Keeping faith in pro sports is a real job these days. If it's not guys' changing teams every few weeks, Jimmy Johnson's hair, Oscar De La Hoya's un-crashed-in teeth, huge throngs of screaming white men without shirts stomping their fat feet to Gary Glitter, it's those old farts invoking the Pavlovian baseball-elegy reflex (ah, the arc of Bobby Thomson's 250-foot homer) or them frat boys out of Bristol, Connecticut, deadpanning their corporate-D.J. shtick. What's a sports fan to do? Sports is just more cultural dope, grandfathered in early like Winstons, and junkies don't have the right to complain just because the junk blows.
But every once in a while they throw you a bone, a beautiful, heart-wrenching bone like the "Subway Series," the single most memorable brace of ball games never played. Forty-three years we waited, since Johnny Kucks and George "Shotgun" Shuba, and we might wait another 143, but wasn't it great while it lasted? Ballyhooed for months, the mythic meeting between the Mets and Yanks remains the best single tabloid sports story to hit this town in years. So what if no Mets-fan accountant from Plainview, or Gracie Mansion-dwelling Yankees-loving, typically front-running bad-hair overlord, would ever take the subway to the ballpark? I mean, they had 55,000 for game four of the Mets-Braves the other night, but I had no trouble getting a seat on the 7 train less than a half-hour before the game, especially after the Hindus got out at 74th and Roosevelt to celebrate the Diwali season. Who cares if the run-up to the subway series was nothing more than tabloid hype? We like tabloid hype in this town. What good is sports without it?
Forget the Mets and Yankees -- this Subway Series, real or not, is between the Post and the News. It always has been.
This is not to say the Times does not have a fine sports section. I read it every day. Someday those excellent writers and reporters will move up to the Metro section, or even the foreign desk, where the real news is. But when it comes to the beady little sectarian hopes and fears of the New York sports fan, the Times does not scratch the itch. Don't know about you fellas, but for me, a sports section doesn't sing unless accompanied by at least a page full of ads for hair transplantation, penile enlargement, target-practice ranges, and topless dancers (hmmm . . . I see Julia Parton, "Dolly's sinful cousin," is dancing this week at Goldfingers on Northern Boulevard). The Times has that sweet color-photo reproduction, but call me noir: I'm not happy unless the ink comes off on my hands.
Hate them, love them, love and hate them: For the sheer apocalyptic roller-coaster ebb and flow of a boys'-style soap opera, the musty News and Post, not Mike and the moron Mad Dog, hold the key to the Old Tyme Sports Religion. You, or your daddy, or your granddaddy, read them when the term Subway Series went beyond virtual. And since -- outside of a stray up-front columnist or two -- sports is the only thing anyone actually reads in these rags, the Sub Series has become a major battleground in the long-running, not-quite-epic Murdoch-Zuckerman match-up.
For this war, no kill is overkill. Whole replanted forests have been made available, vast stretches of pulpish real estate set aside. Since the beginning of the league championships, both papers have been almost half sports pages. Last Wednesday, for the opening of the Mets-Braves series, the Post devoted 39 out of 108 pages to sports. The News went for 48 of 88. The next day, the Post used 39 of 104 pages for sports, the News 45 of 124. The day after that, the count was 48 of 128 for the Post, 54 of 160 for the News.
"Put the Mets on the back page, and a thousand Yankee fans are sending e-mails saying, 'Oh, now you're the Mets paper,' " says Daily News sports editor Leon Carter.
It's not Park Row, but who can resist the smell of linotypes, the boxy trucks barreling down the streets struggling to be first, the throwbackism of it all? From day one, battle stations in both the 33rd and 47th Street bunkers have been manned, game-plans drawn up. According to Leon Carter, the recently appointed News sports editor, "we have everyone in on this. The Knick back-up guy, the racing guy, Bill Finley, the Islander guy, the St. John's guy." Meanwhile, Post sports editor Greg Gallo, son of the Hall of Fame News cartoonist Bill Gallo, musters his forces. "We have all the troops armed and ready for combat," Gallo says. "With enough credentials, they'll have to clear out the bullpens for us."
On paper, the morning line reveals the following scouting report. Despite the fact that both papers turn up with the same exact headlines with depressing regularity (last week, there were two such instances -- two to go! after the Yanks won game two from Boston, and we're in! after the Bombers won the series), there are decided differences in their overall gestalt. For one thing, they go in different directions, the Post sensibly working backward from its lead story while the News's lead is buried somewhere in the middle of the auto-lease ads. Indeed, still at least subliminally under the influence of its long-departed Golden Age patron saint, the deeply hard-boiled borderline-fascist nut but great lead-writer Dick Young, the News presents a somewhat more traditional package. Key to this charming old-media reliance on the actual composition of readable sentences is the Mighty Lupica, the royally paid official dean of tab columnists. Lupica is justly legendary for his ability to "turn around" a piece in less than an hour, reporting included, and his high-toned prose, with its liberal invocation of baseball (fill in the sport) gods of yore, has done double duty during the Subway Series, his column appearing in both the front of the book and the back.