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 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 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 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 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


  1. i freaking got goosebumps. i <3 piazza. :)

  2. I think I probably turned off the tv. What was amazing about that team was how bad the outfield was and that if benitez would have saved game one they might have been world camps. Jr.

  3. SNY is showing this game as one of its "Mets Classics" right now...every time it's on, I instinctually turn to it. Still quite possibly my favorite game of all that I've attended.