Friday, September 23, 2005

A Night To Remember
By Ben Valentine

I was out at Shea Stadium tonight with my old roommate from freshman year and good friend Gray Claytor. We went to see the Dontrelle Willis face off against Pedro Martinez, one of the best pitching match ups of the year. But in the end that in itself turned out to be an afterthought.

First, Jack McKeon is either legally insane or just senile. One night after I thought playing Mike Lowell at second base was the craziest thing I’ve seen this year, old Jack topped it. He did the craziest thing I’d ever seen… in fact, something I’d never seen before.

He batted the pitcher 7th in the starting lineup.

Sure it was Dontrelle Willis, a good hitter for a pitcher. Sure Joe Dillion and Robert Andino are September call-up garbage. And sure the Marlins are so beat up right now that those two are probably better than anything else that could be thrown out there. But how can your team be considered a serious contender for a playoff spot when you’ve got Dontrelle Willis batting seventh! Well they’re not, at least not anymore since they’re four back of the Astros with nine games to play.

However it still ranks as one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. I mean, it’s not every day you get to be there in person to witness something that hasn’t happened in 30 years. And it made both me and Gray’s night.

As a side note, Gray always makes a point to see the D-Train when he’s at Shea. Why? Well Gray played in the same Babe Ruth baseball league as Willis back in Alameda, California. (Gray appeared in a Rob Neyer column few years back because of that. Unfortunately, it’s now only available to ESPN insiders. I really hate them) I even suggested that McKeon should move Willis to short when he was done pitching, since that was the position he had played back then. After all, how could remove your 7th hitter from the game?

Willis went 1-4 by the way.

Finally, I probably won’t go to another game this year, so this was most likely my last opportunity to see Mike Piazza in a Mets' uniform. Piazza didn’t start tonight, much to my disappointment. Ramon Castro homered off Willis for the only Mets run, so it was hard for me to say anything about it.

However, with two out and two on in the seventh, the pitcher’s spot was due up. The on-deck circle was empty. Everyone in the stadium could sense it. They were chanting his name. The circle remained empty, seemingly for at least a minute. The excitement grew as fans on the left field side of the stadium could see who was coming out. Then Piazza emerged from the dugout and the small crowd roared the best it could. We stood in honor of the future Hall of Famer. Gray, who always roots for a Willis win, even turned to me and said; “I’d settle for a three run homer right here.”

The count went to 2-0. We grew even more hopeful, flush with anticipation of the next pitch. The moment was delayed as the Marlins' pitching coach came out. Willis was over 100 pitches. Perhaps the D-Train was running out of steam. The umpire broke up the mound meeting. Piazza stepped in again as Willis got his sign...

A 90 mph fastball blew past him. Then 92 mph. Then 94 mph. Game, set, match. Piazza went down with three hard cuts. We all knew it was over after that. It’s sad really, considering that the last memory I’m going to have of Piazza will be him striking out.

But I was just happy to be in the park to feel that electricity one more time. The Mets hadn’t had an icon like him since Darryl Strawberry, and honestly I’m too young to remember that. Mike Piazza was something in his prime. He was the first great player on the Mets I could truly appreciate. The Mets have been showing highlights of his stay in New York lately and tonight they showed the bomb he hit off Mike Hampton back in August of 2001. I smiled, because I had been there in person for it. Hampton was making his first start at Shea after bolting for the Rockies for that ridiculous contract while spouting some insulting words for New York on his way out the door. I went to the game precisely to see and boo Hampton. It was a fairly decent crowd as I recall, so I knew I wasn’t the only one who was there for that purpose. Then, in the second inning, Mike walked up and smacked it. I didn’t even have time to stand up and watch. The ball was gone that quickly, off the top level of the camera tower in dead center field, some 410 feet away.

Let me say that again. He hit the ball on a line so hard that 410 feet away, it was just starting its descent. And we all went nuts. Piazza was our knight. He defended our honor against that bastard Hampton. He didn’t just rip one, he destroyed that pitch. It was slaying the evil dragon in a way. And I was there for that. It’s one of my favorite baseball memories.

Tonight, the Mets lost 2-1. The D-Train picked up his 22nd win of the year by going eight strong innings. He might just win the Cy Young. (If he and Carpenter are real close, do Willis’ hitting stats give him an edge?) Martinez meanwhile, took the loss, getting yanked after just five innings, surrendering two. Willie Randolph at his finest.

But in the end, I could really care less about the result. After tonight I’ll always be able to say that my last memory of seeing Mike Piazza in person as a New York Met was the same game where also I got to see Dontrelle Willis do something that hadn’t been done in 30 years. And you know what?

That ain't a bad night.


Blogger RotoAuthority said...

Batting him 7th: very cool. At least McKeon, even at his age, wasn't afraid to be unconventional.

On the other hand, Dusty Baker bats Carlos Zambrano 9th without thinking twice about putting Neifi Perez at leadoff and Jose Macias 7th.

Man Brooks Kieshnick could really rock the ball when he focused on hitting. I remember a sweet 2 HR game from him.

1:23 PM  
Blogger RotoAuthority said...

hey ben, let me know your email address if you ever want to read an espn insider or baseball prospectus article. i'll pass 'em along.

3:41 AM  

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