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1999: Stand clear of the closing doors

This week in 1999: Eight losses in a row lead to the Valentine's Day Massacre, a bold prediction, and a sputtering Rocket at Yankee Stadium

1999 marked the first season that the Mets and Yankees played two separate three-game series against each other. Fans couldn't get enough of these crosstown matchups. The players were another story.

The Yankees despised the carnival atmosphere that surrounded each game. For a team that proclaimed winning the World Series was the only thing that mattered, the playoff atmosphere of the Subway Series games were an unwelcome distraction.

All Yankees players polled either proclaimed to dislike the event or pretended the Subway Series wasn't that big of a deal. None were more vocal in their denunciations than manager Joe Torre. "It's a nightmare for us," he groaned. "The outcome of the game is torture. There's so much made out of winning and losing. I've got to pick up my dry cleaning. Those are the guys that torture you."

For their part, the Mets lamented the imbalanced schedule the Subway Series placed on them. They had to play the Yankees six times while intraleague rivals like the Braves would only play them three times, if at all. The Mets had also just stumbled their way through an 0-6 homestand. Everyone associated with the team was on edge, and the bright spotlight of the Subway Series was the absolute last thing they needed.

Game one on the evening of June 4 proceeded the way all Mets games had recently, with all the breaks going squarely against them. The Mets led early until a Derek Jeter two-run shot off of Rick Reed in the bottom of the fifth put the Yanks on top, 3-2. The visitors attempted to rally in the top of the sixth, when Robin Ventura walked and Brian McRae singled against David Cone. The next batter, Rey Ordoñez, belted a hit just over the outstretched glove of Tino Martinez at first base to tie the game. The ball would have rolled down the right field line and scored a go-ahead run as well, were not for a fan who leaned over the stands to grab it. Ordoñez was "awarded" a ground-rule double, meaning McRae had to stop at third base. He remained there as Cone and reliever Jason Grimsley retired the side without further trouble.

In the bottom of the seventh, Tony Tarasco hit a ball that clanked off of John Olerud's glove, giving him a unicorn-rare error. Scott Brosius immediately followed this with a ball that Rickey Henderson misplayed into an RBI double, and that was all she wrote for the Mets. Mariano Rivera recorded a four-out save, despite a scare in the top of the ninth, when Edgardo Alfonzo hit a long fly ball to the right field fence. It nearly went for a two-run homer, but went into Paul O'Neill's glove instead. The Mets lost their seventh straight by a score of 4-3.

The next afternoon, they once again led the Yankees in the early going before falling behind. Even when ahead, they didn't appear in control of their own fate. Witness a bizarre play in the second, when Ordoñez hit a ball straight up the middle that Orlando Hernandez speared before it could get past the mound. El Duque then found the ball had been hit so hard, it was lodged in the webbing of his glove. Rather than spend precious time dislodging it, he threw the entire glove to first to record the force out.

A stunned Yankee Stadium crowd gasped before cheering. A stunned Robin Ventura moved to third on the play but did not think to score while the ball was still trapped in leather. A stunned Masato Yoshii gave up his advantage and then some, the big blow another RBI double from Brosius in the fourth. The stunned Mets batters were put to bed by Mariano for the second straight game, a 6-3 defeat.

The Mets were now a game under .500, which is not exactly where they imagined they'd be at the beginning of June. Team management felt a desperate need to do something, anything, to stave off the constant questions from the media and the angry calls to WFAN. What they chose to do simply led to more head scratching.

Hours after the team's eighth consecutive loss, general manager Steve Phillips informed the press via conference call that he'd fired three members of the coaching staff: pitching coach Bob Apodaca, hitting coach Tom Robson, and assistant bullpen coach Randy Niemann. These were Bobby Valentine's three closest assistants, as the manager brought all of them from triple-A Norfolk when he took the big league job in 1996. While management hadn't fired Valentine, their firing choices were targeted to undermine him, perhaps with the goal of forcing him to quit.

The incident would come to be known as The Valentine's Day Massacre, an ironic label considering the Mets' presumed target refused to be massacred. Rather than quit, Valentine vowed to continue in his position and contended the fired coaches told him to do so.

His punishment for sticking around past his expiration date was to endure a cringe-tacular press conference the next morning, at Yankee Stadium of all places. Steve Phillips held court and insisted he still had confidence in Valentine as manager and no, the firings weren't targeted to undermine him. He did not, however, offer an alternative explanation. That led to the conclusion that either Phillips was lying, or the Mets had no idea what they were doing. Or some combination of the two.

For most of the press conference, Valentine said very little, bit his knuckles, and studiously avoided eye contact. When he chose to speak, as usual, he said far too much. The Mets had played 55 games so far. "Within the next 55 to 75 games we'll be in touch with the leaders of our division," he declared, then proceeded to refine his prediction further: The Mets would win 40 of their next 55 games, or he should be fired. Valentine seemed so divorced from reality—a few days earlier, he proclaimed he "can't be prouder" of his team that was mired in a horrendous losing streak—that the scribes reported his prediction without comment. The insanity of his words was indictment enough.

And after all that, there was still a game to be played on the evening of Sunday, June 6. In order to bring an end to their eight-game slide, the Mets had to defeat Roger Clemens, who hadn't lost a game in an AL-record 20 decisions. They also had to bank on a solid performance from Al Leiter, who'd re-upped with the Mets after the 1998 season with an ace-sized contract, but whose performances to that point had been egregiously un-ace-like.

After a scoreless first on both sides, Clemens started off the top of the second by giving up a double to Mike Piazza and and a single to Robin Ventura. These hits didn't bother the pitcher nearly as much as his walk of Brian McRae. The Rocket stared long and hard at home plate umpire Joe Schulock after each called ball, shooting imaginary lasers through his head. Clemens continued to glare when he failed to get a called strike on a 2-2 pitch to Bobby Bonilla, then stalked around the mound muttering to himself.

His next pitch was belted down the right field line for a two-run double. It would have scored three runs, if a fan hadn't leaned over the side and interfered with the ball yet again. When a similar incident occurred in Subway Series Game #1, the Mets never recovered. This time, they shrugged it off when Benny Agbayani smacked his own two-run double.

Clemens retired the next three Mets with no further damage, but would not get out of the third. John Olerud started the frame with a single, and Piazza followed that by crushing a home run into the Yankees' bullpen.

Another RBI hit from Agbayani brought down the curtain on Clemens's night, giving him one of the ugliest lines of his career: 2 2/3 IP, eight hits, seven runs, all earned. For a team that couldn't buy a break in the previous week, it was a remarkable turnaround against a pitcher who hadn't lost in over a year.

Just as remarkably, Al Leiter turned in his best and most important outing of the season, allowing just one run and four hits over seven innings. The lefty's performance meant a lot to his team, although he confessed he needed it as much as anyone. "I'm just so relieved so I don't have to answer your questions of why I'm so shitty," he told the press post-game.

The 7-2 victory was a great win on all levels for the Mets, but it was only one win. The team that spent and traded like mad in the off season to get to the playoffs was only at .500. Valentine's refusal to quit struck many in the media as a foolish delaying of the inevitable; he hung onto his job by a thread, and it seemed not a matter of if he would be fired, but when. Some considered his actions downright disloyal to the coaches who served as his sacrificial lambs.

In order to flip the script, the Mets would have to go on a real tear. Not just win a few in a row, but dominate for weeks on end. Basically, they would have to make good on their manager's promise to win 40 of their next 55 games. Over the next two months, the Mets proceeded to do just that.