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1999: Mercury rising

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This week in 1999: Kenny Rogers arrives, Sammy Sosa gets the red carpet, and the Mets are blasted into outer space

The Mets had played red-hot baseball since the beginning of June, but as they began the second half of their season, it was obvious they had a weak spot. This weak spot was obvious because it was the same one they brought into the season: mediocre starting pitching. GM Steve Phillips had vowed to improve the rotation in the off season. When that failed to pass, he promised to do so in-season. Now, with the trade deadline approaching, his window to make good on that promise was rapidly closing.

Fans dared to dream big. If you believe the whispers in the summer of 1999, a bumper crop of top-flight pitching was available for trade. Names that appeared in trade rumors included Curt Schilling of the Phillies, David Wells of the Blue Jays, Chuck Finley of the Angels, Jeff Fassero of the Mariners...

So when the Mets returned to Queens after the All Star Break on July 23 and announced they'd traded two minor leaguers for A's lefty Kenny Rogers, the reaction was scattered, polite applause. Rogers once pitched for Bobby Valentine's Texas Rangers and became the first American League southpaw to throw a perfect game. But in New York, he was better know for his two ineffectual seasons with the Yankees. He'd pitched poorly in the postseason for the Bronx Bombers and infuriated Yankee management by not being straightforward about his injuries.

Rogers turned things around after being traded to the A's, pitching at near-ace levels at times, but literally punched his way out of Oakland by fighting a teammate over a card game dispute. Though the A's were a surprise wild card contender, first-year GM Billy Beane barely disguised his relief over getting Rogers off his roster. "Kenny never really wanted to be here," he said.

Bobby Valentine revealed he'd use a six-man rotation until he figured out who to slide into the bullpen, but Rogers immediately complicated things by tweaking his hamstring in his very first throwing session at Shea Stadium. He insisted Oakland knew nothing of his injury because he was traded the day after his last start for the A's. A quick fact check revealed Rogers had actually made his last start for Oakland three days prior to the deal. This easily unraveled lie confirmed the worst fears about Rogers: a fragile, evasive athlete who withered under the bright lights of the big city.

The same day Rogers arrived, the Mets began their first post-All Star Break homestand by welcoming Sammy Sosa and the Cubs to Shea. The last time Sosa had come to New York back in April of 1998, the home run race between him and Mark McGwire had yet to begin. Since then, the slugger had not only transformed himself one of the biggest stars in baseball, but he'd also become a hero to millions of his countrymen in the Dominican Republic and a symbol of his native land's enormous contributions to the game. This series in Queens would be Sosa's first opportunity to play in front of New York City's large Dominican ex-pat community, live and in person, since entering the pantheon.

Sensing an opportunity of its own, the Mets' marketing department scheduled Merengue Night for the same date as Slammin' Sammy's triumphant arrival. There was nothing particularly remarkable about this; by 1999, Merengue Night was already an annual event at Shea Stadium. What raised eyebrows was the fact that the Mets honored Sosa with a pregame ceremony, a consideration usually not extended to active players from opposing teams who aren't retiring or seriously ill.

The Mets' clubhouse bristled at this, and at a boisterous Friday night crowd that cheered far more for Sosa than any member of the home team. When Sosa belted a long three-run blast against Masato Yoshii in the opening inning, the homer was greeted with thunderous applause and waving of thousands of Dominican flags.

The Mets rallied from this deficit and eventually prevailed, 5-4, with another Dominican native, Armando Benitez, earning an impressive save. When all was said and done, though, it seemed the real winner was Sosa, who ran back onto the field to take in the postgame concert as fans chanted his name. Reflecting on his reception later, the Cub later referred to the event as "Sammy Sosa night." That was not its official designation, but Sosa could be forgiven for thinking it was.

The collective sports media lambasted the Mets for celebrating an opposing player at their own expense; a New York Times headline declared, "Mets Win Road Game at Shea." A livid Bobby Valentine pointed out that the Mets just came off a road trip where Rickey Henderson passed Willie Mays on the all-time runs scored list and Orel Hershiser won his 200th career game, but neither milestone was mentioned during the game. He also made the point that none of the Mets' own Dominican stars were asked to take part in the ceremonies. "It’s a damn shame this team never gets any appreciation," he groused, "even in our own ballpark."

The Mets exacted their revenge by completing a sweep of Chicago. In the Saturday matinee, Octavio Dotel allowed a solo shot to Sosa but nothing else, dominating the Cubs for 7 1/3 innings. A pair of homers by Robin Ventura and Edgardo Alfonzo proved the difference in the 2-1 victory. The next afternoon, Al Leiter did the rookie one better and allowed just one run through eight, while his teammates took advantage of sloppy fielding and wild pitching in a 5-1 win. By the time the finale rolled around, the Sosa backlash was in full effect, his every at bat booed and his every strikeout cheered. Sosa had been greeted like a conquering hero but left New York without a single win to show for it.

The Mets next welcomed the Pirates and captured two of three. They weathered a near meltdown from Benitez in the first contest (the closer walked four straight batters in the ninth) and held on to win, 7-5. In the last game, Rogers made his Mets debut and pitched well for six innings until his troublesome hamstring acted up. The bullpen allowed Pittsburgh to tie the score at 2 in the top of the eighth, but an offensive onslaught in the bottom half led to a 9-2 victory.

The middle game resulted in a 5-1 loss, as Hershiser was bested by Pittsburgh's rookie hurler Kris Benson. But this game would live an infamy not for the defeat, but for what the home team wore while losing.

The evening of July 27 marked a league-wide event called Turn Ahead the Clock Night. MLB strongly encouraged teams to wear "futuristic" uniforms as part of an extremely 1990s synergistic cross-promotion with Century 21. Some teams refused. Others enlarged the logos on their jerseys, tilted them a few degrees like a Batman villain's hideout, and called it a day. The Mets being the Mets, they found a third, more baffling path.

The team eschewed the usual orange and blue for Raiders-esque silver and black, declared themselves the Mercury Mets, and literally pretended they were playing not in Flushing, but in outer space. PA announcements sounded ripped off from a Jetsons script, referring to the stadium as "Shea Station 4C' and encouraging fans to visit the "replenishing depots." Mets players were shown on Diamond Vision with green skin and other "alien" features. When Rickey Henderson stepped to the plate and saw a picture of himself with a third eye and a conehead, he nearly stormed off the field in protest. Hershiser spoke for the whole team when he grumbled to the Times, "We should have had a big top."

For the second time on the homestand, the Mets were made to feel like pawns in their own team's brilliant marketing schemes, made to feel that even their own management regard them as second-class citizens. No one from the Mets' executive ranks defended the Sammy Sosa love fest or the Mercury Mets debacle, even off the record. (To this day, no one has fessed up to being responsible for either event.) As the team prepared to hit the road again, the front office's response to the criticism from the media and its own employees amounted to hiding under a pile of coats and hoping the Mets' continued red-hot play would make it all go away.