Michael Conforto was 20 years from being born in 1973 and thus six years old during the 1999 baseball season, so he surely and understandably has no idea of the similarities between decades-old Mets teams and the Mets for whom he currently plays.
And while he was considerably more connected to the 2015 Mets, the season-defining moment for that World Series-bound club took place during his seventh day of big league service time, so it makes sense that he’s reluctant to compare the two teams.
But there was no denying the connection between the past and the present Friday night at Citi Field, where the once-faint echoes of past miraculous Mets runs grew deafening.
The Mets’ stunning run into wild card contention continued in the most remarkable fashion yet when Conforto capped a four-run ninth inning with an RBI single that gave the Mets a 7-6 win over the Nationals.
“Hey, we just believe man,” a shirtless Conforto said during an on-field interview with SNY.
(There’s a lot to unpack here)
Believe, of course, is one of the two hopeful words most associated with the Mets, along with amazing. The late Tug McGraw declared “Ya Gotta Believe!” with the Mets buried in last place and 7 1/2 games out of first place in mid-August 1973. The Mets went 29-13 over their final 42 games to win the NL East with an 82-79 record before stunning the 99-win Reds in the NL Championship Series and taking the dynastic Athletics to the seventh game of the World Series.
Sounding familiar? The Mets put a 2019 twist on the 1973 recipe by making up a similar amount of ground in faster fashion. The Mets were eight games out of a wild card spot following the games of July 25. They have gone 14-1 — their best 15-game run in 29 years — since then to move within a half-game of the second NL wild card spot.
The surge has jostled loose plenty of memories about the 1999 team, which won 96 regular season games despite losing streaks of eight and seven games to tie the Reds for the wild card spot. The Mets won the one-game playoff, beat the Diamondbacks in four games in the NL Division Series — Todd Pratt clinched Game Four with a walk-off homer just beyond the grasp of Steve Finley — and then lost a six-game NLCS to the Braves in which the Mets trailed three games to none but were twice three outs away from forcing a Game 7.
The most iconic memories of the Mets’ near-comeback in the NLCS took place in a few minutes at the end of Game 5. A sellout crowd shook Shea Stadium as Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” blared and Robin Ventura stepped to the plate in the bottom of the 15th inning in Game 5.
Ventura then hit his “Grand Slam Single” well beyond drawn-in right fielder and regular Mets rival Brian Jordan. Ventura, battling a chronic knee injury, was trying to limp his way around the bases when Pratt bolted from the dugout and wrapped him in a giant bear hug. Ventura never touched second base, hence, the grand slam that was only a single.
These Mets had only one seven-game losing streak — it spilled into and eventually ended on the weekend honoring the 1969 world champions — but were at or under .500 every day from May 3 through Aug. 4. First-year general manager Brodie Van Wagenen fired two of beleaguered manager Mickey Callaway’s coaches on June 20, evoking reminders of the “Saturday Night Massacre” on June 5, 1999 when Steve Phillips fired three of beleaguered manager Bobby Valentine’s coaches.
It was impossible again not to think of 1999 last night, when, for the second time this week, “Don’t Stop Believing” blasted as the eighth-inning song (Note to the Mets: That’s a much better eighth-inning song than “Piano Man,” please stick with it).
An inning later, two outs after Todd Frazier blasted a three-run game-tying homer, Conforto launched his game-winning hit well beyond drawn-in right fielder Adam Eaton, best known in these parts for his years-long feud with Frazier that had the two arguing over mortgage payments earlier this season. Juan Lagares scored from second base and Conforto never had to touch second base, so he streaked beyond the bag into shallow centerfield, turned and welcomed the deluge of teammates spilling towards him (including injured infielder/outfielder Dominic Smith, who rode on to the field on his motorized scooter).
And at some point in the celebration, exuberant rookie first baseman Pete Alonso wrapped Conforto in a hug and ripped off Conforto’s jersey. Consider that the reboot of Pratt enveloping Ventura 20 years ago.
“In-the-moment decision,” Alonso said. “I mean, I was just happy. I didn’t know what to do. So I just ripped his jersey off.”
The loudest echoes on Friday night were the most recent ones. One thousand four hundred and sixty-nine days earlier, the Mets, three games out of first place and fresh off acquiring Yoenis Cespedes seconds before the trade deadline, beat the Nationals 2-1 on a 12th-inning homer by popular homegrown infielder Wilmer Flores, who tugged at his uniform as he neared home plate. The Mets swept the series, moved into first place for good following the games of Aug. 3 and went on to lose the World Series to the Royals.
Brad Brach and Joe Panik aren’t going to be Cespedes in terms of impact, but the Mets still buzzed before the game after welcoming the two, who signed as free agents on Thursday and Friday, respectively, to bolster the depth for an unexpected playoff race.
And the only member of the 2015 Mets to get into Friday’s game? Lagares.
“The winning of the games in the second half and being back in the race and all that, that feels similar,” said Conforto who was recalled by the Mets from Double-A Binghamton on July 24, 2015. “But this is a completely different team. I can’t really compare the two teams. We’re young, we’re energetic, everybody is pulling for each other.
“Not to say that wasn’t the case back in ’15. But I just think this is a special group of guys and we’re putting the whole thing together now.”
Like four years and two weeks ago, Citi Field was filled Friday night with tens of thousands of delirious fans starved for any sign of meaningful late-season baseball by a franchise that has stumbled aimlessly for far too many of the 32-plus years since its most recent championship. Until two weeks ago, the Mets seemed destined for their eighth losing season of the decade.
But that felt like a long time ago Friday, when the near-sellout crowd stood, roared and waved giveaway T-shirts from the first pitch.
“Oh man, today was probably the most fun I’ve had up here in the big leagues,” Conforto said. “It felt like (the) playoffs. This stadium, just the atmosphere was amazing.”
“I mean, it was like magic out there,” Alonso said. “There’s no other way to describe it.”
“Magic” is another of those buzzwords the Mets have tried to use as a marketing tool over the years, though the first application didn’t quite work out in 1980, when the Mets declared “The Magic Is Back” before going 67-95.
Almost four decades later, you can call it belief, call it amazing or call it magic. But whatever it is, everyone in attendance at Citi Field or watching the Mets anywhere Friday night understood something very familiar is back.