Amid the mist, Mets and Braves craft a hardball legend

Game 6 of the series is tonight, but baseball fans are still buzzing

Every now and then, when baseball diehards talk about some of the game's greatest moments, someone leans back, puts his hands behind his head, and says, "I was there."

Occasionally, it's actually true.

And for me - as well as the thousands of other fans who stayed at Shea Stadium for all of Sunday's 15-inning thriller between the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves - there was a feeling of being a part of history.

While eyes should be turning to tonight's game in Atlanta, the talk of the town is still the Mets' victory. Indeed, even in a sport where today's heroes are only begrudgingly compared to the titans of yesteryear, this game will be long praised by all who saw it. From its winning grand-slam-turned-single to its Michener-esque length and improbable story line, it's a case study in the making of hardball mythology.

A steady drizzle fell on Shea for the last 11 innings, and it might as well have been the soggy battlefield of Agincourt in Shakespeare's "Henry V." Before the bottom of the ninth, the scoreboard television played Gene Hackman's emotional speech from the movie "Hoosiers," as if it were some St. Crispin's Day speech to rouse the team and the crowd to victory.

We few, we happy few of the sellout crowd of some 55,000 (most of whom stayed for the entire contest), discovered some of the reasons that, more than any other sport, baseball is a game of lore.

It is not bound by time limits - as this game's 5 hours and 46 minutes can attest. And as former Mets manager Yogi Berra once said, "It ain't over till it's over." (Never mind that he was also the hall-of-famer catcher for the Yankees.)

Already, people are making comparisons to a game 40 years ago, when Harvey Haddix of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitched what may have been the greatest game in baseball history. He hurled 12 perfect innings against the Milwaukee Braves, then lost when the Braves' Joe Adcock hit a three-run homer in the 13th.

But because Adcock passed the runner in front of him during his home-run trot, the league later ruled his hit a single. The score was changed to 1-0.

The same kind of myth-making confusion surrounded Met third baseman Robin Ventura's apparent grand slam in the 15th inning.

Many fans didn't see the ball clear the fence, but a long fly ball was all that was needed to win the game and send the series back to Atlanta. So when Ventura's line drive flew out toward the right-field wall, the stadium immediately erupted into a frenzy that seemed more like a soccer match in Buenos Aires.

Two runners crossed the plate before Mets players mobbed Ventura near second base. At first, scoreboards read 7-3, assuming that Ventura would get credit for the home run even if he didn't touch the plate.

Not so. Like Adcock's home run, Ventura's slam was eventually ruled a single. Final score: Mets 4, Braves 3.

Perhaps, it's the unexpected that sets baseball apart, and creates the kind of frenzy and confusion that gives rise to such lore. And the Mets season has been filled with improbable scenarios. After being declared all but finished by the Braves' Chipper Jones the last week of the season, the Mets were able to make the playoffs by defeating the Cincinnati Reds in a one-game playoff in Cincinnati.

And then there was back-up catcher Todd Pratt's series-winning home run in the bottom of the ninth against the Arizona Diamondbacks in the first round of the playoffs. A few years ago, Pratt was out of baseball, managing a Dominoes Pizza store.

Yet for all these story lines, the most remarkable one may be yet to come.

So far, the Mets have scratched back to win two games after dropping the first three of the best-of-seven series. No team has ever won a seven-game series after being down three games to none.

Someday, a team is going to do it, says Bobby Valentine, the Mets' quirky manager.

Could this finally be the team? Could it be the one that is recalled fondly by diehards for years to come? And to paraphrase the Bard, will gentlemen and women, now a-bed, think themselves accurs'd they were not here, when Ventura's slam became a single?

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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