October 12, 1999: the Mets vs. the Braves, Game One

Last Mets game, the reporters’ notebooks were wet with champagne. Tonight, new Mets series, more moisture: Pregame rain this time. In the three-year history of Turner Field, there has never been a rainout. It’s not likely the first one will be tonight, given NBC’s desire not to reschedule this game on Thursday night and preempt ER.

Actually, the main Turner Field weirdness tonight is the fact that the game is not sold out. At least 5,000 seats were still available an hour before the first pitch. Maybe those are 5,000 smartest people in Atlanta, because they’re smart enough not to come out and sit in the rain, but offer the worst seats in Shea Stadium, the ones up so high you can glimpse the in-flight movie as planes land at LaGuardia, for a playoff game, at $45 a pop, and there’d be fistfights between fans trying to buy the tickets. The leading local theory is the Braves fans are jaded, that they’ve watched seven straight appearances by the Braves in the National League Championship Series and the novelty has worn off.

The Mets are astounded, and are taking the empty seats as a slight. “It’s sad,” Turk Wendell says. “It’s embarrassing. The fans must think this isgonna be a breeze for the Braves, and they’re waiting for the World Series. With all the smack being talked between us and the Braves, with the Braves coming back against the Astros in the last series, there should be plenty of interest. I can’t understand it.”

Wendell has lots of friends on the Braves, because of his years in the Atlanta minor league system, and he’s got nothing against the players.”It’s kind of silly when we get asked all these questions – ‘Do you hate the other team?’” the relief pitcher says. “Having friends on the other team actually makes it more of a battle when a guy you know gets in the batter’s box, though, for a different reason. You know you’re gonna see the guy later on, over the winter maybe, and he’s going to be talking some smack if he got a hit off you. There was a game earlier this year where I threw Ryan Klesko a pitch that he should’ve hit, but he fouled it off. He gave me a look, like, ‘You got away with one,’ and I started laughing. Then I got him out. So I’ll definitely remind him about it later.”

Wendell, famous for his goofy tics on the mound, like slamming the rosin bag on the ground and leaping over the first-base foul line, is as mellow a guy before the game as you’re likely to find. He’s thrilled to be here and all those other clichés, but he admits to looking ahead to the World Series just a little bit. Wendell grew up in Massachusetts and would love to facethe Red Sox. “I’ve pitched once in Fenway, last year,” he says. “It was a dream come true. But the World Series? Wow. My brother in Pittsfield says he wouldn’t know who to root for, the Sox or me.” A Subway Series doesn’t excite Wendell near as much. “I grew up a Red Sox fan, so I didn’t like the Yankees. So pitching in Yankee Stadium doesn’t have any meaning to me.”

There’s a sense around the Mets that they’ve survived the worst, and that the rest of the playoffs, whatever the pressure externally, will be nothing but fun. The team is loose enough that while Orel Hershiser is doing a live TV interview, Al Leiter sneaks up from behind and smears shaving cream all over Hershisher’s face. Oh, those wacky ballplayers.

The relief on Mike Piazza’s face is even more apparent. He was happy after Saturday’s win eliminating Arizona, but there’s a different sort of smile on the catcher’s face before the game tonight, one of pure ease. You don’t get to this level without significant ego, and Piazza is glad to be the center of attention again, beaming that he’ll be able to play.

Piazza is an enigma. He’s a big, brawny guy from an East Coast town (Norristown, Pennsylvania) who seems to have totally internalized the Southern California laid-back vibe from his years with the Dodgers. It’s hard to argue with a guy who hit .320 with 40 home runs, but Piazza seems unwilling – not unable – to take a game by the short hairs and make it his own. After beating Pittsburgh in the final game of the regularseason – while it was still uncertain whether the Mets would make the playoffs – Piazza said, “Anything from here is icing on the cake.” Hismodest goals don’t seem calculated, as if he’s lowering expectations or avoiding saying anything inflammatory; he just seems easily satisfied. It’s kind of odd for a guy who’s one of the highest-paid players in the game, who plays one of the leadership positions in the field and hits in the cleanup spot in the batting order. It isn’t Piazza’s sore thumb that accounts for his lack of energy.

It’s been pouring for 45 minutes. The tarps are on the field, the players are in their clubhouses watching video. Steve Phillips, the Mets generalmanager, who started his season by admitting to sleeping around on his wife with Mets employees, sits in the dugout answering any and all questions – about baseball, about hockey, he doesn’t care. Suddenly a soaking-wet Wendell walks by on his way inside. “Somebody,” Phillips,”forgot to tell Turk it’s raining.”

–8:00 p.m., October 12, 1999

More of the same? The Mets lose in a game where they had ampleopportunities to win, the same pattern as when they lost several of the games to the Braves in late September. Again, Valentine can’t resist pushingbuttons – a suicidal squeeze that blew a chance to score in the 3rd inning, a misguided charge by the middle infielders that gave the Braves thego-ahead run.

The rain delay was only four minutes, but long enough to wipe out the Mets’ batting practice. Afterward, there’s lots of talk about this being just one game in a seven-game series. “Hey, we lost one game in a five-game series to Arizona,and we won that series,” Robin Ventura says with a shrug. Big difference: The Mets won the first road game against the Diamondbacks, beating theirbest pitcher; tomorrow, down 0-1, the Mets face Atlanta’s hottest current pitcher. Piazza even finds positive signs in tonight’s 4-2 loss: “Well, we didn’t roll over and die like we did against them in some of the September games,” he says. “In those games we let them off the hook in the later innings. Tonight we got John Rocker to throw a lot of pitches, so maybe we can take advantage of that if he pitches tomorrow.” Wow. Faint progess indeed. Not that Piazza needs to throw his helmet or cry or anything clichéd, but you wonder what it would take for him to show some fire.

Todd Pratt admits that game two is “pivotal” but claims winning isn’t urgent. “I don’t see any down faces in here,” Pratt says, “but no one’s spraying champagne, either.” Just three days ago, Pratt was the ecstatic target of that champagne; tonight, he’s clutching a can of Bud.

Only Darryl Hamilton seems pissed, recognizing that this was a winnable game that got away. Hamilton seethes when asked dopey questions. He also says,”We better hope Kevin Millwood tomorrow’s Braves starting pitcher doesn’t have his best stuff.”

Or else the Mets can’t win? Wednesday’s game is in the afternoon, a quick turnaround, less than 24 hours away. If the Mets lose again tomorrow, the air could go out of this balloon in a big hurry.

October 12, 1999: the Mets vs. the Braves, Game One