The long fly to the deepest part of center field looked certain to tie the score in the bottom of the ninth inning of a must-win game for the Mets, when victory would have sent them to the postseason for the second time in three years. The shot off the bat of Ryan Church off Florida Marlins reliever Matt Lindstrom on September 28, 2008 brought the crowd of 56,000-plus fans to its feet, screaming for the ball to clear the fence and set the stage for a walk-off win in the last regular season game at Shea Stadium.
With a runner on first and two outs and the Mets trailing 4-2, Church looked like a hero as he sent the ball sailing deep to center field. Sadly, the ball dropped into the glove of Cameron Maybin as he camped on the warning track, and the Mets went home for the winter after ceding a division lead in September for the second year in a row. It was no way to say goodbye to Shea after 45 years, and Brian Schneider remembers it all too well.
In his first year as the catching coach for the Miami Marlins, Schneider recalls that everyone in the Mets dugout bolted to their feet, ready to celebrate after Church’s trip around the bases.
“He hit that ball and a lot of us stood up,” he said recently by phone. “We thought he might have it and it went to the warning track and unfortunately it didn’t go out.”
Acquired with Church from the Nationals before the season started in exchange for outfielder Lastings Milledge, Schneider said the loss was especially disappointing because of the post-game festivities that followed, when Mets from the past, including Tom Seaver and Mike Piazza, were invited back to celebrate the closing of Shea.
“I remember it very well…that game in general was special for a lot of the fans,” he said. “I played a lot of games early in my career there, and to this day I still love that ballpark. Seeing all the former players come out, it was a pretty great day until the very end result.”
But he said missing the playoffs that year, when the Mets were 82-63 with a 3.5 game lead over the Phillies on September 10 with 17 left to play wasn’t comparable to the year before, when they had an almost identical record on nearly the same date, albeit with a much larger lead.
Mets fans might tend to disagree.
The Mets were 83-62 and seven games in front of the Phillies on September 12, 2007 before losing 12 of their last 17 games and finishing in second place and missing the postseason. The Mets went 7-10 over the final 17 games of 2008.
“By no means was it like 2007,” Schneider said. “We never really had that big lead and we were still playing good ball in September.”
The Mets ultimately finished three games behind the Phillies and a game behind the Brewers for the Wild Card, and Schneider pointed to Milwaukee’s midseason acquisition of CC Sabathia as being the difference.
“I just remember him pitching it seemed like every three or four days and pitching well; they made a good run there at the end,” he said.
He said injuries, which plagued the Mets throughout 2008, were largely responsible for the team ultimately falling short. Pitcher Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, setup man Duaner Sanchez and backup catcher Ramon Castro were placed on the disabled list before Opening Day, and Pedro Martinez left his first start of the season on April 1 in the fourth inning with a left hamstring strain.
Sanchez was then largely ineffective after having been a key component in the bullpen during the first half of 2006, and Hernandez missed the entire year. Martinez started 20 games and ended up going 5-6 with a 5.61 ERA in his last year with the Mets.
All told, 14 different players spent time on the DL, with several hitting the list more than once, including Church twice with concussion symptoms and left fielder Moises Alou, who was shelved on May 22 with a strained left calf and then again on June 13, three days after being activated. He never played for the Mets again.
“Starting the year off with the expectations that we had and you have $90-$95 million on the disabled list, it’s very hard to do anything that you set out to accomplish,” Schneider said. “We had so many injuries I don’t know where to begin.”
A strong-armed receiver who led NL catchers in throwing out runners attempting to steal with a 53 percent success rate in 2003 (27 of 51) and again in 2004 (50 percent, 36 of 72), Schneider started 98 games behind the plate in 2008 and batted .257 with nine home runs and 38 RBIs. He had several hot streaks, including hitting four homers in six games from August 14-23, and a .327 stretch (16-for-49) from August 26-September 18. From behind the dish he threw out 33 percent of would-be base stealers (21 of 63).
Schneider played one more season in New York, batting .218 in 59 games in 2009 before finishing his career with the Phillies, the team he rooted for while growing up in Northampton, Pennsylvania.
After managing the Jupiter Hammerheads, the Marlins’ High-A affiliate, Schneider accepted the position of catching coach with the big club this year, giving him the opportunity to serve as an instructor and mentor to starting catcher J.T. Realmuto.
The 25 year-old catcher, in his first full year in the bigs, was hitting .302 as of June 27 and had thrown out an outstanding 50 percent of runners attempting to steal (16 of 32), well above the league average of 31 percent.
“He’s unbelievably athletic; the guy’s got crazy ability,” Schneider said. “He can run, he can hit, he can do it all. He’s got a very, very strong arm behind the plate.”
Schneider said Realmuto “fell into some bad habits” last year after the Marlins fired manager Mike Redmond, a former catcher, leaving the youngster with no one on staff with catching experience. This year, Schneider has established a pre-game routine with Realmuto, focusing on blocking balls, positioning, and game-calling.
“For me it’s getting him back to the basics,” he said.
Schneider says Realmuto can rise eventually to elite status.
“There’s no doubt he could be an All-Star,” he said.
Despite losing Dee Gordon to suspension and few offensive contributions from Giancarlo Stanton, Schneider believes the Marlins, batting .269 as a team entering play on June 27, can hang tough with the Mets and Nationals at the top of the division, which he rates as strong despite losing records by the Phillies and Braves.
“The Braves just came in (to New York) and beat the Mets and they don’t have a good record but it doesn’t matter; the Braves are young and the Phillies are young and you just never know what you’re going to get with all those young prospects,” he said.
A resident of Palm Beach Gardens, his opportunity with the Marlins has allowed Schneider to stay close to home and to his wife, Jordan, and four children. But his time with the Mets, particularly that first year of 2008, is still clear in his memory.
“We had a chance the last day of the season to go to the playoffs and we fell short, but I had a good time that year. I had a blast,” he said.