The Mets ended their last westward swing with a good showing at the Astrodome and a historic offensive night from Edgardo Alfonzo. But on their return to New York, they displayed an unwelcome offensive outburst. After a spring full of strife and tension, the team had enjoyed a summer full of winning baseball and free of drama. They were overdue for an embarrassing public blow up.
It came in the wee hours of September 2, following their flight back from in Houston. During a bus ride from Newark Airport to Shea, Rey Ordoñez and backup infielder Luis Lopez came to blows. Why this happened was unclear. Some said Lopez, whose playing time had dwindled to nothing thanks to The Greatest Infield Ever, was jealous of Ordoñez. Others said Ordoñez had caught Lopez subjecting rookie Jorge Toca (like the shortstop, a Cuban refugee) to some rookie hazing and objected.
Steve Phillips arranged a press conference the next afternoon at Shea Stadium, standing between the two infielders and swearing they'd patched things up while Lopez and Ordoñez (sporting an ugly shiner) stood there like two misbehaving school kids. Both players said their feud was over, but their refusal to discuss why they fought in the first place and their obvious discomfort at being in the same room said otherwise. It was a humiliating event for all involved, including one misinformed reporter who continually addressed Lopez as "Rey" until he finally corrected her.
Bobby Bonilla saw the strife and decided he wanted a piece of the action. The deservedly maligned outfielder had been on the disabled list for much of the summer while Roger Cedeño and Benny Agbayani did their best to ensure he'd get no playing time when he returned. Bonilla was eligible to come off the DL for days, if not weeks, but the Mets waited until September 1 to reactivate him, when roster expansion meant they wouldn't have to demote anyone to do so.
"I'm going to sit back and enjoy it all," Bonilla said upon his return, displaying the attitude that attracted so many boos. Phillips, meanwhile, scared the hell out of everyone when he insisted Bonilla would be the Mets' go-to lefty pinch hitter early in games, signifying the front office was more concerned with salvaging some of the cost expended on Bonilla's salary than they were in maintaining harmony in the dugout.
Among the other September callups was Jay Payton, one of the Mets' best position prospects, but who was known at the time primarily for his inability to stay healthy and his costly baserunning blunder during the team's five-game losing streak at the end of the 1998 season. They also brought up Melvin Mora, who tore the cover off the ball in spring training but was relegated to triple-A anyway. Since then, he'd ridden the Norfolk express a few times and was used primarily as a defensive replacement for the team's crowded but leather-challenged outfield.
The Mets' latest homestand also marked the return of John Franco, who'd been sidelined by a finger injury since June. Franco was so anxious to rejoin the bullpen, he'd recently stomped through the locker room wielding a broken bat handle, threatening to use it if he wasn't reinstated post-haste while hastening to add he was only kidding. In his absence, Armando Benitez had taken over the closer's role and dominated opposing batters. Bobby Valentine saw no reason Franco couldn't close again but said it might be better if he took on lower-leverage innings at first, a polite way of telling the Mets' Closer For Life that he'd been replaced.
This awkwardness aside, Franco couldn't have picked a better time to come back, as the Mets' bullpen had been exhibiting troubling signs of wear and tear following a season of overuse. Both Dennis Cook and Turk Wendell were given extended time off during the Mets' last road trip—time off they neither requested nor desired—and both relievers struggled upon their return to action The struggles continued in the series opener against the Rockies on September 3 when Wendell and Chuck McElroy conspired to cough up three runs in the top of the tenth, leading to a 5-2 loss.
New York took the following two games from Colorado, with Al Leiter going 8 2/3 innings in a 4-2 win that also saw Robin Ventura club his 30th homer of the year, followed by a 6-2 victory over Darryl Kile, who hadn't lost a game at Shea Stadium since 1992. The Mets then welcomed the Giants for three games beginning on September 6 and won 3-0 behind Kenny Rogers, who pitched his second complete game of the year. Both had come against a San Francisco team that apparently despised him.
Unfortunately, the next two games brought more warning signs from the relief corps. Rick Reed, fresh off the DL from his own finger injury, was far from effective in the second Giants game, but his teammates rallied to take a lead, only to watch Wendell and a clown car's worth of relievers give it right back. The 7-4 loss was followed by a fine outing by Octavio Dotel, who stifled the Giants for seven strong innings. Mindful of the rookie's workload and with a six-run lead to work with, Valentine removed Dotel at that point, whereupon his relievers made things far too interesting. Pat Mahomes allowed a run while retiring no one, Cook gave up a three-run homer, and even Benitez crawled to the finish line, notching the save in the 7-5 win by the skin of his teeth.
Wendell compounded the Mets' bullpen issues with a self-flagellating injury. After being removed in the second Giants game, he sat on the bench pounding his glove in frustration over and over again. This masochistic exercise resulted in a swollen knuckle that would knock him out of action for a week. Such nonsense almost overshadowed the fact that the Mets had completed a successful 4-2 homestand, and had put themselves in excellent playoff position—3.5 games up in the wild card spot, 3.5 back of the first place Braves—as they embarked on their final west coast trip of the season.