October 19, 1999: the Mets vs. the Braves, Game Six

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

What great entertainment. What a heartbreaking ending.

In the desolate Mets locker room, a few players try to take solace in how hard they played all year, how they refused to die again tonight, how they pushed the Braves until the very end. “In my heart, it’s some consolation to lose this way,” Todd Pratt says. “To witness and be part of six of the greatest games in baseball – when were so many games in a series decided by one run? Tonight, it was as if the baseball god didn’t know who he wants in the World Series this year. That’s what I said on the bench to Al Leiter.We played the best we could, and I’m proud of that. Probably some guys in here are more upset than me.”

Five of them are sitting in a circle, all stripped down to their orange undershirts and white baseball shorts, staring at the ground. John Franco, Pat Mahomes, Darryl Hamilton, Dennis Cook, and Rick Reed are a small sweaty wake. A clubhouse kid asks if they need more beers. “Yeah,” Franco says. “A lot of them.” Hamilton tries to find something positive. “We made John Rocker sweat his nuts off tonight,” Hamilton says. There some grunts of agreement. RickReed, who was three outs away from starting a decisive seventh game tomorrow, just mutters a curse word, over and over again.

Rickey Henderson, resplendent in white shoes and cream-colored pants and a huge diamond ring, dials his cell phone and makes Christmas plans. The ghoulish how-do-you-feel quiz of camera crews makes its way from Turk Wendell to Kenny Rogers to Al Leiter. “My only pitch that found the strike zone, I guess, was the one they hit for a double,” Rogers says. “I’m a big boy; I don’t get anything I can’t handle. But everybody will forget what I’ve done in the past, because this was the end.”

In my notebook, there’s a pitch-by-pitch narration of the final, fatal at-bat, when Rogers walked in the losing run. The last entry says, “Ball 4, not close.” True of the pitch itself, and of the difference between how it feels to winand how it feels to lose. The Mets are hugging and scattering to their various homes. The Braves are smoking cigars and talking about going to theBronx next week. Not close.

–2:23 a.m., October 20, 1999

October 19, 1999: the Mets vs. the Braves, Game Six