The 2000 Subway Series between the Yankees and Mets was so compelling, so dramatic and so memorable that 20 years later Bobby Valentine calls it “the most exciting time of my life.”
And Valentine was the losing manager.
Joe Torre, the winning manager, said last week: “It was special . . . Every game had a little bit of drama attached to it.”
That might be a bit of an understatement.
The 2000 World Series lasted only five games. But each game was close – three one-run games, two two-run games, with the Yankees’ total margin of victory for the series three runs.
It is not an overstatement to say that for six days in late October of 2000, the city was swept up in Subway Series fever.
“Walking the streets of New York City, it was absolutely the craziest time,” Valentine said. “And the most wonderful time of our life.”
Said Torre: “You get up in the morning, maybe you want to go out and drop some dry cleaning off and they’re talking about the World Series. You go to a grocery store, they’re talking about the World Series. So it wasn’t just when you went to the ballpark. It was every time you turned your head, it was about the World Series. That just ratcheted up the energy level in that town.”
Valentine and Torre reminisced about the Series last Thursday in a virtual event sponsored by Sacred Heart University, where Valentine has been the executive director of athletics since 2013. Proceeds from the event will benefit the Jackie Robinson Foundation Scholarship at the Fairfield, Connecticut, school.
The Yankees went in having won three of the past four World Series. The Mets hadn’t been to the Fall Classic since winning it all in 1986. Two New York teams hadn’t played in the World Series since the Yankees beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in seven games in 1956.
In 2000, there were memorable moments in every game. Timo Perez not running hard. The Paul O’Neill walk. Benny Agbayani’s tiebreaking double. Derek Jeter’s leadoff home run. David Cone coming in to retire Mike Piazza. Luis Sojo’s 27-hop single to center off Al Leiter. Piazza’s final swing against Mariano Rivera.
The series’ signature moment, though, was one that didn’t affect the outcome at all. It was Roger Clemens flinging the shattered barrel of a bat in the direction of Piazza in Game 2.
It’s with that bizarre moment that reminiscing about the 2000 Subway Series always begins.
Piazza had owned Clemens in their previous matchups, going 7-for-12 (.583) with three home runs. Clemens had beaned Piazza with a fastball on July 8, knocking Piazza out of the upcoming All-Star Game with a concussion.
In their much anticipated first matchup of the World Series, Clemens sawed off Piazza’s bat with an up-and-in fastball. The bat shattered and the barrel somehow hopped right to Clemens, who fielded it and fired it back in the direction of Piazza, who had taken a few steps up the first-base line because he didn’t know where the ball went (it was fouled off).
A stunned Piazza took a few steps toward the mound. The benches and bullpens emptied, but no punches were thrown and no one was ejected. Clemens was fined $50,000 by Major League Baseball.
“It was so bizarre that the bat went flying toward Roger and then it came flying back at Mike,” Valentine said. “There was no way of really reacting to it. It was so different and so bizarre. Everyone went, ‘What was that? What just happened?’ “
Clemens has never given an adequate explanation. In the moment, on the mound, he could be seen saying he thought the bat was the ball, which if true doesn’t explain why he fired it in Piazza’s direction.
Immediately after the game, Clemems told reporters: “I had no idea Mike was running on the foul ball. There was no intent there.”
Piazza, after the game, said: “When he threw the bat, I walked out to the mound to see what his problem was. He really had no response. It was bizarre.”
Said Torre: “It looked terrible. I tried to respond to questions from the media. They weren’t buying what I was selling. I still, to this day, feel he was just throwing the bat off the field. None of it makes sense.”
(Postscript I: Clemens went on to throw eight shutout innings and the Yankees, who had won Game 1 in extra innings, took a 6-0 lead into the ninth. The Mets scored five runs, with Piazza smashing a two-run home run off Jeff Nelson and Jay Payton hitting a three-run shot off Rivera before the Yankees’ closer got the final out for a sweaty 6-5 victory.)
(Postscript II: Then Yankees strength coach Jeff Mangold retrieved the barrel of the bat and, 14 years later, sold it at auction to an anonymous buyer for $47,800.)
(Postscript III: If asked today about the incident, Clemens generally jokes about his “impeccable form” throwing the bat. Piazza, in 2014, said: “The more I get detached from it, the more confused I get.”)
The Yankees had a 1-0 series lead going into Game 2 thanks to a classic opening game in the Bronx. The Mets took a one-run lead into the ninth inning and called on closer Armando Benitez.
O’Neill, who was batting an uncharacteristically low seventh in the Yankees’ order, drew a one-out walk on the 10th pitch from Benitez.
It’s the kind of gritty plate appearance that would be lost to history if the Yankees hadn’t rallied to tie the game, as they did three batters later on Chuck Knobaluch’s sacrifice fly, and if Jose Vizcaino hadn’t stroked the game-winning single to left off Turk Wendell in the 12th.
But the Yankees did rally to tie and then win, 4-3.
“That Paul O’Neill at-bat,” Valentine said. “Great at-bat. It really was an at-bat that defines competition in the game of baseball.”
Perez getting thrown out at the plate on Todd Zeile’s drive off the tippy-top of the leftfield wall in the sixth inning of a scoreless game – after not running hard until he approached third base – defines something else for Mets fans: frustration for what might have been had Benitez come into the ninth with a two-run advantage.
“It was literally the top of the wall,” Valentine said. “Timo was running to second and he thought it was a home run – as did the umpires, as did everyone in the stadium except for David Justice, the leftfielder, and Derek Jeter, the shortstop. And somehow they set up a spectacular relay that when Timo Perez regrouped himself and started getting in stride, the relay throw to the plate was a little before he got there. It was one of those real game-changers and maybe even series-changers.”
Going into Game 3, the Yankees had won 14 straight World Series games. But the Mets were home at Shea Stadium, and Agbayani’s RBI double to the left-centerfield wall off Orlando Hernandez in the eighth sent the home fans into spasms of joy and led the Mets to a 4-2 victory.
“At 2-1, we thought we were in the series,” Valentine said. “Our little guys do it . . . It’s like the spirit of the Mets is coming back. I thought we were totally in the series and in Game 4 we had a guy coming off the best game of his life.”
Two starts earlier, actually, Bobby Jones one-hit Barry Bonds and the Giants in Game 4 of the NLDS. Jones threw the first pitch of Game 4 to Jeter, who launched it over the leftfield wall. The Yankees never trailed in a 3-2 victory to take a 3-1 series lead.
“Joe somehow decides in that Game 4 to lead off Derek Jeter,” Valentine said. “He wasn’t leading off the first three games and now Game 4 he’s leading off.”
Said Torre: “It was based on momentum changes and short series right now. I just felt he was the guy I wanted to have more at-bats than anybody else. Interesting part: We’re about ready to start the game and Derek had a habit of doing this every once and again. He came by me – I was just sitting there quietly on the bench – and he looks at me and says, ‘I got this, Mr. T.’ “
Some people may scoff about the significance of Jeter’s home run when the game still had nine innings to go and chalk it up to the tendency of folks to employ myth-making techniques when it comes to the former Yankees captain, who hit .409 and was named Series MVP.
Valentine isn’t one of those scoffers. He was in the other dugout. He understood the significance of that home run to the Mets’ chances of overcoming the favored Yankees.
“It wasn’t like a grand slam in the ninth inning,” Valentine said. “It was one pitch. One home run. But it was really an air-out-of-the-balloon [moment]. It took our crowd out of the game. And it turned out to be a real close game. But that was the momentum that took [the Yankees] to the end of that game.”
Torre gave Cone his moment when he called on the righthander to face Piazza with two outs in the fifth inning of a one-run game. Piazza, who had earlier homered off Denny Neagle for the Mets’ runs, popped out to second against Cone. Piazza was the only batter Cone faced in that World Series after he had a miserable season, with a 4-14 record and 6.91 ERA. It was Cone’s final pitch as a Yankee.
Then came Game 5. It wasn’t any of the Yankees’ stars who delivered the big blow, and the winning hit wasn’t a big blow at all. It was a ninth-inning, tie-breaking, multi-hop single to center by backup infielder Luis Sojo, with a second run scoring when the throw home hit a sliding Jorge Posada.
The extra run gave Rivera a two-run cushion when he faced Piazza as the tying run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Piazza unleashed a mighty swing and sent a ball to center that most people thought was going to be a game-tying home run.
Bernie Williams calmly caught the drive in front of the warning track to give the Yankees a 4-2 victory and their fourth World Series title in five years – and end a special six days in New York sports history.
“When he hit the ball, I screamed, ‘No!’ ” Torre said. “Then I look out at Bernie. He’s just sort of parked under it. He catches it and then drops a knee and the game is over. He wasn’t even on the warning track, which shocked the heck out of me.”
Said Valentine: “The sound. The swing. The trajectory. My way of calculating the velocity off the bat: It’s all the same as many a home run he hit. Somehow, this ball was caught by Bernie. It was one of those weird, weird things to end a World Series.”
The Yankees have been back to the World Series three times since 2000 and won it all in 2009. The Mets’ have been back only once, when they lost to the Royals in 2015.
Can a Subway Series happen again? Has that train left the station?
“You have to really have a lot of luck on your side to get through the postseason all the way to the World Series,” Torre said. “But I think it’s very realistic to think that there will be another one in the future.”
Valentine has a hopeful thought that many Mets fans probably share.
“I think with the new ownership of the Mets and Steve Cohen coming in, I think he’s going to do everything he can to match up with the Yankees,” Valentine said. “Day in and day out.”