Editor’s note: This piece is an excerpt from Matthew’s forthcoming book, Yells for Ourselves, which will be published once it hits 250 pre-orders on Inkshares. A longtime piece of the Amazin’ Avenue core, Matthew’s knowledge of and ability to write about the late-90s/2000 Mets is unmatched. He joined us on the podcast recently to talk about the book, too. We’re very much looking forward to getting our hands on the book once it’s published. Matthew is more than halfway there on Inkshares, but every pre-order helps!
Todd Pratt fields this question more than any other, on those rare occasions when the press bothers to ask him anything. Whenever the question is asked, he must object. First of all, he never delivered pizzas. He managed a Domino’s franchise, thank you very much. That was the sort of work awaiting Pratt when the Mariners released him following the 1996 season, and with his baseball career seemingly over, he was grateful to have any job at all. He’ll have you know that on the night of Super Bowl XXXI, while most of America watched Brett Favre’s Packers beat Drew Bledsoe’s Patriots, he pushed a thousand orders out the door. It was hard work, sweaty and cramped and without a shred of glory. Not too different from catching, really. “There’s nothing wrong with managing a pizza parlor,” he counsels the media. They’ll take his word on that.
If Pratt was no more than a backup to Mike Piazza, at least he backed up the best. He’d been a backup his entire career, usually for far lesser lights. Drafted by the Red Sox, he couldn’t break into their lineup because Boston was hung up on John Marzano, a catcher who’d never appear in more than 52 games in a major league season. He had a home with the Phillies for a while, though he was never able to supplant their catcher-for-life Darren Daulton. The Cubs gave him a shot but were more enamored of Rick Wilkins, who went on to spend most of his own career as a backup backstop.
When Seattle let Pratt go, he split his time between Domino’s and Bucky Dent’s Baseball Academy in Delray Beach, Florida. He was ostensibly teaching gaggles of raw youngsters, but while attempting to translate the fundamentals of catching for teenage attention spans, he taught himself the game better than ever. Finally, he understood it. Too late to do him any good, it seemed, though he held out hope some team would give him another shot.
That team turned out to be the Mets, who offered him a minor league deal in 1997. He hit well enough to receive a call-up in July of that year and was given a good number of starts when Todd Hundley was lost to Tommy John surgery. His future was unclear for great stretches of 1998, when the Mets’ catching situation was muddied by their acquisition of Mike Piazza, a trade for another catcher named Jorge Fabregas, and Hundley’s unfortunate time in the outfield. He was the forgotten man in all the confusion and spent a good chunk of his year at triple-A Norfolk. But by the time the 1999 season began, with both Fabregas and Hundley gone, he felt confident he’d established himself as Mike Piazza’s one and only understudy.
Such a role calls Todd Pratt to action as often as the Maytag repairman, leaving him time to double as the team’s resident cheerleader. In the dugout, no one yells louder, claps harder, or high-fives more forcefully. In the clubhouse, no one defends his teammates more virulently. They call him Tank because he moves like one, rolling over whatever gets in his way. When the going got tough for the Mets at the end of September, he bristled at the nasty words scribbled about his team. After the Mets’ win in Cincinnati sent them into the playoffs, it was Pratt who called members of the press “frontrunners” for praising a team they’d buried days earlier. Writers shot each other shocked glances, perturbed that a player would lash out at them during the team’s moment of triumph. He refused to apologize for the outburst. The Mets saved him. To Todd Pratt, each syllable uttered against the team is a personal attack.
When the 1999 National League division series switches from Phoenix to New York for game three, there is a sudden surge in interest in Todd Pratt, because Mike Piazza’s thumb is on fire. On the day off between games two and three, the Mets’ superstar catcher receives a cortisone shot to alleviate swelling in his thumb, but the shot has the opposite effect. He wakes up the morning of October 8, hours before game three, to find his thumb swollen even worse than before.
The thumb is in no better shape when he arrives at Shea Stadium that afternoon. He spends batting practice in the trainer’s room, where medical officials can do little but stare at his grotesquely enlarged digit and shrug. The swelling will go down eventually, they say. Bobby Valentine holds off posting his lineup for as long as he can, hoping “eventually” might translate to “before first pitch.”
A mere hour and a half before the Mets’ first home playoff game in 11 years, Valentine surrenders to the inevitable. Mike Piazza will have to sit this one out. The catcher appears at a press conference and attempts to answer questions about his health through the fog of a buffet of anti-inflammatory drugs he gobbled by the fistful in hopes of playing today. Fans hoping for Piazza to pull a Willis Reed act are disappointed when the catcher greets the Shea crowd during pregame player introductions while wearing a warmup jacket, his injured thumb swaddled to bowling pin dimensions.
After game three—which the Mets win handily over the Diamondbacks, 9-2—Mike Piazza holds out the tiniest thread of hope he will play the following afternoon. Maybe he’ll wake up the next morning and the thumb will be good as new. “It’ll be like Christmas,” he says. But Santa skips his house. The thumb remains useless.
So on October 9, the day of game four, Todd Pratt continues to receive an unusual amount of attention prior. He plays good soldier even as all the questions he must field are about the man he will replace. When do you think Piazza will be back? Do you know if he’s available pinch hit? What did he say to you, Todd?
“I’m not Mike,” Pratt says. As if anyone was in danger of confusing the two.
Al Leiter, who will throw to Todd Pratt for game four, reminds everyone that when he made one of his best starts of the year—a 15-strikeout effort at Wrigley Field—Pratt was his receiver. He insists Pratt takes great pride in his catching, in large part because that’s all he can hang his hat on. “He really wants to catch a good game,” Leiter says, “and if Todd ends up getting some knocks, great.” It is well-meaning but faint praise for which Pratt betrays no resentment. He knows what he is: the dreaded slip inserted into the playbill that regrets to inform ticketholders their beloved star will not be appearing at this performance.
With temperatures in the mid-60s defying the calendar, Leiter is not the dominator seen in the play-in game in Cincinnati, the one that officially, finally put the Mets in the playoffs. In that game, the Reds batters barely put the bat on the ball. In this contest, the Diamondbacks do almost nothing else, but Leiter leads a charmed life in the initial frames, relying on Darryl Hamilton and Rickey Henderson to run down one long fly ball after another. Through the first four scoreless innings, Leiter is more lucky than good, and for a while this is enough.
But the Diamondbacks benefit from similar luck. Arizona manager Buck Showalter could have opposed Al Leiter’s four-leaf clover with Randy Johnson, but he was wary of throwing The Big Unit on short rest after he expended 138 pitches in a losing effort game one. He turns instead to Brian Anderson, the definition of a crafty lefty, a roll of the dice in a must-win game.
Showalter’s dice come up all 7’s, however, as Anderson frustrates the home team for most of the day. The Mets break through in the fourth when Edgardo Alfonzo turns on a knee-high changeup and sends it into the left field bleachers for a solo shot, injecting some life into a crowd that came to Shea anticipating a clinching celebration. But Anderson proves stingy, negotiating the rest of the inning with no further trouble.
Arizona ties the score at 1 with Greg Colbrunn homer in the fifth, and the game remains knotted until the bottom of the sixth, when a 14-pitch at bat by Henderson ends in a single and sparks a brief Met rally. The Mets score on a Benny Agbayani RBI single, but fail to bring in a runner from third with one out when Robin Ventura hits a comebacker.
Still, the Mets enjoy a lead, and Al Leiter appears to be more than capable of holding it as he pitches a scoreless seventh and sets down the first two batters in the eighth. Then, Leiter walks pinch hitter Turner Ward on four pitches. The next batter, speedy leadoff man Tony Womack, has been held in check the entire series and struck out twice today, but he hits a hard grounder that takes a bad hop in front of Alfonzo. The second baseman knocks the ball down with the heel of his glove, but can’t quite grip it. An extra nanosecond of bobbling is all the time the speedster needs to reach first safely.
Leiter’s luck has petered out and a powerful right-handed batter, Jay Bell, is due up next. So Bobby Valentine pulls his ace and calls on Armando Benítez for a four-out save. It is a reasonable request, though the manager has ample reasons to question if his closer is up to the challenge, since he arrived at Shea a mere half-hour before game time, with no explanation.
Benítez proceeds to give up a booming drive to left field, scoring both Ward and Womack and giving Arizona a 3-2 lead. He then allows a sharp line drive single to Matt Williams. A swift scoop and dart of a throw from rookie Melvin Mora nails Bell at home. The play at the plate reenergizes the crowd, allowing them to forget for a moment that the Mets stand a few outs away from a return trip to Phoenix.
The Mets catch a huge break in the bottom of the eighth when Tony Womack—relocated from shortstop to right field in this innings—sprints to meet a fly ball hit off the bat of John Olerud, then loses its path at the worst possible moment. He closes his glove a shade too early and the ball clanks off its heel, putting runners on second and third with nobody out. A long fly from Roger Cedeño allows the tying run to score and Olerud to scamper to third.
With Arizona’s season on the line, Buck Showalter calls on his closer, Matt Mantei, a midseason pickup from the payroll hemorrhaging Marlins. Mantei allows Roger Cedeño to hit a fly that allows both the runner at third to score and the runner at second to tag up, but he wriggles off the hook, keeping the score tied at 3.
Benítez and Mantei each pitch scoreless ball in their halves of the ninth, and John Franco does the same in the top of the tenth. Showalter sticks with Mantei in the bottom half, and Robin Ventura obliges him by offering at his first pitch and flying out to right. On WFAN, Gary Cohen surmises that Ventura hoped to end the game with one swing.
The next batter, Todd Pratt, has no such delusions, having hit only three longballs all year. It’s been a frustrating day at the plate for Piazza’s backup. Three times he has come to the plate with at least one runner in scoring position. On each occasion, he hit an ineffectual groundball that produced nothing. Had he come through even once, the Mets might be celebrating instead of playing extra innings. After Roger Cedeño’s game-tying sac fly in the eighth, Pratt came to the plate with one out and a man on third. One long fly ball and the Mets might have won already. He hit a comebacker instead. Mantei nailed Olerud in a rundown, and the Mets came up short.
Mantei’s first pitch to Pratt is a curveball that bounces in the dirt and eludes his catcher. His second is a fastball that catches too much of the plate to ignore, and Pratt wheels on it, giving the ball a ride to straightaway center. The crowd exhales a rising, hopeful roar. For a moment Pratt allows himself some hope, hopping at home plate with his arms outstretched in a Carlton Fisk impression.
Then he remembers that center field is Steve Finley territory. Finley races back toward the outfield fence, hustling to catch up with the ball. The catcher has seen Finley’s act too many times on SportsCenter, the Gold Glover speeding to the wall to rob an extra-base hit. Pratt executes a perfunctory jog to first base, sighing, muttering to himself over his lousy day at the plate. So close…
Steve Finley beats the fly to the fence by a few precious seconds. He has little time to find his footing near the 410 marker and execute a desperate leap. His jump is awkward, his body leaning rightward at a 45-degree angle, his feet barely leaving the ground. But Finley stands at 6’2”, and he doesn’t need much air to keep a ball from leaving the yard. He has done this hundreds of times before. His leather clears the top of the fence, barely. He closes his glove.
The first person to realize what Todd Pratt has done is Charlie Rappa of Bay Fireworks, who is situated behind the center field fence, readying a pyrotechnical display that will be set off in the event of a series-clinching victory. As the roars from the stands swell, Rappa looks up from his post and sees something bouncing his way. It is a baseball.
The second person to realize what Pratt has done is Steve Finley. He touches back to the ground and peers into his glove, expecting to see a ball there. The ball is always there. Except this time. Finley places his hands on his hips, slumps them to his side, darts his head left and right for a cue about what to do, how to feel about this moment.
The Met bench looks to Steve Finley to tell the story. He came down calm, he must have it, Shawon Dunston thinks, at first. Then he realizes, No, he came down too calm. The Mets run onto the field, screaming, towel waving, dancing. John Franco executes a strange high-kicking move somewhere between an Irish jig and a whirling dervish, a move he couldn’t recreate if he tried.
The last person to realize what Todd Pratt has done is Todd Pratt. He rounds second, his eyes shut, grimacing. He has no idea what has transpired until the crowd’s window-rattling screams mingle with mojo risin’… blasting through Shea’s PA system. Only then does he raise his arms in triumph and begin running around the bases. And he is running, as fast as a backup catcher’s knees will allow.
The dejected Diamondbacks slump off the field. NYPD officers march along the baselines to keep ecstatic fans off the field. The auxiliary scoreboards shout a simple celebratory YAHOO! Bob Murphy, who has witnessed nearly every moment in Mets history, gushes to his radio audience, “Oh, I wish you were here to see this!” And as Pratt’s teammates wait for his arrival at home plate, the catcher finds himself choking back tears and slowing his run to a jog. He’s in no hurry for this to end.