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1999: Mets hop on the express

On this 4th of July, let's look back at the Shea half of the Subway Series in 1999 and remember a great American: Matt Franco

After a damaging series hosting the Braves—two ugly losses and an injury to John Franco that would put him on the shelf for at least two months— the Mets welcomed the hapless Expos to Shea Stadium for four games beginning on July 5. With the mercury pushing past 100 and sporadic blackouts striking sections of the city, New York sweated out victories in the first two games. First, a 2-1 win in which Armando Benitez earned his second save since "officially" taking over the closer's role. Then, a 10-0 shellacking behind the ageless arm of Orel Hershiser, who volunteered to take the mound on only one day's rest, thus enabling Bobby Valentine to shuffle his rotation for the upcoming Subway Series.

That Subway Series was partially blamed when the Mets sleepwalked through the last two games against the Expos. A fine outing by Octavio Dotel went to waste when a late, costly error by backup infielder Luis Lopez led to the go-ahead runs scoring in a 3-1 defeat, while another strong performance by Masato Yoshii in the finale was tossed aside by an imploding bullpen, turning a 3-1 lead into a 4-3 loss. The media assumed the team was still brooding over the defeats at the hands of the Braves, or too focused on the impending arrival of the Yankees to pay measly Montreal much mind.

1999 was the first year the Mets and Yankees played two separate series, three games in the Bronx and three games in Queens. There was still some debate as to whether the Subway Series expansion was a good thing. At least there was a debate among fans and pundits. The players had mostly decided they weren't too thrilled with it, and the Yankees were especially displeased. Under immense pressure from the media and their blustery owner to equal the dominance of 1998, the Yankees had no patience for the Subway Series' artificial hype and regarded the whole affair as beneath them.

When asked about his plans for the All Star Break, Paul O'Neill rolled his eyes and said, "First we have to get through the World Series this weekend." George Steinbrenner said he didn't like two series but snorted, "We'll help them get a few sellouts." Joe Torre sounded especially aggrieved and assumed Bobby Valentine and his team were equally sick of the whole thing (which they largely were, although for different reasons). Even the uber-diplomatic Derek Jeter registered a complaint: "It does get a little old."

Perhaps Jeter was bored because the first game at Shea on the evening of July 9 featured the same pitching matchup as the last game in the Bronx, Al Leiter vs. Roger Clemens. Since the two had last faced off, Leiter put the mediocre start to his season in the rear view, while Clemens floundered. By struggling, The Rocket invited critics to make him the scapegoat of a Yankees team that was judged to be lacking a certain something the 1998 team had. A team that had won 125 games was a nearly impossible standard to live up, but fans and press expected them to do so nonetheless.

Clemens appeared powerfully uncomfortable on the mound in the Subway Series opener, as if he could hear the Yankees' announcers wonder aloud when they would see the real Roger Clemens. The Mets drew first blood with an RBI single by Rey Ordoñez in the bottom of the second. The Yankees retaliated with a Chuck Knoblauch run-scoring hit in the top of the third, but in the bottom half, Clemens hung an 0-2 splitter that John Olerud drilled to the big scoreboard in right. All was quiet until the top of the sixth, when a Paul O'Neill RBI double tied the game at 2. O'Neill's hit looked like it might set the stage for a big inning for the Yanks until he ran his team out of a rally with an ill-advised attempt to steal third base.

The Mets struck again in the bottom half, beginning with an Edgardo Alfonzo leadoff bloop double. Olerud batted next, and Clemens was wary of pitching to the first baseman who'd already taken him deep. A walk of Olerud would have made sense if that walk hadn't brought up Mike Piazza, who killed Clemens in their last meeting at Yankee Stadium. Piazza got ahead in the count, 2-1, then turned on a slider and lasered it into the left field bleachers for a three-run blast.

The next two batters received brushback pitches, if only because it was impossible for Clemens to fire brushback pitches at himself. Energized by Piazza's homer, Leiter pitched the seventh and eighth innings with little trouble. Armando Benitez did his best John Franco imitation by allowing two baserunners in the ninth to bring the tying run to the plate, but he struck out pinch hitter Chili Davis for the final out of the Mets' 5-2 victory.

It was as thrilling a game as the Mets had played all season, but less than 24 hours later they played another game that left this one in the dust.

The tilt on the afternoon of July 10 featured Rick Reed against Andy Pettitte, but neither pitcher would figure in the decision, as each team's bats tried to pound the other's into submission. The Yankees grabbed the early lead with a first inning two-run homer off the bat of Paul O'Neill. The Mets responded with a Mike Piazza RBI double in their half of the first and a Rey Ordoñez sac fly in the second to tie things up, then took a 4-2 lead in the fourth on a Robin Ventura RBI double and another Ordoñez sac fly. The fourth run was scored by Ventura—slow under normal circumstances and dealing with a foot injury to boot—when Posada failed to block the plate on a play at home.

The Yanks responded to this response by starting the fifth with back-to-back solo shots from Ricky Ledee and Jorge Posada. Reed exited the game after that frame, but the Bronx Bombers kept right on bombing, with O'Neill going deep again in the sixth against Greg McMichael and Chuck Knoblauch doing the same in seventh off of Rigo Beltran.

With a 6-4 lead under their belt going into the bottom of the seventh, the Yankees removed Pettitte in favor of Ramiro Mendoza. Rickey Henderson greeted him rudely with a bloop hit he hustled into a double. Mendoza then made the same mistake as Clemens did the night before, pitching too carefully to John Olerud and walking him to bring up Piazza. The catcher destroyed a Mendoza fastball, launching it over the picnic tent beyond the visiting bullpen in left field, his second three-run go-ahead shot in as many games, and hit long enough for two homers.

Piazza's moonshot gave the Mets' a 7-6 advantage, but it wouldn't last long. Dennis Cook allowed the Yanks to regain the lead by giving up a two-run blast to Posada in the top of the eighth. When the Mets failed to score in the bottom of half, it assured they would have to mount a comeback against Mariano Rivera in the ninth. This would be a tough hill to climb, since the Yankees' closer had already saved two games against the Mets this season, and was also Mariano Rivera.

After recording the first out easily, Rivera put himself into hot water by walking Henderson. It looked like the free pass might have been harmless when Rivera induced an easy fly ball off the bat of Alfonzo, but Bernie Williams lost the ball somehow. It was not ruled an error, though it probably should have been, as Williams failed to catch an easily catchable ball. Whatever the scoring, the fly ball put Henderson on third and Alfonzo on second as the tying and winning runs. All the Mets needed to tie the game was another fly ball, but Olerud could only manage a hard hit grounder to first. The runners had to hold as Tino Martinez stepped on the bag for out number two.

Piazza came up next with no chance of swinging the bat. After he was intentionally walked, Bobby Valentine sent up Matt Franco, his go-to lefty pinch hitter, but Franco barely had time to think before he fell into an 0-2 hole. Rivera's third pitch came in close to Franco's knees and was deemed a ball by home plate umpire Jeff Kellogg, prompting great weeping and gnashing of teeth from the Yankees' dugout. Given a stay of execution, Franco lined Rivera's next pitch into shallow right field.

Henderson scored, with Alfonzo hot on his heels. O'Neill's throw to the plate was just a hair too late, which meant the Mets had themselves a thrilling, insane 9-8 victory. As the Mets jumped jubilantly and dogpiled like Little Leaguers, NYPD stormed the field, afraid a deliriously happy Shea crowd might tear the place apart.

Police officers were called on again in the Subway Series finale the following afternoon, this time to confiscate brooms from overjoyed Mets fans dreaming of a sweep. It's just as well, as the home team fell just short of executing the first three-game sweep in the Subway Series' brief history. The Mets scored twice in the bottom of the third inning against Hideki Irabu, the much-maligned Japanese pitcher who Steinbrenner once called a "fat pussy toad" for the crime of failing to cover first during a spring training game. Irabu's countryman, Masato Yoshii, couldn't hold the lead as he gave up a three-run homer to Ricky Ledee in the top of the fourth.

In the bottom of the fourth, the Mets tied the score at 3 on a Rey Ordoñez RBI double and put runners on the corners with nobody out, but failed to grab the lead. Having weathered this threat, Irabu stifled the Mets through the seventh inning, while his teammates scored three runs off of Yoshii in the top of the fifth and hung on the rest of the way.

Mariano Rivera shook off his blown save and set the Mets down in order to end the 6-3 Yankees win and draw the curtain on Subway Series action for another year. Upon its conclusion, the dual series format claimed at least one convert in George Steinbrenner, as he conceded, "it's great for the fans of New York. I'll admit that. They've sold me on the greatness of the series." But he was also careful to note that the Subway Series being great for fans didn't mean it was "important" to his ball club. "We didn't put the focus on it," he hastened to add, "the other fellas did."

The Other Fellas headed into the All Star Break with a record of 50-39. The Mets had improved considerably since the first Subway Series, when an eight-game slide nearly killed their season altogether, but they still trailed the Braves by 5 full games in the NL East standings. To have any chance of catching Atlanta, the Mets would have to play out of their minds for entire summer. After the All Star Break, that's exactly what they'd do.