One Line Summary: He who lives by October magic and walkoff wins can die by them, too.
The signing of third baseman Robin Ventura shored up both the infield and the batting order. Ventura hit .301 with 32 homers and 120 RBI, also becoming the first player in history to homer in both ends of a doubleheader. And, of course, there was his defense. “On the left side of the infield Ventura and Ordonez cover the most ground since Lewis and Clark,” Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verduci wrote. Both players won Gold Gloves in 1999 while the low key but high yield right side of Olerud and Alfonzo went overlooked. Well, overlooked if you don’t count the SI cover in that issue, which asked if the Mets might have “The Best Infield Ever.” No cover jinx here.
Alfonzo, who moved back to second base to accommodate Ventura, did not commit a fielding error all year; his five errors were all on throws. The team set a record with only 20 unearned runs allowed. “It’s hard to get four guys like that on one infield,” said Giants Gold Glove first baseman J.T. Snow. “That’s why they’re going to make the playoffs. Their defense won’t break down.”
The offense is what conked out. The Mets had a four-game lead in the wild card standings with 12 games remaining and had an outside shot at first place in the NL East—until they were swept in Atlanta. That was nothing new, but then the Mets were swept in Philadelphia, too. The Mets lost eight of nine at the worst possible time and found themselves two games behind the Reds with three games to play. While the Reds lost consecutive games in Milwaukee, the Mets twice beat Pittsburgh and the clubs were tied going into the final day of the season.
Pittsburgh nicked Orel Hershiser for a run in the first inning. Late-season pickup Darryl Hamilton tied it in the fourth when his line drive landed just fair. With the game still tied and the bases full with one out in the ninth, the Pirates summoned former Met Brad Clontz to face worn-out Mike Piazza, who’d bounced into a league-high 27 double plays. The mild October afternoon crackled with anticipation and angst. The first pitch… skipped to the backstop and Melvin Mora crossed home plate.
Al Leiter had allowed nearly twice as many runs as in his dominant first season with the Mets, but he was still the ace. The Reds, who’d waded through ankle-deep water in Milwaukee just to qualify for this one-game playoff, had 11-3 Steve Parris on the hill. Leiter was brilliant, pitching his only complete game of the year and allowing just two hits. The Mets had that many hits two batters into the game. Rickey Henderson, who defied age and the critics by hitting .315 with 37 steals at age 40, singled while the capacity crowd at Cinergy Field settled into their seats. Alfonzo followed with a two-run homer. The Mets later tacked on three more runs to let fans in New York breathe. The wait was over.
The laundry was still soaked with champagne when the Mets took the field in Phoenix the next night for the Division Series. An early lead disappeared and the Mets had the bases loaded in a tie game with two down in the ninth. Up stepped Alfonzo, who launched a grand slam, his second home run of the game, and the Mets had their first postseason win since 1988.
Another home run in New York’s final at bat in Game 4 that decided the series. Armando Benitez had not only blown Leiter’s lead in the eighth, he’d let Arizona go ahead. A dropped fly ball by the D-Backs let the Mets tie it in the bottom of the inning. Todd Pratt, catching because of Mike Piazza’s injured thumb, joined the pantheon of unlikely October heroes. His long drive to center in the 10th seemed to be lined up by Gold Glove center field Steve Finley, he jumped at the wall, looked in his glove, and… nothing. Shea Stadium erupted. But even that would not be the most memorable wall-clearing clout of the ’99 postseason.
The Mets faced the Braves in the NLCS, dropping three close games in a row—in fact, every game in the series was decided by one run, except for the opener, which was a two-run margin. John Olerud gave the Mets the lead in the eighth inning of Game 4 and the Mets avoided the sweep. Olerud homered in the first inning the next day—the last runs the Mets would score until the 15th. Down by a run in a steady rain that had been falling for hours, Shawon Dunston singled to start an epic rally. Pratt came up with the bases loaded and walked. Robin Ventura followed, only needing to get the ball over the drawn-in infield or outfield to win it. Ventura’s swing someone cut through the mist and fog to land a ball in the bullpen. Pratt couldn’t wait to kick off another celebration and turned to hug Ventura. He was deemed to have passed the runner, denying the Mets the other runs. But one run was enough and “The Grand Slam Single” became the most famous postseason home run that wasn’t.
Unfortunately, the Mets had to leave the Shea “Mojo” behind and return to the house of horrors in Atlanta. Leiter didn’t retire a batter and the Braves went up 5-0 in the first, only to see the Mets catch up, take—and then blow—leads in the eighth and 10th. With a Brave on third and one out in the 11th, Bobby Valentine elected to have Kenny Rogers walk the bases full. No one told him to then walk Andruw Jones, but Rogers did. The Subway Series would have to wait a year.
By Matt Silverman