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Rico Suave

In the summer of 1999, in my previous life as a sportswriter for the Trenton (NJ) Times, I wrote a lengthy feature collecting memories from people about their first baseball gloves. The idea was to compile stories from local, everyday baseball fans, and quasi-celebrities such as the mayor of the city. My goal was to get one current major-league player and our beat writer covering the Phillies suggested that I come out and talk to Rico Brogna.

My specialty then was scholastic and collegiate sports, so a trip to Veterans Stadium to write was rare, but I was there in time for batting practice, at least until I learned that our beat writer had neglected to get me the day credential he had promised. By the time I talked my way into the ballpark, BP was just about done and I caught Brogna on his way back to the clubhouse. "Rico," I asked. "Do you remember your first baseball glove." His face brightened, but only for a second. "Oh yeah," he said, "but get me later. I have to do some extra hitting in the cage."

"Later" turned out to be awhile. It was six years as a matter of fact, before our paths crossed again earlier this week. My deadline had long since passed. The piece turned out to be a good one, nominated unsuccessfully for a national award. If I ever do a "Best of..." compilation, it will make the book, for sure. But I'm a rather persistent one, so when I found out that Brogna was named head baseball coach at Division II Post University, in Waterbury CT (not far from where I live) a few months ago (he finished his career with the Braves in 2001), it made sense not only to get my question answered, but to talk to him for this project as well.

Brogna was John Olerud's predecessor at first base, holding down the position for the Mets full-time in 1995 and for three months in 1996 before getting hurt. He had two walk-off hits for the Flushing 9, the first a single in a 2-1 triumph over the Rockies on July 16, 1995, and the second one, which was a little more memorable, in a 7-6 win over the Cubs on May 11, 1996.

Both the Mets and Cubs got off to sluggish starts that season, and at 14-19, New York had already dug a pretty deep hole in the standings.

The Cubs took a 2-0 lead in the top of the first on a Sammy Sosa home run and things got a little testy when Cubs starter Kevin Foster buzzed Mets catcher Todd Hundley near the head in the bottom of the frame. Brogna made success the best revenge, singling in two runs to tie the score. Mets starter Pete Harnisch decided to get even in his own way, plunking Kevin Foster in the second inning, and though nothing happened, tempers flared, and when Cubs reliever Terry Adams threw behind Harnisch in the fifth, with the Mets up, 6-3, things got really ugly really quickly.

Harnisch went at it with his former Astros teammate Scott Servais and that prompted both benches to empty. There were multiple fights in multiple places. Brogna got stuck right in the middle of everything.

"I got hammered," Brogna said. "I got thrown into a chair outside the dugout. I got hit in the head and the ribs. I was at the bottom of the pile. Chris Jones pulled (Cubs pitcher) Turk Wendell off of me. One of the Cubs had (manager) Dallas Green in a chokehold. I started to go over to that and got thrown into a chair.

The brawl lasted 15 minutes and when it was done, nine players were ejected, including Mets reliever John Franco (on "John Franco Day" at Shea), but not Brogna. Franco's departure proved costly for the Mets as the Cubs tied the game with a run in the eighth and two with two outs in the ninth off a combination of three Mets relievers.

Cubs reliever Doug Jones got the first out in the bottom of the ninth, but Brogna, who needed only a double for the cycle was up next. He went two bases better, hitting a pitch over the right field fence for a walk-off winnner. Brogna described the feeling as "electrifying."

"You have to be able to relax in the moment," Brogna said, describing those types of at bats. "The times I didn't succeeed in those situations are when I wasn't able to focus. The ones I remember, I was relaxed and loose. If you grab the bat too hard, your odds go down. You have to make it feel like just another at bat."

Brogna's Mets career lasted only 26 more games as injuries forced him to the sidelines. He was traded to the Phillies in the winter for relievers Toby Borland and Ricardo Jordan (memo to Mets management: Trading an everyday player for middle relievers is rarely a good idea), a bad deal, but one that most fans forget since the Mets got Olerud for Robert Person that same offseason.

Brogna had three very good seasons with the Phillies, before the Red Sox claimed him off waivers on August 3, 2000. The great thing about that for Brogna was that he was a native of Turners Falls, Massachusetts and had loved the Red Sox growing up. We'll make an exception here and tell Brogna's best walk-off story (a Red Sox one), which came two weeks into his brief Boston tenure.

Brogna only had three hits in his first 16 at bats, but made his fourth one count big-time, on August 14 against the Devil Rays. Prior to that game, Brogna said, the Red Sox asked him to go on the disabled list to clear a roster spot, even though he was able to play without issue. Brogna refused, figuring that the team would respond by releasing him. No move was made and Brogna was inserted into this game as a pinch-runner in the bottom of the eighth. The score was still even, 3-3 in the ninth, but Brogna was due up sixth in the inning. The only way he'd bat is if the bases were loaded with two outs.

Wouldn't you know it, that's exactly what happened. With a runner on third and two outs, the Devil Rays had pitcher Billy Taylor (the former Met) intentionally walked both Carl Everett and Nomar Garciaparra, figuring if they were going to lose, Brogna was going to have to beat them. We'll let Brogna explain how he did.

"I understood the move, but that's more than a slap in the face, to throw eight straight balls to get to me," Brogna said. "The crowd started chanting my name. I got a good first pitch, fouled it off and I was like 'Wow, that was a good swing.' I had watched Taylor pitch to the other lefty hitters that inning. He threw them a slider in. I was looking for that. I put a good swing on it. I remember running to first (as the ball went over the fence for a walk-off grand slam). The ground was shaking. It was so loud, it was like it was silent. It was one of those life-changing moments. It was worth a lifetime of playing."

That's a good story, and speaking of which, so was the one about the baseball glove we mentioned in the lead of this piece, and which we'll close with here.

"My dad coached baseball, so I used to go to practice," Brogna said. "When I was three, four, five years old, I used to put the catchers gear on. My godfather, a friend of my dad, saw this, and bought me a lefthanded catchers mitt. It was made very well. I used it, even in high school. I could take it out today and still use it. It was the coolest thing ever."

True Metheads know...The Mets have had seven solo walk-off home runs against the Cubs. That's the most walk-off solo home runs they've had against any team.

PS: For more info on Post University baseball, go to www.post.edu/athletics/men/baseball


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