The Mets had just completed a road trip to Chicago and Milwaukee that featured grueling weather but successful results, five wins against only one loss while leapfrogging the Braves for first place in the NL East. When they returned to Shea on August 6, it marked another return of note: Todd Hundley, in town with the Los Angeles Dodgers for four games.
The switch-hitting catcher provided some highlights for mid-1990s Mets teams that ran low on that commodity, such as setting the record for most homeruns hit by a backstop (41) in 1996. Then elbow injuries slowed Hundley down, and the team's acquisition of Mike Piazza made him redundant, as did the failed experiment to turn him into an outfielder.
Hundley also clashed with manager Bobby Valentine. Many players had done this, but few in as ugly and public fashion as him. When Hundley's production fell off late in 1997, Valentine heavily implied to the press that his catcher partied too much. Whatever Hundley got up to off the field, his struggles were probably more due to ligament issues that required Tommy John surgery in September of that year. In 1998, while still recovering from that surgery, Hundley was wounded further when he was told point-blank by Mets ownership that the team wouldn't trade for Piazza, only to watch them do exactly that the next day. Conveniently timed whispers about Hundley's nocturnal activities bubbled up immediately after the Piazza deal went down, rumors that Hundley assumed were started by his manager.
In the following offseason, Hundley was sent to the Dodgers in a three-way deal with the Orioles and Mets that sent Roger Cedeño and Armando Benitez to New York. During spring training, Valentine gave a TV interview in which he manager implies some ethnic animus on Hundley's part toward himself and Piazza. ("Todd does a lot of that Italian stuff.") "I'm going to try and meet him in a dark alley and talk about it," Hundley growled.
Thus, much was made of Hundley's return to Shea by a press corps anticipating (and perhaps hoping for) an ugly confrontation. When asked about how Hundley would feel about being on the same field as him again, Bobby Valentine responded, "Why would I give a shit?" But no fisticuffs ensued, as Hundley spent most of his time extolling the virtues of a city he clearly missed ("To me, the skyline of Manhattan is god's country") and signing autographs for boatloads of fans during batting practice. Valentine studiously kept his back to such scenes.
Hundley was greeted warmly by the Shea crowd during his first at bat, receiving a standing ovation in memory of all he'd done for some mediocre Mets teams. They were even more appreciative when he went down on strikes three times, as Octavio Dotel fanned 10 batters over seven brilliant innings. The Mets scraped out a pair of runs and hung on for a 2-1 victory.
Back in early June, when an eight-game losing streak threatened to end the Mets' season before it began, Bobby Valentine made the prediction that his team was good enough to win 40 of its next 55 games. The statement was dismissed as insanity at the time. But the Mets' win in the Dodgers series opener fulfilled Valentine's prophecy to the letter. In the 55 games since the manager gazed into his crystal ball, the team went exactly 40-15. A press corps that once maintained a Bobby V Death Watch can only shake its collective head in utter disbelief.
"I didn’t want this to turn into something where every week was a referendum on whether or not I was going to get fired," Valentine explained. "So it was like, Let’s have a deadline and see what we all can do….When I talked about 55 games, I remember saying, ‘Who knows, maybe we can win 40 of them.’ Now we’ve got the chance. Now let’s see how we do over the next 55."
The media was so impressed by Valentine's powers of prognostication that they let it slide when the Mets dropped the next three games to the underachieving Dodgers, an outcome that would have induced panic a month prior. First, the newest members of the bullpen, Billy Taylor and Chuck McElroy, imploded in the ninth inning and turned a thin Mets lead into a 5-4 defeat. The next day, Rick Reed threw only 26 pitches before straining his middle finger (an injury that would land him on the DL), and the relief corps fell apart completely in a 14-3 blowout that saw Matt Franco take the mound for the second time that season. The Mets were then held in check by the Dodgers' ace Kevin Brown in the finale, a 9-2 loss.
The home team shrugged it off in their next series hosting the San Diego Padres. Tony Gwynn had just collected his 3000th hit a few days earlier when the Padres came to town on August 10, but the New York press was less interested in asking Gwynn about this feat than asking him to react to former teammate Jim Leyritz. After being traded to the Yankees, Leyritz blasted Gwynn for not traveling with his team while rehabbing a calf injury and accused him of drawing too much attention to himself about his impending milestone. Normally accommodating to a fault, Gwynn canceled a pregame press conference, weary of all the questions. "I just need a day," he begged.
The Shea crowd offered Gwynn a standing ovation. They were less kind to Kenny Rogers when he allowed three runs to a weak San Diego lineup, and to Mike Piazza, who heard boos after going 0-for-4, extending a slump that began in the losses to the Dodgers. "You can take it a couple of ways," Piazza said after the game, which the Mets won 4-3 despite his struggles. "You can take it badly, or take it as a challenge. I know that. That’s why I signed here….You’re going to fail seven out of 10 times. If you didn’t, what would be the triumph? What would be the drama of the challenge?"
The following evening, growing pains on the part of Octavio Dotel (five runs in less than five innings) were offset by stellar long relief from Pat Mahomes and a late outburst from the offense in a 12-5 victory. In the final game of the series, Al Leiter was given an early 6-0 lead, only to give three of those runs back. But Leiter, a notoriously bad hitter, regifted himself a six-run advantage by hitting a bases-loaded double against Woody Williams. The Mets cruised the rest of the way for a 9-3 win.
The sweep of San Diego ensured that the Mets would head out on their next road trip with a share of first place. Their next challenge would be a trio of West Coast swings in quick succession. In days of yore, California was where Mets' seasons went to die. To keep pace with the Braves, they'd have to buck that historical trend.