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.