Bobby Valentine came to Queens in 1997 to manage a team that had been underwater since 1990. Valentine immediately won 88 games each of his first two seasons. In 1999, the Mets got back into the playoffs and reached the National League Championship Series. The 2000 New York Mets kept the momentum going and took it one step further—winning their first pennant since the championship year of 1986.
The Mets made a significant trade in the offseason. The moved a good young outfielder in Roger Cedeno, and a promising young reliever in Octavio Dotel to the Houston Astros. In return they got back Derek Bell, who had a steady year in rightfield. But the real prize of the trade was New York netting starting pitcher Mike Hampton. Hampton won 15 games and his 3.14 ERA was dazzling in this era of juiced-up players and juiced offensive numbers.
A separate trade to get Bobby Jones further rounded out the rotation. Jones won 11 games and his 5.06 ERA was at least manageable by the standards of the era. In between Hampton and Jones, were Al Leiter, Glendon Rusch and Rick Reed. Leiter won 16 games with a 3.20 ERA. Rusch and Reed won 11 apiece and ERAs in the low 4s.
The rotation gave way to a good bullpen that was anchored by closer Armando Benitez and his 41 saves. The setup crew included Pat Mahomes (father of the current Kansas City Chiefs quarterback of the same name), Turk Wendell, Dennis Cook. Even a 39-year-old John Franco, once a top closer both here and in Cincinnati, was still chipping in. The Mets’ composite staff ERA ranked third in the National League.
New York’s everyday lineup was led by Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza. With 39 home runs, 113 RBIs and a .324 batting average, it was another vintage year for one of the great hitting catchers of all-time. Piazza got help from second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo, who posted a stat line of .425 on-base percentage/.542 slugging percentage.
Other contributors included leftfielder Benny Agbayani, with a stat line of .391/.477. Todd Zeile and Robin Ventura manned the corner infield spots, at first and third base respectively, ,and combined to hit 46 home runs. The offense lacked the depth to be really outstanding, but they still placed a respectable 7th in the 16-team National League for runs scored.
After a sluggish 5-7 start, the Mets got rolling when they swept the Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs back-to-back at home. In early May, the took four straight from a pretty good Cincinnati Reds team.
A brief step back saw New York slip to a 20-19 record in mid-May, but they promptly responded by sweeping the NL West-leading Arizona Diamondbacks at home, and the NL Central-leading St. Louis Cardinals on the road. By Memorial Day, the Mets were 28-22. They were 5 ½ games back of the red-hot Atlanta Braves in the NL East, but held a half-game edge in a packed race for what was then a single wild-card berth.
New York heated up in June and closed the NL East gap to two games, and then split a four-game set with Atlanta. In the early part of July, the played the crosstown rival Yankees in a four-game set. It was a weekend that reverberated all the way into October. In one of the games, Yankee starter Roger Clemens beaned Piazza. The Mets’ catcher had to be checked out at the hospital and refused to take a call from Clemens. The bad blood made national headlines and would most definitely resurface.
In the short-term, the Mets lost three of the four games and then lost a series to the Florida Marlins coming out of the heat of the Yankee battles. The Mets again slipped 5 ½ back of the Braves by the All-Star break. But the two NL East frontrunners were the best two teams in the National League overall, and the Mets were 1 ½ games ahead in the wild-card race.
Arizona, after a hot start, had started to slump and fallen behind the San Francisco Giants in the NL West. But the Diamondbacks were still the team hot on the Mets’ heels for the wild-card and August would begin and open with head-to-head battles.
On August 4, New York traveled west. In the Friday night opener, Reed took the ball and pitched into the eighth inning. The lineup got after Arizona’s eventual Cy Young Award winner, Randy Johnson, and won 6-1. On Saturday, Bell and Alfonzo led the offense with three hits apiece. Jones worked six good innings and the Mets won again, 6-2. They lost 9-5 on Sunday, in spite of another three-hit game from Alfonzo and four hits by centerfielder Jay Payton. But it was a successful start to a crucial month.
The Mets won their next four series, including taking three out of four from the Giants at home. That set up the Diamondbacks’ return trip to Queens on August 25.
On Friday night, Reed and Johnson rematched. Again, it was the Met starter getting the best of the National League’s top pitcher. Alfonzo had another three-hit night. So did Agbayani. Payton drove in three runs. The result was a 13-3 rout. On Saturday, Piazza was the only one who did anything in the lineup, getting three hits, and the Mets’ lost 5-1. That set up a Sunday rubber match with Hampton on the mound. The ace was brilliant, tossing eight innings of three-hit ball. Benitez closed out a 2-1 win.
New York was getting some comfort as far as the playoffs went, now leading the wild-card standings by 4 ½ games and closing hard on Atlanta, just a half-game back on Labor Day.
The Mets briefly slowed in the early part of September, playing .500 ball for a couple weeks. With the Diamondbacks fading and no one else stepping up, it didn’t impact the wild-card standings. New York was three games back of Atlanta.
There were two head-to-head series with the Braves still to come. In this era of four teams per league in the playoffs, the difference between going in as the division champ or qualifying as the wild-card was, at best, minimal. So the urgency wasn’t the same as it would be today, when a bye would be at stake, and it certainly wasn’t life and death as it would have been up until 1993.
New York lost two of three in the first Atlanta series and were five games back heading into the final week. The Mets swept their final five games, including three over the Braves, to finish 94-68 and end up one game out in the final standings. But they were back in the postseason.
Moreover, even though New York was behind Atlanta in the standings, the Mets were indisputably the hotter team going in. The challenge? San Francisco was the other team in the National League playing really well down the stretch, and that would be the Division Series opponent.
New York lost the opener and then coughed up a ninth-inning lead in a Game 2 that went to extra innings. Payton’s two-out RBI single in the top of the 10th averted disaster and got the series back to Shea Stadium tied 1-1. In Game 3, it was the Mets’ eking out a late run to force extra innings. In the 13th frame, Agbaynia’s walkoff blast but New York in control of the series. Bobby Jones sealed the deal in Game 4 with a brilliant complete-game, one-hit shutout.
It was on to the National League Championship Series. Atlanta’s late fade had continued, with St. Louis sweeping the Braves out of the playoffs. So it would be Mets and Cardinals for the right to go to the World Series.
Hampton took the ball in Game 1 and delivered a 6-2 win. Payton broke a tie game in the top of the ninth in Game 2 with another big RBI hit. The Mets went back home in firm control, up two games to none. Even though they lost Game 3, the bats unloaded the next two nights. New York scored 17 runs combined in Games 4 & 5 and won both. Hampton pitched a shutout in the clincher and the Mets were going to the World Series.
The Big Apple was on fire for what would be a Subway Series. The Yankees had overcome a slow finish to the season, won the American League pennant and were aiming for their third straight World Series title.
This would be a well-played Series and every game was tight. Unfortunately for the Mets, it would also be one where the Yankees’ championship moxie seemed to ensure they were the team getting the big hit or the key out.
Perhaps no at-bat was bigger than the showdown between Benitez and Yankee right fielder Paul O’Neill in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 1. Benitez, trying to protect a 3-2 lead, went into a long 10-pitch battle. It ended up as a walk and O’Neill scored the tying run. The Mets lost in extra innings.
Game 2 was the showdown the national media was waiting for. Clemens was pitching and his anticipated at-bat with Piazza came. A simple foul ball and broken bat turned into fireworks. The Clemens’ pitch shattered Piazza’s bat and a chunk came back toward the mound. Clemens picked it up and hurled it at Piazza. Benches cleared, but no real fighting ensued.
That incident was the postgame story, but the bigger problem for the Mets was that they had lost 6-5. Back in Shea, they won a good Game 3, winning 3-2 and briefly making it a Series. But two more tight ones ended going in the Yankees’ way and this Series ended in five games.
Regardless of the ending and who they lost too, 2000 was a fantastic year for the Mets, the culmination of building success. The big disappointment is just that—that this ’00 run was the culmination. New York slipped to 82-80 in 2001 and failed to make the playoffs. A sub-.500 year in 2002 spelled the end of Valentine. Not until 2006 did the Mets return to the postseason. It took until 2015 to bring the World Series back to Queens. And the franchise, as of this writing in September 2022, still awaits its first championship since 1986.