Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Windy City Whim

Summer is a time for vacations, road trips and self-fulfilling prophecies.

Some of these adventures require meticulous planning -- with flights booked far in advance, hotel accommodations secured and tickets purchased for whatever event you may be attending.

Other times, you just wing it.

On August 30th, 2009, I completed a lifelong dream by attending a baseball game at Chicago's legendary ballpark, Wrigley Field. How I ended up getting there was anything but conventional.

Visiting Wrigley Field was always on my bucket list

It all started innocently enough. On that Friday the 28th, I was visiting my parents at the Jersey Shore and watching the New York Mets play the Chicago Cubs on the living room television. During the course of that afternoon game, I noticed that there were a couple of empty areas in the famed Wrigley Field bleachers...a strange sight, since the Cubs were averaging nearly 40,000 fans per-game that season.
Watching a random Cubs-Mets game on TV set an ambitious plan in motion

Armed with my laptop, I quickly went online to see if tickets were available for other games in the series. Sure enough, there were limited tickets available for both the Saturday and Sunday games. A plan was beginning to formulate in my mind...but there were so many obstacles in the way.

For one, there was the matter of getting there. Chicago is roughly 800 miles from my home in New Jersey, and I had to work on both Saturday morning and Monday afternoon. Driving was not an option, and the cost of a flight would likely be astronomical on such short-notice. I was about to abandon the plan until an e-mail popped up in my inbox, advertising an "E-saver" list of discounted flights. Philadelphia-to-Chicago was one of the available options for that weekend, for only $200 round-trip!

A timely, discounted flight helped make the entire trip possible

I would still need to figure out a place to stay, however. I couldn't ask my Chicagoland friends for a place to crash one day in advance...I wouldn't have felt right. After some savvy Internet research, I found a room at my preferred hotel in suburban Chicago for a discounted rate! The pieces were starting to fall into place.

Still, no spur-of-the-moment idea could line up this perfectly. I checked the Chicago weather for the rest of the weekend...half-expecting Sunday to feature a forecast of torrential downpours. Nope...70 degrees and "abundant" sunshine!

Within the span of an hour, I went from trying to find reasons to go...to trying to find reasons not to go. There were none...all signs were pointing toward Chicago.

An opportunity of a lifetime was presenting itself

After arriving in the "Windy City" on Saturday afternoon, I did the typical tourist stuff and sampled some authentic deep-dish pizza for dinner. I was too excited to sleep on Saturday night...Wrigley awaited on Sunday.

Overlooking downtown Chicago from the Willis Tower SkyDeck on Saturday night

It was 9:30 am when I first arrived at the intersection of Clark and Addison Streets, in the Wrigleyville section of Chicago. The gates were still shut, and baseball would not be played for another 3 1/2 hours...giving me ample time to tour the neighborhood.

Wrigleyville on a beautiful Sunday morning in August

When it comes to Wrigley Field, the experience involves more than the ballpark itself. The surrounding shops and apartments are a part of it as well. Whether it was Harry Caray's Tavern, the "Eamus Catuli!" apartment building, or the house behind the center field bleachers that had a Wrigley Field scoreboard replica on its porch...the neighborhood breathes nothing but baseball during the summer months.

A makeshift Wrigley replica scoreboard hangs from the porch of a nearby house

Walking along Waveland Avenue -- behind the left field bleachers -- I encountered another example of the festive pre-game atmosphere. Someone, dressed in a full-sized bear costume that was wearing an oversized Cubs jersey, was casually walking in the street.

You never know what you're gonna see on gameday

With the gates finally opening, it was time to head inside and see if the "Friendly Confines" lives up to its moniker.

Upon walking through the entrance portal to the seating area behind home plate, I was overwhelmed by the sight. I stopped dead in my tracks, staring at a crisp, clear day at the purest ballpark in Major League Baseball. The New York Mets were taking batting practice on the field, but I could only fix my eyes on the many shades of green that stood before me -- the grass, the ivy-covered walls, the seats, the manually-operated scoreboard -- it was all so beautiful.

My "Welcome to Wrigley Field" moment

The traditions and nuances of Wrigley Field -- which I had read about countless times -- are now living, breathing things. The scoreboard in center field -- which features games from both the American and National Leagues, as well as the Cubs game -- sits blank, waiting for the day's action to start.

The scoreboard remains quiet before Sunday's games

Atop the scoreboard are the 16 pennants that represent each of the NL teams. They are arranged daily, in order of the teams' standings in their respective divisions. The flags can also offer a prediction for the game at-hand. On this day, the wind was blowing inward, foreshadowing a low-scoring game...without many home runs into the famous Wrigley bleachers.

The standings flags tell players and fans alike that the wind is blowing in

Continuing my self-guided tour, I became fixated on the ballpark's most unique feature...the ivy-covered brick walls in the outfield. The ivy, which was originally planted in 1937 by Cubs' then-owner Bill Veeck, was in full bloom...providing a thick layer of padding over the brick fence, stretching all the way from foul pole-to-foul pole.

A close-up of the brick wall and Wrigley's famous ivy

Across Waveland and Sheffield Avenues, behind the left- and right-field bleachers, activity was buzzing as well. Atop many of the apartments are bleacher seats, where fans who want to be a part of the Wrigley Field experience can watch games from outside the ballpark itself, on one of the rooftops. In many cases, food and drinks are provided as part of the ticket cost.

The rooftop of the "Eamus Catuli!" apartment building is packed with fans

After batting practice ended, I walked through the main concourse, on the way to the upper deck. In the hallways were giant banners of the great players and figures in Cubs' history. Rogers Hornsby, Ferguson Jenkins, Ernie Banks, Jack Brickhouse, Rick Sutcliffe, Ron Santo and Ryne Sandberg were among the names that jumped out...as fans waited in line to buy food and drinks for the game.

Banners of famous Cubs figures are unfurled in the main concourse

As I arrived at my seat in Section 421, I looked up. Directly above me was the WGN-TV broadcast booth, which famed announcer Harry Caray called home from 1982 until 1997. Caray added flair to the Cubs' broadcasts...and led fans in the singing of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the 7th inning stretch. Ever since his death in 1998, the Cubs immortalized Caray with a silhouette logo above the press box.

The image of Harry Caray still watches over every Cubs' home game

With a nearly-sold-out crowd of 39,907 looking on, the game between the Mets and Cubs got underway.

The two teams were headed in opposite directions in 2009. The Mets entered the game with a 58-72 record, mired in 4th place in the NL East. The Cubs, meanwhile, were 65-62, good for 2nd place in the NL Central.

A classic image -- day game at Wrigley Field

The Cubs would strike in the 1st inning against journeyman Mets' starter Nelson Figueroa, grabbing a 1-0 lead on a single by third baseman Aramis Ramirez. The fans -- many dressed in sweatshirts and jackets on an unseasonably cool day -- clapped and cheered along.

Aramis Ramirez strokes an RBI single to center field in the 1st inning

As the game progressed, it was easy to recognize the differences between Wrigley Field and other ballparks. For example, only organ music would play in-between innings and before each player's at-bat. Little did I know that 2009 would be the last season for such purity, as the Cubs added pre-recorded walk-up music for their batters in 2010...much to the chagrin of many fans.

In addition, there were only a couple of electronic message boards throughout the ballpark. The main scoreboard statistics were limited to runs, hits, errors, the player batting, the ball-strike count, the pitchers, umpires, and the number of outs. For any other information, a fan would have to refer to their scorecard or the Internet on their cell phone.

No statistical overload at Cubs' games

Trailing 1-0 in the 3rd inning, the Mets would make their move against Cubs' starting pitcher, Carlos Zambrano. RBI singles by 1st baseman Daniel Murphy and right fielder Jeff Francoeur gave New York a 2-1 advantage.

Jeff Francoeur put the Mets ahead in the 3rd inning

For Zambrano -- who had a reputation as a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde pitcher -- it was Mr. Hyde who showed up on this gorgeous day at Wrigley, The Cubs' ace was chased from the game after only 3 1/3 innings...giving up 4 runs on a staggering 11 hits, while making a costly throwing error in the process. With each hit allowed, Cubs' fans would groan in disappointment.

Carlos Zambrano couldn't get out of the 4th inning on this day

Meanwhile, Figueroa -- who carried a 1-3 record and 5.40 ERA on the season -- settled down for the Mets...pitching 7 solid innings while striking out 10 batters. That 1st inning run was the only scoring the Cubs would generate.

Nelson Figueroa baffled the Cubs' batters for 7 innings

With Figueroa and the wind limiting Chicago's powerful offense, Cubs' fans remained quiet throughout the middle innings...as the Mets held a 4-1 lead. The energy in the ballpark would change in the 7th inning, however, as actor and comedian Jon Lovitz led the singing of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." The entire crowd sang and swayed to the background organ music, and those in attendance started to believe that a comeback was imminent.

A scoreboard operator peeks through an opening after the 7th inning stretch

It was not the Cubs' day, however. Reliever Brian Stokes tossed a perfect 8th inning, and Francisco Rodriguez closed things out for his 28th save of the season...giving the Mets a 4-1 victory and sending many in the crowd home disappointed.

The Mets congratulate each other after a 4-1 win

Despite spending seven hours at Wrigley Field, I didn't want to leave after the game ended! I walked around the ballpark, taking it all in, watching the grounds crew perform maintenance on the playing field. Eventually, it was time to exit.

The grounds crew's day is not over just yet

Once outside the ballpark, I looked up at the iconic scoreboard once again. Hanging from the flagpole was a blue banner with a white "L," signifying a Cubs' loss. It is a subtle tradition, yet it is one that further preserves the history of the ballpark. In days before there was the Internet to check scores, or nightly sports highlight shows on TV...local fans could just pass by Wrigley Field to see how the Cubs fared that day.

The "L" flag flies atop the scoreboard

I flew home from Chicago the next morning. It was a whirlwind, spontaneous weekend that was based around baseball and the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Perhaps it was crazy on the surface...but to me, it made perfect sense. Fate and the "Friendly Confines" were calling...and fortunately, I was around to answer.

Standing in front of the Wrigley Field marquee

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Minor Occurrence

Minor League Baseball games are often filled with hopes and dreams.

For those in uniform, it's the dream of someday playing for a Major League ballclub that drives them throughout the season. For many of the children in attendance, the dream of becoming a professional baseball player sticks in their minds as they watch the game take place. For many fans, it's the hope that the players they're following now will someday make it to "The Show."
There are only 30 Major League Baseball clubs, but there are 246 member clubs in 20 minor leagues throughout North America. Ranging from Rookie leagues to AAA, each level offers its own challenges and opportunities during that gradual climb to the Majors.

Whether it's in a large city or small town, ballplayers can live out their professional dreams...while fans can enjoy high-level baseball at a lower cost than that of their big-league counterparts.


The festive atmosphere of Independence Day was evident as I arrived at FirstEnergy Park in Lakewood, New Jersey last Monday.

Fans patiently waited for the ballpark gates to open, eager to watch that evening's contest between the Lakewood BlueClaws and Hagerstown Suns...with post-game fireworks to follow. Many wore patriotic gear...and some of those who didn't were buying BlueClaws' Fourth-of-July-specific shirts and caps.

Independence Day-themed items were popular on this day

The BlueClaws entered the game with a 6-5 record in the 2nd half of their South Atlantic League season (went 33-35 prior to the All-Star break), while the Suns brought a 7-4 record to the table (40-30 during the 1st half).

Lineups for the Hagerstown-Lakewood game

Before the game, kids from a local youth league had a chance to live out some of their dreams on a professional baseball field...by getting the opportunity to play catch. After that, the kids -- dressed in their league jerseys and caps -- ventured to the center field fence, where they pretended to rob home run attempts...jumping and trying to catch balls thrown to them while colliding with the padded wall. It was amusing to watch...the innocence and joy of children, playing a game they enjoy and imagining that they were just like the pros.

Kids have their vision of making it to the pros someday

As gametime approached, members of the BlueClaws and Suns took the field for their final warm-ups. As some took time to sign autographs for fans down the 1st and 3rd base lines, others stretched, ran or played pepper to get loose.

BlueClaws players play pepper before the game

There was one Lakewood player who received plenty of attention from both fans and teammates alike. Brad Lidge, the Philadelphia Phillies' closer, was scheduled to make his first appearance of the 2011 season with the single-A club. Lidge is returning from a shoulder injury that has kept him sidelined for the first 3 months of the year.

As Lidge warmed up in the BlueClaws' bullpen, a crowd gathered nearby. Every pitch featured a loud pop of the catcher's mitt, as Lidge appeared to be throwing pain-free. Fellow Lakewood players stopped their routines and watched as well...just to get a glimpse of what Major League pitching looked like. Perhaps they were imagining what it would be like to face a pitcher like Lidge someday.

Brad Lidge warms up as teammates gather to watch

What followed was an unusual sight -- Lidge standing near the pitcher's mound during the Star-Spangled Banner. As someone who is paid to finish ballgames for the Phillies, Lidge was getting the Independence Day start for Lakewood.

National anthem on the Fourth of July

Hagerstown's leadoff batter was Blake Kelso -- the Suns' designated hitter -- who was born when Lidge was 12-years-old! Youth got the best of Experience in this matchup, as Kelso started the game with a line drive single to center field.

With Lidge pitching out of the stretch for the 1st time in 2011, 2nd baseman Adrian Sanchez lined a single to right field...causing many in the sellout crowd of 8,430 to groan and wonder why a Major League pitcher was giving up hits against seemingly lesser competition.

Lidge pitches in the 1st inning

With two runners on base and no one out, Lidge took a deep breath and focused on the next batter. Catcher David Freitas, who entered the game with a .310 batting average, hit a hard ground ball to the 3rd baseman. Lakewood converted the around-the-horn double play, leaving a runner at 3rd base with 2 outs. Lidge then escaped the jam by getting cleanup hitter Kevin Keyes to ground out to shortstop.

As Lidge walked off the field, he slapped gloves with his teammates and deeply exhaled. Lidge's initial appearance in 2011 was a nerve-wracking, but successful one. After receiving congratulatory handshakes in the dugout, Lidge signed a couple of autographs for nearby fans before departing for the clubhouse to receive post-pitching treatment.

Lidge signs an autograph after making his first appearance of the season

If Lidge represented a look at the Phillies' present, Lakewood's next pitcher may have offered a glimpse at the future. Jesse Biddle, a 1st round draft pick in 2010, would toe the rubber for the next 4 innings.

Rated as the 8th-best prospect in the Phillies' organization, the lefty struggled with his control, walking 5 Hagerstown batters while surrendering 3 hits as well. The Suns -- whose parent club is the Washington Nationals -- could not take advantage of Biddle's wildness...scoring only 1 run during that timeframe.

Former 1st round pick Jesse Biddle pitches for Lakewood

The BlueClaws' bats broke through against Hagerstown starting pitcher Taylor Jordan in the 3rd inning. Jordan, a 9th round draft pick by Washington in 2009, entered the game with an 8-4 record and 2.68 ERA...but a series of four consecutive singles staked Lakewood to a 2-1 lead.

Taylor Jordan pitches for Hagerstown

Walking around FirstEnergy Park, you could get a true sense of the Minor League Baseball experience...which always includes more than the game itself. Nowhere is that more evident than in the outfield, where grass berm seating gives fans a chance to relax and treat the ballgame like it's a picnic. Evidence of Lakewood's proximity to the Jersey Shore is apparent as well, as lifeguard chairs give some fans a chance to watch the game from a unique perspective.

The grass berms are popular seating areas for fans

To keep children active and entertained -- both before and during the game -- there are playground areas and interactive baseball activities. While the professionals do their work on the field, kids can practice hitting Wiffle Balls and test their pitch speed.

Playground area for kids who can't sit still during a ballgame

With Lakewood still holding a 2-1 advantage in the 5th inning, Mother Nature provided a visual distraction for those in attendance. A gorgeous sunset painted the sky in a brilliant shade of colors -- including yellow, orange, red and purple -- giving FirstEnergy Park a "Field of Dreams"-like setting.

An amazing sunset in Lakewood

In the top of the 7th, Hagerstown would rally. Wearing red, white and blue jerseys and caps in honor of Independence Day, the Suns got a one-out single from Kelso, who then stole 2nd base. During that play, catcher Cameron Rupp's throw hit Kelso in the leg and bounced all the way into foul territory on the left field side. Kelso kept running, rounding 3rd and beating the throw home to tie the game at 2. It was an unfortunate break for the BlueClaws, giving Hagerstown new life in this ballgame.

Blake Kelso slides in safely to tie the game for Hagerstown

The stage was now set for a dramatic finish. The game remained 2-2 as Lakewood came to bat in the bottom of the 9th inning. FirstEnergy Park remained packed with fans eager for both a BlueClaws win and Fourth of July fireworks.

Tied game in the bottom of the 9th inning

With the Suns' Wilson Eusebio in his second inning of work on the mound, left fielder Zach Collier stroked his 3rd hit of the day -- a double to right field. The game-winning run was now in scoring position.

Eusebio then pitched around Jim Murphy, before issuing an intentional walk. After that, Eusebio couldn't find his target...walking right fielder Domingo Santana. The bases were now loaded, and everyone in the sold-out crowd stood and cheered, sensing the potential end of the ballgame.

Lakewood bats with the bases loaded in the 9th

With a full count, designated hitter Anthony Hewitt struck out looking, prompting a loud groan from BlueClaws fans. The winning run remained 90-feet away, but there were now 2 outs...and the threat of extra innings loomed.

Stepping up to the plate was 3rd baseman Travis Mattair, who was 0-for-2 in the game and hitting just .230 for the season. That is the beauty of baseball, though...heroes aren't always the most likely suspects.

On Eusebio's first pitch, Mattair lifted a fastball to deep left-center field. The Hagerstown outfielders chased after the fly ball desperately, trying to catch the 3rd out of the inning. It wasn't meant to be for the Suns, however, as the ball bounced just shy of the fence, giving the BlueClaws an exciting 3-2 win. The Lakewood players mobbed each other and celebrated near home plate, while the fans similarly stood, jumped, clapped and cheered.

The BlueClaws celebrate the walk-off victory

Immediately following the game -- with the BlueClaws still out on the field -- the fireworks began behind the right-center field fence. It was a fitting end to a fun evening at FirstEnergy Park in Lakewood.

A Fourth of July celebration followed the game

Are these ballplayers the stars of tomorrow? Or is their role to provide entertainment today? Only time will answer that question...but that is part of the appeal of Minor League Baseball. Accessibility to players, affordability and extra entertainment also help in bringing fans to the ballpark.

While football may have gained more attention on the American landscape in recent years, baseball is still the national pastime...and you need to look no further than Lakewood, New Jersey on the Fourth of July to see it for yourself.

A taste of Americana -- baseball and fireworks

Friday, July 1, 2011

Explosion On Fireworks Night

It is a question that has bugged me for ages: Why do people leave games early?

There are a multitude of reasons -- hardly any of them good. Some want to beat the traffic on the way home, while others set a personal time limit on how long the game should last. Some leave when the game's outcome is no longer in doubt. A couple may even be forcibly removed from the stadium or arena for disorderly conduct.

Not everyone remains at games through thick-and-thin

Outside of a personal crisis or family emergency, I couldn't justify leaving a game early. You never know what you might see, even if the game has long been decided. Maybe the goal that everyone talks about at the office will take place while you're walking to the parking lot. A big spectacle, such as a bench-clearing brawl, might occur as you drive away. Or you might miss one of the greatest comebacks of your lifetime...leaving you to lie and say you stuck around.

In baseball, this can be especially true. The game only ends after the 3rd out in the last inning, or when the winning run is scored. There is no time clock working against the team that's trailing...every out must be recorded, no matter how long it takes.


It was 11 years ago yesterday -- June 30th, 2000 -- that Shea Stadium hosted one of its most historic events.

The New York Mets and Atlanta Braves were facing off in a key National League East matchup. The Braves were in 1st place in the division with a 48-30 record, while the Mets held down 2nd place with a 44-32 mark. These rivals had met in the 1999 playoffs, with Atlanta coming out on top...and both were contending for a World Series berth in this season, as well.

The Braves and Mets battled for NL East supremacy in 2000

To add to the drama, one of the Braves' players had spent the off-season making headlines for the wrong reasons. Atlanta closer John Rocker conducted an interview with Sports Illustrated in January...and while he spoke with the reporter, Rocker proceeded to trash New York City and Mets' fans, in particular.

This particular series between the Braves and Mets was the first in New York since those comments were made, prompting an extra security presence to keep fans from taking matters into their own hands.

John Rocker served as an archvillain to Mets fans

On top of everything else, it was also Fireworks Night...one of Shea Stadium's most popular events. Following the Mets game, a spectacular fireworks display lights up the sky above Flushing, Queens.

This convergence of events made the weekend series between the Mets and Braves one of the hottest tickets in town, and a sold-out crowd of 52,831 passed through the stadium turnstiles to witness a game they would never forget.

Shea Stadium was the place to be on June 30th, 2000

The pitching matchup was a solid one, although both players had been struggling during the season. Left-handed ace Mike Hampton (7-5, 3.49 ERA) took the mound for the Mets, while Atlanta countered with righty Kevin Millwood (5-6, 5.10 ERA).

With a packed Shea Stadium brimming with energy before the game's very 1st pitch, the Braves did their best to keep Mets' fans quiet.

Watching the early innings in the far reaches of the upper deck

Hampton struggled in the early innings...as a myriad of singles, walks, a hit batsman, passed ball, wild pitch and error gave Atlanta a 4-0 lead after 3 innings.

My friends and I were seated in Section 48 of the upper deck...way out near the left field foul pole. Since our section was almost directly above the Braves' bullpen, there was an inordinate amount of NYPD officers in the area, determined to keep fan conduct civil. It was a World Series-level security presence...yet it was only the last day of June.

Sports Illustrated ran this photo in their July 10, 2000 edition to demonstrate the police presence. Look inside the red oval on the left side of the picture...there are my friends Kevin and Bobby, along with myself!

As the middle innings came and went, both Hampton and Millwood had settled in. Neither team posted any crooked numbers on the big Shea scoreboard. It was still a 4-0 advantage for the Braves as the game went into the 7th inning.

Dusk at Shea Stadium on Fireworks Night

During that frame, Atlanta tacked on an insurance run, making it 5-0. It was a disappointing outing for Hampton...7 innings pitched, 5 earned runs, 9 hits, 6 walks, a hit batsman, 2 wild pitches and only 2 strikeouts.

Mike Hampton failed to get in a groove in this game

The Mets would finally break through against Millwood in the bottom of the 7th. Singles from Todd Zeile and Jay Payton, followed by an RBI single from pinch-hitter Matt Franco, made it a 5-1 game. Suddenly, Shea Stadium -- which had been relatively quiet for most of the evening -- was beginning to buzz once again.

Kevin Millwood allowed only 1 run in 7 innings of work

The Braves would provide a buzzkill in the 8th. Little-used reliever Eric Cammack gave up 3 runs in his only inning of work, thanks to a home run by outfielder Brian Jordan. As the ball cleared the left-center field fence, Mets fans went dead-silent. It was now 8-1, and New York seemingly had no hope of winning.

If not for Fireworks Night, there would have been a steady stream of people headed for the exits at this time. The parking lot behind the outfield fence would have been dotted with red tail lights, as fans drove away in disappointment. The promise of an early 4th of July celebration kept the casual fans in their seats...and gave the die-hards something to look forward to once the game ended.

The Mets really got their bats going in the 8th inning

With the outcome seemingly decided, Braves' manager Bobby Cox decided to pull Millwood after 7 innings of solid work. Right-handed reliever Don Wengert started the bottom of the 8th inning, and right fielder Derek Bell greeted him with a single to center field. Rather than clap in reaction to the base hit, my friend Bobby deadpanned, "I'm not clapping until this game is tied up."

After 2nd baseman Edgardo Alfonzo flied out, catcher Mike Piazza singled. Then 3rd baseman Robin Ventura grounded out, scoring Bell. It was now 8-2...but there were 2 outs in the inning. There was little reason to suspect what happened next.

First baseman Todd Zeile singled, driving in a run. The Mets now trailed 8-3. Then center fielder Jay Payton singled. After Kerry Ligtenberg replaced Wengert on the mound for Atlanta, left fielder Benny Agbayani walked. Pinch-hitter Mark Johnson walked, scoring a run. It's an 8-4 game. Melvin Mora walked too...8-5.

The Shea faithful started to believe as the comeback took shape

As Cox removed Ligtenberg from the game, Shea Stadium was getting loud. Mets' fans were sensing the momentum shift. With reliever Terry Mulholland entering the game, the bases remained loaded with 2 outs. One (or two) big hits could turn this game completely upside down.

Sticking with his promise, Bobby was still not clapping as Bell made his 2nd plate appearance of the inning. He walked as well, making it 8-6. It was now up to Alfonzo, who was hitting .340 on the season, to try and tie things up. The Shea crowd stood in unison, with loud, repeated chants of "Let's Go Mets!" filling the air.

Edgardo Alfonzo had developed a reputation as a clutch hitter

The lefty Mulholland jumped out to a 1-2 count against the right-handed-batting Alfonzo. While fans nervously looked on, Alfonzo laced the next pitch through the hole between 3rd and short, into left field! Pinch-runner Joe McEwing and Mora scored, tying the game!

Shea Stadium erupted with one of the loudest noises I had ever heard. It felt like I was standing on the runway at nearby LaGuardia Airport as a plane was about to take off. Within 10 or so minutes, an 8-1 game was suddenly 8-8, and the crowd voiced its approval. Bobby even started clapping.

Amidst the bedlam, Piazza calmly strode to the plate. Mulholland tried jamming him with a 1st pitch fastball...it was the wrong decision. The all-star catcher pulled a line drive to deep left field. From our position, my friends and I temporarily lost sight of the ball. Did it clear the fence? We watched, waited and listened...as a loud "Yeaaahhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!" told us everything we needed to know. Mike Piazza swatted a 3-run homer near the left field corner, and it was now 11-8.

Mike Piazza reacts after his 8th inning home run clears the left field fence

The stadium was shaking the entire time Piazza rounded the bases. Almost everyone in the crowd of 52,831 was jumping, screaming, clapping and hugging. The Mets scored 10 runs in the 8th inning -- most of them with 2 outs -- to do the previously unimaginable...take the lead.

Piazza is greeted at home plate after his go-ahead homer

Mets' manager Bobby Valentine summoned closer Armando Benitez from the bullpen for the 9th inning. After allowing the tying run to come to the plate with 2 outs, Benitez retired 1st baseman Wally Joyner on a fly out to center field. The Mets and their fans celebrated an 11-8 victory...thanks to one of the most improbable comebacks anyone has seen.

Roughly 20 minutes after the game, the pyrotechnics officially started in the parking lot behind the center field fence...but some of the fireworks had already occurred on the field itself.

Shea Stadium hosted two different types of fireworks on this night

Fireworks Night hopefully served as an important lesson for many who like to leave games early. You just never know what you might see if you stay until the end.

Fireworks Night is now immortalized outside the Citi Field entrance