The Say Shea Kids

The Mets left a little something behind in Atlanta for the Yankees. In the basement of Turner Field, just inside the door of the visiting-team clubhouse – a room with all the charm and style of a mini-storage locker – is a white blackboard. This is where the mundane details of a baseball player’s daily rituals are posted – dressed and on field, 6:00, stretching, 6:15, batting practice, 6:40 – all the way up to first pitch, 8:17. After that comes the time the bus is leaving the team hotel for the next game.

But for the Mets, there is no tomorrow, as the cliché goes, not after they lost the thrilling sixth game of the National League Championship Series. Kenny Rogers, who threw the game-losing pitch, has showered and changed into a suburban-dad polo shirt. He stops to hug fellow pitchers Dennis Cook, John Franco, and Rick Reed, who are, at two in the morning, 90 minutes after the end of the game and their season, still dressed in their orange Mets undershirts and white baseball undershorts, sitting gloomily in a small circle drinking Bud Light, a sweaty wake. Reed keeps muttering, “Fuck!” Mike Piazza, who took more whacks than Wile E. Coyote, is recuperating somewhere out of sight.

Down the hallway, the Braves are smoking cigars and smilingly anticipating the arrival of the Yankees in three days for the start of the World Series, and admitting to a festering grudge. “In all the hype about a possible Subway Series, we were treated like an afterthought,” Tom Glavine says. “They won’t forget us now.”

Above us, industrial vacuums groan through the stadium aisles, sucking up peanut shells and those annoying foam-rubber tomahawks. Inside the visitors’ clubhouse, the message board is scrubbed clean, except for two large words in purple pen, written to prod the underdog Mets, reading why not?

With Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, and El Duque in the lineup, the world champs have something better than emotion-boosting slogans: talent. Yet the overdog Yankees, plenty hungry but often bloodless, would be wise to feed on something less tangible, too: That attitude of why not? As the champagne sprayed in the Yankees’ locker room at Fenway Park on Monday night, Darryl Strawberry, no stranger to comebacks himself, pointed to his former team as an inspiration, whether they ultimately joined the Yankees in the World Series or not. “The Mets could have easily laid over and died,” Strawberry says, shaking his shaven head. “No matter what happens, the Mets have shown a lot of character, and people need to pay attention to that. The other lesson is, when you have a team down 3-0, you need to close the door as soon as possible. Or else anything can happen.”

We were greedy, wanting both of our teams in the World Series; we got so much entertainment even without the big finish. People who endured fifteen rainy innings at Shea Stadium, ended by Robin Ventura’s grand single, were treated to the kind of contest that will be described to grandchildren.

We got so much entertainment even without the big finish. People who endured fifteen rainy innings at Shea were treated to the kind of contest that will be described to grandchildren.

People who were 200 miles north, inside Fenway Park, had a strange baseball doubleheader that Sunday night. The auxiliary press box, for media types who couldn’t squeeze into the small main press box above home plate, was out in the right-field stands. From there, between pitches of the taut Yankees-Red Sox game, tied 1-1, we stared at the nym-atl score posted on the classic tin Green Monster scoreboard (inside that scoreboard is some white-chalk graffiti that perfectly captures decades of Red Sox pessimism: why us?). The metal plates painted with the inning numbers change at the pace of an odometer clocking a glacier, through 11, 12, 13 . . .

Otherwise, we have no radios, no TV tuned to the game at Shea, no information – a shocking void in the cyber-instant age. Finally, Tom Boswell, the great Washington Post sports columnist, goes online: The Braves’ Keith Lockhart drives in the go-ahead run for the Braves in the top of the fifteenth. Or did Lockhart score the run? The imprecision is excruciating as word is passed between the screams of the Red Sox fans all around us, who are wrapped up in their own cliffhanger. We’re all trying to pay attention to that game, too, but now a reporter from the Asbury Park Press dials his office and gets pitch-by-pitch reports. The Mets load the bases in the bottom of the fifteenth … Todd Pratt takes ball one, ball two, ball three . . .

Nomar Garciaparra walks for the Red Sox.

There’s a delay in the phone updates … strike one to Todd Pratt … a terrible pause . . .

The Yankees strike out Mike Stanley to end a threat.

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.

The Say Shea Kids