October 9, 1999: The Mets, Game Four

One hour before today’s game, Bobby Valentine trudges down a tunnel underneath the Shea seats, alone, head down, and goes into the playroom for the kids of Mets’ players. Valentine emerges five minutes later with a brown paper shopping bag in his left hand, the bag heavy and stuffed with – toys? Sandwiches? Press clippings?

Valentine doesn’t stop to explain his package, but it seems he’s always adding to his baggage. He faced more questions today about his inflammatory remarks in Sports Illustrated, where he called five of his players losers and the whole group of them dumb. As much as Valentine continues to try to make himself the center of attention, last night’s win took the spotlight off him and put it back on the players. It will be interesting to see, if the Mets keep winning, keep advancing, keep succeeding, whether Valentine isable to stand it, or whether he’ll do something even more extreme than volunteering to be fired to get his name back in the headlines. Then again, volunteering to be fired has proven to be a brilliant tactic; the Mets have won something like 80 percent of their games in the immediate aftermath of Valentine’s two previous outbursts.

Rob Reiner has changed hats. Today he’s wearing an adjustable-fit Mets cap while schmoozing with John Franco.

After reporters have been cleared from the Mets locker room, Keith Hernandez goes in, a walking reminder of the Mets’ championship past – and a reminder of their unfulfilled potential, of how fleeting these opportunities can be. Mention the Mets’ World Series win in ‘86 to Hernandez, and he never fails to talk about how the team blew it in ‘88, how they should have strung together several dominant years…

Hernandez has had a strange relationship with the Mets in the past few years. He was bitter when the team dumped him at the end of his career; since then, he’s made sporadic attempts to be a broadcaster on Mets telecasts. He’s loaded with insights, but he’s always said he hates watching baseball when he’s not playing it, and Hernandez can’t hide his ambivalence during these infrequent visits to the ballpark. But he’s a longtime friend of Valentine’s and couldn’t resist seeing the Mets’ first chance to win aplayoff series since 1986, when Hernandez was wearing a uniform instead of the suit he’s sporting today.

Maybe it’s the quick turnaround from last night’s win, or the rare chance to play an October game in the sun with the temperature about 50 degrees,but there’s a palpable looseness and confidence to the Mets today, even with Mike Piazza out of the lineup again. Maybe they’re also picking up the very loud vibes from all the New York sportswriters, who are begging not to fly back to Arizona tomorrow. Buck Showalter, the Arizona manager, sounds serene, but he stands for a long time holding a baseball pressed against his left cheek. It isn’t the pose of a relaxed man.

The Mets, even as they’ve won more games these past two seasons, have lacked for an engaging, emblematic personality. Piazza signed the biggestcontract in baseball history – well, for a few days – but $91 million hasn’t made him charismatic. Now, in the past month, Darryl Hamilton has emerged as an articulate guy who loves playing the game and living in New York. How perfect is it that one of the Mets new stars shares a first name with one of their old heroes, and that Shea is echoing again with chants of”Darrrr-ryl, Darrrr-ryl”? And that Hamilton wears 18, Strawberry’s old uniform number?

Hamilton grew up in Baton Rouge but has taken to Manhattan like he’s been planning to live here all his life. The Mets traded for Hamilton on July 31, paroling him from the last-place Colorado Rockies. Now truck drivers stop in midtown traffic and climb down to slap the centerfielder on the back. Hamilton loves it. So far. “If this gets to a Subway Series,” Hamilton says with a laugh, “things could get ugly.”

–1:00 p.m., October 9, 1999

In all the thousands of replays and dissections you’ll see, that you’re already seeing, of today’s incredible Mets win, here’s one highlight you will never see on SportsCenter, or anywhere else. Todd Pratt, instant folk hero, had just finished a long and fascinating press conference, where in his greatest moment he unburdened himself of years of frustration at how he’d been treated by the Mets. Pratt is walking back to the Mets locker room to join the champagne spraying when out of the mobbed and chaotic hallway a guy yells, “Todd! I caught the ball! The home-run ball! This is it!” The guy’s waving a regulation ball; there’s nothing to mark it as the holy relic it’s just become except the guy’s word. Pratt is momentarily uncomprehending; people have been shouting at him for a half-hour now, he’sexhausted, he wants to cry from happiness, and somebody’s waving a baseball at him. The guy, who is wearing a pass around his neck identifying him as part of the fireworks crew, yells, “Todd, can you sign my ball?” Suddenly everything clicks for Pratt. He stares at the guy and says, “Your ball?That’s MY ball!” And Pratt reaches out and snatches it from the guy’s hand.

Pratt starts to disappear into the clubhouse. They guy looks stunned. Pratt stops and turns back. “I’ll give you something,” Pratt says. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of you.”

The fireworks guy caught the home run that set off the fireworks. Sometimes the hokey stuff just can’t be avoided.

October 9, 1999: The Mets, Game Four