Clubhouse Confidential: Mets Enjoy Close Shave

They were smiling in the dugout, in the rain. The Mets were

three outs away from elimination during the long night of Oct. 17, but any time

NBC’s cameras showed the home team’s bench, somebody was smiling. When backup

catcher Todd Pratt strode from the on-deck circle to the plate in the 15th

inning, he was chuckling out loud.

Tension? The Mets laugh

in its face. And that may be the simplest explanation for the team’s astonishing,

memorable and satisfying three-week trip through baseball’s graveyard. No

matter what happened in Game 6 on Oct. 19 in Atlanta, the Mets gleefully turned

their funeral procession into a Mardi Gras parade.

After Robin Ventura’s

grand-slam single in the 15th inning of Game 5, the Mets’ locker room offered a

glimpse of a team that seemed to enjoy living on the brink. Pinch-hitter Matt

Franco, pitcher Bobby Jones, reliever John Franco and outfielder Darryl

Hamilton were shaving in a back room adjacent to the team’s locker room half an

hour or so after the longest base hit of Mr. Ventura’s career. They were still

on a high.

“Still alive, baby,” Mr.

Jones said.

“Just got to believe,

Bones,” John Franco replied, calling the onetime all-star by his nickname.

“That’s what she planned.”

“I believe,” Mr. Hamilton

said emphatically.

“Fuck, yeah,” John

Franco said.

“Fucking killing me,”

Matt Franco said. “Sweet!”

Outfielder Melvin Mora

joined them and said he was going to go home and buy a pack of cigarettes and

bottle of wine. Pitcher Masato Yoshii, the Japanese import who had started Game

5, came in and spent three minutes brushing his teeth and combing his hair. His

English is poor; he said nothing to his teammates before leaving. He was

replaced at the sink by Pat Mahomes, who got the Mets into a jam by issuing two

walks in the seventh and eighth innings.

“You had me nervous

today,” John Franco said. “I don’t like that four-ball shit.” Mr. Mahomes took

the ribbing well. Why not? It worked out in the end.

Meanwhile, manager Bobby

Valentine was offering his thoughts to a voracious complement of national press

gathered in his office. The out-of-towners, perhaps aware of Mr. Valentine’s

reputation for belittling his questioners, seemed hesitant to ask Mr. Valentine

anything. There were long pauses between inquiries. Somebody noted that a few

players had questioned his moves, even though Game 5 was perhaps the

most-brilliant Mr. Valentine has ever managed, but Mr. Valentine had no problem

with second-guessing-not after a memorable victory, anyway. “I like to talk

baseball,” he said. “I like having players around who like to talk baseball. I

think it stimulates thought.”

Then, as reporters

pondered their next line of questioning, Mr. Valentine entertained a series of

celebrity visitors. First up was Sandy Koufax, the reclusive Hall of Famer who

raised his profile considerably in recent weeks with frequent visits to Shea

Stadium. He poked his head into Mr. Valentine’s office and waved hello with his

massive left hand.

“Thanks for being here,

Sandy,” Mr. Valentine said. “Come on in.”

But the silver-haired,

63-year-old Mr. Koufax, who has begun to take on some of the distant and

mysterious elegance of the late Joe DiMaggio, became flustered. He mumbled

something about meeting someone and backed away from Mr. Valentine’s door and

into the clubhouse.

Then the Mets’ co-owner

Fred Wilpon, a onetime teammate of Mr. Koufax’s at Brooklyn’s Lafayette High

School, came into the crowded office. Pretending to be one of the mob of press

inquisitors, he asked: “Bobby, why did you leave Ventura in?”

The two men laughed and

embraced. “Great game, Bobby,” Mr. Wilpon said. 

Then the actor Kurt

Russell arrived, pumped up after the big win. “Yeah!” he screamed and pointed

his finger at Mr. Valentine. They hugged and grunted. Mr. Russell left and the

reporters were standing around waiting for Mr. Valentine to say something.

But what more could be

said?

 

Yanks Need No Miracles

With their five-game

disposal of the Red Sox, the Yankees needed none of the dramatics the Mets

called on during their late-season resurrection. The Bronx Bombers clinched

their third World Series berth in four years in the early hours of Oct. 19 with

a 6-1 win at Fenway Park.

The Yankee win was made

nearly inevitable a few nights earlier, when they beat the Red Sox 3-2 at

Yankee Stadium to take a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven American League

Championship Series. The Yanks’ clubhouse was tranquil and businesslike,

befitting a team that wears pinstripes. Pitcher Andy Pettitte’s son Josh ran

around the room with two of his friends. Derek Jeter was standing in front of

his locker when Billy Crystal stopped by to say hello. “Great game,” the

comedian said to Mr. Jeter, and they shook hands. Mr. Crystal put his left hand

on Mr. Jeter’s right shoulder meaningfully. “Billy, what’s up?” Mr. Jeter

replied.

Mr. Crystal had been

watching the game earlier with Donald Trump in Yankee owner George

Steinbrenner’s luxury box. Mr. Trump left after the seventh inning, but his

early departure didn’t offend the baseball purist in Mr. Crystal. “Did you see

who he was with?” Mr. Crystal asked, referring to Mr. Trump’s model of the

moment. “I’d go home early, too.”

In the players’ lounge,

a large denlike room next to the clubhouse from which the media is barred,

there was a buffet of ribs and beers. Slugger Chili Davis sat down on a chair

with a Bud Light and a cigarette and stared silently at a television. Mr.

Jeter, shirtless, ate a plate of pasta and drank bottled water. On a big-screen

TV, ESPN showed a replay of Paul O’Neill driving in the game-winning run. “You

the king,” third-baseman Scott Brosius said to the TV. “Who’s your daddy?”

“Why don’t they have ice cream sandwiches here?” Mr. Jeter

asked. “They really need to have ice cream sandwiches.” Then everyone quietly

finished off their ribs and beers, and they left the clubhouse for the bus that

would take them to La Guardia Airport and the 20th century’s last Yankee-Red

Sox series.

 

Piazza Goes the Other Way

Before Game 3 of the

National League Championship Series, Mickey Brantley, the Mets’ batting coach,

was giving a little extra instruction to slumping sluggers John Olerud, Robin

Ventura and Mike Piazza. Mr. Brantley came to the Mets after June 6, when

general manager Steve Philips fired three of Bobby Valentine’s coaches.

Mr. Brantley was trying to get Mr. Piazza, a right-handed

hitter, to hit the ball to the opposite field, where Mr. Brantley believes Mr.

Piazza’s power lies. When Mr. Piazza tries to pull the ball to left field too

much, he overswings, Mr. Brantley said. “Right now, his timing is bad. We’re

just trying to get him to wait on the ball. Repetition. Trying to get the swing

back,” Mr. Brantley said. (Did you know that Mr. Piazza has tremendous power to

right field partly because his high school baseball field in Norristown, Pa.,

had a right-field wall but no left-field wall, an inducement to hit the ball to

right field and collect more home runs?)

“Let’s go the other way, big man,” Mr. Brantley shouted from

behind the batting cage to Mr. Piazza. Mr. Piazza promptly hit a low line drive

to right field. “That’s what I’m talking about,” Mr. Brantley said. “I’ll take

two of those.” Then Mr. Piazza returned to pulling balls into left field.

The routine was

interrupted by Rey Ordoñez, the Mets’ cocky, friendless and brilliant

shortstop, who cut in front of Mr. Piazza in the batting cage and began hitting

little ground balls through the middle of the infield. “This O.K?” Mr. Ordoñez

asked rhetorically.

“That little shit took my spot,” Mr. Piazza laughed.

Next up was Mr. Ventura.

Mr. Brantley said that Mr. Ventura’s problems were with his front leg kick,

which he said was high when Mr. Ventura was hitting well, and barely noticeable

when he wasn’t. “Now he’s tapping with his front foot, and then he starts

shortening his swing, and he gets out of rhythm,” he said. One of the reasons

why Mr. Ventura’s right leg kick wasn’t high enough may be because of a beat-up

left knee, which Mr. Ventura refuses to acknowledge. 

Finally, Mr. Olerud stepped

up to the plate. According to Mr. Brantley, the effectiveness of Mr. Olerud’s

swing could be measured by the position of his front (right foot) on his

follow-through. Mr. Olerud begins his swing with an open stance, with his right

foot behind his left. When he’s swinging well, he brings his front foot up and

places it even with his back foot on his follow-through. Recently, however, Mr.

Olerud was closing his front foot on the follow-through, taking away his power

and his ability to hit the ball to the opposite field, which is one of his

strengths. After the game, Mr. Olerud said he was trying to work on the

positioning of his front foot, but it was proving difficult.

That night, in a heartbreaking 1-0 loss, Mr. Olerud went 1

for 3, Mr. Piazza went 2 for 4, and Mr. Ventura went 0 for 3.

But Mr. Olerud’s two-run single won Game 4, and his two-run

homer gave the Mets their only runs in Game 5 until Mr. Ventura got his first

big hit of the series in the 15th inning of a game for the ages.