Editor’s note: For the 2000 installment of our series on the Mets’ history in the NLCS, we’re very lucky to have an adapted excerpt by Amazin’ Avenue alumnus Matthew Callan from his book Yells for Ourselves: A Story of New York City and the New York Mets at the Dawn of the Millennium. If you enjoy great writing and #LoveTheMets—especially the late 90s and 2000 teams—it’s a highly recommended read.
The evening of October 16, 2000 is different. After the Mets played most of their playoff games in relative warmth, rain prevails for much of the day that precedes game five of the National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. The tarp remains on the Shea Stadium infield until forty-five minutes before the first pitch, bands of mist illuminated by the gargantuan ballpark lights. By game time, the temperatures have dipped into the mid-fifties. Finally, with the Mets one win away from a trip to the World Series, it feels like October.
The two dugouts are different. Covering the action for Fox, broadcaster Tim McCarver reports that he ran into Bobby Valentine before the game, and that the manager “looked more relaxed than I’ve ever seen him.” Relaxed is not an adjective normally appended to the Mets skipper, especially during the two seasons leading up to this night, which saw him flirt with a pink slip innumerable times due his talented team’s inexplicable slumps and an preternatural ability to insert his foot in his mouth at the worst possible times. Yet here he was, so close to his elusive goal of reaching the Fall Classic, relaxed. Cut to the visiting dugout, where the Cardinals look flat. Hitting coach Mike Easler paces the bench, imparting batting advice clichés while his charges pay him no mind at all. St. Louis manager Tony La Russa is chafing under scrutiny from a press corps that dares question his genius, particularly as regards his use of slugger Mark McGwire. Patellar tendonitis prevents Big Mac from taking the field, and so he must remain on the bench during the playoffs as a not-so-secret weapon, one that La Russa has been curiously reluctant to employ against the Mets. Though the Cardinals found themselves with a large deficit early in game four, their high octane lineup did its best to claw back by mounting numerous scoring opportunities, yet La Russa never once sent McGwire to the on deck circle even as a scare tactic, and the Mets ultimately held on for a sloppy 10-6 win that placed St. Louis on the brink of elimination. Given a chance to defend his manager, McGwire instead hung him out to dry by refusing to speak to the media after the game.
On the evening of October 16, the crowd is different. Every game played at Shea Stadium in this postseason has been cheered on by more than fifty-six thousand loud and raucous fans, but even by this measure, the crowd on hand tonight leaves the previous attendees in the dust in the categories of volume and enthusiasm. When the series was in St. Louis, Al Leiter could feel the roar of the crowd pressing against him as he stood on the mound, but he figured anything St. Louis can do, New York can do better. Once the action returned to the Big Apple, Leiter and John Franco lobbied Mets management for an extra set of giant speakers mounted beyond the center-field fence, the kind normally reserved for rock concerts, in order to blast the opposition into submission. After a disappointing New York loss in game three left little reason to use them, the new toys were unboxed during game four. Throughout the broadcast of that game, the Fox crew commented on the extra loudness. But even that was mere child’s play compared to the noise that will be unleashed in game five.
The evening of October 16 is also different because it is a rare night when the Mets have the spotlight all to themselves. With the Yankees also in the playoffs, all baseball conversation revolves around the elusive return of a Subway Series, and all questions are centered around the team from the Bronx rather than the one from Queens. But the Yankees still have some business to attend to after their league championship opponents, the Mariners, salvaged their season with a win in Seattle the night before. This outcome necessitated another cross-country plane trip (the latest of many in these playoffs for the travel-weary Bronx Bombers; the Oakland A’s had made things similarly difficult on the Yanks by pushing the division series to a full five games) for a game six back in New York. That contest won’t be waged until tomorrow. Tonight, the Mets stand alone on baseball’s stage.
Most of all, the evening of October 16 is different because of the man on the mound. So far, this series has lacked a quality starting performance from either side. For the Mets, Al Leiter huffed and puffed through seven innings in game two, while Rick Reed and Bobby Jones disappointed in the two games that followed. Southpaw Mike Hampton—the Mets’ biggest acquisition of the previous winter, a rent-an-ace who’d shown signs of brilliance in the regular season amid long stretches of disturbing mediocrity—had put up the best line of them all by throwing seven shutout innings in game one, but his outing was less pitching clinic than magic act. The Cardinals mounted threats in nearly all of those innings, only to squander them all. He watched the final out he recorded in the contest with literal baited breath; as St. Louis slugger Jim Edmonds came within inches of blasting a game-tying homer, Hampton was so afraid the blast would leave the yard that he refused to breathe, fearing the slightest breath might push it over the fence.
No tricks are needed the night of October 16. When asked after the Mets’ game four win how he would approach a potential pennant-clincher, Hampton was guarded in his comments, at least at first. Many of his superstitious teammates refused to mention the words “pennant” or “World Series”; he followed their lead in fear of jinxing a team so close to the promised land. But then he concluded his comments with words that would be familiar to those who remember Bobby Jones’s stunning one-hit shutout to clinch the division series against the Giants.
“I’m looking forward to pitching the game of my life,” he said.
The first inning of game five begins with a leadoff single, but Hampton knuckles down to retire the next three Cardinals in order. This marks the first time in the series that the visiting team has failed to score in the first inning. It also marks the closest the Cardinals will come to scoring at all for the remainder of this game.
Cardinals starter Pat Hengten takes the mound in the bottom of the first having not thrown a pitch in anger in over two weeks. “I’ve pitched in World Series games before,” Hentgen told reporters the night before, reminding everyone of the two championships he won with the Blue Jays and his playoff pedigree. But it is more desperation than experience that has called Hentgen to this moment, for the Cardinals’ starting rotation is in sorry shape. Righty Garret Stephenson is hurt, lefty Rick Ankiel has inexplicably lost his ability to throw a strike, and ace Daryl Kile was spent on short rest in a game four that saw him cede four consecutive first-inning doubles before departing with eight runs on his ledger.
The long break since Hentgen’s last outing explains his lack of poise and command on this evening, but it doesn’t explain the skittishness and unsure hands of the defense behind him. The frame begins with a single by Timo Pérez. A week ago, this was a name that even many Mets fans might not have known, but now he is now an indispensable part of the team’s October drive. The Domincan outfielder had been signed to a minor league deal earlier in the year after refusing a minor league assignment from the Hiroshima Toyo Carp; having gone through Hiroshima’s rigorous baseball academy, and having spent relatively little time in the American minors, he as yet speaks better Japanese than English. (In this he found a kindred spirit in Bobby Valentine, who’d managed Japan’s Chiba Lotte Marines for one raucous, memorable season.) A surprise addition to the postseason roster, Pérez subbed for an injured Derek Bell during game one of the division series and has been nearly impossible to keep off the bases ever since, slap-bunting, beating out grounders, and stealing bases in a manner more befitting the deadball era than the homer-happy days of 2000, adding some much needed zip to a Mets team that was veteran-heavy and low on speed. When Pérez wastes little time in attempting to swipe second, the catcher’s throw is several feet short of the bag and skips into the outfield. Pérez scampers to third and scores moments later after an Edgardo Alfonzo grounder zips under the shortstop’s glove.
Hentgen pitches carefully to Mike Piazza and walks him, eyeing a double-play grounder from the slow-footed Robin Ventura. The third baseman foils the plot by lining a single to right, scoring Alfonzo and sending Piazza to third. Hentgen nearly produces that elusive double play by inducing a grounder from Todd Zeile, but as the infielders bobble this ball, Piazza trots home with the third run of the inning. The Cardinals are unprepared for the slick field conditions after a rainy day, unprepared for the crowd noise and PA rumble that greets every Met hit and Cardinal error, unprepared for anything they will face this evening.
Hentgen escapes the inning with no further damage, though he has already allowed more runs than the Mets will need to back up his opposite number. Hampton sets down the Cardinals in order in the second. He cedes a one-out single in the third but shuts the door thereafter. Another one-out hit by Will Clark in the fourth is followed by commanding strikeouts of Jim Edmonds and Edgar Rentería. “Mike Hampton is in total control at this point,” says Joe Buck in the Fox broadcast booth. Four innings of work should be too few to proclaim any pitcher is in total control, but it doesn’t sound like exaggeration to anyone observing the lefty’s domination.
For his part, Hentgen has to feel he’s settled into a groove after his rough first inning. He retires the Mets in order in the second and works around a pair of walks in the third. The powerful Cardinals lineup should be more than capable of vaulting a three-run deficit, even if they have looked helpless against Mike Hampton to this point. And then comes the bottom of the fourth, the inning that puts a bow on the conclusion of this series.
It starts with Timo Pérez, as all things Mets do these days. With one out, he hits a sharp grounder that lands one millimeter short of Pat Hentgen’s foot and takes a weird bounce off his cleat. Luckily for the Cardinals, the ball shoots right into shortstop Edgar Rentería’s glove. Unluckily for the Cardinals, Rentería’s throw bounces short of first. Then with two outs, Mike Piazza belts a double to left, moving Pérez to third. Burned once by Ventura, Hentgen walks him to face Todd Zeile instead. In the dugout, Edgardo Alfonzo paces the dugout and screams encouragement, demanding that his teammate put the Cardinals away for good. The sight of an emotional Alfonzo is as rare as they come—as the mild-mannered infielder put up MVP-worthy numbers in the last two seasons, New York’s sports scribes penned innumerable articles about how he is the greatest player no one notices—but he is haunted by the near miss of 1999, when the Mets nearly forced a game seven in the championship series against the Braves, only to squander a pair of late leads and eventually walk in Atlanta’s series-clinching run. The Mets are so close to taking the pennant, he does not want to leave any scoring chance uncashed. His screams say, in essence, End it here.
An RBI hit in game four of this series notwithstanding, Todd Zeile’s bat has been MIA for most of the playoffs. Nonetheless, the Cardinals’ preference to face him over Robin Ventura strikes him as an insult, as does Tony La Russa’s decision to stay with Pat Hentgen, who is nearing the end of his rope, rather than turn his bullpen. To be disrespected in this manner by the team that traded him away as a young player is doubly motivating. Zeile had come to the majors through the St. Louis organization and endured a painful transition from catcher to infielder because he envisioned being a Cardinal for life. Then in 1994, a contract dispute bubbled up, and the Cardinals exacted revenge by both trading him to the cellar-dwelling Cubs and leaking supposed ingratitude on his part to the press to tar his reputation on he way out of town. He has drifted ever since, his post with the Mets this season his sixth landing spot in eight seasons. “It’s the place I grew up in baseball,” Zeile says of his years in St. Louis, an admission that makes his desire for revenge sound almost Freudian.
Behind in the count, Todd Zeile goes with an outside fastball and launches it to the base of the wall in right center. Timo Pérez scores. Mike Piazza scores. Robin Ventura scores. Todd Zeile flies to second. The Mets are now up 6–0. The upper deck of Shea literally sways with the weight of fans jumping for joy. The tone of the Fox broadcast booth’s reportage on the noise level in the stadium transforms from impressed to terrified, as if Joe Buck and Tim McCarver are war correspondents treading too close to a battlefront.
The only questions remaining in this game are, will the fans pull Shea Stadium out by the roots, and how long will Mike Hampton continue to carve up Cardinals hitters? The answer to the first query is unclear. The answer to the second is: until the twenty-seventh out. The demoralized Cards go down in order in the fifth and manage no more than a one-out walk in the sixth. Hampton sets the opposition down one-two-three in the seventh and again in the eighth. Only duty and the rules of the game bring the Cardinals to the plate. Their hearts are not in the endeavor. As early as the fifth inning, each man Hampton retires prompts Joe Buck to note that he is one out closer to history. As early as the sixth inning, Fox graphics promise they will bring viewers the trophy presentation ceremony that will follow this game, without the caveat of the word “if.”
As for the Mets, they do little against the relievers who succeed Pat Hentgen, but this is seemingly by choice. With Hampton cruising on the mound, they are content to speed up the cork popping. And then Tony La Russa steps in to make his final managerial miscalculation of the series by asking Rick Ankiel to pitch the bottom of the seventh inning. The reasoning is that this will allow him an opportunity to draw some positive experience out of this series, so that the last thing he remembers from his season is not his two disastrously wild playoff starts in which he uncorked an astonishing seven wild pitches. Ankiel departed game two of this series after only two-thirds of an inning, looking as lost as anyone ever has on a major league mound. In a vacuum, calling on him now might be a debatable decision. In the raucous atmosphere of Shea Stadium, with the Mets six outs from a pennant, Tony La Russa is offering his young pitcher up as a human sacrifice.
The first indication that this will not go well comes during warm-ups, when one of Ankiel’s tosses almost hits a T-shirt-cannon-wielding stadium worker, who is nowhere near the plate at the time. As he pitches to leadoff batter Mike Bordick, he has trouble finding the zone, leading many in the crowd to chant, “WILD PITCH! WILD PITCH!” A walk ensues. After Mike Hampton bunts Bordick over, Ankiel takes some measure of dignity back by striking out Timo Pérez looking. Then he lets loose a pair of wild pitches to score Bordick, each errant throw drawing a sarcastic cheer from the merciless Shea stands. A wild walk of Edgardo Alfonzo finally brings Tony La Russa out of the dugout to remove the young lefty, his attempt at salving the young man’s feelings having produced the opposite effect.
With the game out of reach and their entire roster demoralized, the frustrated Cardinals take out their feelings the only way they can at this point. In the bottom of the eighth, Cardinal closer Dave Veres throws a pair of pitches up and in to rookie center fielder Jay Payton, the second nailing him in the temple, opening a gash over his right eye. Payton hits the turf for a moment, then leaps back to his feet and takes a few purposeful steps toward the mound. As the benches clear, Benny Agbayani and Bobby Valentine hold the battered outfielder back. Some posturing and mild shoving ensues, but no true hostilities break out. The Mets realize fighting at this point will only tarnish the victory they are about to savor. Veres later insists the beaning was an accident, and with victory so close the Mets can taste it, Payton is willing to let the matter go. “I’d take a shot in the head every year to get to the World Series,” he says.
In the top of the ninth, Hampton makes quick work of two pinch hitters (including Mark McGwire, finally logging an at bat). By this point, the air at Shea is thick with makeshift confetti. Fans rip up any paper they have on hand—programs, soda cups, beer bottle labels—and rain it down on the field. Players from both teams have little room to stand in their respective dugouts due to the NYPD officers preparing to storm the field after the final out and prevent overjoyed fans from doing the same.
Twelve months ago, the Mets lost a grueling championship series, mounting innumerable comebacks only to fall short. They, and their fans, felt they deserved to win that series for all the pain they’d endured. Perhaps this is the delayed make-good on those torturous games with the Braves: a series with the Cardinals that was supposed to be a dog fight and felt, for most of its duration, more like a cakewalk. Many Mets had endured years of frustration to get here, but in the end, the man who records the final out is the man with the shortest amount of major league service time, though he may have come the farthest distance: Timo Pérez, six weeks into his big league career, with the Mets by way of the Dominican Republic via Hiroshima, who had more impact on this series than anyone dared imagine. The final out is a high, looping fly ball to center field, where Pérez stands now, shifted there due to the injury to Jay Payton. He does not have to move an inch to catch it, but Timo being Timo, he does more than move. The ball is hit so high, Pérez has time to leap for joy twice, land, and ready himself to catch the final out.
The ball settles in his glove at 11:39 p.m. on Monday, October 16, 2000. No other New York team has played all day. Spoilsports say this will not last, insist it cannot last. Realists will offer no break between the capturing of the pennant and the questions about the looming opponent. But on the field at this moment in time, the Mets do not have to care about that, or about anything at all but hoisting Mike Hampton into the air and celebrating and whooping and hollering with all of their fans. All of them have one whole day to savor a trip to the World Series, one whole day to believe this city might be theirs again
Editor’s note, Part 2: Again, you’re missing out if you haven’t read Yells for Ourselves: A Story of New York City and the New York Mets at the Dawn of the Millennium.