The Tabs At Bat

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.

With such arch characters as basketball insider Pete Vecsey and the easily outraged “media critic” Phil Mushnick, the lint-raking Jonathan Edwards of the New York sports scene, on its roster, the Murdochian Post, with a smaller staff, sells a cheaper, gaudier sort of patter. The Post is full of Sturm, and much Drang. Hearts and bile are worn on sleeves: One win qualifies a team for Heaven; a loss consigns it to hell. “We’re about passion and emotion,” says Greg Gallo. “We’re not going to finesse you.” Amplifying the militarist metaphors, Jack Newfield, former News worker, now sometime Post sports nostalgiameister, says “We’re the underdog here. The Vietcong. General Giap. Kosner and the rest of them at the News are General Westmoreland.”

Let’s go to the non-video tape. From the jump, the Post breaks out on top. As Todd Pratt hits his homer to put the Mets in the NLCS, the News, after running a 44-page playoff preview, unaccountably chooses to go with a di’s lover tells all front page, accompanied by a picture of the still-dead princess giving her “secret lover” a polo trophy. This is a disaster, the tabloid equivalent of a 10-7 round, allowing the Post to capitalize with a generic believe it! and standard ballplayer-celebration photo.

But the News, behind the estimable ink pot of the aforementioned Bill Gallo, still the single best link to the Better World, when ballplayers lived in places like Bensonhurst and St. Albans, battles back. In his column “Bleacher Creature,” Filip Bondy refers to the Yankee Stadium Neanderthal chant “Welcome to Hell” as “standard.” News heads like braves bust mets chops whittle the Post lead. But the Murdoch men are far from finished. Tom Keegan, not what you’d call a stylist, nails sacred cow Piazza, saying “he’ll get hot one of these Octobers.” Keegan is also dead-red on the Rocker beat, expressing proper New York admiration for the man he is the first to call John “Punk” Rocker. Wally Matthews, the talented lean and hungry Cassius of tab columnists, breaks through, demanding the Mets make the twitchy Bobby Valentine “Manager for Life.” This way, covering the Mets will be “more than just watching ballgames … it’s nine innings wrapped in two sessions of psychoanalysis.” In the end, however, writing of the cataclysmic fifteen-inning grand-single game (for which the Post runs the headline amazin’ in the red type once used to describe David Berkowitz’s being caught!), the Mighty Lupica, who’d been showing more wear and tear than the dinged-up Piazza, rallies the News. “At 11 o’clock last night, Robin Ventura was still out there in the rain at Shea Stadium, down near the photographer’s box,” he begins. It is portent as usual, but given the biblical-deluge context of the marathon game, it works.

Then, like that, the Subway Series that never was came to an end. The Mets were out, 10-9. Both papers struck the properly funereal note, the News (39 sports pages of 100 total) going with it’s over on the front page, the Post (36 for 96) opting for the time-honored wait ‘til next year.

What a drag. In the middle of the eighth inning, with the Mets suddenly in the lead, even the most hard-bitten newsman had begun to hope: If the faux Subway Series had been a great story, imagine a real one.

The Mets’ demise did eliminate one conflict, however. “You know, as tabloid story – the ups and downs, the problems, coming back from the dead – the Mets have just been it over the last part of the season. They’ve been the back page,” says Greg Gallo, a man who has to be “very careful” about his back pages, lest he appear to favor one team over the other. “Put the Mets on the back page, and a thousand Yankee fans are sending e-mails saying, ‘Oh, now you’re the Mets paper,’ ” bemoans Leon Carter. With the Yankee Inevitable now in place, he won’t have that problem.

As for the winner of this particular Subway Series, let’s say, following Nelson Algren’s dictum, I never take the top paper, but sportswise, I read the Post first. As they say, it’s the little things that win ball games, like running a banner saying ya gotta bereave across eight pages of game coverage. But still, ya gotta like it – these two dinosaur papers duking it out. You don’t get that on the Net. It’s just too bad neither paper figured to run that position-by-position, Olerud-vs.-Martinez, Piazza-vs.-Posada, Met-vs.-Yank matchup-edge feature. You know, so we could see who was likely to win the Subway Series that never was. Well, wait till next year.

The Tabs At Bat