October 15-16, 1999: the Mets vs. the Braves, Game Three

John Schuerholz, the Braves general manager, is pacing near the batting cage as the Atlanta players take their per-game cuts. He’s a short, natty man in an immaculate brown suit, but even with the Braves up on the Mets 2-0, Schuerholz is prickly. Mention the Braves remarkable success in the nineties and he becomes defensive. “They don’t give any awards for consistent success,” he snaps. “All anyone cares about is the World Series. That’s all they remember, not our eight straight playoff appearances, four league championships, one world championship. Who won the World Series is all that counts. It’s unrealistic. Anyone who is inside this game knows how hard it is to do what we’ve done, but all that gets written is we’ve failed except for one year.”

One reason Schuerholz is a little testy is the abuse coming from behind the Atlanta dugout. It’s directed at the Braves players, and it’s loud, nasty, vulgar, and unrelenting. (There’s two extremes, actually: Vicious, obscene taunts, and signs stretching to be clever; my favorite tonight is directed at Atlanta relief pitcher John Rocker, and reads, “1865, 1999. When youhate you lose. We won a long time ago.” Hard to know if the Braves will be spooked by Civil War references.) What with people like Don Imus on the radio suggesting that fans throw cell phones at Chipper Jones, and the Mets playing poorly, the mood is predictably ugly. This is one reason a Subway Series is actually a bad thing for New York: All the mindless “hatred” and screaming would be accentuated by the media; TV cameras are racing over to shoot the braying from Mets fans, so the braying gets worse, and Schuerholz is looking for protection. “There should be security back here,” he fumes. “Where’s the security?” Well, one guard is standing right next toSchuerholz, hands folded behind his back, staring into space.

When the Atlanta players are officially introduced, the choral response starts slow and quickly builds: “Pitcher John Smoltz …” “SUCKS!” “Pitcher Kevin Millwood …” “SUCKS!” Pretty soon the Braves players are good-naturedly egging the chant on, waving their arms in time with the chant.

In the pressbox, a Japanese reporter asks me what the fans are yelling. “It is a negative word, yes?” she asks. Definitely. “What is an example, to explain how it is used?”

Uhhhh – Boston sucks?

–8:00 p.m., October 15, 1999

This one hurts. The Mets lose 1-0 because Al Leiter makes a bonehead play in the first inning and Mike Piazza follows it with a bizarre play, his spikes slipping on home plate as he throws to second base, the ball sailing wildly into centerfield. The Mets get a runner on base in the bottom of the ninth, but the game ends with a perfect moment of deflation: Rey Ordonez hits a ball in the air up the middle, but the ball seems to give up hope as it loses velocity, plummets, and plops to the ground, where it’s easily turned into the game-ending out. Nothing is quieter than 56,000 fans who all stop roaring at once. Some pop-orchestral music plays from the loudspeakers, an attempt at soothing the sad fans. But it just sounds funereal. Even the police horses hang their heads as they clop onto the field, as if they sense they’re joining a cortege.

Bobby Valentine never shuts up, but you can see how far the Mets are down in Valentine’s sentence fragments. He sits alone behind the desk in hisoffice, World Series souvenirs framed on the wall behind him. “We’re playing a team that’s been a thorn in our side all year,” Valentine saysquietly, then pauses. “And they’re sticking it to us … .” Another pause. “We’re playing with them … but … our pitching’s been great … when was the last time anyone won a game without scoring?”

This night only builds the anti-hero stature of the Braves’ wild-eyed relief pitcher, John Rocker. Earlier, he’d called Mets fans stupid; they respond tonight by chucking plastic water bottles at Rocker as he does TV interviews on the field. Rocker disappears, supposedly to do his post-game workout, as 50 reporters stand waiting in front of his locker. We wait for 45 minutes. When Rocker appears, he’s nearly drowned out by some kind of stadium air-conditioning unit throbbing over his head, but Rocker loves allthis negative attention, and he won’t shut up, declaring he won’t talk about the Mets fans anymore, then going on for a half-hour about thevulgarity, about how it’s an insult to women, children, the national pastime … .

Outside, in an empty hallway, Rocker’s tall blonde girlfriend waits. Was Susan Hudson scared for Rocker tonight? “No,” she says with a smile. “It really wasn’t all that bad. But I hear it’s worse at Yankee Stadium.” Looks like she and Rocker will find out next week.

–1:00 a.m., October 16, 1999

October 15-16, 1999: the Mets vs. the Braves, Gam […]