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Oliver Twist

Though he probably won't get within a runaway No. 7 trainride of Shea Stadium, I like that Darren Oliver is in Mets camp, trying to make the team as a lefty specialist. I like the attitude that comes with someone who has made more than $27 million in his career saying he emerged from retirement because he wants a championship ring (see NY Daily News story from a few days ago). I also like that he reminds me of the Mets walk-off that took place on August 22, 1999.

There are little bits of minutiae that I seem to recall from each of my frequent trips to Shea Stadium. From this contest, there is much to remember.

I remember the game's beginning distinctly, more than anything, because I missed it. It's rare that I arrive at the Flushing ballpark late, as even though my trip is a lengthy one, I always afford myself plenty of time for the journey. Whatever the reason was, for this game, a doubleheader, between the Mets and Cardinals, my dad and I were a smidge slow getting out of the subway. When we walked up the tunnel towards our seats, we noticed a midget-sized ballplayer sprinting round the bases. Turned out that we'd missed a home run from a Cardinals rookie named Joe McEwing. Upon settling in our section, another fellow circled the bases, only this one was giant-sized (some might say artificially enhanced), as giant-sized as a 502-foot shot that knocked out a light on the scoreboard, by Mr. McGwire's place in the lineup.

I was at this ballpark the year previous when this man had hit a home run, and thought it very peculiar that the home fans would clap and yell for a member of the opposition, so I didn't join in their serenade. I was there again a few innings later in this particular game, when he hit a home run of a similar nature (No. 50 came off Jeff Tam) and there was less cheering on this occasion. That may have had something to do with the score, which at the end of seven and a half innings was Cardinals 6, Mets 1.

One of the significant reasons that the Mets were trailing was because of the Cardinals pitcher, a southpaw with decent velocity whose skill set ranked him as rather average. Fans of the other New York franchise may remember him for his pitching in the 1996 ALDS for the Rangers when he tossed eight innings of shutout ball but couldn't finish what he started and thus took the defeat in the ninth. There was criticism that Oliver was left in for too long by his manager on that day. On this occasion, perhaps he was pulled too swiftly.

If we were to rate all 65,000 or so innings of Mets baseball (a project too cumbersome for this blogger, but a Top 25 list would be a fun challenge), I think that the 8th inning of Game 1 of this August 22nd doubleheader would be worthy of some of the highest marks. It began with Rey Ordonez doubling to left (a sign perhaps that Oliver was gassed) and was further enhanced by a walk to Rickey Henderson, and then another (from new pitcher Rich Croushore) to Edgardo Alfonzo. This brought up John Olerud with the bases loaded. Though Olerud fell behind in the count, 1-2, he was such a good two-strike hitter that the subsequent pitch gave him no trouble. He cranked it into the loge section in right field for a grand slam. Now the score was Cardinals 6, Mets 5. And the Mets big guy was coming up.

What happened next was almost too good to be true. Croushore fell behind 1-0 and tried a fastball. Mike Piazza scorched it. From my vantage point, it was a rising line drive that zipped over the centerfield fence with the greatest of velocity. Suddenly the game was tied.

Armando Benitez did his best to temper the unbridled joy and enthusiasm that pervaded Shea Stadium allowing a Cardinals run in the ninth, when for one of the rare times this season that the Mets Gold Glove-caliber infield was unable to complete a double play.

The game stories all reference the same Bobby Valentine quote, which basically was "If you can come back from five, why can't you come back from one?"

It was a reasonable query, one for which the Mets had the appropriate response. Ordonez walked with one out, as did Matt Franco. Future Hall of Famer (and baserunning coach extraordinaire) Rickey Henderson followed with a punch single to right, plating Ordonez with the tying run. Edgardo Alfonzo, whose slightly askew relay throw in the top of the frame allowed the Cardinals to take the lead, redeemed himself, knocking home the winning run with a single through the left side of a drawn-in infield.

In a season of great expectations, in which every win counted significantly, this was one of the better ones, although there was plenty more still to come.

True Metsivers know...Edgardo Alfonzo and Cleon Jones hold the Mets club "record" for most times getting a walk-off RBI in the month of August. Each did so on three separate occasions.


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