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.
“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
“Fuck, yeah,” John
“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
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
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
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
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
“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.