Adapted from Yells For Ourselves: A History of the 1999-2000 Mets.
Late in the 1999 season, the New York Mets lost eight of nine games—five of them to the hated Braves, sandwiched around three losses to the lowly Phillies—in an excruciating stretch that left them two games out of the National League wild card spot with only three games left to play. Few teams had ever crawled out of such a hole, but their season began to be salvaged when they emerged victorious in the first two games of their final series of the season against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Shea Stadium. With some unlikely help from the Milwaukee Brewers, who at the same time were winning their own first two games hosting the Reds, the Mets entered the final day of the regular season on October 3 tied with Cincinnati for the wild card lead. They did their part to make sure they would play again in 1999 by beating the Pirates, 2-1. It was a walk-off victory taken on the back of a wild pitch in the bottom of the ninth, with September call-up Melvin Mora trotting home with the winning run.
The Mets celebrated this improbable win on the field, hoisting each other in the air, hugging, towel waving, high fiving, saluting the fans in the Shea crowd. It was the closest the team had come to the postseason in 11 long years, but elation was soon followed by confusion over what to do now, what to do next, what even to feel. The team trailed off into the clubhouse, realizing they had won nothing yet but the right to play one more game in 1999. No champagne could be sprayed just yet. The bulletin board in the clubhouse contained the same if/then directives it did before the game—“Bring luggage for 3 days and leave in bullpen…If Cin., we leave Sunday night. If Ariz., we leave Monday noon.” If the Reds lost their last game, the Mets would win the wild card outright and travel to Arizona to begin the division series against the Diamondbacks. But if the Reds won, there would be a tiebreaker game to determine the senior circuit’s true wild card winner, and thanks to a coin toss at the commissioner’s office in mid-September, that game would be played in Cincinnati.
Al Leiter, southpaw and ostensible ace of the staff, would pitch whatever game the Mets play next. He swore to reporters he would watch video of Cincinnati hitters to prepare for that potential opponent. But the excitable Leiter couldn’t be expected to sit still for long. With his objective unclear and nothing but time on his hands, he haunted the Shea Stadium press box for hours, raring to go with nowhere to get to.
The weather in Milwaukee was raining on the Mets’ parade. Commissioner Bud Selig was in Milwaukee to take in the final contest between the Reds and Brewers, not so much to cheer on the team he once owned as to hope his presence would force a break in the clouds. “We’ve played games here on fields 30 times worse,” he insisted mid-delay. The rain persisted, as if taking Selig’s boast as a personal challenge.
October 3 was supposed to mark the date of the last ever baseball game played at County Stadium, longtime home of the Brewers and the Braves before them. The stadium was sold out months in advance, a rare event for the mediocre Milwaukee squads of this era. Then, construction delays beset the building of their new retractable dome ballpark. Optimists held out hope the new facility would be ready to open sometime during the following season, but it would not be ready by Opening Day. This unfortunate fact, combined with the weather, led to many no-shows. When umpires gave the signal to start at 8:50 local time, almost six hours after the scheduled first pitch, County Stadium’s 56,000 seats were occupied by only a few hundred hardy fans who braved the drizzle and the 45-degree temperatures.
Knowing the importance of this game to Mets fans, WFAN simulcast the game in its entirety, bringing Brewers broadcaster Bob Uecker to radios across the tri-state area. Considering the late hour, the climate, and the thin crowd on hand, Uecker suggested the teams hasten the proceedings by sending up only one batter per inning. The Reds did their part to speed things up by plating five runs in the top of the third, capped by a three-run homer off the bat of Greg Vaughn, an offseason pickup from the payroll-shedding Padres whose bat almost singlehandedly made surprise contenders out of the Reds. Milwaukee bats (such as they were in 1999) were stifled by Pete Harnisch, an ex-Met who, upon being released by New York, called up local sports radio to inform listeners that no one in the clubhouse could stand his now-ex-manager, Bobby Valentine. Cincinnati cruised to a 7-1 win, if anyone could cruise in a game played in 40-degree temperatures that ended a few minutes short of midnight.
Exhausted, the Reds headed home, unaware their next opponent had already beaten them there. Unwilling to leave their fate up to the the weather or the Brewers, the Mets made the decision to fly to Cincinnati, a move that would provide them with either sufficient rest for a play-in game or a harmless layover on their way to Phoenix the following day. The team plane took off at 10 PM New York time and Mets players were still settled in their comfy hotel rooms before the end of the game in Milwaukee. The Mets would not receive home field advantage, but they would have the edge afforded by a good night’s sleep. Originally scheduled for 2:05 PM, the start time of the Wild Card play-in game was bumped up a full five hours in deference to the Reds’ travails.
Lack of rest aside, the Reds would play game number 163 with house money. The Mets had spent big in the offseason (big new contracts for free-agents-to-be Al Leiter and Mike Piazza, plus the addition of All-Star third baseman Robin Ventura) and carried all the expectation of success that such spending implied. When, after the final win against the Pirates, Mike Piazza declared that anything else that happened to the Mets in 1999 would be “icing on the cake,” he was blasted by a press corps that reminded him a team with a $70 million payroll should expect better of itself. “Does Piazza…think [ownership] spend all that dough to just get to a game determining the wild card entry?” sputtered Bob Raissman in the Daily News. But to Cincinnati, it was almost victory enough to accumulate as many wins as New York with less than half the payroll ($33 million). While the nervous Mets spent their final Sunday of the season waiting for the scoreboard to spell out their future, the calm, cool, and collected Reds whiled away a long rain delay by catching up on all the NFL action. After their victory over Milwaukee forced the play-in game, the Reds did not jump up and down on the field of play as the Mets did. “What were we going to celebrate?” manager Jack McKeon shrugged.
McKeon was a cigar-chomping old-school type who, unlike the Mets’ manager, preferred the gut over the brain as his primary decision-making organ. He also owned a pronounced disdain for Bobby Valentine. This could have been said of many of Valentine’s contemporaries, but McKeon made a point of needling the Mets skipper multiple times that season. He raised a stink about white lettering on one Mets pitcher’s glove during an evening at Shea, demanded the grounds crew dry up the dirt at home plate during the same game (“I was concerned for your catcher,” McKeon explained), and objected to a Mets reliever’s orange undershirt a few weeks later in Cincinnati. “Is he in uniform or not?” McKeon griped to the home plate umpire, pointing out that all his teammates, wearing their black road uniforms, sported unobtrusive black undershirts. The reliever was commanded to go get changed in the clubhouse mid-outing and, when he discovered he had no black undershirt of his own, forced to literally take one off a coach’s back.
For all this antagonism, though, Jack McKeon and Bobby Valentine were identical in one sense: Neither had ever made his way to the postseason. As a general manager, McKeon helped assemble the pennant-winning 1984 Padres, but to a baseball lifer that was not quite the same thing as leading a team into October on the field, and he’d failed to do so in previous posts as a skipper in Kansas City, Oakland, and San Diego. Bobby Valentine had been managing for a shorter time, but his wait was no less torturous. Once a stud prospect, his playing career was cut brutally short by injuries. As manager of the Rangers, he’d piloted Texas to their best finish ever in his freshman year (second place), and never brought them that high again. A promising year managing in Japan was cut short when management, resenting his popularity with fans, fired him. And one year ago, the Mets held a slim lead in the wild card lead with five games to play, only to go home early after they lost all five of them.
On the evening of October 4, 1999, someone’s waiting would end.
Reds fans braved early morning showers to line up at Cinergy Field (the new corporate name of Riverfront Stadium) and snatch up all the tickets for the winner-take-all contest. Rain cleared up well before game time, though temperatures hovered in the 50s and would dip into the 40s before the night was over. It must have felt like Aruba to a Cincinnati team that had just endured a long, damp evening in Milwaukee. The Reds handed the ball to Steve Parris, 31-year-old righty who’d acquitted himself well when taking the mound that season, winning 11 and losing a mere 3 in 20 starts. Parris got the nod by default, however, since Pete Harnisch, the team’s best starter, was spent in the delayed must-win at County Stadium. The Reds’ starting corps was not its greatest asset. Harnisch and Brett Tomko were their sole starters to crack the modest 100 strikeouts barrier in 1999, and only Harnisch came close to logging 200 innings. Like their wild card opponents, the Reds relied on their offense—centered around All Star-in-perpetuity Barry Larkin, rookie slugger Sean Casey, and the powerful Greg Vaughn—to do the heavy lifting, and their bullpen to stop the bleeding.
A sellout crowd in full throat was prepared to scream Parris to a win if that’s what it took, but the Mets wasted no time in silencing them. Though hamstring woes caused him to leave the last game at Shea the previous afternoon, rejuvenated leadoff man Rickey Henderson reached Parris for a single to left. Then Edgardo Alfonzo capped a breakout season (27 homers, 41 doubles, 108 RBIs) by belting a long fly ball to straightaway center. Off the bat, it looked like an easy play, so much so that Cincinnati center fielder Jeffrey Hammonds took a leisurely route to track it down. But some force grabbed the ball mid-flight, and it kept traveling and traveling. All broadcasters—Jon Miller on ESPN, Bob Murphy on WFAN radio—were stunned when the ball dropped behind the outfield fence for a two-run homer. Even the raucous home crowd didn’t realize the ball would leave the yard until it did. Reds fans were shocked into near silence at the sight of Alfonzo trotting around the bases.
They were ready to make noise again, however, after Parris negotiated the rest of the inning with no further trouble, and after Al Leiter issued a walk to the leadoff batter in the bottom of the first, speedy shortstop Pokey Reese. Walks and first-inning meltdowns went hand-in-hand for Leiter in 1999; when the Mets’ ace struggled, as he did with disturbing regularity that season, it was usually due to wildness and early struggles. Thus, the free pass for Reese didn’t bode well for him, especially with the heart of the Reds’ order to follow. Leiter induced harmless flies from Barry Larkin and Sean Casey, then was forced to face Greg Vaughn, the National League’s player of the month for September. Vaughn worked the count full, whipping Reds fans into a frenzy. During Cincinnati’s late-season surge, as the Reds gained ground on the fading Mets, Vaughn collected one huge hit after another, at times putting the team on his back and carrying them toward October. The night before, he belted a three-run blast that salted the victory over the Brewers and made this game possible.
Few in the crowd doubted Greg Vaughn would come through again until Al Leiter froze him with curveball. Called strike three, inning over, crisis averted, crowd silenced. In the ESPN booth, color commentator and Reds legend Joe Morgan gave Cincinnati a pep talk they couldn’t hear, insisting that a mere two runs weren’t enough to beat the home team, that they had a more “diverse” offense than the Mets’ because it “can manufacture runs with speed.”
The Mets’ lefty failed to give the opposition any opportunities to show off that speed. Leiter allowed a one-out single in the second inning and a two-out walk in the third, but made sure both proved harmless. He then proceeded to set down 13 Cincinnati batters in order. The righties were pounded on the hands mercilessly, the lefties fed wicked breaking pitches. Barely a ball left the infield. The crowd sat on its hands, waiting for a reason to cheer that never arrived.
Al Leiter had an uneven season in 1999, to be sure. He had the stubborn habits of remaining in games just long enough to blow a lead, of losing focus just when he appeared on the verge of gaining the upper hand over the opposition, of insisting he felt fine after losses in which he looked anything but. And yet, for all that, he had always pitched his best games when the Mets needed a win in the worst way. It was Leiter who ended an eight-game losing streak at Yankee Stadium in June. It was Leiter who stopped a seven-game slide a week ago. In Cincinnati, he would play the stopper again.
When Leiter was readying himself to take the mound in the bottom of the second, fellow veteran pitcher Orel Hershiser (who started the last game at Shea) offered some motivational praise—Go get ‘em, you got great stuff tonight. Leiter just smiled at him. He knew already.
The Mets cobbled together a few insurance runs on a bases-loaded walk in the third, a leadoff homer by Henderson in the fifth, and an Alfonzo double in the sixth. It all proved unnecessary. After a two-out walk in the third, Cincinnati didn’t produce another baserunner until catcher Ed Taubensee walked to lead off the bottom of the eighth. The baserunner, and brief stirrings from the crowd, were promptly erased when Leiter induced a double play bouncer from Aaron Boone.
Leiter recorded the last out of that inning and reemerged for the bottom of the ninth, his eye on the finish line. ESPN’s broadcast dared to show pictures of the visiting clubhouse, where plastic was being affixed to lockers, tubs of iced bubbly carted out, hastily screenprinted WILD CARD CHAMPS t-shirts draped across folding chairs.
Held in check all game, the Reds showed some signs of life in their last at-bats. Pokey Reese started off the frame with a double, Cincinnati’s first extra-base hit of the night. Leiter fired three wide pitches to Barry Larkin before getting the shortstop to bounce a grounder for the first out. He then struck out an overanxious Sean Casey, who broke his bat in half in frustration.
With the Reds’ season down to its last out, a few fans took the opportunity to run out onto the field, giving the crowd its sole reason to cheer since the first inning. As the miscreants were subdued by security and dragged off the turf, Valentine slammed his cap to the dugout floor and screamed What the fuck?!, fearing the interruption would unnerve his pitcher. He had waited too long for this, and he knew too well how easily unnerved his pitcher was, how distractable, even on a night like this.
On cue, Al Leiter fell behind in the count Greg Vaughn and walked him, giving the Reds a brief glimmer of hope. The lefty stalked off the mound and screamed into his glove, furious with himself for losing his focus and losing the batter, a self-flagellating act he engaged in often during moments of stress. Anyone who watched the Mets of this era knew that Leiter’s public masochism often led to him refocusing and righting his ship. They also knew that such behavior was, just as often, a prelude to a total collapse.
The next batter, Dmitri Young, lined Al Leiter’s 0-1 pitch straight up the middle. Leiter’s all-out delivery rendered him a poor fielder. By the time he emerged from his violent windup, the ball was sailing over his head and his unready glove. The pitcher whirled around, hoping someone, anyone, would be able to track it down.
That someone was Edgardo Alfonzo, of course, the man whose first inning homer started what Leiter would finish. The surehanded second baseman scurried to his right, dropped to his knees, and speared the liner for the final out. Al Leiter raised his arms in triumph before being engulfed by his teammates, who poured in from the outfield and out from the dugout to a chorus of silence and scattered boos, with a smattering of cheers from Mets fans who’d made the trip to Cincinnati and worked their way down toward the visitors’ bench. The Mets finally knew what they were celebrating: An actual, for-real trip to the playoffs after two years of doubts and second-guessing, and eleven years in the wilderness.
In the triumphant visiting clubhouse, some of the Mets—still stinging from all the premature eulogies for their season that had been penned in New York’s dailies—reacted with toldja so finger pointing. “You guys counted us out,” centerfielder Darryl Hamilton scolded the press, while backup catcher Todd Pratt pinned the label of “frontrunners” on the media that now sang the praises of a team they’d buried a few days earlier. The press took umbrage at this, naturally. The Mets had spent $70 million on improvements, and during the course of this season Bobby Valentine had twice proclaimed he should be fired if his team didn’t make the postseason. If the Mets suffered under unreasonable playoff expectations, perhaps the media had only pointed out the burdens they placed on themselves. “I made them lose five of six to the Braves?” harrumphed one Daily News writer.
Such carping aside, most Mets savored the moment, because for so many of them, it was a moment that was long in coming. For John Franco, who spent an entire decade hoping for a shot at the playoffs that never came, it felt like an eternity. “This is the first champagne I’ve ever tasted,” he said as his teammates drenched each other with Dom Perignon. And as long as Franco’s wait had been, it still had nothing on the years in the wilderness of Bobby Valentine.
When asked if this trip to the playoffs redeemed all the pain that preceded it, Valentine betrayed bitterness for a moment. “The last thing I want to do is shed a shadow on what this team has done in the last week,” he said. “I’m not going to talk about the garbage written about me.” But he quickly moved past this and spared a thought for Jack McKeon, whose hand he shook when the game was over despite their mutual antipathy, making sure to congratulate him on a great season. “To win 96 games and not have a tomorrow,” Valentine said. “I probably had that thought run through my body once or twice.” But if he did know how McKeon felt, he could barely describe how he himself felt. “It’s a lot of emotions,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m smart enough to tell you all of them.”
And then he paused for a moment to observe the scene around him, the spraying and screaming and laughter and hugging, and for a moment he had the sensation of being outside of himself. In that moment it was so real to him that it looked unreal, like a dream he had many times, like a dream he was still having.
“I have imagined a room like this,” he said.