Mention the date June 15, 1977 to a Mets fan, however, and they'll all respond with the same two words: Midnight Massacre.
The darkest day in Mets history saw the team deal its best player, Tom Seaver, to the Cincinnati Reds at the trade deadline. In a separate transaction, the Mets rid themselves of their best power hitter, Dave Kingman, sending him to the San Diego Padres for a seldom-used relief pitcher and a light-hitting utility player. By the end of the 1978 campaign, the reliever (Paul Siebert) had pitched his final game in the majors. The other player acquired for Kingman wore a Mets uniform far longer than Siebert did. And when he took his jersey off for the final time, he had managed to make a little history of his own.
|The field general responsible for a great run in Mets history. (Scott Jordan Levy/Getty Images)|
Robert John Valentine became a Met because of a Massacre. He then proceeded to kill what was left of his playing career, producing a .222/.295/.280 slash line for the Mets in 1977 and 1978 before he was released by the team mere days before the start of the 1979 campaign. Valentine, who was originally selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers with the fifth overall pick in the 1968 June Amateur Draft, played briefly for the Seattle Mariners after he was let go by the Mets before calling it a career at the age of 29.
Despite never quite fulfilling the expectations that come with being a top-five pick in the draft, Valentine spent much of his playing career studying the game. One of his minor league managers, Tom Lasorda, was influential in Valentine's decision to continue to be a part of the game once his playing career had come to an end.
"Tommy had told me to start thinking about how I could stay in baseball," Valentine said. "That's what I wanted to do.
Valentine became a coach with the Mets just four years after playing his final game in the majors. Two years later, he was hired by the Texas Rangers to replace Doug Rader after the Rangers got off to a miserable 9-23 start. Although Texas finished in last place in the American League West in 1985, Valentine turned things around in his first full season as the team's skipper in 1986, leading the team to a second-place finish and an 87-75 record. Valentine remained in Texas until 1992, when he was fired by then-managing general partner George W. Bush after getting off to a 45-41 start.
Although Valentine never led Texas to the postseason, he was the Rangers' all-time leader in managerial wins for over two decades. Valentine was not surpassed in that category until Ron Washington bumped him down to No. 2 in 2014. But once he was fired, the always opinionated Valentine made sure to remind his former employers who he thought was responsible for the Rangers' turnaround from cellar dwellers to contenders.
"I don't think anybody would've done better than I did while I was here," Valentine said. "People are going to look back and say in 1985, this is where the Texas Rangers were and in 1992, this is where they were when he left. I think people are going to say that's one hell of a job."
After working for the Cincinnati Reds in 1993 as a scout and third base coach, Valentine returned to the Mets' organization in 1994 to manage the team's Triple-A affiliate in Norfolk. With major league players on strike from 1994 to 1995, Valentine took the opportunity to become a manager in Japan in 1995 before he returned to Norfolk to manage the Tides once again in 1996. Under Valentine, the Tides went 82-59, which was the second-best record in the ten-team International League.
Meanwhile, the Mets, who were on their way to a sixth consecutive losing season, had gotten tired of manager Dallas Green's comments about their young pitchers not belonging in the majors. With 31 games left in the 1996 season, Green was fired, allowing Valentine to make the jump from Triple-A to the big leagues to manage the Mets. And just like he did with the Rangers, his leadership was instrumental in the revival of a moribund franchise.
The 1996 Mets finished the year with a 71-91 record, with Valentine going 12-19 after replacing Green at the helm. Valentine, who had a reputation of getting the most out of otherwise ordinary players, continued to thrive in that respect during his first full season as the Mets' skipper. Butch Huskey (.287, 24 HR, 81 RBI) had a career year in 1997, while Edgardo Alfonzo batted .315 and reached double digits in home runs and stolen bases for the first time. On the pitching side, Bobby Jones (15-9, 3.63 ERA) became an All-Star and journeyman Rick Reed (13-9, 2.89 ERA, 1.042 WHIP) finally found a home in New York. What did all four of those players have in common besides having breakout years for the Mets in 1997? They all played for Valentine at Norfolk during his two stints as the Tides' manager.
|Fonzie was one of many who thrived under Bobby V in both the minors and majors. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)|
New York surprised the league in '97, staying in contention for the National League wild card berth until the final week of the season. The Valentine-led Mets finished the year with an 88-74 record, which represented a 17-win increase from the previous year. Only the 1969 and 1984 Mets had shown a greater improvement from one year to the next.
Another reason why the Mets were so successful in 1997 was the acquisition of first baseman John Olerud, who batted .294 with 22 homers in his first season with the Mets. Olerud led the team in doubles (34), runs scored (90), RBI (102) and on-base percentage (.400), while providing Gold Glove-caliber defense at his position.
The Mets' sudden rise to contention in 1997 caused a flurry of transactions during the off-season. First, the Mets re-signed Olerud to a two-year deal. They then traded for veteran left-handed starting pitcher Al Leiter. But the coup de grâce didn't come until the season had gotten underway, when general manager Steve Phillips acquired All-Star slugger Mike Piazza from the Florida Marlins.
Olerud and Piazza batted .354 and .348, respectively, making Valentine's job of filling out the lineup card that much easier. But they weren't the only players who helped prove that the previous season's resurgence wasn't a fluke. Alfonzo continued to blossom under Valentine, improving his power numbers (17 HR, 78 RBI) from the previous year. In addition, new center fielder Brian McRae's vision of a 20/20 season came to fruition, as he hit 21 homers and stole 20 bases. But it was Valentine's use of the bullpen that really helped the team succeed.
For the first time in franchise history, five relievers appeared in 50 or more games. Closer John Franco set a team record with 38 saves, while Dennis Cook and Turk Wendell combined to appear in 139 games, with Cook becoming the first left-handed reliever to pitch in 70 or more games for the Mets in a single season and Wendell appearing in a club-record nine consecutive games during the team's playoff push in September.
Alas, Valentine and the Mets fell short in their quest to end their decade-long postseason drought, as the team lost its final five games of the season to once again finish the year with an 88-74 record. Valentine had now managed over ten years in the major leagues with nary a playoff berth to show for his efforts. He was poised to finally crash the postseason party in 1999. But first, he had to stop everything from crashing down on him.
The Mets played decently, but not spectacularly over the first two months of the season before losing eight straight games from late May to early June. The eighth defeat in the skein gave the Mets an unsightly 27-28 record, which moved them under the .500 mark for the first time since their Opening Day loss to the Marlins. The loss also led to the sudden firing of the team's hitting, pitching and bullpen coaches. Although Valentine's job was spared, he knew that if the team didn't improve quickly after their less than mediocre 55-game start, his days as the team's skipper were numbered. And so, Valentine decided to share a few numbers of his own.
"In the next 55 games, if we're not better, I shouldn't be the manager," Valentine proclaimed. "I'd rather have a sustained run; something like 40 and 15 would be good."
The team responded to the firings by winning their next three games in lopsided fashion, outscoring the Yankees and Blue Jays by a combined 26-7 score. The outburst of offense seemed to come to an end in the series finale against Toronto, as the Blue Jays took a 3-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning. But a three-run rally by the Mets, which included a rare stolen base by Piazza, sent the game to extra innings. In the 12th, a questionable catcher's interference call led to Valentine's ejection. Valentine left the dugout briefly, only to be replaced a few minutes later by what appeared to be his mustachioed doppelganger. Except it wasn't his hirsute twin. It was Valentine himself attempting to go incognito behind Orel Hershiser in the corner of the dugout. The disguise was discovered by Major League Baseball and Valentine was fined $5,000 and suspended for two games. One thing that couldn't be disguised, however, was the Mets' newfound streak of success, as two innings after Valentine was ejected, the Mets won in walk-off fashion for their fourth consecutive victory.
|The Mets were winning again? That's incog-NEAT-o! (Fox Sports Net screen shot)|
By early August, the Mets' 27-28 record had turned into a 67-43 mark, as the team did indeed win 40 of their next 55 games as per Valentine's prophetic statement. New York had five separate winning streaks of four or more games during their torrid two-month stretch, while never losing more than two in a row. The Mets briefly took over first place in August before the Braves reclaimed their customary spot in the division by the end of the month. New York then pulled back to within one game of Atlanta as they entered a critical three-game series at Turner Field on September 21. When the series was over, the focus had shifted from the division race to the wild card chase, as the Chipper Jones One-Man Wrecking Crew had essentially torn down the Mets' N.L. East aspirations.
No matter who Valentine put on the mound, Jones found a way to take that pitcher deep. Jones homered four times in the series, hitting long balls off southpaws (Al Leiter, Dennis Cook) and right-handed hurlers (Rick Reed, Orel Hershiser). Jones drove in seven runs in the three games, or one more run than the Mets scored in the series. After the final game, Jones reflected on what had transpired in the Braves' three-game sweep of the Mets.
"It was one of those dream series," Jones said. "It's almost like the ball is hitting my bat. I don't think I'm doing anything different, but it seems like the ball keeps hitting my sweet spot."
Meanwhile, in the other clubhouse, Valentine had his own feelings on the sweep, one that increased the Braves' lead in the division to four games over the Mets. He was particularly vocal about what Jones had been able to accomplish.
"They sure did the job they needed to give themselves some room. At least Chipper did," Valentine said. "It's uncanny that he's so hot right now."
The use of the word "uncanny" caused the media to suggest that Valentine was accusing Jones of cheating, especially after Jones had hit several well-placed pitches with authority. Valentine, who was known to occasionally suffer from foot-in-mouth syndrome, had to quickly recant his unfortunate utterance, saying: "Maybe I shouldn't have used that word."
Although the Mets' dreams of winning the division were derailed by the Braves, the wild card was still well within reach, as New York still had a two-game lead over the Cincinnati Reds with nine games to play. There was only one problem. The Mets kept losing. And losing. And losing some more.
Following the sweep in Atlanta, the Mets traveled to Philadelphia and promptly lost three more games. This wasn't the perennially contending Braves the Mets got swept by; it was a Phillies team that was 11 games under .500 entering the series. The loss in the series finale officially gave the Braves the division title. It also vaulted the Reds over the Mets in the wild card race.
The Mets limped home from Philadelphia to open their final homestand of the season, still having memories of the previous season, when the team lost its final five games to deny them a spot in the playoffs. Their losing streak extended to seven games in the opener of a three-game set against the Braves. New York finally won a game when they walloped Greg Maddux in the middle game of the series, thanks mostly to a grand slam by John Olerud, but then dropped an extra-inning heartbreaker in the finale after coming back twice in the late innings to tie the game. After the game, the uncanny Jones made a very candid statement, one that forever made him Public Enemy No. 1 in Flushing.
"Now all the Mets' fans can go home and put their Yankees stuff on."
If Jones's comments suggested that the fans would be watching playoff baseball from their couches instead of from their seats at Shea Stadium, he was gravely mistaken. With the Mets two games out of the wild card spot with three games to play, they responded by sweeping the Pittsburgh Pirates. Starting pitchers Kenny Rogers and Rick Reed struck out 22 batters between them in the first two games, while Orel Hershiser and four relievers combined to pitch a three-hitter against the Pirates in the series finale. But it was a move by Valentine in Game No. 162 that may have saved the Mets' season.
Melvin Mora had played in 65 games for the Mets coming into the season's final home game. He had started just three of them, with Valentine using him mostly as a late-inning defensive replacement. Mora had just 38 plate appearances in those 65 games, which didn't allow him to remain fresh as a hitter and resulted in a .133 batting average entering the finale against the Pirates. With the game tied, 1-1, in the bottom of the seventh, Mora came into the game as a pinch-runner for Rickey Henderson. Although it was the tenth time Valentine had used Mora to run for a teammate, it was the first time Mora had run for the game's all-time stolen base leader. The Mets failed to score in the inning, but Mora stayed in the game as the new left fielder. More importantly, he took over Henderson's leadoff spot in the batting order. That came into play two innings later, when the bottom of the ninth rolled around with the game still tied.
Pinch-hitter Bobby Bonilla led off the inning by grounding out. That brought up Mora, who had just four hits in 30 at-bats. Rather than replacing the light-hitting Mora, Valentine rolled the dice and allowed him to take his turn at bat. The gamble paid off, as Mora delivered an opposite-field single. Two pitches later, Edgardo Alfonzo also went the other way with a hit, pushing Mora over to third base. An intentional walk to Olerud set up a force play at every base. But it also brought up Mike Piazza to the plate. New pitcher Brad Clontz didn't even have time to get nervous about facing the future Hall of Famer, as his first pitch bounced up and over the tall protective screen behind the plate, allowing Mora to scamper home with the winning run.
|The mojo was risin' for Melvin Mora when Bobby V allowed him to hit in the '99 finale. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)|
The sweep of the Pirates, coupled with the Reds losing two out of three to the Milwaukee Brewers, forced a one-game playoff to determine the wild card winner. After the tight affair that forced the 163rd game, the Mets had a relatively easy time in Cincinnati against the Reds, scoring early and extending their lead throughout the game before Al Leiter put the icing on the cake with a masterful complete-game, two-hit shutout.
For the first time since 1988, the Mets were going to the postseason. That drought wasn't nearly as long as Valentine's, as he had endured ten seasons as a player without appearing in the playoffs, followed by a decade as a manager with his season ending after the 162nd game.
Valentine's first postseason series ended on a high note, with backup catcher Todd Pratt hitting a game-winning home run off Arizona closer Matt Mantei in Game Four of the National League Division Series. The thrilling victory sent the Mets to the NLCS to face Chipper Jones and the Braves. During the regular season, Atlanta had taken nine out of 12 matchups against New York, outscoring the Mets, 63-40. But Arizona had been just as dominant against the Mets in the regular season, winning seven of nine games by a combined 63-39 tally before the Mets defeated the Diamondbacks in the NLDS. That gave the Mets hope against an experiences Braves squad. By the end of Game Three, however, that hope was nearly gone.
Atlanta took the first three games of the series, defeating Masato Yoshii, 4-2, in Game One, followed by two one-run victories in Games Two and Three. The Mets recovered to eke out a comeback win against Braves' closer and renowned people watcher on the No. 7 train, John Rocker, forcing a fifth game at Shea Stadium. The 15-inning, rain-soaked affair featured Valentine at his best. First, he removed Yoshii after three innings even though he had allowed just two runs. He then brought in Turk Wendell in the seventh inning to face Chipper Jones. Wendell's trademark slider proved to be too much for the switch-hitting Jones, who struck out much to the home crowd's delight. Valentine also ordered five intentional walks during the game. None of the recipients of the free passes came around to score.
The game remained tied until the 15th inning, when the Braves finally broke through for a run against the Mets' tired bullpen. New York could have easily conceded the pennant right there, but Valentine and his players would have nothing of it. Shawon Dunston, who had been put into the game by Valentine five innings earlier, ran the count full before fouling off six consecutive pitches. On the 12th pitch of the at-bat, the man who wore No. 12 for the Mets hit a sharp ground ball up the middle for a single. Dunston then stole second. After reliever Kevin McGlinchy walked pinch-hitter Matt Franco, Alfonzo bunted the runners over to second and third. An intentional walk to Olerud brought up cleanup hitter Todd Pratt, who came in for Piazza in the 14th inning when Piazza injured his left forearm. Pratt drew the third walk of the frame, tying the game and bringing Robin Ventura up to the plate, who delivered his famous Grand Slam Single to win the game for the Mets.
After five hours and 46 minutes, the Mets had finally forced their way back to Atlanta for a Game Six showdown. Tired and bruised, the Mets fell behind by five runs in the first inning before coming back to tie the game in the seventh. An inning later, they had gone out in front of the Braves. The Mets failed to hold that precarious lead, then coughed up another one-run lead in the tenth. Finally, in the 11th inning, after the two teams had played for over ten hours in their last two games, Valentine went to starting pitcher Kenny Rogers in an attempt to extend the game and their season. It was one of the few decisions that did not go right for Bobby V in his first postseason experience. A double, a sacrifice bunt, two intentional walks and one unintentional walk later, the Braves had ended the Mets' storybook season, leaving a stunned Valentine to repeatedly say "no, no, no" while pounding his fists on the dugout railing as Gerald Williams crossed the plate with the pennant-winning run.
|The look of disappointment on Bobby V's face says it all. (NBC Sports screen shot)|
The most successful year in over a decade had come to a crashing halt for the Mets after their Game Six defeat. But despite the sudden end to the season, Valentine was proud of his players and praised their ability to fight back when all appeared lost.
''I'm going to take some time in the winter to watch these games, and try to enjoy them,'' Valentine said. ''I told my guys after the game that it might be a shorter winter or a longer winter for them but I think they played like champions. They should feel like champions. It's very difficult to come back from five runs and have a couple of leads. It's difficult to give it up, but we gave everything we had."
A year after being told by their manager that they played like champions in defeat, the Mets became champions of the National League. Unlike the 1999 campaign, the Mets did not need to produce a 40-15 record during the middle of the 2000 season, nor did they require a frenetic finish to qualify for the playoffs. Instead, they clinched the wild card with several games to play and nearly beat out the Braves for the division title. And once the St. Louis Cardinals knocked off Atlanta in the division series, the Mets were faced with the reality that they would not have to go up against the Hall of Fame triumvirate of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. Rather, they'd be facing a Cardinals' pitching staff that had produced a 4.38 ERA during the regular season and allowed a then-franchise record 196 home runs. It was enough to make the Mets' hitters salivate in anticipation of their NLCS feast.
New York defeated St. Louis in five games, scoring six or more runs in each of their four victories. In addition to going homer happy against the Cards, the Mets produced a deluge of doubles, with four balls leaving the park and a dozen more ending up with the Mets' batter on second base. The Mets were on their way to the World Series for the first time since 1986, as Valentine joined the pantheon of pennant-winning managers in franchise history. Their opponent was the crosstown New York Yankees, creating the first Subway World Series since 1956. But just like they did in 1999, the Mets came up short in a series where every game was decided by one or two runs.
Going into the 2001 season, Valentine was trying to become the first manager in Mets history to lead the team to back-to-back World Series berths. At the same time, he was trying to keep general manager Steve Phillips off his back. Just like Davey Johnson and Frank Cashen couldn't see eye-to-eye at the end of their respective tenures with the Mets, Valentine and Phillips were also in a strained professional relationship. Valentine wasn't a fan of some of the trades Phillips made. He also didn't like that Phillips wouldn't allow him to talk to other teams about their vacant managerial positions after gaining some leverage with his consecutive postseason appearances. The feud would continue into the 2001 campaign, and got progressively worse once the Mets got off to an awful start.
By mid-May, New York was ten games under .500 and showing no signs of improvement. Instead of being buyers at the trade deadline, they started to part ways with several of the key players that helped them rise to the top of the baseball world. In an eight-day span, the Mets traded backup catcher and 1999 postseason hero Todd Pratt, cut ties with set-up men Turk Wendell and Dennis Cook and dealt starting pitcher Rick Reed, all of whom were favorites of Valentine. Phillips had raised the white flag on the season. Valentine, on the other hand, never surrendered his dreams of raising another kind of flag at Shea.
After the Mets reached their nadir in mid-August with a 54-68 record, Valentine led his troops to victory in 17 of the team's next 22 games. Although the Mets still had a losing record at 71-73, they had climbed to within eight games of the first-place Braves with 18 games to play. It would still take a monumental effort to cut further into the Braves' lead. But then September 11 happened. And Valentine had a new mission to accomplish.
|Bobby Valentine was a healer at the helm. In more ways than one. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)|
On the morning of September 11, 2001 the Mets were in Pittsburgh, waiting to open a three-game series against the Pirates that night. But after the terrorist attack on the United States, the series was postponed and the Mets returned via bus to New York. Upon arriving in their home city, Valentine immediately went to Ground Zero to offer assistance. Valentine also worked tirelessly at Shea Stadium, working to distribute relief goods to those in need. John Franco, himself a native New Yorker, noticed how involved his manager was in the healing process.
"Bobby was a great leader," Franco said. "He had us out there, and even when we were done, he stood out there by himself helping everybody else, all the volunteers."
When baseball resumed a week later, the Mets returned to Pittsburgh with the entire country supporting them. Overcoming fatigue and emotional stress, New York emerged victorious in all three games, moving them back over .500 and within five games of first place. The Mets then returned to Shea Stadium to face the Braves and gave the patriotic crowd a reason to smile again. Mike Piazza's home run in the series opener turned a loss into a thrilling victory. The second game also went to New York, as RBIs by Tsuyoshi Shinjo, Rey Ordoñez and Armando Benitez (not a typo) helped turn a one-run lead into a four-run cushion. It also moved the Mets to within 3½ games of the division lead.
Unfortunately, the Mets dropped the series finale to the Braves, then lost two out of three games in Atlanta the following week. Although the Mets managed to finish the year with a winning record - Valentine's fifth straight as manager of the team - they failed to catch the Braves and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1998. A year later, the Mets couldn't repeat their late-season magic and finished below .500 for the first time since Valentine took over for Dallas Green in 1996. Valentine's first season of failure became his last season at the helm of a rapidly sinking ship, as he was fired by the Mets a few days after the season came to an end. General manager Phillips got to keep his job, which finally brought out all the animosity Valentine had felt for him over the years.
"What (Phillips) has done isn't proper," Valentine said. "He's done what he could so I wouldn't be around. I told Fred (Wilpon) that he had to give the next manager authority in the clubhouse and on the field, that he had to get Steve off the field and out of the clubhouse. You can't let a GM high-five guys and joke around after a win and then after a loss act like it's the end of the world. Get him out of there for the sake of the next guy."
The Mets did indeed get Phillips out of there, but waited until the 2003 season was nearly half-over to do so. By then, the manager with the second-most wins in franchise history was just a distant memory.
When Bobby Valentine became the Mets' manager in 1996, he took over a team that hadn't had a winning season since 1990 and was a combined 91 games under .500 since the start of the 1991 campaign. He proceeded to lead the team to five consecutive winning seasons, which included two postseason appearances and a National League pennant. Despite his final season in which he went 75-86, Valentine's .534 winning percentage ranks third in team history behind Davey Johnson (.588) and Willie Randolph (.544).
|(Focus On Sport/Getty Images)|
"Either you love Bobby Valentine or you hate him," Hillman said. "There's no middle ground. I'll tell you what - I'd take a bullet for that guy. He did everything for me in my career."
Valentine was both respected and reviled. He was also cherished and criticized. But no one can deny that Valentine was part of the Mets' renaissance in the late 1990s. His relationship with management may have been testy at times, but his relationship with the win column was always strong.
He first came to the Mets in 1977 during one of the darkest periods in franchise history. By the time Valentine left the team for good a quarter century later, he was responsible for some of the club's brightest moments.
Mets fans with vivid memories of the late '90s and early '00s will always have a place in their hearts for Valentine.
Note: The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players and personnel who experienced the best of times and the worst of times with the team. For previous installments, please click on the names below:
January 2, 2017: Tom Seaver
January 9, 2017: Mike Piazza
January 16, 2017: Wally Backman
January 23, 2017: Daniel Murphy
January 30, 2017: Frank Cashen
February 6, 2017: Ed Kranepool
February 13, 2017: Doug Sisk
February 20, 2017: Joan Whitney Payson
February 27, 2017: John Franco and Armando Benitez
March 6, 2017: Dwight Gooden