amazing play by Edgardo Alfonzo kept Reds shortstop Pokey Reese from lashing a game-tying hit. Franco allowed up one run in the ninth but no more, and the Mets staggered to the finish line, 3-2.

New York dropped their second game in Cincinnati when Masato Yoshii couldn't hold an early four-run lead handed to him via homers by Bonilla and Todd Pratt. A long two-run homer by Greg Vaughn in the bottom of the fourth unnerved Yoshii, and he went on to allow six runs in the frame, en route to a deflating 7-4 loss. A potential rally in the top of the seventh withered when Roger Cedeño took a called third strike, on a location that Valentine was convinced his own pitcher didn't get. "Yoshii threw 15 pitches that good, I'll guarantee you that," he grumbled after the game. Valentine hadn't yet squabbled with umpires that season—all 13 games of it—so he was overdue to get upset with the men in blue.

The Mets rebounded to take the series finale, 4-1, as Al Leiter pitched "like a man possessed," in the words of his manager. The team's ostensible ace had not performed like one in the season's first few weeks, and he clearly felt the need to prove he was worth the hefty contract he signed in the offseason. Leiter scattered five hits of 6 2/3 innings, and was assisted by RBIs from Robin Ventura, Bonilla, and Pratt, still filling in for the injured Mike Piazza. The game also saw the Mets play their projected opening day outfield of Bonilla, Rickey Henderson, and Brian McRae for the very first time in 1999. The reunion lasted all of one inning, as Bonilla left the game, still smarting from a knee injury he sustained during a spring training game against the omnipresent Expos.

The next series in Chicago got off to a rocky start, and never grew much smoother. First, the Mets flew to The Windy City through such violent turbulence that Bobby Valentine dubbed the trip "The Knuckleball Express." When the team landed, they were greeted by typical Chicago-in-April climes: 44 degrees, with 36 mph winds swirling around Wrigley Field, strong enough to blow the cap right off the head of Cubs starter Steve Trachsel.

The elements were cruelest to backup outfield Jermaine Allensworth during the series opener on April 23. Filling in for the injured Bonilla, he lost one hit in the sun, allowing the Cubs to break a 1-1 tie, then slipped in the mud attempting to field a ball off the bat of ex-Met Lance Johnson. That misplay gave the Cubs a 5-2 lead, but the Mets would rally to tie on RBI hits from Ventura and Pratt in the eighth, then go ahead on a Rey Ordoñez sac fly in the ninth, and hold on to win, 6-5.

Ordoñez's heroics (such as they were) came at an opportune time for him, right after being benched for two games in Cincinnati. The first benching was for his anemic .172 batting average. The second benching was for whining about the first benching. Ordoñez complained to the media that he was singled out for such harsh treatment, an assessment that ignored the many players Valentine had rubbed the wrong way over the years (see Harnisch above). When asked if he'd spoken to his manager about such treatment, Ordoñez responded, "Why? I might as well speak to the wall." Commenting on his inability to get through to Valentine, the shortstop invoked a phrase from his native Cuba: Si no gana, empata. If he doesn't win, he ties.

Valentine's response? "I like when guys are upset about not playing—in a professional manner."

Despite Ordoñez's assessment, Valentine neither tied nor won for the remainder of the Mets' time in Chicago. The second game at Wrigley resulted in a frustrating 2-0 loss, their first shutout of the season. Twelve runners were left on base, six of them by starter Allen Watson, who was normally considered a good hitter for a pitcher. Watson also complicated things by leaving the game after only 71 pitches due to back spasms.

Mike Piazza returned from the DL in the series finale, but brought little luck or timely hitting with him. Solo homers from Ventura, Alfonzo, and Henderson gave the Mets a 3-0 inning, but Orel Hershiser gave it all back and then some in a disastrous fifth inning. First, a bloop single, a walk, and bunt that refused to roll foul. Then, a ball that zipped under John Olerud's usually flawless glove to drive in two runs. After that, Hershiser reloaded the bases by hitting Mickey Morandini with a pitch, or so the batter said. "It nicked my hemet," he said to reporters later, who responded with a chorus of knowing winks.

That brought Sammy Sosa to the plate, who was the not the person you wanted to face with the bases loaded in 1999. Hershiser was replaced by reliever Turk Wendell, who managed to keep Sammy in the ballpark at least. But Sosa did belt a bases-clearing double into the left field corner that made the rest of the game academic. The Mets went down in defeat, 8-4. It was destiny that Sosa should play the hero that day, when the Cubs held the very 1999 giveaway of Sammy The Bear Beanie Baby Day.

After a brief detour to play an exhibition against their triple-A affiliate, the Norfolk Tides, the Mets would return to Shea on April 27 for a nine-game homestand against the Padres, Giants, and Astros.