“It was really crazy. You just come up there thinking, ‘Man, this is not gonna happen again.'”
– Robin Ventura, 05/20/1999
When Robin Ventura was at his absolute peak, he was an all-around threat. At third base, he could rob extra base hits left and right, and then demolish a bad pitch in the other half of an inning for a back-breaking home run. It doesn’t seem too long ago that Ventura manned the hot corner in Queens, but the man currently at the helm of the surprising first place Chicago White Sox has been on the job there for five years now.
Nonetheless, Ventura will always be fondly remembered by Mets diehards. When then-GM Steve Phillips inked Ventura to a four-year, $32 million deal after the 1998 season, it became one of the top signings in franchise history. Ventura bumped Edgardo Alfonzo over to second base, where they combined with shortstop Rey Ordonez and first baseman John Olerud to give the Mets perhaps the “best infield ever,” as suggested by Sports Illustrated.
Ventura was a gem at third base, but it was at bat where he made his hay. Specifically, Ventura shined the most when the bases were loaded. During his decade with the White Sox before joining the Mets, Ventura became a South Side favorite, and not just because he had the gumption to challenge Nolan Ryan. The lefty swinger was a monster with the “sacks packed with Sox,” launching 10 grand slams in Chicago, including two in one game on September 4, 1995.
The third baseman ended his career with 18 grand slams, one of only six players to accomplish that feat. The other five were Hall-of-Fame-caliber talents: Lou Gehrig, Willie McCovey, Eddie Murray, Manny Ramirez, and Alex Rodriguez. Ventura was just a pretty good player who happened to carve his niche with grand slams, and fans loved him for that.
Today happens to be the 17th anniversary of Ventura’s official entrance into Mets lore for his grand slam exploits. Sure, it was a later October when he had his most iconic-bases loaded at-bat, but it was on May 20, 1999 at Shea Stadium when he nearly duplicated that seemingly unmatchable feat from September of ’95.
The Mets played a “twi-night doubleheader” against the Milwaukee Brewers on May 20th to make up a rainout from the previous day. The 31-year-old Ventura was off to a .264/.319/.465 triple slash to go along with six home runs in 39 games. It was a decent .784 OPS start, but nothing all that remarkable since the majority of qualifying NL starters in ’99 ended up with an OPS of at least .800. In comparison, just 19 NL starters had an OPS over .800 last year. Ah, the nineties.
The doubleheader kicked off with the steady Al Leiter taking the mound against the inspirational Jim Abbott. After a scoreless first inning from Leiter, Abbott got the first two outs in the bottom half before his control abandoned him. He walked Olerud, gave up a base hit to Mike Piazza on a 2-0 count, and walked Alfonzo on four pitches. That set the stage for Ventura, who worked Abbott to a full count before doing what he did best. He crushed a grand slam down the right field line over Jeromy Burnitz’s outstretched glove for the 11th slam of his career and first as a Met. A high-scoring back-and-forth affair eventually ended in dramatic fashion with the Brewers’ potential tying run thrown out at the plate. The Mets won, 11-10.
Since the next game took place almost immediately after the opener, the Mets barely had any time to prepare for the nightcap. Just 36 minutes after Piazza tagged Alex Ochoa out to end the opener, the first pitch came in at 8:47 PM from Mets starter Masato Yoshii to begin the second game. Unlike Leiter, Yoshii threw eggs up on the scoreboard, giving Brewers batters a real licking by holding them to one run over seven innings.
The story of Yoshii’s outing definitely had Milwaukee’s Steve Woodard seeing green. He was shelled for eight hits, two walks, and five runs over just 3.7 innings of work. His line wasn’t even complete when he departed, as he forced manager Phil Garner to turn to lefty Horacio Estrada with the bases loaded. Unfortunately for Garner, the man Estrada was due to face had already hit one grand slam that day. It didn’t matter that Estrada had the platoon advantage. For the second time that day, Ventura waited out a 3-2 count against a Brewers pitcher before clobbering a bad pitch for a grand slam over the right field wall.
At Shea, the crowd went berserk. Mets skipper Bobby Valentine had said to bench coach Bruce Benedict during Ventura’s first at bat of the day, “It’s the year of the grand slam; how about us getting one?” Now, he had two from Ventura alone.
Ventura became the first person in baseball history to ever hit a grand slam in both ends of a doubleheader. After the 10-1 beatdown and doubleheader sweep, he admitted that it was fluky feat simply because those situations don’t come by every day, but it was still a tremendous moment. It also might have helped propel Ventura to even greater heights, as from the next day onward, he hit .311/.398/.535 with 24 homers in 120 games, a substantial improvement that led to him earning a sixth place finish in NL MVP voting. The Mets won the Wild Card and made their first playoff appearance in 11 years, snapping the second-longest drought in franchise history.
On August 13th against Livan Hernandez and the Giants, Ventura tied a Mets record with his third grand slam of the season, a mark he still shares. He hit two more grand slams over his last two years in Queens, but the most memorable one he hit did not technically even count as grand slam:
However, that’s a slammin’ story for another day. Ventura was a clear fan favorite, and there were few better days for Ventura and the Flushing faithful than 17 years ago today.
Photo Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports