The Closer

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.

Which brings us to the diverging playoff hopes of our local ball clubs. In Hollywood, they’d call it narrative arc: The greatest difference between the Mets’ and Yankees’ seasons is when the teams got hot. In the Bronx, Brian Cashman is reaping the rewards of his three-year crusade to make the Yankees younger. To be sure, the Yankees’ chances this month will still turn on veterans like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Jorge Posada, who seem to have been in the Bronx as long as the Yankee Stadium monuments. But Cashman has injected youth at key positions like second base (Robinson Cano) and center-field (Melky Cabrera). Alex Rodriguez, though a senior citizen in tabloid time, is chronologically a mere 32. The payoff is starkest on the mound, however, where the 22-year-old Chamberlain could be their most valuable weapon.

In Queens, though, the Mets are hostage to aged limbs. Tom Glavine, 41, is tired; Pedro Martinez is recovering from major shoulder surgery; and the geriatric Orlando Hernandez missed large chunks of the season. Perhaps Omar Minaya should have made a bold trade months ago. But the costlier miscalculation has been of the team’s young prospects. To maintain momentum, Minaya’s (necessarily) quick fix required the Mets’ homegrown talent to mature. Yet Lastings Milledge, Mike Pelfrey, and Philip Humber have all turned out to be less than advertised, and even the wondrous Jose Reyes has vanished.

As the Mets stumbled through the final weeks of the regular season, no one embodied their toughness and fragility more perfectly than Wagner. Statistically, he’s an all-time-great closer, piling up strikeouts and saves through twelve seasons; he signed with the Mets last year, after playing in Houston and Philadelphia, hungry for his first World Series ring. Yet Wagner’s blazing fastballs, which used to crack 100 mph regularly, defy genetic logic: He’s barely five-foot-ten, and he throws left-handed only because he broke his right arm—twice—as a child. Wagner can be overpowering, but often he’s a white-knuckle thrill ride through a pitch-black forest with your drunken friend at the wheel.

Wagner wishes he could just mow everybody down with metronomic predictability. Yet that would be out of character with his roller-coaster life. Wagner’s mother was 16, his father 19, when he was born into abject poverty in the tiny southwest Virginia town of Tannersville. His parents split bitterly not long after, launching their boy on a terrible odyssey, from uncles to aunts to one set of grandparents then another and eleven schools in ten years. Many mornings, breakfast was a few crackers and peanut butter. Now that he’s making millions, he’s launched an educational foundation, Second Chance Learning, for kids back home.

As a teenager, Wagner poured his rage into his pitching. Even when his fortunes finally improved, tragedy struck: His wife’s parents, who’d become surrogate parents to Wagner himself, were brutally murdered one night. “Things can change at any time,” he says. “There is no certainty in tomorrow.”

That attitude helps Wagner maintain his sanity. “If I walk in after a save and this fan’s up there yelling, ‘We love you!’—yeah, you love me today. I blow a save, ‘We hate you!’ Well, you hate me today.” Wagner stoically accepts responsibility when he fails, but his sense of loyalty, and his frustration, leads him to punch back at critics of the worn-out bullpen. “We’ve been throwing four innings a night—for months!” he says. “Our pitching coach [Rick Peterson] has no experience talking to a bullpen. He can help you mechanically, but he can’t tell you the emotions. He has no idea what it feels like. And neither does Willie [Randolph]. They’re not a lot of help, put it that way.”

The reeling team entered last weekend with three games to salvage its season. “If we get through this,” Wagner says, “regardless of how ugly it’s been, it’ll say something about the character of our team.” By now, you’ll know whether Wagner was a hero, a goat, or a merely a bystander in the final act of this historic meltdown. But as he sat in the dugout last week, speaking evenly in his lilting southern accent, Billy Wagner reminded me of those Confederate soldiers in Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary: honorable, defiant, and quite possibly doomed.


The Closer