After a rough stretch in the early 1990s, the 1996 season was a transitional season for the New York Mets. The team finished with a dreadful 71-91 record, good for fourth-place in the NL East, but gave fans a foreshadowing of the success which followed in the later part of the decade.
Generation K was supposed to be the cornerstone of that success. Bill Pulsipher and Jason Isringhausen both reached the major leagues in 1995, but Tommy John surgery at the end of spring training in ‘96 derailed Pulsipher’s season and career. Isringhausen and Paul Wilson each had their first full MLB seasons and underwhelmed.
New York’s offense was a different story. The Mets got career years from Todd Hundley, Bernard Gilkey and Lance Johnson, and Rey Ordonez proved to be a defensive whiz in his rookie season. Edgardo Alfonzo and Carl Everett didn’t play like the All-Stars they would eventually turn into, and GM Joe McIlvaine probably wishes he could hit the reset button on the Carlos Baerga for Jeff Kent trade he swung in July.
The Mets never got themselves in serious contention in ’96, but a five-game winning streak at the end of July pushed the team to 52-56 heading into the final two months of the season. They went 1-5 in their first six games in August, and were still clinging to the hope for a winning season in the middle of the month. Then they went south of the border and things took a turn.
As much as one would like to think this series was a good-will mission from Major League Baseball to Mexico, that was only a side benefit of the trip. Strangely enough, the Republican Party set the wheels in motion for this historic series.
When the 1996 MLB regular season schedule was announced, the Padres were supposed to host the Mets in a three-game series at Jack Murphy Stadium from August 16-18. Then, a problem arose. First, the Republican National Convention was to be held in San Diego from August 12-15, and Jack Murphy Stadium was in the running to host the festivities. By the time the GOP settled on the San Diego Convention Center as its venue, Padres President Larry Lucchino had made plans to play in Mexico.
Lucchino joined the Padres management team after a successful stint with the Baltimore Orioles, where he was responsible for the vision and conception of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. He brought several fan-friendly innovations to the Padres – planting palm trees beyond the outfield fence, becoming the first team to display pitch speed in the ballpark, and making players incredibly accessible to fans. Playing games in Mexico was another tremendous concept by Lucchino, owner John Moores, and their staff.
“What began as a scheduling problem evolved into a real opportunity for us to break new ground for Major League Baseball,” said Lucchino. “Monterrey is a great sports city, our first choice to host these landmark games.”
Home to the Sultanes de Monterrey of the Mexican League since 1990 the Estadio de Beisbol Monterrey holds over 26,000 fans, making it the largest baseball stadium in Mexico. The outfield dimensions are intimate, just 325 feet down the lines and 405 to center and inviting power alleys in left and right center. The Mets and Padres sold out all three games that weekend.
“At first we were a bit apprehensive,” Mets Manager Dallas Green said. “But everything has been great so far. We’ve tried to view this as just another road trip. But this is a historic event and we’re pleased to be a part of it.” In the mire of a very mediocre season, being part of this groundbreaking series was a highlight.
The Padres season was anything but mediocre heading into that weekend. Led by Tony Gwynn, Ken Caminiti and the newly-acquired Greg Vaughn, the San Diego was making a run for its first playoff appearance since 1984. They needed a strong push over the final month and a half to get past the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West. They found exactly that jolt in Monterrey.
Friday, August 16, 1996 – San Diego 15, Mets 10
“Mets are first major league team to lose in Mexico” declared the headline in the New York Times, recapping the wild game which was filled with enthusiastic fans and a six-piece mariachi band entertaining the crowd in between innngs.
The Padres aligned their rotation so that 35-year-old Fernando Valenzuela got the start in the series opener. “El Toro” was also honored with a standing ovation from his national crowd, and threw out the ceremonial first pitch. Robert Person took the ball for the Mets. San Diego took a 2-0 lead in the first inning on a Steve Finley home run, and built a 15-0 lead by the end of the sixth inning on the strength of four long balls. The Mets rallied for three runs against Valenzuela and reliever Dustin Hermanson in the top of the seventh.
The game got wild in the top of the ninth. Edgardo Alfonzo led off with a double against Hermanson, then Rey Ordonez walked. A double from Chris Jones plated Alfonzo and touched off a stretch where the Mets scored runs on four straight plays (two groundouts and an Andy Tomberlin home run) to cut the deficit to 15-7. A passed ball and a throwing error plated two more runs for the Mets against Sean Bergman, and Alfonzo singled home Alex Ochoa to run the score to 15-10. With the tying run still in the hole, San Diego’s third pitcher of the inning, Dario Veras, got Jones to line out to deep right to end the game.
Saturday, August 17, 1996 – Mets 7, San Diego 3
It was the Mets’ turn to build an early lead. Alfonzo put the Mets up 1-0 with an RBI single against San Diego’s Tim Worrell in the second and the team never looked back. They plated four more runs in the bottom of the third, and after the Friars cut the lead to 5-3, tacked on two insurance runs in the top of the ninth to seal the win. Mark Clark was good enough on the mound for New York, allowing three runs (one earned) on nine hits in 5.2 innings. Dave Mlicki and Doug Henry combined for 3.1 innings of scoreless relief. Gilkey and Hundley each had two hits and scored two runs, and six different players had at least one RBI for the team.
Sunday, August 18, 1996 – San Diego 8, Mets 0
The Sunday afternoon rubber game lives on as one of the most legendary games in the history of the San Diego Padres organization, known simply as “The Snickers Game.” Ken Caminiti was already playing the entire 1996 season with a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder, and was battling a severe case of food poisoning on this morning. He didn’t sleep a wink the night before and struggled to make the team bus to the ballpark. Padres hitting coach Merv Rettenmund remembers simply: “He looked like death.”
Padres trainers had him lay down in Bruce Bochy’s office and hooked him up to an IV bag suspended on a coat hanger on the ceiling. Less than 10 minutes before first pitch, Caminiti took the IV out of his arm and was ready to go. As he warmed up, he asked a trainer to go to the clubhouse and get him a Snickers bar. He ate two of them after the first inning, and led off the bottom of the second against Paul Wilson.
He swung and homered to left-center. 1-0 Padres. He batted again with two on in the third inning. Home run, 4-0 Padres. Caminiti batted one more time, striking out in the fifth before he was removed from the game and returned to the clubhouse where he was hooked back up to the IV. Members of the ’96 Padres still light up when talking about this game, and universally declare it to be the most impressive thing they’ve ever seen.
“You had to see it to believe it,” Tony Gwynn said. “It was a superhuman effort.”
Wilson’s troubles, however, were far from over. He surrendered a home run to opposing pitcher Joey Hamilton and allowed six runs in 6.0 innings. San Diego tacked on two more against reliever Paul Byrd en route to the series win.
National League President Leonard Coleman said the series was “a significant step in the international growth of baseball.” After three straight sell-out crowds, MLB has returned to Monterrey several times, most recently in 2019. In the last two and a half decades, baseball has made a conscious effort to play more games outside the continental US and Canada.
Regular season games have been played in Japan, Australia, England and Puerto Rico, and baseball has played games in non-traditional US markets like Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Cooperstown, New York; Williamsport, Pennsylvania; Nebraska and Hawai’i. In 2021, MLB will stage a game featuring the Chicago Cubs in an Iowa cornfield. As controversial as some of MLB’s decisions have been, its attempts to grow the game internationally are commendable.
Beginning with the Snickers Game, Caminiti hit .399/.485/.833 with 16 home runs for the remainder of the season and was unanimously chosen as the NL MVP after the Padres won the NL West. He signed an endorsement deal with the candy company and the San Diego’s rallying cry for the rest of the season was. “Get me an IV and a Snickers!” He led the Padres to the NL West title, which was won in dramatic fashion by sweeping the Los Angeles Dodgers at Chavez Ravine in the final series of the season.
The historic series marked the beginning of the Mets freefall in 1996. The team went just 1-9 in their next 10 games and fired Green on August 26 after returning home from the west coast swing that also saw the Mets play in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Bright spots down the stretch were watching Hundley and Johnson set single-season team records in home runs and hits, respectively, and watching a young core develop.
The Mets hired Bobby Valentine to replace Green as manager and also committed to a youth movement for the rest of the season. The team sputtered through an 11-15 September, but the experience gained down the stretch in ’96 set the stage for a much-improved 88-win team in 1997. With some tweaks to the roster, New York was ready for a runs in 1999 and 2000.
Joe Vasile is a play-by-play broadcaster for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders and Bucknell University, and the host of Secondary Lead, an upcoming baseball history podcast.
 The Houston Astros hosted the 1992 Republican National Convention at the Astrodome, which resulted in a record-setting 26-game road trip for the team. Coincidentally, Ken Caminiti, Steve Finley and Willie Blair were all members of both the ’92 Astros and ’96 Padres.