SAN DIEGO — Twenty years later, Bobby Jones says, it’s the little things he cherishes most.
The Mets had just outlasted the Giants, 3-2, in National League Division Series Game 3 at Shea Stadium, courtesy of Benny Agbayani’s walk-off, 13th-inning homer against Aaron Fultz. Up two games to one in the best-of-five competition, the Mets could have started their ace Mike Hampton on three days’ rest to go for the clincher and avoid a trip back to San Francisco for a loser-goes-home Game 5.
Instead, manager Bobby Valentine tabbed his veteran Jones, who had experienced a rather turbulent 2000 season, for Game 4. The Mets instructed Hampton to fly out west so he would be fully rested for that Game 5 at Pac Bell Park.
“Mike said, ‘Oh, no,’” Jones recalled in a recent telephone interview. “No, I’m staying to celebrate.”
Did the Mets ever celebrate. Did Jones ever reward his manager’s faith. He simply provided the Mets, pitching-rich throughout their 59 seasons of existence, with the best-pitched postseason game in their history. The one-hit, two-walk gem, a 4-0 Mets clinching victory en route to their Subway World Series matchup with the Yankees, remains so as it turns 20 on Thursday. Most amazing? Jones threw eight 1-2-3 innings; all the (contained) damage occurred in the fifth inning. That’s when former Met Jeff Kent broke the no-hitter attempt with a leadoff double — “Who knows? If the ball is three inches lower, maybe (Robin) Ventura catches it,” Jones said — yet couldn’t score.
“Things happen for a reason,” Jones said. “What was great about it for me is I was so bad early in the year, I got asked to go down (to the minor leagues).”
As an eighth-year veteran, Jones could have scoffed at the Mets’ offer to be demoted after a 16.20 ERA in his first three starts of the season, totaling just 6 ⅔ innings. Oliver Perez in 2010 and Matt Harvey in 2017 both declined similar offers, as was their right.
“It wasn’t a difficult decision. It was just one of those things tough to swallow,” Jones said. “I knew I had to do it. I was hurting the team.”
The right-hander made four starts for Triple-A Norfolk, and the time away worked. He closed out the regular season posting an 11-5 record and 4.56 ERA in 24 starts totaling 148 innings, and if that ERA sounds high, keep in mind that the baseball-wide ERA that season was 4.76. (Keep this on the down low, but I suspect some guys were using illegal performance-enhancing drugs at the time.)
That propelled Jones into a good place for that postseason, which convinced Jones’ fellow Bobby to show faith in him and Hampton to pass on what would’ve been a superfluous trip across the country.
“Knowing I helped the team so much after hurting them early in the season (was great),” Jones said.
The only bittersweet component of this anniversary is that Jones’ fellow Fresno High School product Tom Seaver didn’t quite make it. The man Mets fans nicknamed “The Franchise” died on August 31.
“Obviously Tom, around the Fresno area was the name. He was the guy,” Jones said. “He was the one everyone turned on their TVs to watch. He had a terrific family. A lot of my older friends were friends with Tom’s parents. I heard about how great a golfer Tom’s dad was.”
The two men met for the first time in 1992 — not in Fresno or Flushing, but rather in Cooperstown. As the Baseball Hall of Fame welcomed Seaver to its club, Jones, a Mets minor leaguer, started the then-annual Hall of Fame Game for the Mets at Doubleday Field, no coincidence. They subsequently built a real friendship, knowing their shared roots, as Seaver would usually pop into Mets spring training for a visit and became a Mets broadcaster in 1999.
“Just to sit and talk baseball with him, hear that great laugh he had, was so great,” Jones said of Seaver. “It was a sad day for baseball (when he passed).”
Jones later followed Seaver’s lead in a post-pitching passion, winemaking, and he’s now working with a friend on a barbecue sauce, 142 BBQ, scheduled to be available shortly. During the shutdown earlier this year, his gem received plenty of air time from sports networks looking for content, and Jones in turn was flooded by friends’ text messages.
“I got to relive much of it,” said Jones, who pitched just once more as a Met (the World Series Game 4 loss to the Yankees) before ending his career with the Padres. It stands the test of two decades as one of the Mets’ most relivable days at the ballpark.
This week’s Pop Quiz question came from Jim Balbirer of New Canaan, Conn.: Footage of a current major-league manager, from his playing days, can be seen in the 1983 film “The Star Chamber.” Name the manager.
Saturday marked my first time on a plane since March 17, when I flew back to New York from spring training in Tampa. During my flight out west, I finished the book “In Pursuit of Pennants” by Mark L. Armour and Daniel R. Levitt. It’s a thoughtful accounting of how baseball operations have evolved over the decades. If I were Andrew Marchand’s dad, I’d give it 4.2 out of 5 Clickers.
Your Pop Quiz answer is Dusty Baker.
If you have a tidbit that connects baseball to popular culture, please send it to me at [email protected]
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