Compared to Yankee fans, who have had all the success in the world in my lifetime (winning World Championships in 1996, ’98, ’99, 2000 – against the Mets, no less – and 2009, along with AL Championships in 2001 and 2003), Mets fans such as myself have seen little more than pain since 1992. From “The Worst Team Money Could Buy”/”Hardball is Back” era in the early ’90s, to the ill-fated Generation K of the middle of the decade, to collapses in ’98 (before ‘collapse’ became a four-letter word), 2007, and 2008, to last season, where you bit your tongue whenever you said, “what else could go wrong?”, because something else would go wrong. But let’s look back on the seasons that were successful in this week’s Wednesday Top 5:
5. 2005: “The New Mets”, 83-79, T-3rd, NL East
This was the ‘meh’ season of the decade. They started out pretty terribly, with then-rookie manager Willie Randolph needing to wait until April 10th in his sixth game for his first career win. Newcomer Pedro Martinez became the staff ace (15-8, 2.82 ERA, 217 IP, 208 K), but Carlos Beltran (who that year signed the largest contract in team history, a 7-year, $119 million deal) underperformed, with a .266 average, 16 homers, and 78 RBI – compared to David Wright in his breakout season, hitting with a .306 average, 27 home runs and 102 runs batted in. In the end, it was moderately successful, being the first season the Mets were over .500 since…
4. 2001: The Pennant Honeymoon, 82-80, 3rd, NL East
Few seasons will be identified by a single moment than the 2001 season – and it wasn’t April 9th of that year, when Ralph Kiner raised the Mets’ second National League Championship banner. While they were as far back as 13.5 games behind the perennial division-winning Atlanta Braves and 14 games under .500, the team crawled back into contention after September 11th – healing the city and the nation with a win over the Braves on September 21st 3-2 on a Mike Piazza home run (voted the fourth-greatest moment in Shea Stadium history in 2008) –reaching their high-watermark of 5 games above .500 before losing 6 out of their last 9. The team dedicated the end of their season to the first-responders of the World Trade Center attacks, threatening to forfeit the rest of their games if they were not allowed to wear the hats of the NYPD, FDNY, EMT’s, and Port Authority Police, among others, allowing the city to come back together.
3. 2006: “The Team. The Time. The Mets.”, 97-65, 1st, NL East
The Mets took first-place in the division this year and never looked back, holding the best record in the majors (tied with the cross-town rival Yanks), spending only one day out of first place, going 31-16 in one-run games, and having the Division title wrapped up by September 18th with a 4-0 win over the Marlins. In his second year as GM, Omar Minaya made a several important moves, trading for Carlos Delgado and Paul Lo Duca from the Marlins for two eventual major leaguers (Mike Jacobs, who made his debut the year before, and Yusmiero Petit); signing Billy Wagner away from the Phillies; trading Kris Benson (and more importantly, his wife Anna) to the Orioles for John Maine and Jorge Julio (the latter of whom was flipped to the D-Backs mid-season for Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez); and, in the greatest bit of baseball espionage since the Giants stole signs in 1951, traded outfielder Xavier Nady to the Pirates for Roberto Hernandez and Oliver Perez, hiding the fact that earlier that day setup man Duaner Sanchez had separated his shoulder in a car accident in Miami. 6 Mets – Lo Duca (.318, 5 HR, 49 RBI), Wright (.311, 26 HR, 116 RBI), Jose Reyes (.300, 19 HR, 81 RBI, and an NL-leading 64 stolen bases), Carlos Beltran (.265, 41 HR, 116 RBI), Tom Glavine (15-7 – tied for the team lead in wins with, surprisingly, Steve Trachsel, who went 15-8 – 3.82 ERA, 180 IP, 131 K), and Pedro Martinez (9-8, 4.48 ERA, 132 2/3 IP, 137 K) – represented the team in the All-Star Game, and Beltran, with Beltran winning a Gold Glove, and with Wright and Reyes, a Silver Slugger. In the postseason, the Mets swept the NLDS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, before infamously falling to the eventual World Champion St. Louis Cardinals in seven games. With the team’s backs to the wall, then-rookie Maine won Game 6 4-2; Oliver Perez put on a stellar performance (who would have thought it?) in Game 7, in which Endy Chavez cemented his place in Mets lore and earned AIG extremely prominent ad space with a snow-cone catch at the left-field turning a Scott Rolen home run into a double play in the 6th. But with the score tied at one in the bottom of the ninth, Aaron Heilman (cue boos…now) allowed a two-run shot by Yadier Molina, and the season ended in disappointment when Adam Wainwright struck Beltran out looking with a back-breaking curveball with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth to hand the Cards the pennant and end the Mets’ season.
2. 2000: “Believe,” 94-68, 2nd, NL East (NL Wild Card), National League Champions
The Mets started the 2000 season off with great fanfare half a world away, splitting a two-game series against the Chicago Cubs at the Tokyo Dome in Japan in the first MLB game off of North American soil. GM Steve Phillips traded Roger Cedeño – who, the year prior, broke Mookie Wilson’s single-season stolen base record – to the Astros for Mike Hampton and outfielder Derek Bell (.266, 18 HR, 69 RBI, and whose pitching performance against the Padres in August 22nd – while still wearing his sunglasses – was one of the bloopers of the year). Mike Piazza (.324, 38 HR, 113 RBI), Al Leiter (16-8, 3.20 ERA, 208 IP, 200 K), and Edgardo Alfonzo (.324, 25 HR, 94 RBI) represented the team in the All-Star Game (although Piazza, who won a Silver Slugger at catcher that year, would not be able to play after being concussed by Roger Clemens in a Subway Series game). After Rey Ordoñez went down with a fractured left arm after only 43 games, the Mets eventually traded Melvin Mora and Mike Kinkade for shortstop Mike Bordick (who, though hitting a home run on the first pitch he saw as a Met, was horrendous in the postseason); the Mets also acquired Rick White and Bubba Trammell from the then- Tampa Bay Devil Rays for former Generation K pitcher Paul Wilson and speedster Jason Tyner. Finishing only one game behind the Braves (and spending eight games in first place), the Mets clinched, for the first time in their history, two consecutive appearances in the playoffs.
The Mets began their playoff quest against the San Francisco Giants, winning in four games. After Livan Hernandez pitched a gem in Game 1 to give an early lead to San Fran, Jay Payton drove home the winning run in the 10th inning (none other than Darryl Hamilton) to win Game 2 by a score of 5-4. In a game where legendary closer Robb Nen blew his first save since July of that year, the rotund Hawaiian speedster Benny Agbayani hit a solo home run off of Aaron Fultz in the bottom of the 13th to send Shea Stadium into a frenzy, winning Game 3 by a score of 3-2. In one of the greatest pitching performances in team history (a team with a long pedigree of good pitching performances), Bobby J. Jones spun a one-hit shutout to clinch the NLDS by a score of 4-0. The NLCS against the Cardinals was little more than a formality, the Mets winning in five games a series where only one game was decided by one run. A three-hit shutout by Mike Hampton (15-10, 3.14 ERA, 217.2 IP, 151 K, and the NLCS MVP) closed the book on the pennant-winning drive, with these immortal words from Gary Cohen:
“And a drive in the air to center field. Timo Pérez jumps in the air waiting for it to come down, makes the catch, and the New York Mets are the 2000 National League Champions!”
It was onto a Subway Series against the Yankees, who clinched the next night in Game 6 against the Seattle Mariners. In a World Series where each game would be decided by two runs or less, the Yankees clinched in five (the Mets winning only Game 3 at Shea, 4 to 2), but even that could not put a damper on a successful season.
However, a different season is in my mind as the favorite, and it’s…
1. 1999: “Are You Ready?, Mojo Risin’,” 97-66, 2nd, NL East (NL Wild Card)
The 1999 team was the epitome of getting the most out of a team. Bobby Valentine was faced with an outfield of eventual Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, Brian McRae, and Roger Cedeño, and having Orel Hershiser, in his last full season in baseball, as one of your aces. Oh, and he was also faced with having to come back from, at that point, the most catastrophic collapse in team history, with the team going from almost locking up the ’98 NL Wild Card to losing their last five games, eliminating themselves from playoff contention. Cue one of the greatest roller-coaster rides in Mets history.
The team was noted for its stellar defense, anchored by free agent signing Robin Ventura (.301, 32 HR, 120 RBI) and Rey Ordoñez (who, while not being a good hitter, was as sure-gloved as a shortstop could be), and complemented on the right side by Edgardo Alfonzo (.304, 27 HR, 108 RBI) and John Olerud (.298, 19 HR, 96 RBI). The infield had a combined .991 fielding percentage (and had one of the greatest highlights for a shortstop from Ordoñez, who against the San Diego Padres slid for the ball, rolled, and threw to Olerud at first in a single move), and Ventura and Ordoñez ended up with Gold Gloves come season’s end (one can certainly make the case that Alfonzo and Olerud deserved them, too). In addition, the legendary Piazza had one of his best seasons (.303, 40 HR, 124 RBI), earning Silver Slugger honors along with Alfonzo and Ventura.
The Mets pitching staff took that defense and went to town, a rotation led by four starters with wins in double-digits – Al Leiter (13-12, 4.23, 213 IP, 162 K), Hershiser (13-12, 4.58, 179 IP, 89 K), Japanese import Masato Yoshii (12-8, 4.40, 174 IP, 105 K), and Rick Reed (11-5, 4.58, 149.1 IP, 104 K), not to mention then-rookie Octavio Dotel. The team had an equally matched bullpen, led by co-closers Armando Benitez (you know, back when he was good) and John Franco (who notched his 400th career save in April of that season), and rounded out by resident weirdo Turk Wendell, Dennis Cook, and Pat Mahomes.
Phillips had his share of good and bad trades in the middle of that season, acquiring Kenny Rogers (the pitcher, of course – who came up big near the home stretch) for soon-to-be All-Star Terrence Long; Darryl Hamilton and Shawon Dunston, reliever Chuck McElroy, and (in possibly the worst trade in Mets history involving someone not named Nolan or Kazmir) Billy Taylor for eventual All-Star closer Jason Isringhausen and sidearm pitcher Greg McMichael.
The season came down, once again, to the final days, with a wild pitch by Brad Klontz (who pitched with the Mets the previous season) bringing home then-utility-man Melvin Mora (one of the more fun names to chant, as well) to send the Mets to play-in game 163 against the Cincinnati Reds. In yet another stellar pitching performance, Al Leiter spun a 2-hit shutout at Cinergy Field to send the Mets to the playoffs for the first time since 1988.
The Mets would then square off against the Arizona Diamondbacks, who in only their second season won the NL West title and the second-best record in the NL (100-62). Edgardo Alfonzo hit the first grand slam in Mets postseason history off of Bobby Choinard to clinch Game 1 in the Phoenix desert 8-4, but the D-Backs countered with a 7-1 win of their own to tie the series up going back to Shea. After the Mets blew out Omar Daal with a six-run sixth to take Game 3 9-2, and with future Hall-of-Famer Randy Johnson looming for Game 5, the Mets tied the game up in the bottom of the ninth with a sacrifice fly by Cedeño, which set the stage for Todd Pratt – the starting catcher for much of the series only due to Mike Piazza’s injured thumb – to hit a home run just out of the reach of Gold Glove outfielder Steve Finley to clinch the series – the first walk-off homer to clinch a series since Joe Carter won the ’93 World Series for the Blue Jays.
It was on to Atlanta to face the division rival Braves. In a series marked by strategy reminiscent of two chess grandmasters, Valentine and Braves manager Bobby Cox made move after move and pitching change after pitching change throughout the course of the series. It was also the beginning of John Rocker’s and Larry ‘Chipper’ Jones’s agony in Flushing, with the both of them heavily derided – the former because of derogatory comments made in Sports Illustrated, and the latter because he was pretty damn good. The Mets had their backs to the wall very quickly, and would have to do something no other team had done before to reach a Subway Series with the eventual AL Champion Yankees – overcome a 3-0 deficit.
And, for these Mets, it seemed distinctly possible. The Mets won the next two games at home – including the 15-inning, five-and-three-quarters hour marathon Game 5, capped off by Ventura’s famed ‘Grand Slam Single’ off of Kevin McGlinchy (Ventura, of course, mobbed by his teammates, notably Todd Pratt, before he could reach second base), but would eventually fall short of the World Series, losing to the Braves in Turner Field (which has certainly been a House of Horrors for the Mets since its opening in 1997) on Kenny Rogers’s bases-loaded-walk of Brian Jordan to fall 10-9 in 11 innings.
But it was certainly a season to remember – a season of ups, downs, and priceless memories…and a rallying cry, from the late Jim Morrison of all people (cue to about the 4:30 mark):
Got another favorite season? A baseball fan just caring to reminisce? Add it to the comments.
And join me for our next installment of Wednesday Top 5, when I discuss my Top 5 most important inventions not involving the Internet…and hopefully it will be published on Wednesday.