Joie de Vivre: Still Remembering the ’99 NLCS

This is Part II of my overly nostalgic look at the 1999 NLCS. It focuses on Game 6–played 10 years ago today–and the aftermath of the series. You can find Part I here.

They say the beauty of baseball is that you don’t have days off. You’re supposed to forget what happened the day before and immediately move on, almost as if what happened the day before didn’t happen at all.

The beauty of the ’99 NLCS was that there was a day off. Between the elation of Game 5 and the first pitch of Game 6, I could wax poetically about how Game 5 could never be topped and then intrepidly ponder how the teams would top it in Games 6 and 7. In winning Games 4 and 5 in their final at-bat, the Mets did to Atlanta what had been done to them so many times by seizing victory from the edge of defeat. And now, winning twice more to take the series and complete the comeback didn’t only seem possible; it seemed likely. After all, the Mets had just won two! And we had our two best starters, Al Leiter and Rick Reed, slated to start the final two games of the series. I can’t overstate the confidence I had in Reed for a possible Game 7. Even though Reed would be facing Tom Glavine, who had tossed seven shutout innings in Game 3, I was 90 percent sure he’d outpitch him and we’d win. I suppose I approached it the same way Astros’ fans felt about Game 6 of the ’86 NLCS against the Mets with Mike Scott* in the hole: This was the deciding game. A win in Game 6, and we would go to—and probably win—the World Series. Everything was set up perfectly.

*I don’t know what prompted me to have this insane level of confidence in Reed. I mean, he was good. But Mike Scott in ’86 was unbeatable. And cheating. He was definitely, definitely cheating.


Plus, in the interceding 46 hours between the end of Game 5 and the beginning of Game 6, I had turned 13 and received my first Mets’ jersey—a blue and black fashion jersey that I still own but haven’t worn in, well, almost a decade.

I wore that jersey for about 15 minutes, tearing if off in tears as the Braves built a 5-0 first-inning lead. Leiter started the game with a HBP, BB, HBP. He departed without recording an out. No team had scored five runs in any of the first five games; Atlanta had done it in the first inning, and they had Millwood on the mound.* My dreams and, at that point expectations, for two more wins and the greatest comeback ever had vanished.

*1999 was by far Kevin Millwood’s best season: He went 18-7 with a 2.66 ERA, was an All-Star, and finished third in the Cy Young race. Oddly enough, he was Atlanta’s ace that year.

And it didn’t seem fair. Series, like games, deserve certain endings. It is the biggest flaw with the 2004 ALCS, which concluded with a game that lacked much of the suspense of its predecessors (both in that series and the one the year before). Game 6 in ’99 looked the same for five innings, like it would end not with a bang but a whimper. Those five runs would stand up—how couldn’t they with Millwood and that bullpen?—and the Braves would add a few more late to make the final score even worse. The National League had seen this before.

This isn’t to say I was hopeless. Again, how could I be? The Mets had been left for dead about nine times in the last month by Atlanta alone. Starting in the sixth inning, the Mets did what they had done all year: They came back. The rest of the game played out like a Bizarro Game 5. The intensity, the drama, and the micromanaging were all still there; the only difference was that each team kept scoring. The Mets scored three in the sixth, saw Atlanta answer with two in the bottom of the inning on a pinch-hit two-run single from Jose Hernandez, and then had come back with two themselves in the top of the seventh on RBIs from Henderson and Olerud. It was 7-5 when Mike Piazza stepped to the plate with one on and one out, and for the first time all night, the Mets had a legitimate chance to tie the game with one swing.* And right as this thought entered my mind, that “Hey, a Piazza home run ties it!,” Mike blasted a patented shot to right-center.** “7-7!” Costas said. “Looking for Game 7!”

*Benny Agbayani and Rey Ordonez came to the plate as the tying and go-ahead runs, respectively, an inning earlier. So yeah, this was the first legitimate chance.

**After he left the Mets, I ranked this Piazza’s second-greatest Mets’ moment, ahead of the 9/11 homer against the Braves and behind only the three-run shot he hit to culminate the Mets’ 10-run eighth-inning against Atlanta in the 2000 regular season.

The teams showed some fatigue in the later innings, with walks and errors providing easier scoring chances. The Mets capitalized in the eighth, taking their first lead of the night—incomprehensible a few hours ago—when Agabayani scored on a pinch-hit single by Melvin Mora, the breakout star of the series for New York. The Mets were six outs from Game 7 and, in my mind, the World Series.

John Franco gave the run back in the bottom of the inning with the help of a Piazza error and a Brian Hunter RBI single. The Mets reclaimed the lead in the tenth when Agbayani scored on a Todd Pratt sacrifice fly. Even though we were brining in Armando Benitez, who had yet to cement his reputation as a choke artist and who had held Atlanta to one hit in 32 at-bats that season,* I was more cautiously optimistic. It wouldn’t be easy; nothing in the series was, and I had learned by that time not to get my hopes up too high against the Braves. And of course, Benitez allowed a leadoff single to Andruw Jones and a game-tying one to pinch-hitter Ozzie Guillen.** The game resembled one of those mesmerizing points between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal: Every time you thought you had the other guy beat, he came back with something better.

*You read that right: The Braves were 0-for-15 off Benitez in that regular season and 1-for-17 in the NLCS before the bottom of the 10th.

**Think the managers pushed the right buttons on offense? Pinch-hitters in Game 6 were 5-for-8 with two walks and four RBIs. And the only pinch-runner that night—Otis Nixon—forced that Piazza error and scored to tie the game for Atlanta in the eighth.

And then Bobby Valentine brought in Kenny Rogers.

Now, Kenny Rogers had been huge for the Mets that season. After we landed him from Oakland, Rogers went 5-1 and solidified the back end of the rotation (which at that point was Masato Yoshii, Orel Hershiser, and Octavio Dotel). Rogers’ penchant for postseason failures was, by that point, well-established. In three career playoff starts, Rogers had lasted seven innings and allowed 11 earned runs. Seven innings in three starts! He didn’t help his reputation by losing Game 2 of both series in ’99. From the moment he trotted in from the Turner Field bullpen, instead of the rookie Dotel, you could sense it wasn’t going to end well.

Rogers surrendered a leadoff double to Gerald Williams, a sacrifice to Bret Boone, and intentional walks to Chipper Jones and Brian Jordan to set up force plays all around. It was bleak, for sure, but Andruw Jones was still a free-swinger, and maybe Rogers could strike him out and then retire third-string catcher Greg Myers to get out of the inning. In this series, anything was possible. I briefly considered whether the Mets should bring in Dotel, a better strikeout pitcher but one with a greater tendency toward wildness. Valentine didn’t make the move, I assume, because he didn’t want to walk in the winning run.

And then Rogers walked in the winning run. And his 3-2 pitch wasn’t even that close.

In one way, by walking in the series-winning run, Rogers denied the Braves and Atlanta fans a joyous memory; it always struck me as somewhat embarrassing to win a game on a walk. But in a bigger, more accurate way, the walk was an unbecoming conclusion to a great series. In a series defined by fantastic plays and memorable finishes, it ended when a pitcher failed to meet the basic requirements of his position. And no, I’m not bitter at all.*

*Missing out on the chance to get at Rogers in the 2006 World Series accounted for roughly 5% of the sting of losing to the Cardinals in that NLCS. The other 95%? Twenty-five percent losing to an inferior team, 25% losing to an inferior team on a home run and pitching performance by inferior players (Yadier Molina and Jeff Suppan, respectively), 20% squandering the greatest catch ever made, 10% that Game 7 happened on my birthday and the seven-year anniversary of Rogers’ Game 6 walk, 5% that said inferior team dominated the World Series, 5% not having our pitchers healthy.

It was a great game, one that rivaled Game 5 right up until the end. Of course, this newly-initiated adolescent didn’t think that way at the time. I cried most of the night and didn’t go to school the next day. No wonder being a teenager is so disillusioning.

*

One year later, the Mets would come back from an 8-1 eighth-inning deficit and beat the Braves, 11-8, in the most memorable Mets’ regular-season game of my life. They would go on to win the National League pennant by dispatching the St. Louis Cardinals in five relatively suspenseless games (decided by 22 runs). While I was obviously excited, I knew it didn’t mean as much without having to go through Atlanta. The Cardinals had done our dirty work for us.

In the decade since the ’99 NLCS, the Mets-Braves rivalry has subsisted largely on the memory of those six games that October. Six games decided by seven runs. The last three games won in the home team’s final at-bat. The last two won on walkoffs in extra innings.* The teams haven’t met in the playoffs since, and they haven’t tightly competed for a division title outside of 2000 and a pair of September series in 2001. While the Braves continued winning the division, the Mets went through the Art Howe Era. Atlanta, meanwhile, was no longer the dominant team it had been in the ‘90s, never again competing for a World Series after 1999.** In fact, they’ve only won a single playoff series since the ’99 NLCS, a forgettable Division Series victory over the Astros.

*If you count Ventura’s game-winning hit as a grand slam, the Mets and Braves each scored 24 runs in the series.

**Imagine telling a Braves’ fan in the middle of the 1996 World Series, with his team up 2-0, that Atlanta would not win another World Series game for at least 14 years—despite the fact that Andruw and Chipper Jones would more or less live up to expectations (and in Chipper’s case, exceed them).

The Mets finally halted Atlanta’s streak of 14 consecutive division titles in 2006 in runaway fashion, essentially clinching the division in April. The games between the two teams since 2002 or so have rarely included the intensity that defined their matchups at the turn of the century. The Mets’ primary rival has become the Phillies—a shift that seemed unfathomable even three years ago.

Would I have loved to see Cox and Valentine duel it out in another seven-game series? Of course, in the same way that I would have loved more of Arrested Development or The Wire or The Brothers Karamazov. At the same time, another series between the two couldn’t possibly match the standard set in ’99. And that’s why I don’t mind it too much that the rematch never came to fruition. Like so much of our favorite art, the Mets-Braves rivalry died before it could flop, before it gave us a bad game or a dull moment.

And that’s why it’s the greatest sporting event in human history.

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11 responses to this post.

  1. […] This is Part I of a two-part retrospective on the 1999 National League Championship Series. Part II is available here. […]

    Reply

  2. Thanks for writing this! I turned 13 that September and the ’99 squad was the first team in any sport that I ever lived and died with. I remember running around my house screaming nonsense after Robin’s magical blast after using every possible superstition I knew. The best thing my dad ever dad

    Reply

  3. Clearly using my fiance’s moniker here, but I will never forget the ’99 series. I scored tickets to game 5, drove up from Lancaster PA where I was attending college, sat through the cold and rain, and then had to leave a few minutes before midnight – a midterm paper was due at 7AM the next morning. I will never forget driving down the turnpike in the rain with my buddy Cotton when Ventura stepped up to the plate. Luckily the roads were pretty clear that night, because we must have swirved across three lanes when he hit it out. I have never left another game early since then….

    Reply

  4. Posted by Ryan on March 16, 2010 at 4:05 PM

    The 2006 NLCS, about 55% of my frustration was wasting the most unbelieveable catch in post season history and perhaps baseball history, if only we pulled it off. 5% frustration in having a hobbled Cliff Floyd pinch hit in a crucial situation to go for the long-ball. 20% frustration our biggest bats and NL MVP candidates could do nothing the entire game. 20% frustration Aaron Heilman couldn’t get it done in his second inning of work. However, perhaps the most frustrating part of that series was Wager, giving up a home run to Taguchi to cause a Game 7. Would have been an unbelieveable night to be there….Instead, I wasted a $240 ticket and have been deflated ever since…so close, and no so far 😦

    Reply

  5. Posted by Ryan on March 16, 2010 at 4:07 PM

    Also, I was in the stands for Game 4 of the ’99 NLCS…When Rocker came in with the bases loaded in the 8th and gave up the single to Olerud. You could feel momentum was on our side. Damn Kenny Rogers…couldn’t he have discovered pine-tar that year?

    Reply

  6. Posted by Dave on March 16, 2010 at 4:55 PM

    Thank you for this. With the problems we’ve had the last 3 years, it’s nice to dwell on the days when the team had the heart and the will to find ways to win and make things intriguing. I was 19 back then and I remember being a college student with not a lot of money and turning down tickets to Game 5 because they were $87 and I had gone to Game 4. Still haunts me to this day that I missed out on being field level, down the left field line for that game

    Reply

  7. Posted by Matt on March 16, 2010 at 10:51 PM

    I was 14 at the time and this was easily my favorite Mets team to date. The ’99 club never gave up had the best infield of all-time and was just a fun team.

    Reply

  8. Posted by Chris on March 17, 2010 at 12:03 AM

    What about Shawn Dunston’s at bat?!?! He fouled off around 12 or 13 balls in a row! I was only 14, but was on pins and needles…remember it like it was yesterday

    Reply

  9. Posted by dk on March 17, 2010 at 7:28 AM

    I sent this to Cerrone. You’re welcome JdV. My question to him was, “Why was “Pratt” on the jersey?” As you all know, the ’99 Mets sported only numbers on the back side of their jerseys.

    Reply

  10. […] de Vivre: Remembering the ’99 NLCS Part I and II” by Tim. Tim has a ridiculously impressive memory and is a ridiculously impressive sports […]

    Reply

  11. […] you want to talk about that so-called debacle? You know, I was able to write a bit about the ’99 Mets losing to the Braves on that Kenny Rogers walk some time back. But I don’t think I’m ready yet to discuss that game. […]

    Reply

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