The Hunger

Mike Piazza’s metal spikes were clicking like tap shoes down the cement tunnel leading to the field. He was in a September slump, but he was laughing. I’d asked him about the possibility that come late October, he’d be stepping into the batter’s box in a Subway Series to face Roger Clemens for the first time since the Yankee pitcher beaned him in July.

“If I get the opportunity, that means we’ve obviously done a helluva job to get to the World Series,” Piazza said. “The next time I face him, it’s not like I’m gonna look at it any different from any other opponent.” Then his diplomacy slipped just a shade. “I hope I get that opportunity – trust me.”

By now, everyone has stopped talking and started playing. Thank goodness. By the end of last week, anyone with a functioning television or radio, access to, or newsprint on his fingers felt as if he’d been hearing and reading about the 2000 Subway Series since the end of the last one in 1956.

So why were you up so late last night, watching every pitch and hearing your neighbors – damn Yankee fans! – hollering from across the airshaft?

Because this is fun, that’s why.

The players, of course, are having the most fun. Even if gopher balls have been surrendered, errors committed, and winning runs left on base, the players are having the time of their lives. Think of Timo Perez, the Mets’ wondrous late-season addition who not so long ago was playing against the Nippon Ham Fighters, hopping up and down in pure joy as a fly ball descends into his blue glove in right field.

Even through their ugly slide in September, the Mets’ ability to have fun pushed them on toward their goal. Piazza smiled broadly as he reminisced about his trips to New York as a child. He grew up in Norristown, Pennsylvania, and, through his father’s friendship with Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, served as the Dodgers’ batboy when the team traveled to the East Coast. Piazza would join the team for its games in Philadelphia, then head north. “I remember getting off the bus and going into the Grand Hyatt, looking at New York City. I loved it; I was never intimidated by New York,” Piazza said. “It was amazing. I got to watch Darryl Strawberry when he was a rookie. And I’d ride the No. 7 from the hotel on 42nd Street out to Shea. It was kinda neat.”

Piazza’s fearlessness and curiosity about the city – I once bumped into him on a dank winter afternoon strolling around the Brooklyn waterfront, checking out dumbo real estate – is common with these Mets, and wildly unusual among the general population of pro athletes. Todd Zeile, who grew up in the major-league incubator of Southern California, sought out the Mets as a free agent, then rented his family an apartment in Greenwich Village and enrolled his older son in the Battery Park Little League.

Al Leiter, born in Toms River, New Jersey, is one of seven kids of immigrant British parents, and words tumble out of his mouth like he’s running for a crosstown bus. Even when his teammates were observing the sports-world vow of silence – Never talk about a team you might play until you defeat the team you’re playing now – Leiter boldly sized up the prospect of a Subway Series. “We let go of a precious opportunity last year,” Leiter said. “Especially in this city, especially for me personally, having played for the Yankees, living in New Jersey – I dreamt of playing the Yankees in the World Series. And we were two wins away from that in 1999.”

Leiter also had an intriguing scouting report on the Mets’ psyche should a Subway Series materialize. “There’s two thoughts in this clubhouse about playing the Yankees,” he said. “There’s a group of people who feel it would still be the Yankees’ World Series, with them playing – oh, by the way – the Mets. Because the Yankees have been the superior team in baseball recently. So that would take away a little bit of our accomplishment in the eyes of some guys on this team, as opposed to playing somebody out of the city and getting the city behind us. But my belief, being a local guy, is it hasn’t been done since the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Yankees. I just think historically, and for the excitement in this city, that it would be amazingly crazy. And I think nationally, people would be curious to see if fans would tear the city down. And some people in other cities would hope they did.” Leiter finally caught his breath. “So I’m still rooting for it.”

Admit it: So were we all. Forget being jaded by the hype. Let’s go, Mets

The Hunger