On Sunday night at half past nine on the East Coast, time stopped. Across the country, only two baseball games were being played. At Fenway Park two American League relics, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, carried their old rivalry deeper into autumn than ever before. At Shea Stadium the New York Mets were at bat, the Atlanta Braves were in the field, and the game was in its 15th inning, half of those played in a rain that was steady and oddly warm. The Mets trailed by a run, which meant the Braves, up three games to one, were three outs away from securing their rightful place in the last World Series of the 20th century. You had to give them that. Atlanta has been a model of excellence, having played in the last eight National League Championship Series. The funky Mets—not as lovable as the 1969 team, but likable in their own fractious way—were trying to extend their season, to live to play another day.
Shawon Dunston, a native son, a Brooklyn legend as a schoolboy nearly 20 years ago, led off for the home team. In a field-level box behind first base was an on-duty New York City cop named Dolphin, standing with his back to the game, keeping the peace. Dolphin knew, along with the 40,000 fans still on hand, that Dunston had just fouled off his sixth full-count pitch. On the 12th pitch of the at bat, finally, came a different sound. A knock. Officer Dolphin spun his head to the game in time to see Dunston reach first on a single to center. The stands were bouncing like a trampoline. The Mets were still alive.
How did they ever get to this point? In late September, New York played Atlanta six times, losing five. The Mets were left for dead. But then they swept the Pittsburgh Pirates in the final series of the season, beat the Cincinnati Reds in a one-game playoff for the National League wild card and defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Division Series. Suddenly they were like that little Mr. Met bobble-head doll that New York manager Bobby Valentine keeps in his office. Touch the head once, just tap it, and the thing twitches forever.
Of course, nothing really goes on forever. In the National League Championship Series the Mets would face Atlanta's formidable rotation of Greg Maddux, Kevin Millwood, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, who went a combined 62-35 with a 3-40 ERA this season. New York had some O.K. arms, but please. The Braves had one other big thing going for them: manager Bobby Cox. He turned 58 in May, and he has never been more on top of his game. Atlanta was blitzed with one illness or injury after another, and some of the Braves' big bats—with the notable exception of third baseman Chipper Jones—weren't around for all or part of this year. Cox manufactured runs as if he were working from an old Jim Leyland textbook.
The first game of the series was on Oct. 12, a Tuesday night. The announced crowd at Turner Field was 44,172; the house holds 50,528. In the newspapers much rancor between the two clubs was reported, but a lot of that, of course, came from guys with notebooks and laptops amusing themselves and their readers. There were numerous stories featuring the word respect. The general theme was that the Braves did not respect the Mets, that Valentine did not respect Cox, that Chipper Jones and Atlanta's wild-eyed closer, John Rocker, did not respect Mets fans. Cox, all bundled up in his windbreaker, looking vaguely like your grandmother, sounding vaguely like your grandfather, put an end to a lot of this chatter when he talked to reporters, although he couldn't put a lid on Rocker.
In Game 1 Maddux pitched seven innings, gave up one run. Rocker gave up a run in the ninth. The Mets had their bullpen up before their starter, Masato Yoshii, got his first out. Over the course of eight innings the Braves cobbled together four runs on singles, walks, sacrifices and a solo home run by catcher Eddie Perez. The final: Braves 4, Mets 2. It was a game of little things; it would turn out to be a series of little things.
Game 2, Wednesday afternoon. An announced 452 more fans on hand than the day before. Four runs again for the Braves, this time on two-run homers by rightfielder Brian Jordan and Perez. Valentine, by his own admission, stuck with his starter, lefthander Kenny Rogers, too long. Meanwhile, Millwood pitched into the eighth inning, allowing three runs, two of them earned. With one out in the eighth, whom did the newly unpredictable Cox call in from his bullpen? His closer, Rocker, who struck out two to end the inning. And whom did Cox call in to seal the deal? Smoltz, who had appeared in 380 games in his 12-year big league career to that point, all as a starter. Same old Smoltz. Three up, three down. Braves 4, Mets 3. Two-zip, now, two more to go.
Last Friday the series resumed at Shea. The stadium holds 55,777 fans, and you could just about count the empty seats on your toes. Unfortunately for the Mets, the crowd witnessed a peculiar and unsatisfying game. The Braves scored a run in the first on a walk, a stolen base and two errors, one of which was by Mets starter Al Leiter. The lefthander settled down after that, giving up just three hits and no earned runs in seven innings. Glavine allowed seven hits in seven innings, but no runs. In the bottom of the ninth with no outs and a runner, Benny Agbayani, on first, Valentine sent backup catcher Todd Pratt to the plate to pinch hit. Pratt, who on Oct. 9 had hit a game-winning home run to secure New York's series win over Arizona, wasn't bunting. In the Mets bullpen, the pitchers could not believe what they were seeing: Todd Pratt swinging away! One pitcher said, "What the f—-is Valentine doing? We need a bunt!" Pratt, facing Rocker, struck out, and the last two Mets went quietly. The Braves won 1-0. It was three games to none.
No team in the history of postseason major league baseball had ever come back from three games down to win a best-of-seven series. The Mets were going to try. On Saturday night, behind a feisty performance by righthander Rick Reed, New York finally found a way to score one more run than Atlanta. John Olerud, the Mets' first baseman, hit a solo homer in the sixth, then knocked in two runs in the eighth with a single off Rocker. (A little earlier the Braves' closer had discovered an added benefit to his customary bullpen-to-mound sprint: It helped him avoid the coins, plastic water bottles and invective hurled at him from the stands at Shea.) The Braves still needed one more. The Mets now needed three.
Then came Sunday, with the rain and the extra-inning drama and Dunston standing in the box, facing rookie righthander Kevin McGlinchy. The 22-year-old McGlinchy had come on with one out in the 14th and retired the side after giving up a base on balls. He was still in the game in the 15 because, Cox said afterward, he had no intention of using his Game 6 or Game 7 starters (Millwood or Glavine) in relief in the rain and mud. As Dunston fouled off pitch after pitch, part of his mind was in a drift, thinking about his old Chicago Cubs teammate, Andre Dawson, who kept on playing, year after year, knee surgery after knee surgery. Dunston stroked his single, and the tying run was on first, nobody out. He stole second, and Officer Dolphin was high-fiving every kid in sight. Monday morning was coming and with it school, work, traffic, the headaches of life in metropolitan New York. The game was approaching the six-hour mark. Nobody was going anywhere. Nobody wanted the season to end. Everybody was in a drift.