Just as he did an hour earlier, New York Mets pitcher Dave Mlicki walked from the team’s dugout to the pitchers mound at Yankee Stadium. It was the same understated stroll he made to and from the dugout during the game only now the Stadium was quiet, empty and dark. It was eerily cool for a mid-June night. The heat --- along with the cheering, jeering and chanting -- left in the shadow of 56,188 New Yorkers.
Now it was just Mlicki and the mound. No blue and orange cap, no spikes, no glove or uniform, just Mlicki in street clothes carrying a plastic cup. He quietly reached down with his pitching arm, scooped up a handful of dirt from the mound and walked away.
Sixty minutes earlier, Mlicki’s face was captured close-up by ESPN cameramen just before he delivered his 119th and final pitch on his first major league complete game, a 6-0 shutout win over the storied New York Yankees.
If witnessed, his post-game walk would’ve resembled an opening scene of some big budget baseball movie, complete with all the Hollywood clichés. But this was real. It’s a true story, despite the surreal feelings Mlicki was experiencing.
Mlicki became the inspirational backstory to the Subway Series, the first-ever interleague meeting between two New York teams and the first time in 40 years since September 8, 1957 that two teams from the Big Apple (New York Giants beat Brooklyn Dodgers at the Polo Grounds) played a regular season game.
FROM OBSCURITY TO BASEBALL'S BIGGEST STAGE
Dave Mlicki stepped off the team bus and walked past the screaming fans into the Mets clubhouse at Yankee Stadium – uninterrupted. No one asked for an autograph, no well-wishers and no taunts from the Bronx faithful.
He thought to himself, ''They don't know me.'' Four-and-one-half years of major league service, the last two-and-one-half playing in New York for the Mets, and no one, not a single baseball fan had any idea the man with the duffle bag walking by them was the game’s starting pitcher.
To fans, Mlicki was Average Joe. He was no different than a member of the road crew, your supermarket checkout person or your next door neighbor. Humble and described by the New York media as “understated,” Mlicki’s ego was not bruised by the lack of attention. In fact, he told the New York Times, ''I'm very lucky to be doing this.”
That was an understatement. Pitchers of Mlicki’s ilk have been crushed by the pressure of performing in New York. He was on the brink of suffering the same fate. Mlicki’s record was 2-5. His ERA was 4.70. In his previous start, Mlicki lasted five innings, allowing five runs and 11 hits in a 10-6 win over the Cubs. He had won only two of his previous 13 starts.
Still, under pressure from the fans and the media, Mets manager Bobby Valentine supported Mlicki. As first pitch neared, Valentine offered only one piece of advice to his starting pitcher: ''Try to enjoy yourself.”
Not, win or watch out for this guy, but enjoy yourself.
'I HOPE YOU ENJOYED IT'
The Mets jumped on Yankees starter Andy Pettitte for three runs in the first inning. ''I think maybe a couple of people changed hats after the first inning,” Yankee second baseman Pat Kelly told the media after.
Then it was Mlicki’s turn. After a lead-off single by Derek Jeter, Mlicki retired Kelly on a ground ball, then struck out Paul O’Neill and Cecil Fielder and a roar went up as the Yankees went down – quietly – in the first inning.
''When there was a strike three, they'd roar like we were at Shea ... never a New York crowd like this,” said Mets reliever John Franco.
Mlicki baffled the Yankees inning after inning, piling up zeroes and pitching out of tight spots. The Mets tacked on two runs in the seventh and another in the eighth to take a 6-0 lead as Annie Herbst, Mlicki’s wife, watched her husband retire the pinstripes.
Kelly and O’Neill delivered back-to-back singles with one out in the eighth. With the pitch count mounting, Mlicki’s wife watched as Greg McMichael began warming up in the Mets bullpen. But, again, Mlicki wiggled out of the jam.
''It's New York; you're going to have fans from both sides,” Joe Girardi, Yankee catcher now manager, told the New York Times after the game. “That's what makes this great. There was a lot of electricity. Unfortunately, none of it was on our side.''
The Yankees loaded the bases in the ninth inning with two outs and Valentine never budged. This was Mlicki’s game. He needed one more out – or he would be out of the game.
Mlicki finished off the Yankees, striking out Jeter looking. The book was closed: 9 innings, no runs, nine hits, eight strikeouts, two walks, 119 pitches and 11 Yankees left on base. Hundley trotted to the mound, tossed Mlicki the ball, shook his hand and said, ''You earned it.”
Valentine greeted Mlicki on the way to the dugout.
''I hope you enjoyed it,'' asked the Mets manager.
GEORGE SET THE TONE
The New York Times referred to the Subway Series as “George Steinbrenner's personal World Series.”
He hated losing to the Mets. It didn’t matter if it were an exhibition or a regular season game said former Yankee and Met player, coach and manager Willie Randolph.
''We played the Mayor's Trophy game … [and] Steinbrenner got involved and tried to make it very serious, like we had to win,” said Randolph. “It was do or die. I remember feeling the pressure about winning: this is a big game. We're playing the Mets.''
Don Zimmer said Steinbrenner was “adamant” about beating the Mets – during spring training. It was “well documented that these games are important to our owner,” added David Cone, then with the Yankees. “They should be. It's for the bragging rights of New York City.''
This was a new experience for Torre, who only heard the stories about George.
''As a manager, my responsibility is to beat whoever I play.” Torre told the media. “You can't start getting emotionally involved. Then something is getting in there that shouldn't be in there. If all of a sudden you want to beat the Mets more than Cleveland, why don't you want to beat Cleveland? That's unfair to the players.''
THE MORNING AFTER
The next morning Mlicki and his wife walked to a local diner in New York. As they ate breakfast, New Yorkers at the next table ordered their coffee and eggs, read the back pages of the morning newspaper and talked about the game.
Mlicki appeared impervious.
''Dave, are you more excited than you're letting on? You don't seem to be reacting to this,'' Annie asked.
Mlicki smiled and no one noticed.