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Elman Swings
by Peter Elman

He Will Find a Way to Break Your Heart... - 11/6/2000

Last Thursday my worst fears came true…Bobby Valentine, as I have been loudly predicting to my friends and anyone else within earshot, broke my heart, and I’m not even really a Mets fan.

For the first time in my life, I found myself rooting for the National League in the Series. Maybe it’s because the Yankees beat the A’s, or maybe because I’m so sick of the Yanks, or maybe because I (God forbid) actually like the Mets, a team with a dozen great stories, not the least of which is their manager.

A bit of history is in order here. Bobby Valentine was the first three-sport all-state athlete to come out of Connecticut in the 60’s, a supernova of talent whose strength, and weakness, was his relentless drive, an obsession to beat the other guy. After a promising career with the Angels was cut short by a horrific leg injury, Bobby found his calling in managing, and 20 years later found himself at the helm of the Rangers, who had been perennial losers. Management gave Valentine the players (Gonzales, Rodriguez, Greer et al) but Bobby somehow botched it up, failing miserably year after year. The press was relentless, and his peers were almost as ruthless in their condemnation of his personality and style. Early retirement beckoned.

But from the ashes of that Texas disaster he was given a second chance close to home with the Mets. Fred Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday, guardians of a wounded yet noble franchise, decided to take a chance on the fallen Valentine, and he swore to them they would not regret it. At the time a New York scribe warned the faithful, "… sooner or later, Bobby Valentine will find a way, somehow, someday, to break your heart."

After the heroics of the 1999 NLCS and the near-miss against hated Atlanta, the bandwagoners decreed that all was forgiven, even Valentine’s ill-fated move putting in Kenny (I"m glad he’s gone) Rogers in the 15th inning to walk in the winning run, to the horror of Mets fans. Valentine offered humbly to fall on his sword and step down, but the fans and his bosses urged him to stay, at least one more year, to go for the Big One.

The 2000 season started with high hope for the Mets. What a pitching staff GM Steve Phillips had assembled!--Leiter, Hampton, Reed, Dotel, two guys named Bobby Jones, Benitez, Wendell, Cook, Franco, Rusch, the best in the league for sure. And even though fan favorite John Olerud was sent packing to his hometown, they still had a solid infield and a veteran outfield. By August, however, the foundation was on shaky ground. The entire starting outfield was gone, replaced by rookies, Rey Ordonez was out and the bullpen was struggling. But Valentine, in a feat that went virtually unnoticed by most of baseball, gathered his troops and found the guts of the team, not a moment too late—the Mets had secured the wild card and would face the powerful Giants in the playoffs.

We all know what happened in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Bobby Jones pitched the game of his life to knock off San Francisco, and the Cardinals, perhaps tainted by bad karma when a cowardly Mike James hit Mike Bordick in the wrist, went down like lambs.

The world was waiting for the subway series, and the Mets seemed ready. But after four brutally close games they were facing elimination—they didn’t play bad, and Bobby V. hadn’t managed poorly—they were just being outplayed, barely, by a desperate Yankee team fighting for the pride of the greatest franchise in sports.

New Jersey-born Al Leiter, possibly the best of all the wonderful stories on this Cinderella Mets team, ( the rookies Perez and Payton, Hawaiian Benny Agbayani, castoffs Ventura and Zeile, the superstars Alfonso and Piazza, the twin crazies Wendell and Cook—what a cast!!) was the man to save the Series, and he pitched one of the most heroic brink-of-elimination games ever in the history of the fall classic. With the score tied at 2-2, he came out in the 9th firing lightning-bolt cutters with a vengeance, his arm like Thor’s hammer—after all, he’s got all winter to rest, right? Wrong.

With two men whiffed and the count 2-2 to Jorge Posada, the brave Leiter threw his 140th pitch (!) over the plate at the knees for…ball three (a pitch that had been called a strike all night), and that sense of dread, that awful feeling from deep in the pit of your stomach, the horrible knowledge that, ohmigod, he’s gonna walk him—it’s the goddamn Yankees, for chrissake, and they always find a way to win!

Posada walked, and you figured Bobby would stroll out, pat him on the rear, thank him for a great effort, and bring someone in. Valentine at this point had no confidence in Benitez, and it was too late for Wendell, and Brosius is a righty, and that rules out Cook, so just go with the greatest Met reliever of all time, Brooklyn-born John Franco, warm and waiting in the bullpen. A no-brainer, right? But wait…Leiter was scheduled to bat fourth in the bottom of the ninth, and Valentine didn’t want to bring Franco in for only one batter when it might go extra innings. So he leaves big Al in, and Brosius rips a hit to left. Surely he’d bring Franco in now, but no, Bobby V. wanted Leiter to get his first post-season victory. Isn’t that what loyalty is all about? So Leiter stays in and one pitch later Luis Sojo, of all people, hits what he later described as a "batting practice fastball" up the middle—game, set, match…Series, and heartbreak, especially for Leiter.

Why, one is forced to ask, did Valentine leave Leiter in? Was it temporary insanity when it was obvious that Leiter’s left arm was toast? Or was it, simply, his inescapable destiny, that, somehow, someday, some damn way, the enigma that is Bobby Valentine will always find a way to …break your heart.

Yeah, I hear ya’. The Yankees were gonna win, what’s the big deal, c’mon. Lemme see, with Hampton going against public enemy #1 Roger Clemens in game 6 I liked the Mets chances. And didn’t Rick Reed actually beat El Duque in game three? Sadly, we’ll never know. All we’re left with is a series of "what-if’s" and the image of Al Leiter sobbing in the dugout because his manager left him in, after 144 pitches. Go figger…

by Peter Elman