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.
The leaves have turned, the Fashion Week waifs have vanished, and the subway reeks a little less of summer rot. It’s almost October, and our fair metropolis finds the Mets and Yankees with the best records in baseball, each team the first in its league to sew up its division. Suddenly, a second Subway Series seems less WFAN fantasy than Jimmy the Bookie’s smart play. Leaving aside the detail of whether either team will make it to the World Series in the first place, there are multiple factors for baseball obsessives to weigh as they contemplate the Question of Questions: Who’s gonna win? There’s Pedro’s calf, Rivera’s forearm, A-Rod’s mental state, and the Mets’ disadvantage in playoff experience. All could matter. Still, look at the two teams carefully, and you begin to wonder if maybe it will come down to something other than home runs, RBI, and ERA. Maybe it will come down to what Jose Reyes mentioned—fun.
Fun? That’s not a word we’ve heard associated with baseball in this town since, well, the ’69 Mets (the ’86 Mets were too arrogant to be fun). Does fun matter? Can joy really lead a team to a world championship? He won’t say it, but even sourpuss A-Rod might answer yes. On a shelf in his locker, there’s a copy of Awakening the Buddha Within, a book written by Lama Surya Das, formerly one Jeffrey Miller of Long Island. In the book, Das writes about the four divine abodes that all good Buddhists should aspire to reach: loving-kindness, compassion and empathy (A-Rod haters, take note), peace of mind, and yes, joy and rejoicing.
Das may have a point. On paper, the Yankees and Mets are virtual mirror images. Two elite teams playing in the same sports-mad city with massive payrolls, lethal lineups, and A-list (if geriatric) pitching. Their closers even enter the game to the same migraine-inducing heavy-metal tune, Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” Yet something simpler could determine who wins the series: which team can remember what it’s like to be 10 years old.
We’re back at Yankee Stadium, pregame. Hideki Matsui takes batting practice for the first time since breaking his wrist in May under the watchful eye of a Japanese media retinue that dwarfs the size of most teams’ entire press corps. General manager Brian Cashman accepts a plaque from some charity. In the dugout, Torre, easily the most popular public figure in New York, sips green tea, his pulse lodged in its usual single-digit zone. “I started to get a good feel about this club before we went to Boston,” says Torre, referring to the Red Sox sweep. “You just get a feeling in the dugout that a team is coming together.”
Matching Torre’s steadiness is Derek Jeter, calmly having an MVP season. Never too high or low, Jeter greets the news that he is about to pass Phil Rizzuto for most games played as a Yankees shortstop with a shrug and a small joke. “If I play today.”
Over at first base, Gary Sheffield takes throws in anticipation of perhaps playing there after returning from his own wrist injury that’s had him on the shelf since May. The move was made possible when Cashman outmaneuvered the Red Sox to acquire the All-Star Bobby Abreu from the Philadelphia Phillies in July to replace the All-Star Sheffield in right. “I’m going to be ready; I’m going to prove everyone wrong,” Sheffield tells me. Who constitutes “everyone” is always an open question with Sheffield, a man with a Louisville Slugger–size chip on his shoulder. Sheffield may not have played for months, but quote-wise, he’s in Hall of Fame form. A teammate mentions that a September call-up is taking injured pitcher Tanyon Sturtze’s locker and parking spot. Sheffield laughs and throws a verbal elbow. After multiple injuries and a mysterious Porsche accident that he kept secret for two weeks, pitcher Carl Pavano has fallen out of favor with his teammates, who question his commitment. “Give him Pavano’s locker,” Sheffield says. “He ain’t ever gonna use it.”
Torre and Jeter project an image of the team not so much as 25 guys who go to Chuck E. Cheese’s after the game, but more like a unified winning machine. The Sports Illustrated story suggests something more like a dysfunctional family. A-Rod, of course, is problem child No. 1. While the focus was on Rodriguez and his inherent strangeness—hosting a possible-trade meeting with the Red Sox at 1 A.M. in a suit and tie was a personal favorite—the subtext was darker: The Yankees fragged a teammate in a national magazine. It was like the scene in Full Metal Jacket when Matthew Modine and his pals beat the crap out of Vincent D’Onofrio on account of D’Onofrio’s boot camp screwups. And we all know how that turned out.
A-Rod’s main partner on the no-fun patrol is the Yankees’ alleged ace, Randy Johnson. Now 43, Johnson is well into the twilight of his career. But even in his salad days, Johnson was a paradox wrapped in a riddle tied up with a snarl. He’s still in the top ten in the American League in strikeouts, but his consistency has taken an early buyout, making him a jolie laide pitcher; dominant one moment, Hamburger Helper the next. Johnson’s ERA has hovered near five all season, and he’s been prone to sudden meltdowns that wipe out otherwise excellent performances. Fortysomething pitchers have scraped by with worse stuff, but Johnson’s response to the aging process hasn’t been to recalibrate expectations, wisely manage what he has left, and offer veteran leadership. Instead, he rages against the dying of the light, often while still on the mound. He stomps around, bitches at umpires, and periodically feuds with catcher Jorge Posada. In August against Detroit, Johnson looked like his old self, pitching eight innings of three-hit ball, only to give up two runs in the ninth and force Torre to go to an exhausted bullpen. Granted, asking a 43-year-old to pitch a complete game is a little much, but it wasn’t so much the flameout on the mound as the self-flagellation afterward. “I was disappointed about the ninth inning,” Johnson said after the game. When someone asked him if he could take something positive out of the first eight, he scowled and shrugged his shoulders. Then he turned toward his locker and muttered “Garbage.”
But not all is dross. This year, there are kinder, gentler Yankees. Both stat- and vibe-wise, Johnny Damon has been an unqualified success. His average has held fast near .300 all season, and he’s already set a career high in home runs. Plus, his Lost Boy demeanor has taken the stick partially out of the Yankees’ ass. Damon’s inability to communicate in Yankee-speak has brought actual enthusiasm to the clubhouse. When I asked Torre and Jeter about the potency of the Yankees’ lineup once Matsui and Sheffield returned, they both offered generic “We have to play with who we have” responses. Not Damon. “Wow, when we get them back, we’re going to have the best lineup,” Damon told me as he loaded bats for a road trip. “Ever.” He chattered on like a kid listing all his cool bar mitzvah presents. “And that’s going to give us the best bench. Ever.”
The Yankees’ Team Jerk Quotient has further been lowered by three relative newcomers: Left-fielder Melky Cabrera, second-baseman Robinson Cano, and pitcher Chien-Ming Wang. The blissfully unrefined Dominican duo of Cabrera and Cano have the unrestrained energy and perma-grins of kids who are still surprised they get $100 per diem. On a pitching staff where Johnson ($16 million a year) was supposed to be the star, Wang ($353,175) has emerged as the unlikely ace. And compared with Johnson, Wang is unflappable. After all, this is a man who shrugged to the Times that finding out his mother and father weren’t his biological parents was no big deal. “I didn’t feel anything in particular,’’ he said. “I felt it was all right, like I had two fathers.’’
On the mound, Wang is equally nonplussed. “I don’t even think he knows the day before who he is pitching against,” says Ron Guidry, the Yankees’ pitching coach. He lets me and Jorge [Posada] deal with that. He just pitches.”
So the Yankees enter October with multiple-personality disorder. Is this Torre and Jeter’s band of steely professionals? Damon’s neo-Idiots? Or A-Rod and Johnson’s thin-skinned malcontents?
On a mid-September afternoon at Shea, Mets third-baseman and 23-year-old emerging media darling David Wright talks fantasy football and meeting Bill Clinton with the beat reporters, while Carlos Beltran downloads tunes from a clubhouse laptop. A few minutes later, Wright tries to film a TV promo spot, only to be interrupted by Carlos Delgado coughing “Bullshit!” and ruining the take. Newcomer Shawn Green patiently gives his eighteenth interview to a Jewish-affiliated publication.
Just before report time, Pedro Martinez waltzes in wearing a Godfather T-shirt, sprinkling Buenos díases around the room. Pedro’s relationship with the Boston media was contentious—he once placed do not cross police tape around his locker there. Here, a reed from Palm Sunday graces his space. The city’s most famous gardener puts on his uniform and sashays through the clubhouse muttering something that sounds like “I’m getting old. I’m like an old goat.”
Come October, the Mets will be the first playoff team anyone can remember with three players in their forties: Tom Glavine, Julio Franco, and Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez (officially, Hernandez will be 37 in October, but no one believes it). The three oldsters have survived hard times that make playoff pressure seem like a company-picnic sack race. Hernandez escaped from Cuba on a raft, Franco endured a late-career exile to Mexico, Japan, and South Korea, and Glavine’s Hall of Fame career seemed like it might come to an abrupt end last month with a circulatory problem (it turned out to be a minor condition). Their “I’ve seen everything” attitude has blended well with the younger Mets’ enthusiasm. “We tell [the kids] baseball is like the ocean,” says Franco, who began playing professionally during the Carter-Mondale years. “The waves go up, the waves go down, and you just ride them.”
Up in his box on a recent Sunday, Mets G.M. Omar Minaya munches popcorn. A bottle of Pellegrino rests in a champagne bucket. Minaya looks content and un-Steinbrenner-like in a crisp white shirt as he watches his charges lose a laugher to the Dodgers. “There’s nothing I can do from here on,” Minaya says with a smile.
With the largesse of the much-maligned Wilpon family, Minaya, a local boy made good, has assembled a squad that Braves manager Bobby Cox paid the highest compliment: “They’ve got an American League lineup.” Indeed, beginning with Reyes, who has an outside shot of becoming the only player since Willie Mays to have 20 home runs, 20 triples, 20 doubles, and 20 steals in a season, moving on to Wright, Beltran, and Delgado, who have brought with them 100 R.B.I.’s each, and ending with Jose Valentin, a No. 8 hitter approaching 20 home runs, the lineup Minaya has assembled is one of the few in the majors that can compete with the Yankees’ for potency. Minaya also brought in Martinez and All-Star closer Billy Wagner in the past two years, two more vaunted acquisitions.
Minaya insists it’s just as important that the players he’s taken on all get along. “I’m not as much a numbers guy as someone who goes with a scout’s intuition,” says Minaya, who cites Branch Rickey’s Brooklyn Dodger teams as inspiration. “I only wanted guys who fit in with our way of doing things.” For Minaya, that meant players who thrived in the New York pressure cooker. “All through the system, I know they’re looking for players who can handle New York,” says David Wright, who has balanced a Letterman appearance and “Page Six” cameos with an All-Star season.
Much ink has been spilled over the fact that Minaya has assembled a Latino-dominated team. It’s true—and it’s worked. No one will come right out and say that Beltran’s having fellow Puerto Rican Delgado on the team is a big deal, but the two men and their wives are close friends, and having them around seems to make Beltran more comfortable. Beltran’s 40 HRs and 114 R.B.I.’s (he hit 16 and drove in 78 last year without Delgado in the lineup) certainly suggest that he likes having his countryman around.
Minaya also hired Randolph, a Brownsville product who spent decades as a player and manager being immersed in the “Yankee Way,” but he hasn’t brought the Bronx corporate attitude to Queens. In an ad Randolph shot with Torre for the Subway sandwich chain, Joe tells Willie how he handles the media by whispering, “Give them what they want,” before entering a press conference where all the reporters have been given sandwiches. Randolph rolls his eyes.
While the Mets manager’s TV glower at Torre is a put-on, Randolph is not a politician like his old boss. Of course, working for Steinbrenner, Torre has to be a politician. And don’t forget the man has won four world championships. But Randolph is taking his own path. He’s frank, sometimes prickly, and, unlike Torre, he’s not afraid to show that he’s pissed at a player. Before the second game of a recent doubleheader, Randolph was asked whether the recently injured Carlos Beltran had told Randolph if he could play. “Beltran didn’t come to me and say he was ready,” the manager snapped. Word must have filtered back to Beltran; he quickly made a trip to Randolph’s office and was a late addition to the lineup.
Sitting with me in the dugout before a game against the Dodgers, Randolph plays down the looseness of the squad. “They’re relaxed, but they’re professionals,” he says. “They know when it’s time to get down to business. I don’t worry about them.”
His players are on the same blissed-out page. “I’ve never been associated with a team like this,” says Cliff Floyd. “When things get tight, some teams fold, but we focus when we need to focus and have fun when it’s time to have fun. Everyone enjoys coming to work. I don’t want to tell the young guys that it’s not like this everywhere.”
Karma is great, but if your star pitcher is hurt, you have issues. After saving an August 30 game against the Tigers, Mariano Rivera complained of soreness and went for an MRI on August 31. The exam revealed no damage, but Torre’s decision to bring Rivera into a tight game that day was still dubious. With the Yankees miles in front of Boston, caution seemed in order. After the game, Rivera was cornered by the media horde for a Beckett-like conversation.
REPORTER: What does the injury prevent you from doing?
RIVERA: Pitching. Not every day. Not really. Sometimes.
REPORTER: Did it hurt?
RIVERA: No, not today.
REPORTER: So, Mo, you’re okay to go today?
RIVERA: Oh, yeah.
And so on.
Whatever. Rivera ended up missing almost a month.
On an Al Gore–hot September Saturday morning, Pedro Martinez was about to take the Shea mound for a simulated game when the stadium’s speakers were overrun with an opera singer’s overwrought interpretation of “O Sole Mio.” “No, that won’t do,” muttered Martinez. Actually, the music was appropriate for a workout with operatic implications. After his own monthlong layoff tending to his ailing calf, Martinez was trying to determine if he was healthy. The Mets trotted out three sacrificial batters for Pedro to face and even incorporated between-innings pauses for a real-game effect. The session went well, with the exception of a foul ball off Lastings Milledge’s bat that nearly decapitated Larry King and his 40th wife.
Flash-forward to Friday, September 15, when Martinez pitched his first real game back, in Pittsburgh. In three innings, Pedro never looked comfortable, giving up four runs and lasting only 68 pitches. The performance wasn’t surprising, really—pitchers are often rusty after a layoff—but Martinez’s reaction was. After being removed from the game, Pedro walked to a corner of the dugout, where his eyes welled with tears. Only a well-timed hug from Randolph prevented full-on waterworks. He followed that outing by pitching four tantalizing hitless innings against the Marlins last Thursday—before getting shelled in the fifth. Mets fans were left wringing their hands over their ace’s delicate calf—and psyche.
Let’s assume Pedro and Mo are healthy. So who’s gonna win? Sure, we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves—both teams will have to advance through two rounds to get to a Subway Series. But that shouldn’t be too difficult. In the American League, the Tigers are punchless, the Twins too young, and the A’s always lose in October. For the Mets, the path seems even clearer. The Padres, Cards, Dodgers, and Phillies are all dolled-up .500 teams that would probably lose 90 games if they were transferred to the American League.
The Yankees have multiple-personality disorder. Is this Torre and Jeter’s band of steely professionals? Damon’s neo-Idiots? Or A-Rod’s thin-skinned malcontents?
So it’s October 21, Game 1 of Subway Series II, and the Yankees are opening at home. (Not because of a better record but because Commish Bud Selig grants home-field advantage based on which league wins the All-Star Game, an asinine rule that has no place in a democratic society.) Selig’s folly gives the Yanks an advantage because it allows Torre to open with Wang, whose home 2.88 ERA is almost two runs less than his road mark. Perhaps the most striking thing about this Series is that not one starter on either team can be counted on for a dominant start. Johnson could get ejected for arguing balls and strikes, or just get crushed; Mike Mussina’s old groin injury could flare up; Pedro’s mental or physical health could waver, Glavine’s hand could go numb again, and El Duque might finally realize he’s actually 48. All five have tons of playoff wins and experience but have reached an age where each start could be a final gem or a hide-the-kids shelling. That leaves Wang as the difference-maker. If he pitches three times, the Yankees have a slight edge.
The Yankees’ advantage grows in the bullpen. Both teams have solid if unspectacular setup men, but the gap at closer is gargantuan. Mets fans, look away. It’s hideous: Billy Wagner’s playoff record is 1-0 with a 9.64 ERA and no saves, and Rivera is 8-1 with a 0.81 ERA and 34 saves. And Wagner’s nationally televised May 20 implosion against the Yankees, one of the Mets’ few meaningful games, didn’t bode well for his ability to handle New York playoff pressure.
Of course, the joker in the deck is whether the Yankees are going to get classic Mo or a nearly 37-year-old Rivera plagued by the mysterious arm malady and finally hunted down by the 111 innings of playoff ball, more than a whole extra season, he’s pitched over the past decade. Like Cubans girding themselves for the death of the seemingly immortal Castro, Yankees fans must recognize that some time soon Rivera is going to implode before their eyes. It might be next month. If so, the Yankees can fold their tent. Kyle Farnsworth, Rivera’s erstwhile replacement, has saved 26 games in his entire major-league career. It gets scarier. Farnsworth has also blown 25 saves in his career.
On offense, Johnny Damon is right. With Matsui and Sheffield back, the 2006 Yankees’ one-through-nine lineup kicks the ass of Murderers’ Row. A-Rod? Never mind his reputation as a playoff choker. Forget that he may be a lousy teammate. His career postseason average is .305, exactly the same as his regular-season average, and his .534 playoff slugging percentage is almost the same as someone named Mickey Mantle. Sure, as he said himself, A-Rod played like a dog against the Angels in last year’s American League Division Series, but even Mr. October himself, Reggie Jackson, had his postseason struggles. Although Reggie dominated the second half of October, he hit a feeble .227 in eleven American League Championship Series.
That brings us to the poor Mets. And I say poor Mets because their lineup is top-notch except when compared with the Yankees’. Which is sort of their lot in life with everything when it comes to their crosstown rivals. While the Mets upped their TV ratings by 65 percent, to 2.8, this season, the Yankees still crushed them with a 4.2. Hell, the Yankees even got a slightly cheaper interest rate on their dueling new stadiums’ municipal bonds: Steinbrenner pays 4.51 percent, and the Wilpons hump 4.57 percent. The same silver medal goes to the Mets’ batting order. In the end, would you rather have Reyes, Beltran, Delgado, and Wright, or Damon, Jeter, A-Rod, and Giambi? On the bench, the Yankees can turn to young stud Cabrera or old vet Bernie Williams. The Mets have not-so-studly Endy Chavez and not-so-young Franco.
And yet. The strange and wonderful thing about baseball is its fickleness. Worship all you want at the altar of sabermetrics, the game can have a Job-like sense of injustice. Unlike the NFL and the NBA, where talent almost always triumphs, recent baseball history is dotted with scrappy teams outlasting All-Star Evil Empires. Does anyone really think the ’01 Diamondbacks and the ’03 Marlins were actually better than the Yankee teams they beat? In baseball, it becomes all about the mojo, the hot hand, and playing loose. That’s why a dunderhead like Boston’s Manny Ramirez never hits an A-Rod-type tailspin. He doesn’t think too much; he just lets the hands go.
So which of these two teams can let the hands go? As I worked my way through the Bronx and Queens, I asked players and coaches whether they were rooting for a Subway Series. The Yankees, to a man, wouldn’t even address it, repeating the mantra “It doesn’t matter. We just have to play our own game.” The Mets were different. Sure, they all offered disclaimers about late October being far away and not getting ahead of themselves, but in the end they couldn’t help it. “That would be awesome,” said David Wright, his eyes filled with visions of a city shut down for ten days. “We don’t care, but I know if it’s the Yankees, it will be crazy,” said Delgado. “They’re not the biggest team in the world by accident.” Even the skipper couldn’t help but dream. “It doesn’t really matter to me,” Randolph insisted as he watched from the Shea dugout as his squad played pepper at magic hour. Then he softened. “That would just be the ultimate. I’m a New Yorker. I played for the Yankees. It would be a dream come true.”
Then there were the different ways the two franchises celebrated winning their division. At Shea, David Wright posed for pictures with a stogie in his mouth while Jose Reyes salsa’d in the locker room with goggles on. A few days later and a country away in Toronto, the Yankees popped their own corks, but there was a cool “We’ve been here before” vibe to the celebrating. And so the Yankees enter October with the grizzled resolve of a swat team doing hostage extrication while the Mets are summer-school kids with a day pass at Six Flags wanting to soak in every roller coaster and every corn dog that time will allow.
That is called joy. And in baseball, joy brings championships.
The Mets in six.