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The Closer

As the aging Mets limped to the finish and the Yankees burst through, Billy Wagner, 36 and hurting, dreamed of getting to the big stage.

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Illustration by Ward Sutton  

The catwalk leading from the Mets’ clubhouse to the home-team dugout at Shea Stadium is carpeted in worn artificial turf patched with duct tape. Unidentifiable liquid drips from the low concrete ceiling. On one side of the walkway sits a broken exercise bike. The darkness and dankness make this tunnel feel like one of the subway’s forlorn outer-borough stations. On a good day, with a sentimental eye, it’s possible to walk this path and see it as old-school gritty, a charmingly blue-collar throwback in an era of manicured megamillion-dollar sports palaces, like the one rising right behind the center-field wall.

Today, however, is not a good day. The Mets have just returned from an exhausting, bewildering road trip through Philadelphia, Washington, and Miami. The Mets’ Eastern Division lead over the Phillies, seemingly secure in mid-September, is now perilously small with less than one week remaining in the regular season.

Three hours before what is suddenly, inexplicably a huge game against the Washington Nationals, Billy Wagner walks down the ramp. Well, walking is a generous description: The Mets’ closer is shuffling, very carefully, toward the dugout. His torso is encased in roughly twenty yards of Ace bandages, woven around Wagner’s waist, then up behind his neck and around his left shoulder, all of it strapping down several giant heating pads. Wagner smells like a truckload of Bengay. Five days ago, on the team plane, his back was suddenly seized by spasms. Despite hours of ice, heat, massages, and stretches, the pain and stiffness got worse, to the point where Wagner was unable to pitch in a crucial ninth inning against the Florida Marlins.

Today, Wagner settles stiffly onto the Mets’ bench. I tell him he’s clearly got a jump on a great Halloween costume: He’s half a mummy. Immediately I regret attempting a joke—the Mets are choking, Wagner is hurting, and yesterday he coughed up a game-tying home run. I figure he’s going to snap. Instead, Wagner laughs, slowly shrugs, and dips some snuff. Sure, there’s a tense pennant race going on. But Billy Wagner has been overcoming chaos since the day he was born.

At almost the same moment, a very different costume drama is taking place across town. Four Yankees rookies are grinning, posing for photographers in elaborate Wizard of Oz outfits, part of a hoary hazing ritual. Joba Chamberlain, the pudgy pitching phenom, is the Cowardly Lion; Ian Kennedy, a fireballing starting pitcher, is Dorothy; Shelley Duncan, a power-hitting utility man, is the Scarecrow; and Phil Hughes, another starting righty, is the Tin Man.

The timing of the two scenes is an accident, but the symbolism wouldn’t be more apt had they been precisely choreographed. This season, in a reversal of their recent franchise histories, New York’s two baseball teams have swapped identities: Suddenly, the Yankees have become the team of youthful hope and energy while the Mets have become old, frail, and fractious. The transformations aren’t complete or perfect, of course. Some of the changes are the result of strategic choices by general managers Brian Cashman and Omar Minaya. But larger forces are at work, too. And when it comes to this week’s playoffs (which the Mets, as of press time, seemed determined to miss), the overall trends greatly favor the Yankees.

In the past decade, Major League Baseball has succeeded in shrinking the competitive gap between the game’s rich and poor franchises. True, there are still cavernous financial differences between the handful of superrich teams (Yankees, Red Sox, Mets) and the eternally broke (Pirates, Royals, Devil Rays). But through subsidies and a rejiggering of the free-agency rules, plus the fact that there are simply too many big-league teams and not enough adult humans who are skilled pitchers, the talent pool has been distributed widely enough to create greater competitive balance—or, maybe more accurately, competitive mediocrity. As in 2006, no team will win at least 100 regular-season games this year; that hasn’t happened in consecutive years for fifteen seasons. The spread between the highest and lowest winning percentages has shrunk, too: Heading into the final weekend of the 2007 season, it was a mere 182 points, 40 closer than one year ago. Although some teams were decisively better than others over the course of 162 games, this year the old cliché was truer than ever: On a given night, any team can beat any other. Divided by league, all eight of this year’s playoff teams have virtually identical won-lost records.

At the same time, the average age of the World Series winning team has been declining of late. Partly this is because more teams think they have a chance to win the pennant, so they’re hanging onto younger, cheaper talent longer; it’s also the most financially efficient way to compete with the fat-cat franchises. But the biggest factor behind the ever-younger champs is the ever-more-grueling baseball schedule. MLB added two wild-card teams to the playoff format twelve years ago, which meant adding another round of postseason games. As the contests have stretched into late October (and this year possibly into November), the marginal benefit of younger, fresher arms and legs has soared.


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