No Backing Down In a National League Championship Series marked by superb pitching and a 15-inning nail-biter, the never-say-die Mets, down three games to none, dug in to win two straight from the Braves

October 24, 1999

On Sunday night at half past nine on the East Coast, time
stopped. Across the country, only two baseball games were being
played. At Fenway Park two American League relics, the New York
Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, carried their old rivalry deeper
into autumn than ever before. At Shea Stadium the New York Mets
were at bat, the Atlanta Braves were in the field, and the game
was in its 15th inning, half of those played in a rain that was
steady and oddly warm. The Mets trailed by a run, which meant
the Braves, up three games to one, were three outs away from
securing their rightful place in the last World Series of the
20th century. You had to give them that. Atlanta has been a
model of excellence, having played in the last eight National
League Championship Series. The funky Mets--not as lovable as
the 1969 team, but likable in their own fractious way--were
trying to extend their season, to live to play another day.

Shawon Dunston, a native son, a Brooklyn legend as a schoolboy
nearly 20 years ago, led off for the home team. In a field-level
box behind first base was an on-duty New York City cop named
Dolphin, standing with his back to the game, keeping the peace.
Dolphin knew, along with the 40,000 fans still on hand, that
Dunston had just fouled off his sixth full-count pitch. On the
12th pitch of the at bat, finally, came a different sound. A
knock. Officer Dolphin spun his head to the game in time to see
Dunston reach first on a single to center. The stands were
bouncing like a trampoline. The Mets were still alive.

How did they ever get to this point? In late September, New York
played Atlanta six times, losing five. The Mets were left for
dead. But then they swept the Pittsburgh Pirates in the final
series of the season, beat the Cincinnati Reds in a one-game
playoff for the National League wild card and defeated the
Arizona Diamondbacks in the Division Series. Suddenly they were
like that little Mr. Met bobble-head doll that New York manager
Bobby Valentine keeps in his office. Touch the head once, just
tap it, and the thing twitches forever.

Of course, nothing really goes on forever. In the National
League Championship Series the Mets would face Atlanta's
formidable rotation of Greg Maddux, Kevin Millwood, Tom Glavine
and John Smoltz, who went a combined 62-35 with a 3.40 ERA this
season. New York had some O.K. arms, but please. The Braves had
one other big thing going for them: manager Bobby Cox. He turned
58 in May, and he has never been more on top of his game.
Atlanta was blitzed with one illness or injury after another,
and some of the Braves' big bats--with the notable exception of
third baseman Chipper Jones--weren't around for all or part of
this year. Cox manufactured runs as if he were working from an
old Jim Leyland textbook.

The first game of the series was on Oct. 12, a Tuesday night.
The announced crowd at Turner Field was 44,172; the house holds
50,528. In the newspapers much rancor between the two clubs was
reported, but a lot of that, of course, came from guys with
notebooks and laptops amusing themselves and their readers.
There were numerous stories featuring the word respect. The
general theme was that the Braves did not respect the Mets, that
Valentine did not respect Cox, that Chipper Jones and Atlanta's
wild-eyed closer, John Rocker, did not respect Mets fans. Cox,
all bundled up in his windbreaker, looking vaguely like your
grandmother, sounding vaguely like your grandfather, put an end
to a lot of this chatter when he talked to reporters, although
he couldn't put a lid on Rocker.

In Game 1 Maddux pitched seven innings, gave up one run. Rocker
gave up a run in the ninth. The Mets had their bullpen up before
their starter, Masato Yoshii, got his first out. Over the course
of eight innings the Braves cobbled together four runs on
singles, walks, sacrifices and a solo home run by catcher Eddie
Perez. The final: Braves 4, Mets 2. It was a game of little
things; it would turn out to be a series of little things.

Game 2, Wednesday afternoon. An announced 452 more fans on hand
than the day before. Four runs again for the Braves, this time
on two-run homers by rightfielder Brian Jordan and Perez.
Valentine, by his own admission, stuck with his starter,
lefthander Kenny Rogers, too long. Meanwhile, Millwood pitched
into the eighth inning, allowing three runs, two of them earned.
With one out in the eighth, whom did the newly unpredictable Cox
call in from his bullpen? His closer, Rocker, who struck out two
to end the inning. And whom did Cox call in to seal the deal?
Smoltz, who had appeared in 380 games in his 12-year big league
career to that point, all as a starter. Same old Smoltz. Three
up, three down. Braves 4, Mets 3. Two-zip, now, two more to go.

Last Friday the series resumed at Shea. The stadium holds 55,777
fans, and you could just about count the empty seats on your
toes. Unfortunately for the Mets, the crowd witnessed a peculiar
and unsatisfying game. The Braves scored a run in the first on a
walk, a stolen base and two errors, one of which was by Mets
starter Al Leiter. The lefthander settled down after that,
giving up just three hits and no earned runs in seven innings.
Glavine allowed seven hits in seven innings, but no runs. In the
bottom of the ninth with no outs and a runner, Benny Agbayani,
on first, Valentine sent backup catcher Todd Pratt to the plate
to pinch hit. Pratt, who on Oct. 9 had hit a game-winning home
run to secure New York's series win over Arizona, wasn't
bunting. In the Mets bullpen, the pitchers could not believe
what they were seeing: Todd Pratt swinging away! One pitcher
said, "What the f--- is Valentine doing? We need a bunt!" Pratt,
facing Rocker, struck out, and the last two Mets went quietly.
The Braves won 1-0. It was three games to none.

No team in the history of postseason major league baseball had
ever come back from three games down to win a best-of-seven
series. The Mets were going to try. On Saturday night, behind a
feisty performance by righthander Rick Reed, New York finally
found a way to score one more run than Atlanta. John Olerud, the
Mets' first baseman, hit a solo homer in the sixth, then knocked
in two runs in the eighth with a single off Rocker. (A little
earlier the Braves' closer had discovered an added benefit to
his customary bullpen-to-mound sprint: It helped him avoid the
coins, plastic water bottles and invective hurled at him from
the stands at Shea.) The Braves still needed one more. The Mets
now needed three.

Then came Sunday, with the rain and the extra-inning drama and
Dunston standing in the box, facing rookie righthander Kevin
McGlinchy. The 22-year-old McGlinchy had come on with one out in
the 14th and retired the side after giving up a base on balls.
He was still in the game in the 15th because, Cox said
afterward, he had no intention of using his Game 6 or Game 7
starters (Millwood or Glavine) in relief in the rain and mud. As
Dunston fouled off pitch after pitch, part of his mind was in a
drift, thinking about his old Chicago Cubs teammate, Andre
Dawson, who kept on playing, year after year, knee surgery after
knee surgery. Dunston stroked his single, and the tying run was
on first, nobody out. He stole second, and Officer Dolphin was
high-fiving every kid in sight. Monday morning was coming and
with it school, work, traffic, the headaches of life in
metropolitan New York. The game was approaching the six-hour
mark. Nobody was going anywhere. Nobody wanted the season to
end. Everybody was in a drift.

The Mets loaded the bases on a walk to pinch hitter Matt Franco,
a sacrifice bunt by Edgardo Alfonzo and an intentional pass to
Olerud, and Pratt--not swinging this time--drew a one-out walk,
pushing Dunston across the plate to tie the score 3-3. Robin
Ventura came up for the Mets. He had gone 1 for 18 in the
series. He was hobbled by a sore left knee, playing "on one
leg," as Valentine put it. Then he made the swing a ballplayer
dreams about. He smashed one through the rain and the night and
over the right-center wall. He rounded first base and was mobbed
before he made it to second, and he never got any farther.
Didn't matter. In the official scoring, his grand slam was a
single, but it was enough to score the winning run.

Old-timers say that no matter how much baseball you watch,
you'll always see something new. Sunday's game was the longest
postseason game ever, five hours and 46 minutes. One hundred and
twenty-six batters came to the plate. Only seven scored.

In defeat the Braves were not somber, just quiet. What could
they say? Wearing their sport coats and smelling of aftershave,
they boarded the team bus, then the team plane and flew home,
where they would have two chances, on Tuesday and Wednesday, to
clinch a spot in the World Series.

The Mets, like all families, have their problems. Valentine and
Bobby Bonilla, Rickey Henderson and Valentine, Henderson and
reliever Turk Wendell, they all had their little dramas going
on, apologies offered and not accepted, conversations that
should have happened but never did, conversations that did
happen but shouldn't have. In the wake of what New York did on
Saturday and Sunday, none of that was very important. The Mets
won two more games when the only thing they were playing for was
the chance to play another day.

As Sunday was about to turn into Monday, New York catcher Mike
Piazza sat in front of his locker, still dazed by what had been
accomplished at Shea on this night. When he spoke, you sensed
that for the first time in his professional life,
Piazza--battered and bruised and hitting just .150 for the
series, but ready to play on--knew what it was like to be part
of something bigger and more important than himself. "You watch
what this team has done, and you start to think there's
something magical about it," the catcher said. "We go to
Atlanta, we win two, we're in the World Series. Maybe we'd play
the Yankees. Can you imagine, being part of a Subway Series? You
want to be part of the magic, so you keep going, even when
you're running on fumes. You want to be part of the buzz. That's
the thing of it. You just want to be part of the whole thing,
you know?"

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY V.J. LOVERO Ready and waiting In the 13th inning of Game 5, Piazza braced for a collision and put the tag on Keith Lockhart. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS (2) Rockin' Robin Before he reached second base, Ventura had his grand slam trot cut short by Pratt and a mob of ecstatic Mets. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS (2) Taste for trouble Rocker seemed to thrive on his hate-hate relationship with Shea's demonstrative fans. COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Swing time In Game 4, Ryan Klesko followed a home run by Jordan with one of his own, but the Braves still lost 3-2.

Wild-eyed closer John Rocker showed no respect for the Mets--or
their fans.

"You watch this team, and you start to think there's something
magical about it."