October 18, 1999: the Yankees vs. the Red Sox, Game Five

After a night’s sleep – and without any advice, he swears, from GeorgeSteinbrenner or anyone else – Jeff Nelson is sounding much more temperate about yesterday’s battles with Red Sox fans and security. Sort of. Last night Nelson suggested the Red Sox might want to lose tonight so they wouldn’t have to face what Yankees fans would do to them Wednesday night. “Let’s wrap it up tonight and forget about this whole thing until next year,” the reliever says. “I don’t want to see any retaliation at Yankee Stadium. It’s not like I’m egging anyone on. I mean, come on, they’re New Yorkers.”

Best line regarding last night’s nonsense: Jimy Williams, the Red Sox manager, when asked about George Steinbrenner’s saying Williams had incitedthe idiot fans. Says Williams, “When Georgie Porgie speaks, I don’t listen.”

Red Sox security people are so skittish tonight that they rush over and quiet a handful of fans who yell, from about 500 yards away, at the Yankees during batting practice tonight. The cops aren’t quite so touchy; one uniformed state policeman is more interested in cadging an autographed photo from Derek Jeter.

Perhaps fans will be too bundled up to throw anything tonight. It is cold. Fifty-two degrees on the thermometer at 6:30 p.m, but with a stiff wind slapping the centerfield flag (it’s a pitcher’s wind, blowing in), and moist, frigid air. Maybe it’s mind over matter, some sort ofself-psychology ploy, but Orlando Hernandez, the Yankees’ starting pitcher tonight, is sitting in the dugout wearing shorts and shower sandals, watching the Red Sox take batting practice. El Duque, like Pedro Martinez, has a gift for knowing what pitch to throw, and his feel for theball is as important as his intelligence. It’s going to be difficult keeping his fingers warm on the mound.

There’s been lots of talk in Boston today about curses and umpires favoring the Yankees. Of course, Boston is in the habit of feeling downtrodden; inside the great old tin scoreboard, inside the Green Monster, there’s chalk graffiti reading WHY US? It’s easier to believe in omens and malevolence than talk about the four physical errors the Red Sox made last night, and the awful, way-past-his-prime pitching of Rod Beck. Don Zimmer, the Yankees’ coaching oracle, suffered many mystical defeats when he wasmanaging the Red Sox in the late seventies. Does Zimmer believe that in baseball, unlike life, the breaks even out in the long run? “People inBoston have thought that for 100 years,” he says. Zimmer’s off by a few digits – it was 1918 when the Sox last won a World Series – but he’s right about Boston fans still holding out for a reckoning.

–7:45 p.m., October 17, 1999

The champagne rash that reddened Derek Jeter’s shoulders last week in Texas hasn’t healed completely, and now there’s more Inglenook St. Regis Alcohol-Removed bubbly gushing around the locker room. Jeter doesn’t mind. This will give him the chance to tease his parents more next week about how much camera time they’re logging during Yankees games, as TV cuts to their reactions in the stands when their son makes yet another superb play.

George Steinbrenner just wants to know what it’s costing him. “I’m sticky with champagne!” the Boss says. “I want to know what I’m buying here. I hope it’s cheap.”

Another celebration, another championship. Joe Torre lingers on a kiss with his wife and passes out foam cups for his family to drink champagne. Chuck Knoblauch finally admits he needs to see a sports shrink about his throwing problems, but says he can wait until the winter. Steinbrenner may be worrying about the champagne bill, but tonight he showed again how well spent his money is. It’s not simply that the Yankees have the highest payroll; they’ve spent lots of money on bad players other years. The money means the potential for depth, and boy did the Yankees display all their weapons against the Red Sox. Jeter’s an All-Star, the most invaluableplayer, the guy who next year will sign baseball’s first $100 million contract; El Duque is the biggest bargain in baseball at $6.6 million for four years. But where the Red Sox have to pinch-hit Butch Huskey, a sore-legged Mets reject, the Yankees send up Darryl Strawberry, the prodigal Met and still a wondrously powerful hitter. All Strawberry didtonight was sit in the freezing cold for more than three hours (okay, he warmed himself in the clubhouse once in a while), then go to the plate in the ninth inning and start the rally that sealed the game. Jorge Posada is only a part-time starter, but he blocks a half dozen balls in the dirt with the bases loaded, then smacks a home run to crush the Sox. But the ultimate luxury is Ramiro Mendoza. Displaced from the starting rotation by El Duque last year, he’s been wasted during this year’s regular season, virtuallyforgotten at times. So he comes into two games against the Red Sox under identical circumstances – bases loaded, one out, eighth inning – and squashes the threat, cleanly and quickly, with a strikeout and an easy pop-up, both times. Mendoza is nicknamed “El Brujo,” the Witch Doctor, for his mysterious ways around his teammates; after game one, I asked him if he’d performed a little witchcraft. “No,” Mendoza said. “That was work.”

These Yankees work, all right; they work magic, seizing every opening their given. “Being opportunistic is what this team does so well,” Strawberry says, pulling on a mustard-colored suit after the Yankees win tonight. “It’s because we’re used to it. We know when another team is about to open up the floodgates, and we know how to go through.”

They all profess not to care where they go next, for the World Series, to Atlanta or Queens. But Strawberry knows what a Subway Series would mean. “A battle for all New York,” he says with a smile. “It would be very intense.” In his old age, Darryl has become a master of understatement.

See you in Atlanta tomorrow. Make that later today.

–2:10 a.m., October 19, 1999

October 18, 1999: the Yankees vs. the Red Sox, Ga […]