The world remembers Game Two of the 2000 World Series for one thing, and one thing alone: Roger Clemens throwing the shattered bat of Mike Piazza at, or near, Mike Piazza.
But for me, standing at the far end of the Yankee dugout, covering the Series as part of the Fox telecast, the bat event was an asterisk to the real headline. Because that was the night that I became convinced Bobby Valentine didn’t have the slightest idea what he was doing.
Lost in the Clemens saga still churning more than eleven years later, was a) the eight innings of two-hit ball he fired at the Mets (the back half of consecutive starts in which Clemens threw 17 playoff innings, gave up no runs, one hit batsman, two walks, three hits, and struck out 24 of the 58 batters he faced); b) the Mets’ incredible ninth inning rally that almost gave Clemens a no-decision; and c) Valentine’s decision during that inning, that might be the dumbest World Series managerial move since Casey Stengel completely messed up his 1960 pitching rotation.
Again, the context. Mostly because of their own baserunning lunkheadedness, plus the fact that Todd Zeile’s fly ball missed being a home run by maybe eight inches, the Mets had lost the Opener of the Subway Series the night before. Now, in Game Two, Clemens had made them look nearly as bad as he had made the Seattle Mariners look eight days before. Oh, and even though Piazza thought Clemens had thrown a bat at him, neither he, nor Valentine, nor anybody else in a Met uniform had even retaliated, let alone charged the mound or anything.
So as the Mets came up in the top of the 9th, down 6-0, they were as dead as Jacob Marley’s ghost in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Clemens had exited, stage right, to go let the adrenalin drain out of his system (along with whatever else was in there). Coming off his best major league season, Jeff Nelson was brought in to face the heart of the Mets’ order, and Joe Torre even took out David Justice for the slight defensive upgrade Clay Bellinger would represent in left.
But it did not exactly go to plan. Edgardo Alfonzo led off with a sharp single to left, and Piazza promptly got some delayed revenge by putting a Nelson pitch off the pole in left to cut it to 6-2. By this point, Torre had hastily gotten Mariano Rivera up. When Robin Ventura singled to make it three straight hits to start the ninth, Rivera was summoned, and nearly blew the game on the spot. Zeile hit another one to the wall in left, with the wind holding it up just enough to reduce it to a nice jumping Bellinger catch at the fence. But Benny Agbayani singled, and with Lenny Harris up, Jorge Posada lost a Rivera cutter and the runners moved up to second and third. Harris tapped back to Rivera who got Ventura at the plate, and the Mets were down to their final out – which was when Jay Payton walloped a massive three-run bomb off Mo and all of a sudden the Yankees’ insurmountable 6-0 lead was now a 6-5 heart-stopper, with the Mets just a baserunner away from turning over the line-up and sending up sparkplug Timo Perez with the tying run on.
Please remember this specific fact: the Mets were down to their last out, but having scored five in the ninth and rattled Mariano Rivera, they now had a chance – no matter how small a chance – to pull off a split at Yankee Stadium with three coming up at Shea. You may also remember that in midseason they had lost their other-worldly defensive shortstop Rey Ordonez, and had been forced to trade utility wizard Melvin Mora to Baltimore for Mike Bordick. Bobby V had already pinch-hit for Bordick an inning earlier with Darryl Hamilton, and went to his back-up shortstop, Kurt Abbott. If for some inexplicable reason Valentine now chose to leave Abbott in to face Rivera, he would be sending a lamb to the slaughter. Abbott had never seen Rivera or his cutter before. He was a lifetime .256 hitter with a .304 on-base percentage. After this night, only fourteen more major league at bats awaited him, and that was mainly because despite a pretty good glove and a deceptive slugging percentage, Kurt Abbott just wasn’t a major league hitter.
What happened next was explained at the time as a simple proposition. Bobby Valentine was out of shortstops, and, after all, Abbott had hit six homers during the regular season, in only 157 at bats. That none of them had been off a righthander since August 7, and that righthander was Jason Green (18 career minor league innings), and the other dingers had come off Terry Mulholland, Brian Bohanon, Jason Bere, Alan Mills, and Jose Mercedes, and that Abbott was carrying a 7-for-37 slump, seemed to have been left out of the equation.
More over, Valentine might have been out of slick shortstops, but he was hardly out of shortstops. He had at least seven defensive moves left. Joe McEwing had played four games at short for the Mets in 2000 and was still on the bench. McEwing, Matt Franco, and that night’s DH Lenny Harris had all played third during the season, and Robin Ventura could’ve easily slid over to short if the Mets had pulled off the miracle of forcing a bottom of the 9th. If that move sounded too risky, McEwing and Harris had also played second, and could have gone there with Alfonzo switching to short. Still not comfortable with pinch-hitting for Abbott? Bubba Trammell had produced a pinch two-run single the night before off Andy Pettitte. Valentine would trust Trammell enough to start him in right in the Series’ decisive game – he could have gone in to the outfield and Agbayani or Payton played first, with Todd Zeile going to third and Ventura to short. Or the same ploy could have been used with Harris, who played ten games at first for the ’00 Mets.
But, no. Bobby V knew he didn’t have any shortstops. So, having scored a remarkable five runs in the 9th – three of them off the greatest reliever the game would ever know – he sent up Kurt Abbott to try to finish the miracle. Imagine if the Mets had tied that game? Regardless of the outcome – even if the Yankees had promptly won it in the bottom of the inning thanks to an error by McEwing or Ventura at short or Bubba Trammell somewhere – the invincibility of the Yanks would have been punctured. Instead of a near-miss utterly overshadowed by the affair of Clemens And The Bat, it would have been the greatest ninth-inning comeback in World Series history.
Instead, inevitably, Kurt Abbott struck out. Looking.
The Mets lost the Series in five games, and until you just read this, it was unlikely that you remembered that “The Clemens/Piazza Game” ended with such an unlikely rally, cut short by a manager who wouldn’t pinch-hit for his good-field no-hit back-up shortstop.
But Bobby Valentine is supposed to be a great in-game tactician. Just like he’s supposed to be a no-nonsense skipper who’ll instill discipline into a flabby Red Sox team – presumably teaching them to respect authority by returning to the dugout in an embarrassing disguise after he had been ejected by the umpires. Like you have to listen to the umpires or something. And don’t tell me the Abbott decision is ancient history. As far as his major league managerial career goes, the decision to let Rivera eat Abbott alive was just 326 games ago.
Good luck, Red Sox fans.