Wednesday, May 11, 2016

20 Years Ago: When Mark Grace Punched Me in the Face

Twenty years ago today, I decided to take in a Saturday matinee at Shea Stadium to see the Mets take on the Chicago Cubs.  Although the 1996 squad had three offensive forces in center fielder Lance Johnson, left fielder Bernard Gilkey and catcher Todd Hundley, my favorite player on the team was first baseman Rico Brogna.

Brogna was only a Met for parts of three seasons and never played for a winning Mets team, but in his short time with the club, he became a beloved figure with the fans.  One of Brogna's many big moments with the team came on that particular Saturday - May 11, 1996 - when he delivered a walk-off home run to defeat the Chicago Cubs, 7-6, at Shea Stadium.

But the story of the game wasn't the Brogna blast that erased a four-run Cubs rally.  It was the bench-clearing brawl in the fifth inning that started when Mets starting pitcher Pete Harnisch and Cubs catcher (and good friend) Scott Servais got into a heated argument at the plate.  And before the 15-minute donnybrook was done, Mark Grace had punched me in the face.  Here's the story - 20 years later - of how a great contact hitter made some not-so-great contact with my left cheek.

http://mlb.mlb.com/assets/images/3/5/8/42598358/cuts/markgrace640_1qjnv3kf_ovzjm02b.jpg
Is this what Mark Grace looked like before his fist came in the direction of my face?

The Mets were celebrating John Franco Day at Shea Stadium on May 11, 1996, to commemorate the reliever's 300th career save.  But Franco was not around to notch a save in this game, thanks to the fisticuffs that took place in the fifth inning of the Mets' 7-6 victory.

The seeds to the battle royale were planted in the first inning, when Mets catcher Todd Hundley had to duck out the way of a errant pitch by Cubs starter Kevin Foster.  When Foster came to bat for the first time in the second inning, Harnisch drilled him with his first pitch.  No warnings were issued at the time by home plate umpire Greg Bonin.

Harnisch expected retaliation by Foster when he came to bat, but fortunately for him, the Mets had two runners on base when he came up to the plate in the second inning and the bases loaded for his next at-bat in the third.  Neither Foster nor relief pitcher Rodney Myers (who came in for Foster in the third) could hit Harnisch with a pitch because doing so would damage the Cubs' chances at a scoreless inning.  Harnisch batted again in the fifth inning, but this time there were two outs and no one on base.  Terry Adams was now on the mound for the Cubs.  It didn't take long for the fracas to begin.

Adams threw his first pitch low and behind Harnisch.  Cubs catcher Scott Servais then started jawing at Harnisch, which caused the Mets pitcher to throw a punch at Servais.  Both benches and bullpens emptied and a violent brawl ensued.  The fight then moved in the direction of the Cubs dugout.  Guess where my seat was that day?

I have always enjoyed taking photos at Mets games.  In 1996, the Mets had a promotion where they gave fans in attendance a disposable Kodak camera.  It was a camera that had no zoom and could only be used for 24 photos before it had to be discarded.  It was as primitive as you could get for a wannabe photographer.  Because the Mets didn't draw well in 1996, I was able to get a ticket three rows behind and slightly to the home plate side of the Cubs dugout.  Because I was so close to the field, I figured I'd use the disposable camera since I wouldn't need a zoom feature from that distance.

Of course, as soon as I saw the mountains of men pushing, shoving and trying to decapitate each other near the Cubs dugout, I ran down to the front row and tried to take a super close-up photo of the action.  That's when Cubs first baseman Mark Grace stepped in.  And my face and my camera checked out.

In his effort to try to separate Mets players from his teammates, Grace accidentally (or at least I think it was unintentional) took a swipe in my direction, landing his fist on my face between my left cheek and left eye.  I dropped the camera in shock, and of course, it broke upon impact with the field level concrete.  The area between my cheek and eye ended up slightly swollen, and it had the appearance of a piece of skin that had just been ripped off with a piece of tape.  Grace had as mean a left hook as he had a sweet lefty swing.  I just had a mean bruise on my face and a broken camera.

After the pugilists were sent back to their respective corners, nine players and coaches had been ejected, including the man who was celebrating his special day at Shea Stadium - John Franco.

The Mets, who at one point had a 6-2 lead in the game, saw their lead whittled down to two runs in the ninth.  With Franco stewing in the showers (he claimed he was unjustly ejected, saying "I'm too old to be doing that kind of stuff"), the Mets needed three pitchers in a failed attempt to protect a 6-4 lead in the ninth.  A two-out, two-run single by Jose Hernandez off Doug Henry tied the game at six, and put Rico Brogna in position to win it in the bottom of the ninth.

With one out and no one on, Brogna delivered a high fly ball deep down the right field line.  Right fielder Sammy Sosa climbed the fence right near the foul pole, but Brogna's blast just cleared the wall over Sosa's glove.  With Sosa still dangling on the wall, Brogna ran gingerly around the bases, having injured himself during the fifth-inning fracas.  It gave Brogna a four-hit, two-homer, four-RBI day and capped a thrilling 7-6 victory for the Mets.

Of course, I have no photographic evidence of this home run because my camera was in pieces thanks to Mark Grace, but I'll always have clear memories of that free-for-all, Rico Brogna's amazing day at the plate, and the shape of Grace's left fist - all of which happened 20 years ago today on a Saturday afternoon at Shea.

I guess I should be thankful Grace didn't sock me a few inches higher.  My memories might not have been so clear then.
 

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