It's not enough for John Rocker to be flinging 97-mile-per-hour fastballs and flipping the bird at Mets fans. This afternoon, hours before game six, Rocker added to excitement by crashing his car, a Corvette lent to him by an Atlanta auto dealer. Bobby Cox claimed Rocker was driving at 140 miles per hour at the time, but the pitcher seems to be unhurt. And maybe Rocker is undaunted, too: When he did make it to the ballpark, Rocker sought outstock-car driver Dale Earnhardt's crew chief for driving tips.
The sluggish ticket sales for Braves playoff games are turning into a referendum on civic pride. Atlanta TV stations are running updates on the quarter-hour: 3,000 seats are left, 2,000... Tonight looks as if it will sell out. Still, the Braves are making numerous announcements over thestadium PA system, imploring people to buy seats for tomorrow's potential seventh game. Well, there's lots of entertainment competition in Atlanta on a Tuesday night, and all this makes it much easier for the Mets fans who impulsively piled onto a noon flight out of La Guardia today.
The Mets seem to feel they've accomplished something just by bringing the series this far, after being left for dead last Wednesday, when they were down 2-0 and leaving Atlanta. Even Bobby Valentine today admitted he had serious doubts. It's a custom in baseball for visiting players and managers to tip the clubhouse attendant when the team is leaving a city and notcoming back. Valentine held off writing his check last Wednesday, and thought about making a cocky statement instead of a gratuity: "I was goingto do one of those things that would have gotten me in trouble," he says, "I was going to tell the clubhouse man 'I'm going to fill this out when we come back.'" But Valentine wrote the check, and the Mets left down gasping for playoff breath.
Interestingly, Valentine's hesitation, like all his actions, is interpreted in two ways by the Mets beat writers, neither of them complimentary to the Mets manager: Either Valentine was worried that if he didn't write the check, he would be portrayed as arrogantly optimistic, or he would be portrayed as stiffing the clubhouse guy. The New York sportswriters decide Valentine didn't want to look cheap. "So now," says one tabloid columnist with glee, "we can rip Bobby for giving up on his team!"
Otherwise, the Mets bandwagon is quickly overcrowding. Mitchell Modell, the sporting-goods guy, has his T-shirt factory in New Jersey on alert; if the Mets win today and tomorrow, Subway Series shirts will go into production at 1 A.M. Thursday, be loaded on trucks at 5 A.M., and be on sale in Modell's stores by 9 A.M. Joe Morgan, the all-time-great second-baseman turned NBC analyst, says the Yankees should be more frightened of facing the Mets than of the Braves, because the Mets can score. As for tonight, Morgan says the first three innings will be the key: "Will the Braves hitters be patient at the beginning and make Leiter throw strikes?" Morgan asks. If Al Leiter overcomes his fatigue and nerves and makes it to the middle innings, Morgan says, the Mets will win. "I'll see you tomorrow," are Morgan's words as he walks away.
--7:45 p.m., October 19, 1999