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October 13-14, 1999

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Oh, so this is where all the baseball electricity is, the Bronx. RedSox-Yankees, the defending world champs, the "A" sports columnists from the city dailies, the chief of the players' union -- it's all here. With the Yankees winning on the road against Texas Saturday, then being out of action for three days, it was up to the Mets to keep the city's baseball adrenaline racing. They didn't get much help from the Braves or Braves fans.

Atlanta was soggy today, and not just from the early-afternoon rain. What talk there was of the Braves was, again, mostly about why they can't sell out playoff games; today's second game with the Mets was going to have even lower attendance than last night's opener. Not that the Mets did much to stir up excitement. My theory as to the tepid fan interest in Atlanta? The fans have it too easy. Not because the Braves have made the playoffs for eight straight years; that's part of the boredom, but another big element is the way the Braves treat their fans once they're in the stadium. They work incredibly hard at entertaining them -- in the stands, behind thestands -- everywhere but on the field. There's face-painting for the kiddies; booths to hit baseballs; other booths to throw baseballs and have the pitches clocked by a radar gun; and, roaming the stands, "rally crews": A trio of Braves employees runs around starting cheers and dragging fans into amusement-park games, like tossing a soft baseball into a mini-basketballhoop that's strapped to another high-voltage cheerleader -- the hoop pops into the air on rails at the last minute, making it harder to connect. Another Braves booster runs around with a big spike on top of a batting helmet, for impromptu ring-toss contests. No wonder Braves fans are jaded; the marketing department is frantic, begging fans to have fun so desperately that it's degraded the product. Sure, it's a pain in the neck to get to Shea or Yankee Stadium, and the bathrooms stink and the hot dogs are too expensive -- but the hassles seem to make New York fans value the experience of being at a game even more.

Falling crime stats; the first year of attendance cracking the 3 million mark at Yankee Stadium -- those are the conventional measures of how safe it as to come to a game here. Here's something more dramatic: Despite all the hype about "Away with the Red Sox," there's a large number of fans here daring to wear Red Sox hats. And not people looking for a fight; people like Trish Perry and her son Christopher, from Watertown, Connecticut. Mom grew up in Boston. "My dad would take me to Red Sox and we'd sit down at the third-base line talking to Frank Malzone," she says. "All the heartbreaks and disappointments over the years -- I'd never consider giving up and not rooting for the Red Sox."

This series is stirring all sorts of signs, portents, history; Perry has her own karmic take on it. "Since we're losing Fenway for a new stadium, we're going to be rewarded by beating the Yankees this time, taking away the curse of the Bambino."

Wishful thinking. But no more imaginative than another legend that's taking shape here tonight: Paul O'Neill, who broke a rib in the final week of the regular season, is in the starting lineup for the first time in a week, and if O'Neill does anything mildly important tonight to help the Yankees, he'll be canonized. Already O'Neill's mild lobbying of Joe Torre to play tonight is being hyped as if he'd risen from a deathbed. O'Neill's certainly a tough guy, and a busted rib sure hurts, but he'll have more painkiller inhim tonight than the ICU at Columbia-Presbyterian.

My flight back from Atlanta today descended into LaGuardia over Shea Stadium, an empty blue-and-orange horseshoe save for a solitarygrounds man raking the infield. The Mets will return to New York late tonight, flying over a dark Shea, down two games to none to Atlanta, while the stadium lights blaze in the Bronx and the Yankees season burns on. Last night, Mets centerfielder Darryl Hamilton argued there'd be no panic no matter what happened today -- "Look at the Red Sox," he said. "They were down 2-0 to Cleveland, they didn't get too upset, and they came back to win." True, and maybe reassuring -- if Pedro Martinez were pulling on a Metsuniform in Queens tomorrow, instead of a Red Sox jersey in the Bronx tonight.

When it was over -- so suddenly in the bottom of the tenth inning with Bernie Williams's lightning bolt of a home run to beat the long-suffering, forever-suffering Red Sox -- there were all the usual tortured attempts at sportswriter analysis as the Yankees were quizzed in their locker room. Did the layoff hurt the Yankees? Were they inspired by O'Neill grimacing and hurling his sore body around the outfield (though he was the most agile player grabbing for food in the players' lounge at 12:30 in the morning)? Derek Jeter just shrugged it all off. "Maybe," he says. Leave it to Rod Beck, the Red Sox pitcher who threw the final, losing pitch, to provide thesharpest insight: "The pitch couldn't have been more right-down-the-middle," Beck says. "And he hit the piss out of it."

--1:30 a.m., October 14, 1999


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