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1999: Westward ho

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This week in 1999: The Mets travel west as Orel Hershiser and Kenny Rogers rile the Giants and Robin Ventura buries the Padres.

In years past, the left coast was where many a promising Mets season went to die. The Mets hoped to buck that historical trend when they traveled to San Francisco on August 13 to begin the first of three westward trips scheduled for the tail end of their 1999 campaign.

With PacBell Park set to open the following season, this would be the Mets’ last visit to Candlestick Park (called 3Com Park in its last year hosting baseball), and few would be sad to see the old icebox go. Earlier in the season, while still with Colorado, former Giant Darryl Hamilton believed he’d already played his last game at the ‘Stick, and as the Rockies’ team bus left the stadium in the rearview, he shot the joint a ceremonial one-gun salute. The Mets offered little more than obscene gestures against young Giants lefty Russ Ortiz in the series opener, while Masato Yoshii—pressed back into the starting rotation thanks to Rick Reed’s finger injury—was victimized by a Luis Lopez error and home runs by Rich Aurilia and Marvin Benard in a 3-2 loss.

The following day, Giants general manager Brian Sabean played sore winner and sniped to the San Jose Mercury News about being strung along in offseason negotiations with Orel Hershiser. "He never really gave us the time of day," the GM sobbed about a spring training bidding war that eventually landed Hershiser with the Mets. The Giants players took Sabean’s lead and attempted to unnerve the 40-year-old by laying down bunts in his general direction. Hershiser responded by working his sinker expertly in Candlestick’s blustery confines, and a big day at the plate from Mike Piazza (booed lustily by the locals for his days in Dodger blue) provided more than enough offense for a 6-1 Mets win.

The loss to Hershiser bugged San Francisco, but their defeat at the hands of Kenny Rogers in the series finale drove them up the wall. Back in June, while still with the A’s and in a fit of anger after a lousy start, Rogers had destroyed a bank of phones in Candlestick’s visiting bullpen. When he arrived back in town with the Mets, the Giants presented him with a bill for $1,700 worth of damage. "They tacked things on," The Gambler grumbled, as if arguing with a waiter over a check. "I’m not talking to them."

He then proceeded to toss the first complete game for a Mets pitcher in 139 games stretching back to 1998. It was hardly a dominating start, as Rogers allowed a pair of homers that put his team in an early 3-0 hole, but his teammates responded by beating up Livan Hernandez, who they’d already abused in four pre-trade deadline starts with the Marlins. Robin Ventura knocked Hernandez out of the game with his third grand slam of the season, and the Mets’ offense refused to let up on San Francisco’s bullpen as it cruised to a 12-5 win. For good measure, Rogers attempted to bunt for a base hit in the eighth inning with his team already up by six runs. Later, he professed to be unfamiliar with hitting etiquette due to his years in the American League.

The Mets then traveled to San Diego to take on a Padres team they’d swept away at Shea a few days earlier. Octavio Dotel flirted with history in their first game at Qualcomm Stadium on August 16, taking a no-hitter into the bottom of the seventh, but after issuing consecutive walks to start that frame, he allowed a three-run blast to Phil Nevin, giving San Diego a 3-2 lead. Edgardo Alfonzo bailed out Dotel all by himself, singling and scoring the tying run in the eighth, then hitting a go-ahead solo shot in the top of the tenth, as Mets eked out a 4-3 win. They fell by the same score the next night when Al Leiter showed uncharacteristic wildness and walked eight batters, but recovered with a 9-1 shellacking the following evening. Ventura belted a three-run shot in the first inning to put the Mets on top to stay while Yoshii went the distance, retiring 16 Padres in a row at one point. When asked about the MVP numbers he’d put up so far, Ventura responded in typical Ventura fashion, "It’s a lot better than stinking up the place."

The 4-2 West Coast trip gave Bobby Valentine enough confidence to compare this team favorably to the Mets of 1998. "I didn’t like my team at the end of last year," . "I didn’t think we were all that good. We were a scrappy team doing the best we could….I thought we had to fight the environment most days….We were hoping against hope that Todd [Hundley] would regain his form. There were a lot of inconsistencies and unknowns. [In 1999] we have a better group of guys. They are more mature, they’re more professional, more together group of guys than last year’s."