Shane Spencer’s shining moment as a New York Met might never have happened had Joe Torre, his former manager with the Yankees, brought in Mariano Rivera in the 9th inning of a tie game.
Playing center field and mic’d for sound by Fox Sports for the second of three games of a Fourth of July weekend series at Shea Stadium in 2004, the former Yankee wunderkind discussed that possibility with left fielder Cliff Floyd before the Yankees came to bat in the top of the inning with the score tied 9-9.
"He said ‘You think they’re gonna bring Mariano in?’" Spencer, now the hitting coach for the Somerset Patriots of the independent Atlantic League, recalled from the home team dugout before a game with the Long Island Ducks May 30.
Reliving the conversation as if it had just happened, Spencer remembered replying that Torre was not about to bring the future Hall-of-Fame closer in unless his team had the lead. Floyd continued to pick Spencer’s brain about Rivera, who’d played alongside him on three World Championship teams from 1998-2000 before eventually signing with the Mets as a free agent before the 2004 season.
"He said ‘Is his cutter really that good?’ and I said ‘Well, better bring a couple of bats,’" Spencer recalled.
"He goes ‘Really?’ and I said ‘Yeah, man, I know you’re quick inside, but your hands go out for the ball, I’ve seen it happen too much.’ I said ‘You’ve got to cheat to one side.’ He goes ‘Well, let’s score some runs.’"
"That was our conversation out there, and luckily we never had to face him," Spencer concluded.
Now in his third year coaching for the Patriots, what the .262 lifetime hitter failed to recall about the conversation that the viewers heard was that he and Floyd talked about the pitchers that Torre might bring in to face them. Tanyon Sturtze, who Spencer would square off against as the final hitter in the game, was one of them.
Following a lead-off walk to Kaz Matsui, Sturtze got Mike Piazza to fly out to center field before walking Floyd and hitting Richard Hidalgo in the chest with a pitch, setting Spencer up to be the hero with the bases loaded and a packed house of energized fans—some rooting for the home team, some partial to the Yankees—going crazy.
Spencer took a called strike and swung-and-missed at the second offering before taking a ball. On the next pitch, Spencer hit a weak dribbler up the first base line with Matsui breaking for home. Sturtze, forced to field the ball, bobbled it initially, giving Matsui time to slide across the plate ahead of the throw for the winning run.
"I had a 30-foot walk-off RBI," Spencer said proudly.
He said he sees Sturtze every winter during Yankees Fantasy Camp and never lets him forget it.
"I still rub it in," he said.
Spencer, who hit .281 as a Met that year with four home runs and 26 RBI in 74 games, vividly remembers that moment against his former teammates.
"It was a splitty, it was a nasty one and I got a piece of it and it rolled up the first base line," he recalled. "He ran over there and he’s a huge dude, he tried to backhand it like a second baseman."
After drubbing the Yankees 11-2 the night before, the Mets had a 10-9 win in a see-saw affair that included 23 hits and five home-runs. The Mets, who’d gone 12-24 against the Yankees going into the 2004 season, including an embarrassing 0-6 the previous year, spilled onto the field and mobbed Spencer.
They would go on to sweep the series the following day on George Steinbrenner’s 74th birthday, celebrating July 4th with a 6-5 win. Hidalgo, acquired from the Astros two weeks before, homered in each of the games, his blast Sunday his seventh in 15 games as a Met. That included two homers in the second game of a double-header against the Yankees in the series in the Bronx in late June, which the Yankees won two out of three.
Spencer, who went 6-for-42 in the Subway Series from 1999-2002 with a homer and five RBI, went 3-for-12 during the 4th of July weekend series, including two doubles and three RBI, all during the 10-9 win July 3. He said the Mets were still trying to find their way as a team that year, and couldn’t bring the level of intensity to the field every day that they channeled when facing the Yankees.
"I remember the clubhouse being a little more buzzed; we were playing pretty good ball," he recalled.
The Yankees, he said, expected to win every game while he was there, and didn’t approach the games any different when they faced the Mets.
"I think that was our attitude the whole time, we can beat everybody if we keep the game close," Spencer said, mentioning the team’s strength in starting pitching with Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina, and the deep bullpen, which included Jeff Nelson, Mike Stanton, and Rivera.
"We always thought we were gonna win," he continued. "We had clutch hitters, and that never changed whether we were playing the Mets, or Boston, or anybody, and I think that’s why the consistency was there while I was there."
The Mets were still establishing their identity, with David Wright still three weeks away from making his big league debut and Jose Reyes hitting .158 after the three-game set and playing second base while Matsui, the Japanese import, manned shortstop. Piazza, by that time playing first base, was being phased out, and Carlos Beltran’s arrival as a big-ticket free agent was still a year away.
"It was a little different with the Mets, they had some older guys and really young guys. They didn’t have that yet," Spencer remembered. "Even though we beat the Yankees for a series, it wasn’t like that every day. They got up for that series, but it didn’t seem like they were up for every series. And I think that’s the difference."
The Mets will take a 43-58 record into their next meeting with the Yankees, September 18-20 at Citi Field, after going 1-2 against them earlier this year.
Spencer’s career with the Yankees exploded with a bang in 1998, when the San Diego native smacked eight homers in September, six in a six-day span from September 22-27 at Yankee Stadium, all resulting in wins. Included in that were homers in each of a three-game series against Tampa Bay, including two of the three grand slams he would hit that month, the first coming September 18 against the Orioles off former Met Jesse Orosco.
"I could turn any fastball around, it didn’t matter if you threw 100," he said. "My strength was with men in scoring position."
His heroics, which at the time had the media referring to Spencer as Roy Hobbs in a nod to Robert Redford’s character in The Natural, helped the team heat up for their first of three consecutive World Championships. Interestingly, that first one was against his hometown team, the Padres, who he idolized growing up.
"I grew up in San Diego; I’m a Tony Gwynn fan, I went to the only World Series they ever won in ’84," Spencer said. "It’s part of my childhood. I’m a Charger/Padre fan at heart."
In fact, when he was selected by the Yankees in the 28th round of the 1990 first-year player draft, Spencer was conflicted. He grew up hating the Yankees.
"I was like ‘The Yankees? I hate the Yankees!’" he said. "I tell that story all the time, but coming up with the Yankees, you learn to love it."
Spencer has also learned to love his time in the Atlantic League, working with younger players and passing on hitting tips he learned from players like Paul O’Neill, his idol during his time with the Yankees.
"It’s entertaining; something new every day, and I enjoy it," he said. "I’m busy all the time but it’s a laid-back atmosphere, and I love it."
He also enjoys helping former big leaguers like first baseman Chris Marrero (the Nationals’ first-round draft pick in 2006), and Mat Gamel, also a first baseman and the Brewers’ fourth-round pick in 2005, try to make it back to The Show.
"We don’t expect him to be here long," Spencer said of Marrero, a .279 hitter in the minors for Washington through 2014.
He was right. Marrero’s contract was sold to the Chicago White Sox on June 5.
Spencer, who had a brief stint coaching in the Padres’ farm system, said he wouldn’t mind getting another crack in affiliated ball. But for now, he’s content where he is.
"I don’t know. I’m pretty tight with my manager (Brett Jodie), if he wants to go somewhere I’ll go with him," he said. "But I could see it. It’s probably got to be the right situation."