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The First Subway Series between New York's Mets and Yankees in 1997

Back in the 90s, I really liked baseball.  I even played ball for a time before deciding to stick with hockey.  When we got Nintendo for Christmas somewhere around 89 or 90, one of our first games was Tommy La Russa's Baseball.  Later on, I really enjoyed the RBI series because they used real players, and much later on, I'd often play the World Series or EA Sports games on Sega, which were awesome.  

When I was little, I played "Just-For-Fun" teeball, which was like baseball for toddlers and kids too young to play Little League.  I remember not having much fun and not understanding why Dad drove us to the park on Saturday mornings to run in circles with other kids.  

In kindergarten or first grade I switched to hockey.

When I was in fourth grade, my friends had been playing Little League for a few years and were always talking about it at lunch.  So, I decided that year I really wanted to play too.  Dad had a friend who was a coach, and well... I stunk up the tryouts.  His friend picked me (last) for his team, the Rockies, at the end of tryouts, and when the season started, I was thrown into the outfield where I'd do the least damage.  I wasn't that good, spending my season mostly striking out or missing balls hit my direction.  There was one game I hit a double and miraculously caught a fly ball, but other than that, I was just average on my very best day.  

My career lasted just that one season, and I returned to a sport I was considerably better at.  

During my "Just for Fun" days, I decided on a whim that I was a Mets fan, based on nothing but the team colors orange and blue.  Those are my two favorite colors.  My brother and all of our friends in the neighborhood were big Yankee fans, as most non-Long Island suburbanite New Yorkers seem to be.  

If you're not from the New York area, you probably never noticed that there's a correlation somehow between being a Yankee/Giants/Rangers fan or a Mets/Jets/Islanders fan.  It's a broad generalization, although there's an actual explanation based on where the Jets originally played (The Polo Grounds and Shea Stadium), as well as the location of the Mets and Islanders, but that story will take us further off track than usual.  I tend to fall into the latter category, except the Rangers take the top spot over the Islanders.  However, after nearly 20 years of living "on the island," I have a soft spot for the Islanders.  When does a "hometown" team become your new "hometown team" after you move?

Despite my short tenure as a Left Fielder, I was a die-hard Mets fan by the time I got to middle school in 1996.  

Today, I'm what I like to call a non-practicing sports fan due to time constraints and lack of interest, but I'll stay informed of my teams regardless by reading the headlines.  The only "sport" I make time for these days is NASCAR, but I'll watch hockey occasionally if it's convenient.  There was a time when I could name every player and their statistics, but today, I couldn't even name five players on my favorite team.  Maybe again, someday.  

Lately, I've been trying to watch baseball again, perhaps because I'm getting the baseball itch now that summer is approaching.  But, honestly, I like just having the Mets game on in the background to hear the small-talk banter between the announcers.  The other day, at a low point in the game, Keith Hernandez and Gary Cohen were rambling about their favorite condiments.  I still remember back in the 90s, Keith spent an entire inning not even paying attention to the action and talking about how he used to know a "guy named Buckey" in high school.  

That sounds insane, I know, but it's comforting to listen to, in a way.  

Then again, I'm a guy who listened to a syndicated talk radio show called "The Bald Truth with Spencer Kobren" when I was a freshman in college every Sunday night while getting ready for bed.  Not because I was losing my hair (I still haven't, knock on wood) but because it was just nice to hear people talking about anything and everything on my favorite radio station.  The same would go for WNEW's "The Sports Guys" or Scott Ferrall (Shake it up!) who produced sports focused shows that mostly covered basketball, a sport I couldnt give an iota about, but it was nice to just listen.

I miss the "just friends conversing" style of chatter from the "hot talk" days of FM talk radio.  That style of talk radio was so popular back in my teens and early 20s, like Opie and Anthony or Ron and Fez, and I really got into it.  I went years without missing an episode of Opie and Anthony and many other shows on WNEW.  Most podcasts today seem to produce single-topic episodes now.   

Anyway, I guess I spent a lot of time watching television either way, but back then, I'd spend many an afternoon watching the Mets on WWOR (Channel 9) and, after 1998, WPIX (Channel 11).  

I caught most of those afternoon and summer evening games watching the Mets play on my Grandparents' "back porch."  It was really just a "three-season" room that they set up with patio furniture during the summertime.  I'd wheel in the kitchen television that was on a rolling cart and relax on the gliding rocker as the breeze blew in from their nearly floor-to-ceiling screens.  I'd busy myself drawing on the back of one of the hundreds of old diner placemats Gramps had scored from somewhere that they kept under the TV along with a can of crayons.  While drawing, daydreaming, and watching the Mets (and occasionally WCW Saturday Night), I'd snack on Granny's not-so-secret stash of Snickers bars and caffeine-free Coke.

Despite my short tenure as a Left Fielder in 1994, I was a die-hard Mets fan by the time I got to middle school in 1996.  

Here's a funny little story about how your mind can alter certain memories.  

For over 20 years, my memory told me that my Dad took the day off of work, kept me out of school, and drove me down to Queens to watch the Mets play.  It was a big day for me, staying home from school to see my first major league game, my first time at Shea Stadium, and my first time watching the Mets in action!  And they won!  They beat the Cincinnati Reds 5-2!  It was awesome!  I still have the souvenir banner, program, and ticket stubs in my little nostalgia "museum." 

I don't know if you noticed, but the ticket says the game was on Saturday.  For years, this ticket has been on display in my home, and only when I uploaded it for this article did I realize the game was on a weekend.  I thought I had stayed home from school all these years, but it was just a Saturday.

Well, it wasn't JUST a Saturday.  It was still a really great day spent with Dad at a ball game.  Even if we did almost crash when we entered a tunnel, and Dad was wearing his prescription sunglasses, and I couldn't find where I had put his regular frames!  Oh well, so much for over 25 years of thinking I got to play hooky from school, but it's still a memory I wouldn't trade for anything.

During the late 90s, my uncle Bob followed the team through the newspaper (I know, how archaic!)  He was a baseball fan himself, though not necessarily the Mets.  He was still active in the adult leagues at the time, and together, we'd lament the awful pitching (I'm looking at you, Armando Benitez) or cheer together when they won.  It's funny how, just a few years later, the internet would make the box scores on the back pages of USA Today obsolete.

All the while, my neighbors, friends, and even my brother would go on to remind me how poorly the Mets played and how great the Yankees dynasty of the 90s was.

I went to several games at Shea Stadium in college when my friends and I could buy tickets for next to nothing.  The way the Mets played at the time, that was pretty often.  We'd hop onto the Long Island Rail Road from the station just down the street from the dorms and be at Shea in 45 minutes or so.  I had been volunteering, doing campus tours and other odd jobs, and my supervisor gave me two opening-day tickets to the Mets in the Spring of 2005.  I took my girlfriend (now my wife), who is indifferent to most sports, but... she was a Yankees fan, of course. 

We took the train in and enjoyed the game.  The free seats were in the absolute last row of the stadium, but we were directly behind home plate.  Talk about vertigo when you looked down!  We were freezing cold up in those seats on a 75-degree spring day, having been sweating before we climbed the stairs.   The spring breeze whipped off Flushing Bay and through the chain link fence that prevented us from falling backward from our seats to the parking lot far below.  I don't even remember the score, but I did get to see my favorite pitcher, John Franco, one last time.  Unfortunately, by 2005, he had left the Mets and was a member of the visiting team, the Houston Astros.

Going back nearly ten years, though, Major League Baseball was looking for a significant change in the post-strike era.  It announced it would be introducing Inter-league play during the 1997 season.  Before that, matchups between AL and NL teams only occurred during the All-Star Game and the World Series.  

In seventh grade, as we prepared for the season to begin (and the school year to end), my Social Studies teacher constantly ragged me on.  Like many people in my area, he was a Yankees fan.  However, my math teacher was an even bigger Mets fan than I was, and I enjoyed chatting with him, too.  It was fun as we all joked back and forth, getting ready for the "Subway Series" in June.  

The whole tri-state area was getting excited.  

That year, I finished out each school day with Mr. Hurley's Earth Science class.  He never really talked about sports, but the Subway Series was such a big deal that he would put on sports talk radio during class so we could join the festivities.  I mentioned that a little bit HERE in a "Summer Songs" article.

The first-ever regular-season interleague game took place on June 12, 1997, when the Texas Rangers of the AL hosted the San Francisco Giants of the National League.  Four interleague games were scheduled for that night, but the other three were played on the West Coast, so the Rangers-Giants game started an hour or two earlier than the rest.  The Giants would go on to win 4-3.  

The Mets had kicked off interleague play in 1997 against the Boston Red Sox at Shea Stadium, while the Yankees did so against the Florida Marlins in Miami.   The excitement and novelty of these new matchups were exciting, and attendance and television ratings for these first games were higher than any game earlier that season, except for some teams, opening day.

Back home in New York, though, the city was at a fever pitch as fans were finally going to see which hometown team was better during regular season play.  The "Subway Series" would soon be upon us, and we all felt it. 

Heading into the Subway Series, the Yankees were coming off a World Series Championship in 1996 and were sitting in second place in the American League East with a 36-27 win/loss record.  The Yankees trailed first-place Baltimore by seven games.  Meanwhile, the Mets were coming off an abysmal 1996 season and were in third in the NL East, trailing the division-leading Atlanta Braves by 6 1/2 games.  The Mets had a 35-28 record up to that point. 

The first three games were played at Yankee Stadium in front of a sellout crowd of 56,188 fans who never stopped screaming.  The Mets were indeed the underdog, but for the players and fans, the winner of this series would get bragging rights over the entire city for the rest of the year.   

In an interview, Coach Bobby Valentine said,  "We didn't think it'd be safe to dress at Yankee Stadium and have our cars there, in case we won."  So, the Mets dressed for the game at Shea Stadium a few miles away in Queens.  Valentine continued, "We had a motorcade to get up to the Bronx.  We stopped all of the traffic during rush hour, our buses scooting down the highway.  As we approached the Stadium, all the people were along the streets."  

Mets reliever John Franco joked that as the Mets' bus approached Yankee Stadium, the Yankees fans showed them "a lot of 'Number 1' signs."  Gotta love it.

Starting on the pitcher's mound in the first game would be Andy Pettite for the Yankees.  On the Mets side, and much to nearly every Met fan's dismay, was journeyman pitcher Dave Mlicki.  Mlicki had been having a rough season to that point, with 2 wins and 5 losses on the season, while Pettitte had won 8, with 3 losses.  Running the dugout would be the legendary head coaches, Joe Torre and Bobby Valentine, for the Yankees and Mets, respectively.   

On the night of the 16th, the Mets showed up ready to play.  They scored two runs in the first inning, driven in by a double from John Olerud and a single from the Designated Hitter, Butch Huskey.  A third run scored when catcher Todd Hundley came in off a double-steal attempt.  In the seventh, Olerud again came through for the Mets, as he often did back then, driving in two more runs off a single to the left field.  Later, Bernard Gilkey drove in Matt Franco for the Met's sixth run at the top of the ninth against Yankee's reliever Graeme Lloyd.  

Andy Pettitte allowed five earned runs and eight hits in his seven innings of play, but the real master of the mound that night was Mliki.  Dave Mliki had the game of his life that night, striking out eight and walking only two for a complete game and a 6-0 shutout victory.  Mlicki wasn't my favorite pitcher that season, nor many other fans, but he'll forever be remembered for his pitching during game one of this series.  The Yankees may have got eight hits off of him, but were 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position, and as a nice touch, he struck out Derek Jeter to close out the evening.  Mlicki was responsible for a raucous celebration by fans of the Metropolitans that night, for sure.  

After the game, Dave Mlicki gave so many interviews that he missed the Mets bus back to Shea Stadium and was forced to pay for a cab to get back home!

If you have three hours and want to relive the nostalgia of his surreal moment in baseball history, you can watch the entire first game below, courtesy of the official New York Mets YouTube channel.  

Unfortunately for us Mets fans, we didn't get to celebrate the win and great start to the series for more than a day.  The Yankees would win the next two and the entire Subway Series.

In Game 2, the Yankees came away with a 6-3 victory.  Pitcher David Wells threw eight innings for the Yankees while legendary closer Mariano Rivera cleaned up the game.  It may have less memorable moments than the first game, but the drama was still there.  In the papers, it was all over
New York that Wells had to have a come-to-Jesus moment with Joe Torre and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre before the game.

During his previous outing a week or so earlier, Wells had been ejected from the game before the first inning finished.  

During Game Two of the Subway Series, Wells survived a Mets surging offense during the third inning, when he nearly let a four-run lead slip through his fingers.  He gave up a two-run home run to Bernard Gilkey (the first home run of any Subway Series) before taking control and retiring 15 straight Mets batters.  

As a Mets fan, I was crushed, but I still held out hope that Game 3 would win the series.

In Game 3, Yankees pitcher David Cone held a no-hitter until Mets first baseman John Olerud spoiled it in the seventh inning.  The Yankees, leading 2-0 on single-run home runs by Chad Curtis and Cecil Fielder, were trying to close the game out quickly, not only to give Cone a no-hitter but specifically against the Mets and to take the Subway Series.  Olerud led off the seventh inning with a double that broke the no-hitter, and he eventually made it home off a Carlos Baerga single.  An inning later, Cone balked, and Steve Bieser scored from third to tie the game.  

Cone, a former pitcher for the Mets, was doubly disappointed when his no-hitter was broken.  "Being a former Mets pitcher, it meant a lot.  We were all aware that no Met pitcher had thrown a no-hitter.  That thought ran through my mind, maybe throwing one against them,” he said after the game. 

In the bottom of the 10th, the Yankees had runners on first and third with one out when John Franco, born in Brooklyn, came from the bullpen to face Tito Martinez.  Martinez ripped the ball to left field, the runner scored, and the Yankees won the first Subway series 2 games to 1.  

When the Subway Series was over, and the Yankees had won, I felt like I'd never live it down.  I was a lone Mets fan in a sea of Yankee fans, and I wouldn't hear the end of it from those around me.  My only reprieve was that summer vacation was starting at the end of the next week, and I would only hear about it from my neighbors and brother.

The Yankees finished the season with a 96-66 win/loss record.  They entered the playoffs via the Wild Card but lost the Divisional Series to the Cleveland Indians in five games.  

The Mets finished the season with a winning record of 88-74 but failed to make the playoffs.  

Brian Cashman, who at the time was assistant GM for the Yankees, perfectly summed up the intensity of the rivalry in an interview some years later.  "When we played them, it was for all the marbles.  That was the height of the George Steinbrenner era... Bottom line was, you could not lose to them.  You'd lose the city.  It was about making sure we kept them down."  

Todd Hundley, catcher for the Mets, said, "When the first game started, every single pitch, it was cheering or booing.  Every single pitch.  You’re thinking, ‘Maybe this will last a couple of innings.’ It went the whole series.”

Even Bobby Valentine knew it was bigger than just a baseball game.  "Nothing was more explosive than talk radio and sports - there was nothing bigger than that series at that time.  This was right in Mike and the Mad Dog's sweet spot.  Dueling newspapers, dueling radio programs, those beginnings says of the subway series had been timed perfectly."

The following year, the Subway Series games were played at Shea Stadium.  The Yankees easily won the first two games, and the Mets eked out a victory in game three to avoid the sweep.  It was still a hot topic, and I was still interested in the sport, but there was definitely much less city-wide enthusiasm.  The novelty had worn off a bit, and it wasn't as all-encompassing as that first time.  

The zest and zeal for that first series from the fans will never be replicated, but it will live on in our memories as something special.  It came close a few years later, though, when the two teams met in the ultimate Subway Series - the World Series in 2000.   

Of course, as history tells us, the Yankees defeated the Mest four games to one, celebrating their 26th championship in front of the Mets faithful at Shea.  While exciting because of the championship stakes, this series lacked some of the appeal of the first meeting in 1997.  It's hard to put a finger on it.  I guess it's the old "been there, done that" mentality.  I honestly don't think it was just me, I think the city felt it too.

For the World Series, New York decorated some of the trains that ran on the 7 line (the line that stopped at Shea) with blue and orange, featuring the Mets style of the "NY" logo.  Similarly, for the 4 line (which stopped at the old Yankee Stadium), the city decked out some cars in white with blue pinstripes, adorned with the Yankees "NY" logo.  After the game, the city offered free subway rides home for people with tickets to the game.

Something worth mentioning occurred during that year's World Series that you may remember, too.  

Earlier in the regular season, on July 8, 2000, the Yankees would beat the Mets by 4-2 scores in both games of an unusual day-night doubleheader.  The first game was played in Queens at Shea Stadium, and the night game was held in the Bronx at Yankee Stadium.  It was the first time since 1903 that two teams played two games in different stadiums on the same day.  

However, in the second game of that doubleheader, Roger Clemens hit Mets star catcher Mike Piazza in the head with a high inside fastball, causing Piazza to suffer a concussion and placing him on the disabled list.  

When the teams met in the World Series later that year, Game 1 went into extra innings and turned into what was then the longest World Series game of all time, going 12 innings and just under 5 hours.  The Yankees would win, thanks to a walk-off hit from former Met player Jose Vizcaino.  

In Game 2, Clemens again created a moment that will likely be remembered far longer than any other part of the series.  Mike Piazza shattered his bat, hitting a foul ball off Clemens.  When one of the broken pieces hurtled toward the mound, Clemens grabbed it and threw it directly at Piazza, who had been taking steps down the baseline.   The incident caused both benches to clear and a lengthy delay in the game.  Tensions between teams (and fans) climbed even higher after this incident.  The Yankees would go on to win the game 6-5. 

At the time, it certainly seemed that Clemens had it out for Piazza.  The best I could figure is that Piazza had a batting average of .400, 4 home runs, and 10 RBIs (runs batted in) against Clemens that season, including a Grand Slam just a month before the head-hunting pitch.  That, or Clemens (as was often reported), is just a jerk. 

The Mets would come back and win Game 3, breaking the Yank's fourteen-game winning streak in World Series games that went back to 1996.  They also had the honor of breaking "El Duque" Orlando Hernandez's undefeated postseason record at 6 games.  

Unfortunately, (for me) in Game 4, Derek Jeter hit a home run off the first pitch, shifting the momentum away from the Mets.  They would never regain it.  The Yankees won the series in Game 5 at Shea Stadium.  Clemens said years later that he considered winning the World Series in Shea a sort of revenge, having lost the series in Shea while pitching for the Red Sox in 1986.  He was additionally happy that members of the 1986 Mets team were in attendance, having thrown out the ceremonial first pitch to watch him win.  

To point out how little drama and excitement the 2000 series created compared to the 1997 one, the World Series averaged a 21 share and 12.4 million viewers, the worst in World Series history to that time.  For the Mets, the 12.4 rating was less than half of the 1986 World Series against Boston, which drew a 55 share and 38.9 rating.  

As the excitement of the original Subway Series faded away, the fans began to focus on the rest of the 1997 season.  The fact that this first Subway Series is remembered so well is a testament to the deep-seated rivalry between the Mets and the Yankees and the rabid enthusiasm their fans all share.  The entire tri-state area buzzed with excitement that June as the age-old battle of the boroughs reignited passion out of fans (and even non-fans) from all walks of life.  The nostalgia of old-timey baseball, teams with rich histories, and their very vocal, excited fanbases created an atmosphere that will forever be etched in my memory and those who witnessed this first Subway Series.