The Mets and the Braves are currently battling it out atop the NL East this year, evoking memories of classic Mets-Braves rivalries of yesteryear. The final pages of the script for the year 2010 have yet to be written, but the Mets gave their fans a memorable chapter in the Mets-Braves rivalry ten years ago today in a game played at Shea Stadium.
It was the year 2000. The Y2K scare had come and gone, with people barely noticing what all the fuss was about. Music fans were wondering who let the dogs out. Mets fans were still cursing out Kenny Rogers for ball four and the nemesis of the day wore a tomahawk on his chest.
The Braves were the Mets’ chief rivals in 1999 and 2000. The Mets’ mojo was rising in 1999 and it took them all the way to the sixth game of the National League Championship Series where the Braves ultimately came out on top, denying the Mets their first trip to the World Series in thirteen years. Throughout the course of that classic series, a new villain had surfaced for Mets fans to hate. That villain was John Rocker.
If Rocker’s macho attitude and overinflated ego hadn’t already caused Mets fans to want to run his pickup truck off the dirt road and into the creek, his incendiary comments about New Yorkers he encountered on the 7 train surely did. Rocker soon became Public Enemy #1 at Shea Stadium. When the Braves made their first trip to New York in late June of 2000, Rocker was with them and the Mets were prepared to do battle.
It appeared as if Mets fans were prepared to do battle with John Rocker as well. The police presence inside the stadium was unprecedented in that pre-9/11 era. The extra security had to be called in for fear that unruly fans who wanted a piece of Rocker would pelt him with more than just words. In the first game of the series, Rocker was called upon in the eighth inning by Braves manager Bobby Cox to protect a two-run lead. When he sprinted in from the bullpen, as was his wont to do at the time, he entered to a chorus of boos with a side order of plastic bottles. Despite all the negative energy being directed at him by the fans, he pitched a 1-2-3 inning and appeared unfazed by the derogatory epithets being hurled venomously at him by the raucous crowd. The Braves went on to defeat the Mets by the final score of 6-4, setting the stage for one of the greatest and improbable comebacks in Mets history the following night.
Friday, June 30, 2000. It was Fireworks Night at Shea Stadium. The crowd of 52,831 had settled into their seats for a blood match. I was among the throng of Mets fans who had bought a ticket for that game, hoping to see fireworks in more ways than one. I had to wait a few hours but I was not disappointed.
Before I go any further, allow me to inform you that I was a regular at Shea Stadium on Fireworks Night. I never missed one until they stopped doing them after the 2006 season in order to build Citi Field. I was at the 13-1 loss to the Padres in 1996. After the game had ended, a band called The Fool played a short set to entertain the fans while the pyrotechnicians put the finishing touches on the fireworks. The band was booed off the stage before they could sing a note. I was also at the 16-0 loss to the Braves in 1999. That game was significant because Mets closer John Franco got hurt with two outs in the ninth inning. Since the game was already a blowout and Bobby Valentine had already used six pitchers, he called upon infielder Matt Franco to relieve John Franco. Of course, he gave up a long 3-run HR to Gerald Williams to put the finishing touches on that 16-0 final score. John Franco’s injury caused Armando Benitez to have to step in as closer, a job he unfortunately never gave up. Needless to say, the fans were not very patriotic during the fireworks show that night either. Now back to our original story, already in progress…
The Braves had jumped out to a 5-0 lead. When the Mets finally put a run on the board in the seventh inning to cut the lead to 5-1, Mets fans were hoping for a dramatic victory. That was quickly stomped on by the bat of Brian Jordan when he hit a 3-run HR off Eric Cammack in the eighth inning to give the Braves what appeared to be an insurmountable 8-1 lead. It appeared as if Fireworks Night would fizzle out as it had in previous years. But then the sparklers made an appearance.
The Mets had put runners on second and third with one out. Robin Ventura was the next batter and the fans in my section (Upper Deck Section 47, the dictionary definition of nosebleed seats) were pleading for him to hit a home run to make the score respectable. Perhaps he could stir up the ghosts of Game 5 of the 1999 NLCS with another bomb off a Braves reliever. But alas, he grounded out weakly for the second out. A run scored on the play making it 8-2, but the Mets were now one out away from ending the inning. It was up to Todd Zeile to continue the rally. Little did I know that the real fireworks were about to begin.
Desperately trying not to make the final out of the inning, Zeile lined an RBI single to left to make the score 8-3. A single by Jay Payton brought Bobby Cox out of the dugout to make a pitching change. In came Kerry Ligtenberg. He fared no better. Benny Agbayani walked to load the bases, followed by walks to pinch-hitter Mark Johnson and Melvin Mora. That made the score 8-5 and the tying runs were on base. Out popped Bobby Cox from his hole in the dugout to remove Ligtenberg from the game. Perhaps not trying to rile up an already excited crowd, Cox did not go to John Rocker. Rocker had told Cox before the game that he would have difficulty pitching because of a callus on his left thumb. Instead, he brought in fellow lefty Terry Mulholland to face Derek Bell. This would be the biggest mistake made by Bobby Cox on the night.
Mulholland continued the merry-go-round by walking Bell to force in another run. It was now 8-6 and Section 47 was on its feet, cheering as loudly as we could, hoping the Mets wouldn’t strand these runners on base. Edgardo Alfonzo was next. If Mike Piazza and Robin Ventura were the heart of those teams, Fonzie was the soul. I was 100% confident he was going to come through and sure enough, he rewarded my faith in him by hitting a sharp single to left scoring the tying runs. My sandwich had fallen on the floor in front of my friend’s seat and he almost slipped on it while jumping up and down, but he wasn’t mad at me. The Mets had just erased a seven-run deficit to tie the game. Nothing was going to bother us now. It was so loud in Section 47 that we couldn’t even hear the airplanes flying above us.
The score was now 8-8. Mike Piazza was the next batter. I knew this game was ours. There was no way Mulholland was going to get Piazza out. Shea Stadium was ready to explode even more than it already was. Then came the pitch to Piazza and with one mighty swing, Piazza yanked a screaming line drive down the left field line. From our seats in the right field corner, we couldn’t tell if the ball was going to hook foul. It seemed like the longest three seconds of our lives…
…and then…sheer euphoria!
The ball hit the padding above the left field wall, just barely fair. The crowd erupted! Strangers were hugging strangers. People were stepping on my dropped sandwich and didn’t care that their shoes were going to have a turkey and cheese smell.
The upper deck was shaking as if it was going to collapse and we didn’t care. I had completely lost my voice and it was the best feeling in the world! The Mets had just scored ten runs in the eighth inning against the hated Atlanta Braves, nine of which came after two men were out. The fireworks were out at Shea before the game had ended, courtesy of Mike Piazza’s bat. Then we realized something. The game wasn’t over yet. There was still one inning left before the Mets could claim their dramatic victory. Our closer was Armando Benitez. It was only a three-run lead. The bullpen gates opened and the fate of the game was in his hands.
Benitez always had trouble pitching 1-2-3 innings and this was no exception. Two of the first four batters he faced reached base. The Braves had the tying run at the plate in the form of Wally Joyner. My fingernails were no longer with me by this time so I needed the out recorded now! Somehow, Benitez must have heard me because he got Joyner to fly out to Jay Payton in center to secure the 11-8 victory for the Mets. Soon after the final out was recorded, the fireworks show began, giving the fans a double dose of fireworks for the night.
Ten years ago today on June 30, 2000, I attended the most exciting comeback I had ever seen in person. The tension was palpable during that miraculous eighth inning at Shea. It’s a game I will never forget. To this day, I still can’t believe the boxscore to that game. Ten runs in the eighth inning, capped by a Mike Piazza line drive home run against the Mets’ most hated rivals. It might be a cliche, but I have to say it. It absolutely did not get any better than that.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E - - - - - - - - - - - - Braves 1 0 3 0 0 0 1 3 0 8 11 1 Mets 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 10 X 11 12 2