The Night Bobby Valentine Lurked

An excerpt from Matthew Callan's "Yells For Ourselves," an e-book about the 1999 Mets.
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Classical contributor and good dude Matthew Callan is working on a sort of people's history of the batty, wonderful, and eminently worthy-of-memorialization 1999 New York Mets, called "Yells For Ourselves." This is a sort of excerpt of an excerpt from that. To download a longer sample, go here.

Bobby Valentine has just written a paragraph in his obituary. He does not know this yet. But then, how could he not?

We are deep into the night at Shea Stadium, the home of the New York Mets and a place that could be charitably described as utilitarian and incharitably described as crumbling. No one should be here, but based on what has happened to this point, that seems perversely appropriate. Because what you have to understand is that this is a weird game, weirder than most. Even measured against the weird standard of the 1999 Mets, the game on June 9 is an odd one.

Earlier in the week, during an interview on WFAN radio (“New York’s #1”), manager Bobby Valentine said Newsday reporter Marty Noble hadn’t spoken to him in over a year, obliquely calling his journalistic integrity in question. An unhappy Noble confronts Valentine in front of the collected press corps, contending that if indeed he hasn’t spoken to Valentine in over a year—a point he does not concede—it’s only because he doesn’t believe anything the manager says. Valentine is used to being combative with the press, but not quite so literally. He loudly calls Noble a “liar” for all to hear. A shouting match ensues. The two men are separated. Nothing is resolved.

Nothing is ever resolved with this team. The Mets have had very few days without one lineup issue or another. Today is no exception. Rookie outfielder Benny Agbayani, a fan favorite for his surprisingly prodigious home runs and less-than-athletic physique, suffers a freak batting practice injury when a foul tip takes an unlucky hop into his right eye. The swollen-faced Hawaiian receives a CT scan and is listed, for the moment, as day-to-day.

Agbayani’s injury means the Mets will play two men down tonight, because the perpetually disgruntled Bobby Bonilla is also unavailable, for reasons no one will articulate. Reporters noticed he was not used in a pinch-hitting situation the night before and suspect something may be afoot. He was already placed on waivers, after all. No takers, of course. No team wants to contract a clubhouse cancer.

Valentine seems to know something about Bonilla he can’t reveal, and it’s clearly killing him. “Yesterday, he was asked to pinch hit and he couldn’t,” Valentine says. “I was told today it was the same situation. I’m very confused.” The obscure phrasing from someone normally so forthcoming suggests Valentine is receiving instruction from on high, but those on high refuse to reveal any more. General manager Steve Phillips has no comment, while Bonilla—never one inclined to make a reporter’s job easy—literally tells the scribes, “I have nothing to say, to be honest with you.”

Adding to the evening’s odd vibe is the presence of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who throws out the ceremonial first pitch while draped in a billowy warmup jacket adorned with the colors of his nation’s flag. For good measure, he festoons himself in a full Mets uniform, including pinstriped pants, and brings his own glove to mound. Chavez’s appearance prompts a playing of the Venezuelan national anthem prior to the first real pitch, in addition the standard “Star-Spangled Banner” and the “Oh Canada” necessitated by the visiting Toronto Blue Jays.

All this pregame finery conspires to push a scheduled 7:40pm start even later, in front of a sparse midweek crowd that is not entirely on the home team’s side. On the mound for Toronto: David Wells, the hard-living bear-sized lefty making his first start in New York since the Yankees shipped him north in the deal that netted them Roger Clemens. Wells brings many Yankee fans out to Shea, few of whom have any qualms about cheering for a division rival at the expense of the Mets. Boomer has a big post-game birthday celebration planned at a Manhattan club, its polyglot guest-list comprised of random celebrities such as Penny Marshall, Lorne Michaels, and Ione Skye, among others. He certainly looks like a man ready to celebrate as he mows down the Mets’ batting order with little effort through the first eight innings. Mets starter Rick Reed cedes three runs to the Blue Jays on solo homers from Jose Cruz Jr. and Darrin Fletcher, and an RBI double from Carlos Delgado.

When Wells walks to the mound in the bottom of the ninth inning, his team is up 3-0, and he has retired 18 of the last 19 batters he’s faced. A complete game seems a formality. But near-death becomes these Mets. With two outs and two men on, Wells corners Robin Ventura into a two-strike count, but the third baseman fouls off three tough pitches before finally bouncing a single up the middle, scoring a pair of runs and shaving the Blue Jays’ lead down to one slim run. Wells reluctantly gives way to Toronto's closer, Long Island native Billy Koch. He allows a double down the left field line off the bat of Brian McRae. The tying run scores all the way from first. It's a new ballgame.

But all this new ballgame buys the Mets is a frustrating extra-inning slog. Each team takes turns teasing at taking a lead, only to retreat each time. The stands thin out; the constant roar of jets from LaGuardia and the hardest of the dead-enders remain. The looming scoreboard beyond the right field fence gives periodic updates of game five of the NBA Eastern Conference finals, as the Knicks attempt to best their longtime rivals, the Indiana Pacers. The basketball game ends with New York victorious. The baseball game plods on.

We lurch unmercifully into the top of the 12th inning. Shannon Stewart hits a one-out single against John Franco, the Mets’ 40-year-old closer-for-life. Stewart takes off for second, thinking he can take advantage of Mike Piazza, the slugging catcher whose bat is not questioned but whose skills behind the plate most definitely are. Piazza fires a bullet to Edgardo Alfonzo at second. He appears to have thrown out the runner by a decent margin, for once.

Home plate umpire Randy Marsh has a different opinion. Almost immediately, he signals that Piazza interfered with the batter, Craig Grebeck. So not only does Stewart receive second base, but Grebeck can trot to first. Catcher’s interference is not a call one sees very often, particularly not in the top of the 12th inning, and particularly not when TV replays show no clear evidence of the alleged offense.

Valentine isn’t pleased with Marsh. He is seldom pleased with any umpire. Throughout his career, he has barked ceaselessly at the men in blue from the highest perch of the dugout. This is how he earned the nickname Top Step, which is not meant to be a compliment. Valentine storms out of the dugout and makes his displeasure known, and Marsh ejects him. Valentine stalks slowly off the field, drawing his exit out as long as possible. The remaining crowd cheers his fire and final subtle act of umpire-annoyance, but Valentine will have to watch the remainder of this one from the clubhouse. Those are the rules.

Why Valentine does what he does next, no one can say. Except for Valentine, who, as usual, will say a bit too much. Initially, reflexively, he will deny he did anything at all. On bad days, he will dismiss those who choose to obsess over it with withering sarcasm. On good days, he will cop to it with a twinkle in his eye. But when all is said and done, what Valentine does is so sublimely ridiculous that any attempt to assign reason his actions seems both doomed to failure and missing the point.

***

The sense of doom surrounding the 1999 Mets is so constant that few notice when doomsday arrives on the evening of Friday, May 28. With the Mets down 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth to the visiting Diamondbacks, Agbayani hits a hard grounder that Arizona second baseman Jay Bell slings past first base. This miscue should allow the tying run to score from second, even when that tying run is represented by the slow-footed Piazza. But instead of rolling off into the wilds of foul territory, the ball clangs perfectly off the photographer’s box and into the waiting glove of the first baseman. Moments later, with the bases loaded, pinch hitter Luis Lopez takes an ankle-high pitch that should be ball four. But the tying run stays put yet again when home plate umpire Gary Darling calls it strike two. Incredulous and rattled, Lopez takes another pitch for strike three to end the threat and the game.

Thus begins a week of bad luck, near misses, and bad blood, where no calls or bounces go the Mets’ way. In quick succession, they encounter a 3-hour 40-minute Bataan Death Loss, 10 strikeouts from Randy Johnson in a 10-1 drubbing, and an anonymous veteran grumbling to the press about Bobby Valentine’s volatile lineup choices. Valentine objects that he just watched the Yankees start three different lineups three different games in a row. He also proffers statistics to show that, despite anonymous grumbling about the lineup, the team is hitting well. These details are deemed irrelevant.

The Mystery Vet gets his wish when Valentine starts Henderson and Bonilla for the first two games at Shea against Cincinnati, with lethargic results. The Reds take the opener on May 31, 5-3, another loss for the team’s ostensible ace, Al Leiter. Then, that very same lineup is shut out 4-0 by Pete Harnisch, an ex-Met who once called up WFAN to tell the world just how much the clubhouse hated Valentine. Bonilla glowers at several balls over his head, inspiring hearty cheers of BOBBY SUCKS from the frustrated Shea crowd. A players-only meeting is called after the game to try to clear the air, but all it really does is raise the volume on whispers that Valentine might be losing the respect and attention of his charges. Robin Ventura and Brian McRae suggest wearing high stirrups as a show of solidarity and a nod to the gritty days of the 1980s. Half the team complies.

In the Reds series finale, the Mets carry a 7-6 lead into ninth. Two quick outs from John Franco make victory seem imminent. Then, a walk, an infield single, and a double steal to put the go-ahead run in scoring position. Franco gets the next batter, Mike Cameron, in an 0-2 hole, but Cameron fights back and slaps a single up the middle that spins Franco around like a top, driving in both runners. The shellshocked Mets go quietly in their half, capping a crushing 8-7 loss. Franco hadn’t blown a save all year, but his number finally came up at the worst moment possible. Thus concludes a miserable 0-6 homestand, the first time the Mets have been swept in back-to-back three-game series at home since 1962, their hilariously inept inaugural year.

And then to the Bronx, to play the Yankees, where the team suffers more of the same. In the series opener on June 4, they lose a chance to take a lead when a fan leans over the right field wall and interferes with the ball in play. It is not quite Jeffrey Maier, but it has the same effect. The Mets go on to lose, 4-3, and drop the next game, 6-3. It is their eighth loss in a row, a skid that has brought them plummeting a game below .500. Despite their losing record, Valentine pronounces himself “proud” of his team. “Other than a victory, there’s nothing negative I can say about my guys,” he insists.

Later that night, GM Steve Phillips informs the press via conference call that he has dismissed three of the Mets' coaches, all of whom were handpicked by Valentine. Phillips denies that the firings are a backhanded attempt to force Valentine to resign; if they are, it doesn't work, and Valentine holds fast. This could be interpreted as either stubbornness or insanity, but some writers see it as a sign of disloyalty. The Times’ Murray Chass, a longtime Valentine nemesis, pens a column headlined “To Valentine, It Seems, Loyalty Has Its Limits,” in which he calls the manager a coward for not falling on his sword.

At an uncomfortable press conference the next day, GM Steve Phillips does most of the talking, defending his actions in clipped, measured phrases. Bobby Valentine sits near him and says very little, looking like a hyperactive child forced to squirm through church; his eyes dart in every direction, but never come to rest on Phillips. When asked if he’s “lost” the team, Valentine responds, “None of my power is gone. I still have total control over things I've always had control over.”

To snap their losing streak, the Mets will have to defeat Roger Clemens, winner of an American League-record 20 decisions in a row. They will also have to win with Al Leiter on the mound, an ace-in-name who has pitched like anything but thus far this season. It all appears laboratory-engineered to end the Mets’ season, which makes what follows all that more remarkable. The Rocket fizzles in the second inning when a few strike calls don’t go his way, and completely implodes in the third after giving up a homer to Mike Piazza that pokes the batter’s eye in center field. He exits with one of the ugliest lines of his illustrious career: 2 2/3 innings, 8 hits, 7 runs, all earned, while the press sighs that Clemens still has a long way to go before attaining the elusive status of True Yankee. Leiter’s performance is almost as stunning: 7 innings, 1 run, 4 hits. “I'm so relieved just so I don’t have to answer your questions of why I’m so shitty,” Leiter says after the game.

Then the Mets go on to win the first two games of their series back at Shea against Toronto; a win in the endless game from which Valentine was just ejected would be the team's fourth straight, but wouldn't likely turn down the volume on the New York media's Bobby Valentine Death Watch. The newspapers run opinion pieces with titles like “Mets, Own Up to the Inevitable,” urging the team to cut its losses and ditch Valentine, for the good of everyone involved. Valentine’s survival clearly depends on him delivering on his 55-game guarantee, or at least returning the Mets to something close to normalcy; though, as Jack Curry points out in The New York Times, “Exactly what is normal for the Mets is still uncertain.” Getting tossed in the 12th inning of an ugly interleague slog was, presumably, not part of this plan.

***

Moments after Valentine finishes his long, slow post-ejection meander off the field, the Fox Sports cameras spy a lurker in the Mets dugout. Well, not in the dugout, exactly. The culprit will be careful to make this important distinction later—in part to forestall the inevitable suspension and fine, in part to insist he did not violate the letter of the baseball law. The lurker stands on the last step that connects the dugout to the clubhouse tunnel—the top step, if you will. On his head is a black baseball cap. Not a Mets hat, but one with an indecipherable logo. No one knows what it says. No one will ever know, for no closeup or freeze frame seen since provides a definitive answer. He wears a Mets t-shirt, and a cheap-looking one at that, the kind of thing enterprising souls sell in the Shea parking lot to free-spending tailgaters. The man's eyes are obscured by a large pair of inexpensive-looking sunglasses. Below his nose is a laughably fake mustache painted on with eye-black. It is the kind of “disguise” a person would wear to stand out rather than go unnoticed. He looks less like an inconspicuous person hanging around in-if-not-technically-in the dugout than a police sketch come to goofy life.

The lurker's arms are folded. He rocks side to side slightly, doing such a strenuous job of trying to not be seen that no one can fail to miss him. The players on the bench pay him no mind, but this is contrived. They are doing everything in their power not to look at him. Which, in turn, only serves to draw even more attention his way. The mystery man in the ridiculous get-up appears to say nothing. But what does he need to say? His appearance says everything. Isn’t this is supposed to be fun?, the half-disguised Bobby Valentine says, without speaking a word. Isn’t this supposed to be a game?


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