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Closer Look: Veni, vidi, Ventura

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Posted: Monday October 18, 1999 11:36 AM

  Robin Ventura Uplifting: Mets catcher Todd Pratt gives Robin Ventura a celebratory boost after Ventura's game-winning hit. AP

By Aimee Crawford, CNN/SI

NEW YORK -- As Robin Ventura sees it, the secret of successful hitting is very simple. All he does, in his own words, is "hit the ball on the barrel of the bat."

Most followers of the game know the sweet science of swing is much more complicated that that. But Ventura, one of its accomplished practitioners for more than a decade, is loath to talk about himself or his prowess at the plate. This partly explains why, before Sunday, Ventura was probably best known to most fans as either the guy who got beat up by Nolan Ryan or the one who nearly had his foot torn off in spring training.

Now he'll also be known as the guy who added an exclamation point to one of baseball's most thrilling playoff games. Ventura shrugged off an abysmal 0-for-17 start in the National League Championship Series and his team's pending elimination to drive a 91 mph fastball from Braves rookie Kevin McGlinchy over the center field wall in the bottom of the 15th inning of Sunday night's Game 5 for an apparent game-winning grand slam. When jubilant Mets teammates attacked him on the basepaths and prevented him from advancing farther than halfway to second base, Ventura's hit was ruled an RBI single. A game-winner, just the same.

"I was looking for something in the middle of the plate I could just get in the air," Ventura said. "I was just trying to but the barrel on it. After the way I've been swinging, that was all I was aiming to do."

And so, with one swing the Miracle Mets, 1999 version, added another low-profile hero to their growing legend. Actually, Ventura isn't as unlikely a hero as he is an inconspicuous one. Earlier this fall, a baseball publication named him the most unsung player in the National League. He enjoyed one of the finest offensive seasons of his 10-year career in 1999, hitting over .300 for the first time, smacking 32 homers and driving in a career-best 120 runs.

But his numbers alone do not accurately measure what the five-time Gold Glover has meant to the Mets this season. Of all the team's new faces, Ventura has been the most influential in multiple ways. In the batter's box. On defense. And around the clubbouse.

"He's the glue of this team," said Mets catcher Matt Franco. "When the chips are down you can count on Robin."

Ventura is certainly no stranger to adversity. He suffered two compound fractures, a dislocated ankle, and ligament damage sliding into home during a spring training exhibition game in 1997. Four months later -- way ahead of schedule - he returned to the White Sox lineup.

He limped through the last two months of this season with a bum left knee. While teammate Mike Piazza's injuries have been the source of much discussion this series, Ventura has silently endured his own aches and pains. He didn't complain when Valentine replaced him with a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning of Friday's contest. And he didn't give in to the exhaustion when he stepped up to the plate in the bottom of the 15th inning.

"God bless him, " said Valentine, "you could tell that there was hardly anything left. But there was something big left."

Something big indeed -- right off the barrel of bat.

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