The Mets were once again embroiled in controversy as they began a six-game road trip in Cincinnati on June 14. There was the aftermath of Bobby Valentine's costumed antics, of course, but other culprits chipped in to add to the mess.
During the Mets' season-endangering eight-game losing streak, an unnamed player spoke out against Valentine's ever shifting lineups. The subject came up once again, and this time Rickey Henderson eschewed anonymity. The future Hall of Famer had seen his playing time curtailed by the dual emergence of Roger Cedeño and Benny Agbayani, and per usual, he wasn't inclined to keep his opinions to himself. "It seems like it’s two days on, one day off," Henderson griped about the frequency of his starts. "I don’t know the system. And I may need to go ask about the system. Because I would just like to know the system, just to be on the same page."
On top of this, rumors continued to swirl that Bobby Bonilla was benched when the Mets hosted the Blue Jays, the reported reason being his refusal to pinch hit during the second game of that series. The next day, the outfielder and his manager had engaged in a shouting match prior to the 14-inning game that ended with Valentine playing dress up. (He also exchanged angry words with Newsday reporter Marty Noble around the same time; his lungs were getting quite a workout.) This would explain why Bonilla was never used as a pinch hitter during that marathon while pitcher Jason Isringhausen was told to be ready to pinch run in the wee hours.
Bobby V and Bobby B held a closed-door meeting to clear the air, with GM Steve Phillips playing peacemaker, hoping things could be patched up and he wouldn't have to release him and eat his contract. Shortly thereafter, Bonilla made a brief appearance during the Mets' series against Boston, hitting a pinch hit single in extra innings. He was removed for a pinch runner and seen exchanging an awkward high five with his manager. The endless controversies were enough to prompt an unnamed Mets exec to wonder aloud to the Times, "Is this the way it was with the Yankees?"
Bonilla received a rare starting nod in the series opener in Cincinnati, as Valentine took advantage of his team's recent hot streak to give rest to regulars like Mike PIazza and John Olerud. The compromised offense stranded 10 runners, and the bullpen allowed things to get out of hand, the biggest blow a three-run homer by Aaron Boone off of Turk Wendell, in an eventual 8-4 loss.
The Mets' big bats were out in full force the next night, however, as they tied a franchise record by belting six homers in a nine-inning game. Henderson hit the 74th leadoff homer of his illustrious career and drove another one out in the seventh ("It's brilliant, isn't it?" Henderson said of his feat), while Piazza, Olerud, Edgardo Alfonzo, and Matt Franco also went deep in an 11-3 drubbing. Rick Reed pitched well despite suffering from kidney stones, an ordeal the Daily News chose to discuss in disturbingly graphic detail.
While the Mets' bats got angry, Valentine received the news that the appeal of his suspension for reentering the dugout incognito was denied, and he would have to begin serving his punishment immediately. He watched the final game in Cincinnati at Cinergy Field's press box, trading his uniform for a checkered suit that reminded Mike Piazza of Connie Mack. He did so under the careful watch of Phillips, who brought along assistant GM Omar Minaya for backup. Managing in Valentine's absence, coach Bruce Benedict was so nervous he left the clubhouse hatless, then could only scrounge up a batting practice cap. The hitters didn't notice his uni snafu, as they smacked six doubles in a 5-2 victory.
Benedict went a flawless 2-for-2 in his brief managerial stint when the Mets won their first game in St. Louis on June 17 by the score of 4-3, though John Franco nearly let the game get away from him by putting the winning run on base in the bottom of the ninth with nobody out. (Dennis Cook was forced to clean up his mess.)
Valentine returned to the helm the next night and watched the Mets take another nailbiter. New York jumped to a 5-0 lead before the bullpen nearly spit the bit again. Mark McGwire came to bat in the bottom of the eighth as the tying run, and Armando Benitez fell behind him 3-0, only to fight back to get a called strike three to end the inning, a borderline call that sent Cardinals skipper Tony La Russa over the edge. After a Piazza homer extended the Mets' advantage, Benitez earned the save in a 6-2 win.
The offensive explosion of the late 1990s led to increased game times for all teams. All season, the Mets had repeatedly threatened to play their longest nine-inning game ever and finally did so on June 18, when a tight strike zone and general mound mediocrity combined for a staggering 372 pitches thrown and a nearly four-hour running time. A rough outing from Jason Isringhausen put the Mets in arrears 7-2 after five innings before they launched a comeback attempt, only to fall just short, 7-6. Piazza likened the game to "a walk across the desert. As soon as you see some water, it’s not there. It’s a mirage."
In the St. Louis finale, the Mets found themselves trailing 6-2 going into the top of the sixth when a five-run rally put them on top. They tacked on late to win 9-6, a victory whose biggest offensive star was Rey Ordoñez, of all people. The shortstop went 3-for-4 and took advantage of some shoddy Cardinals defense to score from second on an infield single—twice. He scored the Mets' first run when he ran all the way home on a slow roller by Roger Cedeño, abetted by first baseman McGwire, who had to his back to the plate and never bothered to turn his attention homeward until it was too late. Ordoñez also hit a two-run single that tied the score at 6. Cedeño followed with another slow grounder that prompted a foot race between the hitter and reliever Rick Croushore. The speedy Cedeño won the sprint while Croushore fell over in foul territory, then watched helplessly from a seated position as Ordoñez dashed home with the go-ahead run.
Ordoñez was usually allergic to lumber but was lately experiencing a rare spot of offensive non-futility. During the team's ugly losing streak, he dyed his hair bright orange and had been hot with the bat ever since, hitting an astonishing (for him) .294 since his visit to the salon. He'd raised so many eyebrows that he was now second in all star balloting, trailing only the NL's All Star Shortstop For Life, Barry Larkin.
This was surely more coincidence than causation, though Rey was inclined to see a connection. He admitted he felt more relaxed now that his clashes with Bobby Valentine and concerns over job security were in the rear view, but also surmised, "Maybe the hair changed my mind,"