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The Say Shea Kids

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Pratt takes ball four! Game tied. There's no cheering in the press box; it's a sportswriter sin. But moments later, when the Jersey journalist, with one finger pressed in his right ear, his left ear tight to the phone, yells that Robin Ventura has hit a grand slam, I can't help whooping. And there are at least five more innings of baseball and unimaginable strangeness -- Chuck Knoblauch's phantom tag, the bottle-heaving rage of Boston blockheads -- ahead of us live and in person. Who says baseball is a dull game?

Strawberry was one of the few Yankees openly rooting for a Subway Series, more for the sake of history than for the self-interest of playing a weaker opponent. Joe Torre was absorbing scouting reports on both National League teams even before the Yankees closed out the Red Sox; he knows these Braves have one edge on the Atlanta team the Yankees shocked in the '96 Series. That fall, the key blow in the Yankees' comeback was a homer by Jim Leyritz off Braves closer Mark Wohlers. Now Atlanta brings in a manic left-hander to finish. "John Rocker," says the Yankees manager. "He can throw a first-pitch strike with his breaking ball, then throw a 97-mile-an-hour fastball. Shit -- enough said." Torre has achieved a calm beyond Zen, and his confident placidity permeates these Yankees. "Rocker can get a little wild," Torre says, "so we just have to be patient enough to take some pitches and make him throw strikes."

The next night, down in Atlanta, Rocker is swigging champagne after the Mets have finally had a stake driven through their hearts. His powerhouse agent, Alan Hendricks, is slapping Rocker on the back, the pitcher's soaking-wet T-shirt making a loud, sloppy thwok. Hendricks also represents Roger Clemens and Chuck Knoblauch, the Yankees' two oddest mental cases. Clemens crumbled under the booing at Fenway; this week he'll get one last chance to show he deserves to wear a World Series ring.

Knoblauch, whose marriage fell apart last winter and whose dad has Alzheimer's, can be surly, but he's harder to dislike. It's odd that the otherwise-bulletproof Yankees have one player who isn't simply a weak spot but an emotional wreck. Under his Yankees jersey, Knoblauch wears a gray T-shirt with two blue words on the chest: hit me.

Knoblauch's phobia about throwing to first base hasn't hurt the team yet, but the ball has a way of finding him in crucial moments. Thankfully, Knoblauch's double-play partner, Derek Jeter, needs no shrink. In all the hideous umpiring and bizarre comebacks of the past two weeks, Jeter's subtle brilliance passed unnoticed. His home-run blast into a seventeen-mile-an-hour wind that won game five got some attention, of course, but Jeter's crisp relay throw to nail Jose Offerman at the plate in game four, when the series was still in doubt, was both important and beautiful. Jeter seems to do everything right in a World Series -- I can still see clearly how he timed an infield bouncer perfectly to score the winning run against San Diego last October -- and behind the scenes, Jeter's uncanny touch is growing in influence: As reporters relentlessly quizzed the pitiable Knoblauch in Boston, Jeter quietly enlisted a Yankees P.R. man to rescue the second-baseman.

Now, in his fourth year in the big leagues, Jeter gets his third trip to the World Series. With his cheeks puffing out as he flashes his black bat, or his legs launching him to snatch a line drive, Derek Jeter makes staying up late again this week worth it. Even if the subway is only running to half a series.


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