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Who Owns New York?

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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.”


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