A Tale of One City

Derek Jeter walks and the shouting mob stumbles to stay with him. He is the fifteen-minute-old MVP of the World Series, the 2000 Subway Series, and Jeter is floating from one live TV interview to another on the infield grass at Shea Stadium. A dozen police officers, arms linked, form a protective halo around him; pressing in on the cops’ windbreakered backs are sweaty concentric rings of hundreds of reporters, sound guys, cameramen, a mass packed so tight that whenever anyone trips, he doesn’t fall but is carried along in the pack, unhurt, as if some protective aura radiates from Jeter. In the stands, a thousand joyous Yankee fans scramble across the orange plastic field box seats, already greedily chanting, “Four-peat! Four-peat!”

Then suddenly we are alone, Jeter and I and a mere pair of cops, skipping down the steps of the Mets’ dugout and up onto the smelly Astroturfed ramp under the seats leading to the group-interview room. It feels as if this is how every October ends, not with Halloween but with Jeter striding through a damp hallway in the night, in the Bronx, in San Diego, in the Bronx again, and now in Queens, wearing an oversize commemorative T-shirt and a bigger grin, swigging from a bottle of champagne and genuinely astonished at his great good fortune. Tonight Jeter shakes his head in wonder at where three weeks has taken the Yankees, from bunglers against the lowly Orioles and Devil Rays to uncannily efficient champions of the baseball world. Again. “The reason we’re so good at this time of year,” Jeter says, “is that this team is able to put away everything that came before, good or bad, and just focus on now. Man!” he says, seeming to breathe in all the excitement. “This is what you play for!”

As Jeter steps up onto the interview stage, he stops to hug Joe Torre, just finished with his time behind the microphones. The manager picks up where Jeter left off, describing this successful struggle of a playoff run and admitting to a moment of profound doubt. “When we had to get on that plane back to Oakland, after losing Game 4 in the first round,” Torre says, “that’s when we had to find something deep inside ourselves. And we did.”

Screams of celebration are cascading down from the field. TV producers are sprinting over to grab him for interviews. Torre stops, chugs the last of his champagne, and plants the empty plastic glass on the top step of the dugout, the Mets’ dugout. Another enemy territory conquered.

Three years ago, Torre talked about how he dreaded the prospect of a Subway Series. He knew how relentless the attention would be, how it would stir passions far beyond wins and losses. There was a substantial amount of testiness around these games: Keith Hernandez, the old Met, snapped at Yankees broadcaster Michael Kay on the air, calling Kay a “homer.” Al Leiter and Roger Clemens share an agent, and they’d been booked for a mid-series appearance on the Home Shopping Network to hawk souvenirs; when they arrived at the studio, Leiter refused to appear with Clemens. For months, George Steinbrenner had been threatening to turn his executives’ days into a living hell – well, even more of a living hell – should the Yankees somehow lose a Subway Series.

“So many ifs and buts,” Leiter says somberly. “A lot of us are going to look back over these games all winter and think about what we would have done differently.”

So long anticipated, the Subway Series grew wearying surprisingly fast. Part of it was the lateness of the games; some of it was caused by media overkill. The most powerful feeling, though, was the ever-starker reality that the winners and the losers were going to be in such close proximity. The pain of the defeated wasn’t going to be off in some distant time zone; it was going to be rubbing up against the elation in the stadium just ten miles away, in the office cubicle an arm’s length away. This discomfort was eventually expressed in the notion of a two-team parade, but Steinbrenner, having won and put the Mets back in their place, was stridently against sharing the spotlight. Just the opposite: Steinbrenner, the bully-in-chief, was complaining that the Yankees weren’t being given the respect that a 26-time champion deserved.

None of these conflicted emotions were news to people who’d grown up going to games at Ebbets Field or the Polo Grounds, as Torre had. Even with his team up two games to none, all of this non-baseball angst was making Torre nearly as miserable as he’d feared. The Unsplendid Splinter Incident, the bizarre heave of a broken-bat head by Roger Clemens in the general direction of Mike Piazza, ignited Torre’s anxiety. In a blistering 1 a.m. press-conference battle, Torre spit questions back at the Times’s Ira Berkow, Newsday’s Steve Jacobson, the Boston Herald’s Steve Buckley, and the Daily News’s Mike Lupica in a tone so hostile that a fistfight seemed a real possibility. “Why would he throw it at him?” Torre snarled. “So he could get thrown out of the game in the second game of the World Series? Does that make any sense to anybody? Or is that too shitty a story to write?” Here was wise, folksy Joe, who has parlayed his warm image as a cancer-beating Mr. Chips in baseball knickers into a lucrative side career as a pitchman for insurance and phone companies, pouring out all the stored-up, raw anger of a former fat kid and three-time managerial failure who remembers every slight from every smart-ass with a keyboard, and who was ready to kick their ass right now if need be. This wasn’t a diversion calculated to take the heat off Clemens. This was personal. The scene was nasty and reassuring. Torre is pleasant and patient most of the time, but you knew that managing the sulky Wade Boggs, the Eminem-loving Chuck Knoblauch, the whining Jeff Nelson wasn’t done only with fatherly pats on the head. Torre uses the belt too. He clearly didn’t enjoy defending Clemens, and his saintly reputation took some dents, but the way Torre responded showed a steel – a ruthlessness, even – that’s probably necessary to win in this town. Not that the Mets are totally opposed to hiring bastards; it’s just that they tend to pick the wrong bastards. Instead of Clemens or Reggie, they buy Eddie Murray and Bobby Bonilla.

An hour before the first game, in the epicenter of the media horde, Torre and Bobby Valentine have somehow found a moment together. “Good luck,” Valentine says, shaking the Yankee manager’s hand. “May the best man – “

Torre stops him. “Don’t say that,” he says, smiling but not kidding. “Oakland manager Art Howe said that to me, then he went out and beat me.” They both laugh.

Five days later, Torre, having won his fourth World Series in five years and an incredible three straight, is ambling down the hallway leading to the Mets’ locker room. Valentine is in the doorway, leaning out. He sees Torre coming and leans back in, but Torre comes right up and extends his hand. Valentine had made an awful blunder in the ninth inning, leaving a fading but valiant Al Leiter in a tie game. But Torre is generous now. “You were with us every step of the way,” Torre tells Valentine. “Now you can wish me good luck.” Valentine, his face red, blinks back tears.

Inside, the Mets’ clubhouse is silent and nearly vacant. They have lost four games by a total of four runs. “So many ifs and buts,” Leiter says somberly. “A lot of us are going to look back over these games all winter and think about what we would have done differently.” For Leiter, the regret list starts with throwing consecutive change-ups, his fourth-best pitch, to Jeter in the sixth inning. Jeter smoked the second one for a game-tying home run.

It falls, though, to a true city kid to deliver the last word. John Franco is alone. He speaks, to no one in particular, with just the right tinge of Brooklyn-bred sarcasm. Franco desperately wanted a different ending, but his words are absolutely right: “Good Series, huh?”

A Tale of One City