Life’s a Pitch

The game ends so fast even Joe Torre gets the details wrong. Bernie Williams’s home run is a lightning bolt on a rainy night, winning the first game of the American League Championship Series against the Red Sox just before the giant center-field clock shows midnight. A few minutes later, Torre is shaking his head in wonder. “The thing that surprised me,” Torre says, “was the first pitch–bang, home run, game over.”

Actually, Williams had whacked the second fastball. But it’s been tough to keep everything straight in this past two weeks of thrilling New York baseball carnival. Just the possibility of the first Mets-Yankees World Series generated nonstop tension and a rush of fascinating moments. Most of them uncannily highlighted the teams’ essential personalities: The Yankees, inevitable; the Mets, conflicted.

Baseball is routinely ridiculed as slow–enough with the batting gloves already, Chuck–but these playoffs are a vivid illustration that baseball is the only truly daily game. A diary, plus a scorecard, is the only way to keep up with the sprinting events.

October 5: Jim Bouton, a Yankees pitcher in the mid-sixties who became famous for writing the hilarious Ball Four, is tonight’s guest reporter for WCBS radio. During batting practice, Bouton says, “All these guys were the best players in their hometowns. Just because you’ve never heard of some guy, he could turn around and beat you. Who knows? The Yankees could lose, the Mets could win.”

Tonight, Bouton is half right. The Yankees stomp the Texas Rangers, 8-0. The only scare is when Don Zimmer nearly loses his modeling contracts thanks to a stray foul ball off his skull. Seamlessly, the Yankees finish and the Mets begin in Arizona. In the Yankees clubhouse, players claim to be focused exclusively on their own games, but every change in score is passed in whispers: “The Mets are up 4-1 now? Did you hear that?”

As I drive south on the FDR, the Mets’ lead vanishes. It’s 2 a.m. when Edgardo Alfonzo wins the game with a grand slam. But I can’t scream, because the saner people in my house are asleep.

October 6: The Mets mess with everyone’s sleep habits again, making the first round of playoffs seem like one continuous ball game interrupted by a few hours at the office. The Mets lose for the first time in a frantic week, but it hardly slows the hype, caffeine and Subway Series mania mixing into a noisy buzz.

October 7: Maybe Derek Jeter’s got us all fooled, and he’s really a jailbait-chasing, hard-drinking, multisyllabic cusser, but here’s another indication of what goes into the raising of a star who doesn’t seem to have lost his mind: Two hours before tonight’s Yankees game, Jeter’s parents are eating dinner on East 161st Street at the Unity Coffee Shop, one of those places with rotating pies. No limo, no attitude, just a couple of proud parents getting ready to watch their kid’s game.

Texas scores its annual playoff run, but the Yankees calmly respond with three of their own and win.

October 8: The Mets return to Shea and beat Arizona 9-2. Line of the night: First he says it in front of about 50 reporters, then he pleads, “Please don’t quote me.” So I won’t. But someone asks Mike Piazza when he could tell the cortisone shot to his thumb had backfired. Piazza says, “When I woke up this morning and couldn’t do the things you normally do with your hands.” His next line describes a bodily function. Piazza goes on to say that in Japan, sumo wrestlers have assistants just to perform this, uh, cleansing act.

October 9: If the mayor weren’t the official Yankees mascot, he’d declare this Todd Pratt Day. The Mets’ backup catcher launches a tenth-inning homer to win the series. Pandemonium. Yet Pratt, in his glorious moment, can’t hide his bitterness at the Mets’ attempts to bury him last year. Perfectly Metsian.

Out in the chaotic hallway to the Mets’ clubhouse, a guy yells, “Todd! I caught the ball! The home-run ball!” Pratt is uncomprehending; people have been shouting at him for half an hour now, he’s exhausted, he wants to cry from happiness, and somebody’s waving a baseball at him. Charlie Rappa, who is part of the fireworks crew stationed beyond the center-field fence, yells, “Todd, can you sign my ball?” Pratt stares and says, “Your ball? That’s my ball!” And Pratt reaches out and snatches it.

Down in Texas, the Yankees efficiently put the Rangers out of their misery. Darryl Strawberry hits a three-run homer, but the most moving thing is Strawberry’s mere presence in this nonalcoholic-champagne-drenched locker room. A year ago, the Yankees were here talking to Strawberry via a live-TV hookup; he’d just checked into a New York hospital for colon-cancer surgery.

October 12: In Atlanta, the Mets are loose enough that Al Leiter sneaks up from behind Orel Hershiser and smears whipped cream all over Hershiser’s face. Oh, those wacky ballplayers.

Three hours later, the Mets’ calm seems like denial. They’ve just lost for the tenth time in thirteen games against the Braves. Piazza, though, finds solace in the way the Mets lost. “Well, we didn’t roll over and die like we did against them in some of the September games,” he says. Tomorrow’s game is less than 24 hours away, against the Braves’ hottest pitcher. What Subway Series?

October 13: Descending into La Guardia over Shea Stadium, which I notice is empty except for a lone guy raking the infield. The Mets sink a few hours later, the 4-3 loss visible on the press-room TVs at Yankee Stadium. The electricity that was missing in Atlanta is present in excess here in the Bronx. But the mood swings accelerate as the playoffs go on: The pumped-up crowd murmurs nervously after just three Red Sox batters, as the Yankees fall behind 2-0. The vibe lurches again in the tenth: An umpire’s blown call goes against the permanently cursed Sox, then Williams seizes the fleeting opportunity.

Afterward, sportswriters try to build convoluted theories for the course of the 4-3 victory: Were the Yankees down from their three-day layoff? Were they lifted up by the example of Paul O’Neill’s broken-ribbed bravery? Rod Beck, the Boston pitcher who gave up the losing homer, simplifies things. “It was a fastball that couldn’t have been more down the middle,” Beck says, “and he hit the piss out of it.” Then Beck tries to explain how quickly the game ended, but he also summarizes the ride the Mets and Yankees have treated us to: “This game’s played by the moment,” he says. “That’s what makes it great. The mood could shift again. Really fast.”

October 14: Just when the Red Sox are on the verge of changing the momentum, old guys David Cone and Paul O’Neill drag the Yankees to another comeback win. Cone, slumping since July, writes a happier finish to his season–for now, at least. The pitcher, 36 and nearing the end of his contract, knows this could be his last win at Yankee Stadium. At 1 a.m. in the Yankees’ clubhouse, seven small boys, the sons of Strawberry, Grimsley, Pettitte, and Leyritz, run through the mob of reporters, cameras, and fathers, chanting, “Yankees! Yankees! Yankees!” We’re all up way past our bedtime, and no one wants to go home. Why not just stay up and see if the Mets can turn things around Friday night?

Life’s a Pitch