This is Part I of a two-part retrospective on the 1999 National League Championship Series. Part II is available here.
Folks, I’m generally a temperate individual. My passions are not easily aroused, and most of the time when I employ hyperbole, I do so sarcastically.
This is not one of those times.
It is my completely subjective, admittedly objectively false belief that the greatest sporting event ever staged was the 1999 National League Championship Series between the Atlanta Braves and the New York Mets, which occurred 10 years ago this week.*
*Yesterday, in fact, marked the 10th anniversary of Game 5 of the 1999 NLCS, perhaps the greatest baseball game ever played.
The 1999 NLCS will perpetually remain the most intense sporting event I ever experience. There is no chance it will be topped. This has as much to do with me as it does with the 1999 NLCS. You see, I was 12-going-on-13 that month. At 12, our lives are simple, they are full of naïvete, and they lend themselves very much to Manichean reasoning. And I was an especially simple 12-year-old. I didn’t “like” girls yet, my favorite music was played on Z100 on the hour every hour, and the best book I had ever read was Brian Jacques’ Redwall.
The 1999 Mets seized on my pre-adolescent optimism early. After breaking my heart in ’98, the Mets added the easy-to-like Robin Ventura to the middle of their order. In fact, everyone on the team was easy-to-like. The Mets arguably had the most likable middle of the order in baseball history, with Edgardo Alfonzo, John Olerud, Mike Piazza,* and Ventura. The pitching staff was headed by likable Jersey guy Al Leiter and likable storyline Rick Reed–a former replacement player who had blossomed into the “poor man’s Greg Maddux.” I even tolerated unlikable guys like Rickey Henderson and Bobby Bonilla, whose “quirks” lent the team “character.” And of course, the team was united by a manager I, and all Met fans, loved while everyone else hated.
*John S and Josh both told me Mike Piazza was, if not unlikable, at least not likable. What’s not to like about Mike Piazza? The guy was down-to-earth, came up huge in key situations, and knew how to handle the media. Is it weird that how a guy handled the media factors into my definition of likability?
Those Mets had a flair for the dramatic that season, including a memorable comeback against Mariano Rivera and the Yankees in July, a disastrous seven-game losing streak in September* that put them two back of the Reds with three to play, a walkoff wild-pitch win on the final day of the season to force a one-game playoff they won, and two playoff wins in their final at-bat against the Diamondbacks, capped by Todd Pratt’s is-it-or-isn’t-it 10th-inning homer to win the Division Series.
*”September Swoon” was very much part of the Mets’ vocabulary long before the unspeakable events of 2007.
But remember, a 12-year-old’s world is Manichean. Heaven needs hell, light needs dark, and the Mets needed the Braves. The Braves were the archetypal sports villain; they won with robotic regularity. Atlanta won its eighth straight division title in 1999 and reached its eighth straight NLCS. The Braves employed an irascible manager that argued balls and strikes more than anyone else in the league, even though it was clear the Braves’ catchers, by lining up on an angle well outside the catcher’s box, gave their already-tough-enough pitchers the biggest strike zone in baseball.* Their best player mockingly told Mets’ fans to “put on their Yankee stuff” for the playoffs. Their closer called us “degenerates.” Oh yes, the Braves were the Hawks from The Mighty Ducks, the Cowboys of Little Giants, and Ivan Drago from Rocky IV all rolled into one.
*This, of course, was the irony of the Eric Gregg Game in the ’97 NLCS—that it happened TO the Braves.
The rivalry between the Mets and Braves lacked history and, in hindsight, endurance. This would be the only time the two teams shared a postseason stage, and the only time they could legitimately be considered equals. But that is part of what makes the ’99 NLCS so great, even now. This was it. It wouldn’t be a mere chapter in a five-pound textbook detailing curses and blown September leads and multiple players earning a f-f-f-f-fantastic middle name.
No, the ’99 NLCS was a course unto itself. And for me, it had at its heart a simple conflict: The Mets were Good, and the Braves were pure, unadulterated Evil.
Evil took Game 1 behind a sparkling effort by Greg Maddux. The first of the series’ many turning points came in the bottom of the sixth of Game 2, when the a pair of two-run homers by Brian Jordan and Eddie Perez off Kenny Rogers turned a two-run Atlanta deficit into a two-run lead in an eventual 4-3 win. In a much-anticipated matchup in Game 3, Tom Glavine outdueled Al Leiter 1-0, thanks to a Leiter error that led to an unearned first-inning Braves’ run.
The first three games were a microcosm for what had happened between these two teams for two years now: The Braves won, and they won close. They won with timely hitting, they won with home runs from guys like Eddie Perez, they won with irreproachable starting pitching, and they won by closing the door late every single time.
Losing in such close fashion was both demoralizing and reassuring; the Mets weren’t that far from being up in the series. They just needed to get over the hump. That’s why, even when New York trailed three games to none, I didn’t think we were out of it. I thought less about the very likely possibility of being swept than I did about the unprecedented possibility of coming all the way back from down 3-0. If the Mets could win one, well, maybe that’s all they needed to get them going. After all, coming back was what they did best.
What was remarkable even at the time of the series was that you could see the intensity slowly building, from inning to inning and game to game. Game 2 improved on Game 1, Game 3 on Game 2. Game 4 at Shea, featuring John Smoltz and Rick Reed, would set a new standard. It was a modern classic, and the greatest baseball game I had ever seen to that point. Smoltz took a two-hitter into the sixth before allowing John Olerud’s solo homer; the Mets had a lead for just the second time in the series. Reed, meanwhile, was crafting one of the greatest pitching performances in Mets’ history. Through seven innings, he had yielded only a Bret Boone single, and Boone was promptly caught stealing. That all changed in the eighth, however, when Jordan and Ryan Klesko connected on stunning and literally breathtaking back-to-back homers to give Atlanta a 2-1 lead, six outs from the sweep.
The Mets got two on with two out in the bottom of the inning when Cox brought in the most hated man in Queens, John Rocker, to face Olerud. The typically dependable Olerud was 0-for-9 in his career against Rocker, including five strikeouts. The Mets’ odds to win the game stood at 2% according to Baseball Reference. That rose to 3% when they pulled off a risky double steal, with Roger Cedeno swiping third and Melvin Mora second. Down 1-2 in the count, Olerud delivered a clean single up the middle, scoring two and giving the Mets a lead they didn’t relinquish and me one of the greatest images of my life:
And then we got to Game 5.
As I’ve aged, I have seen a lot in sports. I’ve seen the greatest basketball player who ever lived. I’ve seen the greatest tennis match ever. I’ve seen the greatest golfer ever. I’ve seen the biggest upset in a championship ever. I’ve seen the biggest comeback in a single game and in a series. I’ve personally witnessed two NCAA Tournament buzzer-beaters—one to go to the Final Four. I’ve been on both ends of exhilarating victories and crushing defeats. I have seen a lot in sports.
I will never see anything like Game 5 of the 1999 NLCS.
This was the intensity of a final drive of the Super Bowl stretched out for more than three do-or-die hours—each team dodging bullets in seemingly every half-inning. The Mets scored twice in the first—an Olerud homer—and the Braves tied it in the fourth. It remained that way for hours, and after a few innings, it appeared three runs would be all it took to win.
And the Braves were a lot closer to scoring that third run. They left a runner on base in 12 of the final 13 innings; they stranded 19 in all. From the seventh inning on, Cox and Valentine micromanaged beyond belief, running low on both position players and pitchers.* The Braves’ attempted two-strike squeeze with the bases loaded in the sixth and Greg Maddux at the plate failed disastrously. Orel Hershiser turned in 3.1 innings in relief of starter Masato Yoshii. The Mets survived two additional innings with Kenny Rogers on the mound, and Melvin Mora threw Keith Lockhart out at home in the 13th to keep the game tied.
*Seriously, beyond BELIEF. Valentine made the most intelligent/craziest managerial move I’ve ever seen in the top of the seventh. With a runner on second and two outs, Turk Wendell had fallen behind Brian Jordan 2-0. Right then, Valentine knew he was going to walk Jordan to get to Ryan Klesko. Since Klesko couldn’t hit lefties, Valentine would bring in Dennis Cook, and Cox would answer with right-handed pinch-hitter Brian Hunter, who owned lefties. So, with the count at 2-0, Valentine pre-empted it all: He brought in Cook—his best lefty reliever—to finish out an INTENTIONAL WALK to Jordan. Once Hunter was announced as the pinch-hitter, he then brought in Pat Mahomes, a righty to face him. He got the best matchup possible. It was brilliant.
Mahomes walked Hunter on four pitches.
Through it all, I sat motionless on my couch. I got up once in 15 innings, to go to the bathroom around the sixth. At the end of the night, after the game was over, there were sweat stains on the couch and a Homer Simpson groove where I had been, even though I weighed about 100 pounds at the time.
And then, in the top of the 15th, the Braves scored. It was Lockhart, of all people, driving in Walt Weiss, of all people, on a two-out triple. The Braves had gotten to three runs, and it seemed to follow they’d gotten to four wins in the series. Shea was deflated; I was deflated. The night before, we had been down to our last four outs. Now we were down to three.
But Cox made the second-biggest mistake of the series heading to the bottom of the inning: He left in rookie Kevin McGlinchy. Game 2 (and Game 6) starter, Kevin Millwood, had been warming up, and could’ve come in to close the door. But Cox wanted to save Millwood (for what?), and stuck with the rookie. That gave us some hope; Shawon Dunston gave us more with the greatest at-bat in Mets’ history.
Maybe the hyperbole is unwarranted, in the same way that it always is in games like this. Dunston’s at-bat isn’t the greatest in Mets’ history, in the sense that it only ended in a single, and just about any at-bat that ends in a home run is better. But given the circumstances, with the Mets’ season down to its final frame, with an exhausted Shea trying one last time to amp up the noise, Dunston’s 12-pitch at-bat—and subsequent steal of second*—immediately brought hope back to the Mets’ dugout and their faithful.
*Nobody remembers the steal!
McGlinchy then walked pinch-hit extraordinaire Matt Franco*—it was, after all, Franco’s selectivity at the plate that made him a pinch-hit extraordinaire—before the selfless Edgardo Alfonzo laid down a bunt to move the runners to scoring position. The Braves intentionally walked Olerud—no other Met had driven in a run since the fifth inning of Game 2, a span of 35 innings—to arrive at the cleanup spot in the order, now occupied by Todd Pratt.**
*How Valentine managed to save Franco for this part of the game is astounding.
**Piazza, nursing the sore wrist that kept him out of the last two games of the Division Series, had been pulled after the collision with Lockhart in the 13th.
In retrospect, it’s so easy to say that the Mets, with the bases loaded and one out and a rookie pitcher struggling on the mound, had all but won the game already. But as Jersey guy and notable baseball fan Philip Roth put it in The Plot Against America, with history, “everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable.” And you’d be fooling yourself if you thought Todd Pratt’s tendency to strike out—32 times in 140 at-bats that season—or the horrifying possibility that he’d ground into a double play, were far from the mind of the Met fan, even as McGlinchy dug himself a deeper and deeper hole.
Pratt walked, of course, on five pitches, and if there’s any lingering shame surrounding the 1999 NLCS, it’s that it’s a series that had, as two of its many defining moments, bases on balls. Robin Ventura came to the plate—again, the thought of an inning-ending and momentum-killing double play in my mind—and picked the perfect time for his first hit in the series. Ventura’s left-handed swing, long one of the smoothest in the game, never looked better as he launched McGlinchy’s 2-1 delivery to right over the head of Brian Jordan as Bob Costas yelled, “Back to Georgia!”
Costas’ description of the game as “a five-hour, 47-minute trip to Bedlam” was perfect, except that the game was only five hours and 46 minutes.*
*Say what you will about Bob Costas, but the man knows how to call a baseball game. He nailed the call at the end (much better than Gary Thorne’s version), and, earlier in the inning, pointed out that the beauty of baseball was that you couldn’t pick matchups, and that the game’s history was so often defined by”people who come out of the shadows and into prominence, because it’s just their time.” So yeah, he’s a little better than Buck and the Chipster.
When you watch a game that good, you are afraid of two things. The first is that you will lose. The second is that you will win in a manner that fails to live up to what’s happened so far. You don’t need to look far for examples, so long as you stayed up late last night.
Robin Ventura took care of that. He didn’t end the game with a walk, or a swinging bunt grounder, or a sacrifice fly, or even a solid single. No, Ventura made sure Game 5 of the ’99 NLCS had the ending it deserved—a conclusion both grand and selfless.
Bedlam indeed. (Continue to Part II…)