I t’s a brilliant September Sunday morning at Yankee Stadium. Anyone with a sense of the fleeting nature of happiness would savor sitting in the dugout for a moment and gazing out across the Elysium of left field toward Monument Park. While Joe Torre poses for pictures with VIPs behind home plate, Alex Rodriguez pauses for a moment at the top of the steps, tugs his cap, and heads out for a game of catch. He is welcomed with a shout from the stands: “A-Rod, you suck!” This, mind you, is before Rodriguez was thrown under the bus in Sports Illustrated by alleged steroid abuser–cum–clubhouse leader Jason Giambi and other teammates for crimes and misdemeanors ranging from not getting big hits to perhaps being afraid of the ball. The fan’s bellow is so loud, so foul, that even Rodriguez, a man who misplaced his smile somewhere around the All-Star break, can’t repress a laugh.
The Minnesota Twins are in town, fighting for a playoff spot, and with their starting pitching, they can be a tough opponent. But today it isn’t the Twins’ young stars Johan Santana or Francisco Liriano on the mound, just Matt Garza, a hapless rookie with a career win total of one. The Yankees roll him for five runs on the way to a 10-1 victory. For the second time in three days, A-Rod hits two home runs, making it five in four games. With an urging from Torre, he steps out of the dugout and waves his helmet in what may go down as the game’s most half-hearted curtain call.
The Yankees are in first place, having all but clinched their ninth consecutive division title weeks earlier with a five-game sweep of the hated Red Sox (they officially won the division last Wednesday), and their $22 million-a-year superstar has just broken out of a career-worst cold streak in dramatic fashion. Still, the Yankee locker room feels about as joyful as the visitors’ lounge at Rikers.
Rodriguez, dressed senatorially in a crisp monogrammed white shirt and a blue silk rep tie, turns his green eyes toward the cameras and speaks in Hemingway-esque sentences. Is he relieved to be out of his weeks-long slump? “Everybody’s been more panicked than I have.” Did anyone help you out during your slide? “Joe Torre.” The reporters perk up: What did he tell you? “I can’t share that.” A-Rod stares down the mute scribes. “That it? Thanks, guys.” He turns, straightens his tie, and vanishes back into the catacombs of Yankee Stadium.
Now it’s four days later, in Queens. It’s 90 minutes before game time, and a smattering of Mets watch Twister on a big-screen TV. At his locker, 23-year-old phenom Jose Reyes is flipping through a Mercedes catalogue along with teammate Julio Franco. Franco, the 48-year-old first-baseman who has been playing professional baseball five years longer than Reyes has been alive, suggests a lower-price model, but the shortstop wants top-of-the-line. Teammate Cliff Floyd hobbles in on his surgically repaired knees, and Reyes babbles in broken English that he wants the Mercedes that retails at $200,000. “Man, you can’t afford that yet,” says Floyd. He gives Reyes a brotherly tap on the arm. “Unless we win the World Series. Then you can buy it.”
A couple of hours later, 48,583 fans at fabulously tacky Shea have been entertained by jittery commuter planes, polka dancers, and the team Omar Minaya has built. With the Mets up 4-0, Reyes steps into the box against the Dodgers’ Brad Penny with two runners on. On a 2-1 pitch, Reyes rips a liner to deep center that L.A. center-fielder Matt Kemp tracks like a Delta 737 in some demented holding pattern over La Guardia. The ball bounces off the outfield wall just before Kemp does the same. As Kemp collects his wits and left-fielder Andre Ethier gets the ball, Reyes hits second and kicks into Carl Lewis gear. Third-base coach Manny Acta is a blur as Reyes burns toward home. The Dodgers are slow on the relay, and a teammate gives Reyes the stand-up sign. No chance. Reyes dives head-first across home plate like a 9-year-old gliding across a Slip ’N Slide. Manager Willie Randolph breaks into a rare dugout smile. The play, which has the crowd going bonkers, will be viewed by millions on SportsCenter and YouTube before the sun rises.
But forget that. The great thing happens in the next inning. On a routine pop fly, Reyes drifts into left field, punches his glove, and … drops the ball. There’s a moment of silence, and then the oddest noise rises. Cheers. New York fans are giving Jose Reyes a Special Olympics “Hang in there, buddy” round of applause! This has never happened in the history of New York City. After the game, rap and salsa blast through the Mets’ locker room as Reyes answers questions about his first inside-the-park home run. “That was fun,” says Reyes. The Mercedes seems a little more obtainable.