1999

When the Mets won the 1986 World Series, I was 6 years old. I hadn’t yet started my first season of tee ball. I knew names like Mookie, Strawberry, Kid, and Doctor K, but I didn’t love baseball yet. I didn’t understand that the World Series was multiple games, and that the Mets wouldn’t be winning (or even appearing in) them regularly throughout the rest of my childhood and beyond. Perhaps if my father realized this, he would’ve kept me up past my bedtime and I would have some memory of that epic Fall Classic. Instead, my memory is that the Mets balloon we put on our mailbox blew away. I remember my dad telling me not to worry, the balloon was drifting northeast towards Boston. The majority of what I know about the 1986 postseason was absorbed when my brother and I watched “A Year To Remember” on VHS hundreds, nay thousands, of times. Though I was born a Mets fan, it was in the 1987 season that became a huge baseball fan. I’ve been disappointed each year since. Sure I enjoyed about 5 years of competitive pennant chase years while the Mets star players either aged or ruined their futures with cocaine addiction. Then came the mid 1990s and with it, “The Worst Team Money Could Buy”, and plenty of mediocrity leading up to the Bobby V years. It is these years that I would like to revisit for a moment the only time this franchise made back to back postseason appearances. Because let’s face it: to Mets fans of my approximate age (the bittersweet 2006 campaign not withstanding), the 1999 and 2000 teams are the closest thing to the proverbial “glory days” that we get.
My intention is not to take anything away from the 2000 Mets. Their season ended in disappointment just as the 1999 team’s did. I remember thinking, “what could be worse than walking in the pennant to lose the NLCS to your hated rival?” Then we found out the next year what could be worse than that. Let’s compare and contrast these two teams. Now 15 years later, I think many fans forget how this was not the same exact team two years in a row. Sure, there were plenty of returning stars: Piazza, Alfonzo, Leiter, Ventura, Benitez. Did I really just refer to Armando Benitez as a star? Statistically speaking, he was. But ask any Mets fan who lived through those years and they’ll tell you that the bigger the save opportunity, the more likely that Benitez would come up short. Perhaps in another universe, John Franco would’ve remained the closer. And while he didn’t have Benitez’s stuff, Johnny had one thing that the big guy was very short on: guts. Benitez would be the downfall of both the 1999 and 2000 teams and the 2001 team as well. But for a team that played in back to back NLCS, only 13 Mets appeared in both series. Essentially half the team turned over. But if we take a look back, we can see that despite not advancing as far into October, the ’99 squad provided more thrills than the 2000 team. And I will make my case that the 1999 team was a far better team overall, with the 2000 team being the beneficiary of the St. Louis Cardinals taking the Atlanta Braves out of the equation. Both teams won 102 games including postseason. The 1999 team was 102-70, while the 2000 squad went 102-74. Let’s take a look at that squad. We saw Agbayani as a starter for the first time, Derek Bell blowing out his leg in the playoff opener and being replaced by young Timoniel Perez. Jay Payton, injured in 1999, was looking like a budding star.

20 Years Ago This Weekend

The 1993 baseball season was unique for many different reasons. It was the final season before the 1994 players strike. It was also the last season of two divisional play, which saw the San Francisco Giants win 103 games and miss the postseason. But as a Mets fan, it was a season of monumental failure. The highlights of that year were Vince Coleman throwing firecrackers at a little girl, Bret Saberhagen spraying bleach at reporters, and Anthony Young’s record breaking 27 consecutive losses. I don’t remember how many Mets games my father brought us to that season (we would usually go to around 6 per year). But I do recall that by Labor Day weekend, we were beyond disgusted with the way our beloved Amazins were playing.
It was still to our surprise when my father told us that he would be taking us to the Yankee game for a Saturday matinee. “Why?” one of us asked. Though we were both huge baseball fans and loved going to games, we grew up in the 1980s, when New York was a Mets town. The Yankees may have played in the same town, but that was the American League. My extent of knowledge of the AL were the baseball cards I collected and verbal accounts of who the good players were based on my neighbor Billy, a Yankee fan. This was before the internet, MLB Network, fantasy baseball (the way we know it today anyway), interleague play, and before my love for baseball reached the insane levels it climbed to when I hit my 20s.
Today, you wouldn’t have to twist my arm at all to go to any game, especially in a stadium I haven’t been to yet. But as a 13 year old with 8th grade a few days away, I wasn’t entirely sure that this was how I wanted to spend my last Saturday of the summer. Something about going to the Bronx just felt so foreign, so wrong, so gross.
But, when you are a kid, you do what Dad says (for the most part anyway). So we made the unfamiliar drive to the Bronx, parked in an unfamiliar parking garage, and walked up to that unfamiliar monolith in what I was already sure was the most dangerous neighborhood on Earth. (Sidebar: While NYC in 1993 may have had a slightly higher crime rate than it currently does, my assumptions were based on what I had heard. At current, there are probably few safer places in the 5 boros than the area surrounding The House That George Built.). I didn’t know much about what to expect about our trip to Yankee Stadium that overcast Saturday afternoon. But one thing was for certain: WE WERE ROOTING FOR CLEVELAND.
Somewhere around this time, my father decided to tell us that the last time he was in the post-renovation Yankee Stadium was 16 years prior. That meant very little to Mark and I, but my dad explained that it was for a rather historic October ballgame in 1977. My dad grew up a NY Giants fan and had the misfortune of seeing the Yankees win the pennant or World Series 14 of his first 16 years on the planet. So it was odd to me that he would’ve attended a game between the Yankees and Dodgers, the two franchises he grew up despising. But he fessed up that he and a friend had big money bet on that Bronx Zoo squad, and therefore heard cash register “ca-ching” noises in his head with each blast off of Reggie’s bat. We had heard of that game, but as a 13 year old my understanding for the history of baseball was not nearly what it would be later in life. I knew enough to know that being at a World Series game must’ve been pretty fun, especially if he was winning hundreds of dollars in the process.
But back to the present (well, past). Neither the 1993 Yankees or the 1993 Cleveland Indians would be of any historical significance. Though the Indians had some up and coming star players: a third baseman by the name of Jim Thome, catcher Sandy Alomar, Jr., second baseman Carlos Baerga, Kenny Lofton, and a wiry Washington Heights product named Manny Ramirez. The 1993 Yankees were typical of their early 90s template: stars imported from other teams such as Boggs, Nokes, and Tartabull. There was Paul O’Niell and young Bernie Williams, who would contribute a few years later to their championship years. There was Don Mattingly, a shell of his former self due to back injuries. By all accounts this was about as meaningless game as you could attend.
The one unique thing about the game was that the starting pitcher had one hand. Now this was a story in the late 80s, when Jim Abbott was a newcomer with the then California Angels. But by now everyone knew that Jim Abbott was born without a right hand, and how he transferred his glove for fielding, and so on. Now he was nothing more than a middle of the rotation starter. Abbott had faced these same Indians in his previous start and got battered around. So we sat in our seats and waited for the Yankees to hopefully lose.
In the 3rd inning, the Yankees grabbed a 3-0 lead. My brother and I were at this point probably more concerned with getting Dad to buy more food than we were about anything happening on the field. And then around the 5th, a distinct buzz began amongst the fans. My dad, aware of the superstition, gestured to the scoreboard to make us aware that there were no hits allowed by Abbott through 5 innings. All of a sudden, this game that meant nothing took on monumental interest. People were standing up for each out. You couldn’t wait for the Yankees (who added a run in the bottom of the 5th) to make outs so we could see Abbott go back out to the mound. All of a sudden, you were nervous for the pitcher. Any foul ball or hard hit ball to the outfield made you lose your breath for a second. I don’t remember what inning it was, but the one play that stands out in my mind was Wade Boggs making a diving grab to keep the no-hitter in tact. Everyone was standing for the final two innings. Imagine how unlikely this could be to witness. A man born with one hand standing on the mound in The House That Ruth Built, 27,225 people cheering in unison, hoping to will him to the final out. And as Carlos Baerga grounded out to shortstop, sealing the deal for Abbott, we exploded in jubilation, the pinnacle of individual accomplishment in a team sport. We high-fived everyone around us, fans of the enemy team, because we were all elated that we had chosen this day to attend what should’ve been a meaningless ballgame in the Bronx.
As we drove home, we were all too happy to be able to rub it in to the Yankee fans we knew, that “we were there”. And even though we still despised the New York Yankees and everything they stood for, we were so happy to have gone to the old ballpark in the Bronx that cloudy Saturday afternoon in September. I’ll spare us all about some cliché about following your dreams, never giving up, or anything like that. I will say that despite all my hatred for the Yankees, there certainly was something to be said about the “mystique and aura” about that old building. I think the more important thing I take from that day isn’t about the ghosts of Ruth and Gehrig. Its not about overcoming adversity. It’s another cliché, the kind that I can actually stomach. It’s the old baseball cliché, “Come out to the ballpark. You never know what you’re gonna see”.

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One of the many lost nuances….

As I have been having this argument with advocates of the DH for over a decade, one constant is that having the pitchers bat impacts the game in many more ways than one might think. Allow me to briefly illustrate one of those nuances.
As we watch the continued pussification of pitchers via pitch counts, innings limits, specialized relief, and the designated hitter at nearly every level of the game, one disappearing treat is the complete game.
Once commonplace in the game, a complete game is nearly as rare as an inside the park home run or a steal of home plate. I can think of many a time in recent years that I screamed at (insert manager here) to “leave ‘em in!” only to have a relief pitcher appear after 8 innings and 110 or so pitches thrown.
It is well documented that one of the primary differences between the AL (that stands for “Arena League”, right?) and the NL is having to make pitching decisions while you are batting. I can remember a caller on ESPN radio when discussing manager of the year in each league saying, “In the NL: Bobby Cox. In the AL: no one. Because there is no managing in the American League.”
In the NL, once in awhile a home team’s starter is both dominant (or staked to a big lead) and low in pitch count, and comes to bat in the bottom of the 8th. This is one of the best opportunities in all of baseball for fans to salute an individual effort. When a pitcher is allowed to bat for himself in the bottom of the 8th inning, his name is announced, and the home crowd (hopefully) unleashes one of the best rounds of applause that can be dished out at a ballgame. When a pitcher is pinch hit for, or removed in between innings, there is never an opportunity to salute him individually. But this unique opportunity to applaud complete games by your home pitcher is completely lost in the American League. I once attended an interleague game at Shea Stadium between the Mets and Yankees. The Yankees won convincingly, and their young starter (Brandon Claussen perhaps?) was allowed to bat in the top of the 9th. There was no shortage of Yankee fans that day at old Shea. The only problem was, as AL fans, they squandered this opportunity to salute a commendable effort by a kid recently called up from the minors. Don’t worry purists, reluctantly this Mets fan stood up and cheered him.

New York: A National League City

As tonight’s All-Star festivities culminate with the Midsummer Classic itself, it is a time to reflect on the city that has hosted more baseball games than any other: New York. For many outsiders and casual fans, New York is synonymous with the Yankees. But an ESPN home run derby interview with Mets legend Mike Piazza really hit the nail on the head. Piazza recognized that despite all of the accomplishments of the Bronx Bombers, there is always an unmistakable buzz in town when the Mets are winning. Piazza attributed that to the blue collar nature of New York and the fact that for years, it was a National League town.
Look no further than 1951. A significant year for the Yanks, who in addition to capturing their 14th championship, saw the torch passed from DiMaggio to rookie Mickey Mantle. So surely the most famous single play in MLB history would’ve involved those Yankees, right? No! Because in the Golden Age of Baseball, before 24 hour cable sports networks or the internet, baseball was experienced either at the game, on the radio, or imagined while reading newsprint and boxscore. The best rivalry in baseball history (and it remains so, all due respect to Cubs-Cardinals and Yankees-Red Sox) was the only time in modern history when two teams played in the same city, in the same league.
The marvel of 1951 was that the 154 game season was not enough to decide the pennant, and a 3 game playoff was played. The Giants won the pennant (even those of us not yet born for decades can recite the call as if we were there), and as usual, the white collar team in New York prevailed en route to another ho-hum title. But now over 60 years later, that famous “shot heard round the world” far outshines the Yankees 14th championship and stands unchallenged as the greatest play in the history of the game. Does anyone even care that those same ’51 Giants lost the World Series? In those days, it was all about the pennant. 8 teams competing for 154 games, and best record is the champion. No playoffs, no wild card, just August and September baseball with teams going all out for the league pennant. Winning the Fall Classic was a nice bonus. Even looking at the films and plays of the era, it was always “the pennant” that was so highly coveted by any given team.
So now, with the Giants having left Manhattan for San Francisco and Dem Bums relocated to Hollywood, there is still a legacy of that intra-city rivalry that owned this town (regardless of what happened up in The Bronx). Many old-timers remember fondly of the games between these two rivals, the trash talking between neighbors, and where they were for Bobby Thomson’s legendary blast. The odd legacy that remains is the New York Mets. Perhaps the only example of an expansion team being “born” from two other teams. It is for that reason that the Mets colors are so very important. It’s a nice touch to see that the All-Star game uniforms are now a tribute to the franchise that hosts the game. I wonder how many of the All-Star players that suit up tonight in Mets colors (Dodger blue and Giants orange) are aware of why the Mets wear those two colors?

Mound Opponent?

The designated hitter is unnatural. That is both fact and opinion. To many American League fans, the DH is as much a part of the game as specialized relief or pitch counts. What can’t be disputed is that it’s presence causes odd quirks in the game.
For example, should AL teams issue caps to their full-time designated hitters? Since they never play the field, they should only need a batting helmet. Distributing caps to DHs would be an unnecessary use of the teams resources. I am being a tad bit silly here, as nowadays most AL teams don’t have one full-time DH, instead opting to use it to rest players by giving them a “half day off”, or to play partially injured players. For the remaining full-time designated hitters (Travis Hafner comes to mind), I have often wondered what they do with their cap. I suppose it can be worn in the dugout in between at-bats.
Another subtle but significant quirk brought on by the DH rule has to do with mound opponents. So much of what makes a great ballgame on paper is the pitching matchup. It’s what Las Vegas uses to determine the betting line. It’s what fantasy baseball owners use to determine their lineups for the day. Think of the old baseball cliché: “momentum is only as good as your next day’s starting pitcher”. It’s a pretty significant part of getting the fans not only to the ballpark, but to watch the games on television. “We’ve got a good one tomorrow night. Tune in for Verlander versus King Felix!” As a National League fan with no rooting interest in a Mariners-Tigers game, I would be extremely excited to watch those two aces square off.
“Tune in for Verlander versus King Felix!”. Well, not exactly. It’s more like Verlander versus the Mariners while King Felix battles the Tigers. And two extra guys who won’t be playing any position on the field. But Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander, who may sit side by side in Cooperstown someday, will never directly compete with each other on the field. When asked to rate their counterparts, American League pitchers have a worse perspective than the guy with season tickets behind home plate. Think about that. . Think of all the pitchers in the AL from the start of the DH rule (1973) until the start of interleague play (1997), who never experienced what it was like to see their peers pitch from closer than the dugout. Ron Guidry, Dennis Martinez, Roger Clemens (Boston), Nolan Ryan (California & Texas), Bret Saberhagen, Jack Morris, Dave Stewart, and dozens of other elite pitchers could not effectively rate even their own place in history because they never stood 60 feet 6 inches away from their peers and attempted to hit, bunt, or at the very least, gain additional knowledge of what that day’s umpire was calling a ball or a strike.
To fairly respect the mound opponent, one must stand in the batters box, dig in his spikes and be able to say, “He’s got his good stuff today. I’d better not give up too many runs or I’m gonna lose.” Until this 40 year old gimmick is phased out, American League pitchers will have to rely on the testimony of their teammates and highlights on television to guesstimate where they rank amongst their contemporaries.

What I would say if I were Barry Bonds

What’s interesting about this “Steroid Era” that baseball is trying to move beyond, is that there is no precedent to go by when judging these ball players, some alleged and some admitted users of PEDs. Much like attempting to instruct people how to behave themselves on Facebook, this is a 21st Century problem with not much history to refer to for help. For this writer (who does not have a Hall Of Fame vote), one of the interesting cases is that of the home run king*, Barry Bonds. One will hear baseball fans often say “Bonds was a Hall Of Famer BEFORE he took steroids”. While no one with the exception of Roberto Clemente has been inducted into Cooperstown earlier than 5 years before retiring, the understanding is that from 1986-1998, Barry Bonds was well on his way, having amassed over 400 HR and 400 SB. But in a topic that has been discussed so thoroughly, I have rarely heard anyone ask the most basic question regarding Bonds: WHY?. Prior to 1999, Bonds already had made millions, won 3 MVPs, and for a decade had been regarded as the most feared hitter and all-around player in the National League. Why jeopardize your livelihood, your fortune, your legacy as a player? True, steroids weren’t illegal in MLB in 1999 and clearly most players appear to have been taking them at the time. (Sometimes ESPN will show the All-Star home run derby from the late 90s and early 2000s at 3am, and looking back it’s amazing to think how no one seemed to notice that all of the hitters looked more like bodybuilders than baseball players.). I think if we remember 1998, it’s easy to see just why indeed Barry chose to upgrade his cap to a size 9 3/4 and become “Baroid”. So at this point, I would like to put myself in the shoes of 2013 Barry Bonds, and call a press conference that is probably 10 years overdue. Thank you members of the media and viewers at home. I am addressing you today to finally come clean. The fact that I have used PEDs does not come as a shock to many people anymore. Being that my head and upper body grew immensely as did my offensive numbers. I won’t say that I didn’t enjoy completely dominating baseball for about 8 years. It’s a pretty powerful feeling when you know you every pitcher in the league is afraid of you, and the one good pitch per game you see, you hit 415 feet for some guy in a canoe to retrieve. It was kinda like playing video games on “beginner”. That said, I want you to know why I chose to go down this path. For 10 years, I was satisfied with being the best all around player in the NL. Ken Griffey, Jr. and myself were the two best all around players of the 1990s. And then in 1998, these two inferior players, .250 hitters, poor defensively, 100+ strikeout hitters, started blasting home runs. McGwire and Sosa could never steal bases, make game saving plays in the field, or deliver a winning single with the game on the line in the 9th inning. These guys were body builders with bats. And all of a sudden, the county unanimously agreed that the two of them “saved baseball” with their home run record chase in 1998. I was all WTF? Everyone in the league knew that they were juicing. So I was all, “I’ll show you what a good player can do on steroids”. And I took those shits. And you see what I did. I put up Ruthian slugging percentage numbers. I hit .370. My OBP was nearly .500! And not for nothing, Babe Ruth had Lou Gehrig behind him. I had Rich Aurilia and Jeff Kent. So ya see, that’s why I did it. So sure, call me a cheater, try to throw out my 73 in 2003 or the 762 overall. But you can’t count anything McGwire or Sosa did as a home run record either. The whole generation is tarnished. The pitchers I hit them off were on steroids. But baseball believed that the home run would get fans interested again after the strike of 1994. So yeah, of course I was on the juice. I’ve got collapsing joints all over my body and the tumors to prove it. But just remember, I didn’t start this problem. I just couldn’t live with guys as crappy as Sammy Sosa being the MVP. So maybe if I didn’t go completely beast mode for 8 years, maybe nothing would’ve been done to combat this problem. Well it’s good to see that PEDs are out of the game now. Oh that’s right, they aren’t. Mwuhahahaha. Bonds out!. Well, I may have taken a few liberties with the eccentric nature of Bonds character. He has never been known to be a great interview, and certainly I had a little fun putting myself in his shoes, but the idea about the 1998 home run chase simply has to be said. Bonds out.

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It All Started At Coogan’s Bluff

It all started at Coogan’s Bluff. That was the old nickname for the Polo Grounds in New York. Which, when I trace the lineage of my baseball fanhood, I always end up. That rectangular monolith that looked like something out of Gotham City. Sure, old Yankee Stadium gets all the notoriety, and with good reason. But the Polo Grounds was like the Manhattan Bridge in that it is overshadowed by the glorious Brooklyn Bridge, but its pretty damned awesome in its own right. In that unique rectangular venue in Washington Heights, my grandfather saw Mel Ott and Carl Hubbell, and my father saw Willie Mays. When the team moved to San Francisco following the 1957 season, my grandfather, father, and uncle ripped up some of the center field sod on their way out (Imagine, the way to exit the game was by walking onto the field and exiting through the center field gate!) and planted it in the backyard at home. As the current occupant of that same house, I play ball with my three year old son on a lawn that is the descendant of Polo Grounds sod. As I begin this journey into the realm of blogging for the first time in my life, allow Coogan’s Bluff to be a metaphorical starting point. My objective as a writer in unusual. Would I love to be able to make a living writing about baseball? Of course I would, who wouldn’t? But my bigger objective, beyond personal interest, is to see that the national pastime does not deviate from the rules that were the same in those very Polo Grounds in olde New York. On May 6, 1915, the New York Yankees (then co-occupants of the Polo Grounds) hosted the Boston Red Sox. A 20-year old pitcher by the name of Babe Ruth blasted a second-deck home run off of Yankees pitcher Jack Warhop. Ruth would hit 713 more home runs, mostly in a Yankees uniform. If current American League rules had been effect, the game would’ve been deprived of its greatest star. Ruth likely would’ve been a Hall Of Fame pitcher, but his slugging in the early 1920s helped recapture many fans that were soured by the Black Sox scandal of 1919. Not all of the coming posts will be about my disdain for the designated hitter rule. But make no mistake of what’s in store: this blog hopes to serve as a “purists plea” to the used car salesman that is quietly ruining the game that fathers have shared with their sons for generations. And I will no longer sit idly by as it unfolds before my eyes. It’s time to take the game back, Bud.