Timo's Dance Roger's Trance

Transfixing a City and a Game

Up till October 21, the most precious moment of New York Baseball 2000 came seconds before the Mets won the pennant, as a St. Louis pinch hitter lofted the final out toward tiny rookie Timo Perez, in center because eternal rookie Jay Payton had been beaned 10 minutes before. Like the now injured Shane Spencer in 1998 and the now departed Melvin Mora in 1999, Perez is a kid out of nowhere whose life may well have peaked in the climactic weeks of a championship season. He began 2000 in Class A and couldn't even stay in the Japanese majors in 1999. Yet his slapped hits and darting defense energized the Mets, and his eight NLCS runs-scored joined the thousands of postseason records made to be broken. As the ball neared the top of its arc, he couldn't contain his delight that this was happening to him. So he began jumping up and down—a sin, but a venial one in a 7-0 game Mike Hampton owned. When he caught the ball, he was in the air, trying his darnedest to fly.

If the goyish sports mavens of Dallas and Baltimore could resist a series that had already provided so much human frailty and tough play, they deserved to watch hockey until their dental insurance ran out.

I make this judgment as a Yankee fan since 1949 who tunes in every game and follows the Mets in his spare time—this September, for example, when the Yanks' losses became too lopsided to bear. I make it, too, as a New Yorker who's always rooted for the Mets, and was lured back to baseball after a Steinbrenner-induced hiatus by Gooden and Strawberry and Keith Hernandez in 1984. Around 1991, however, the play-by-play acuity of John Sterling and Michael Kay combined with the depressing compulsions of Strawberry and Gooden and the sexist ugliness of Vince Coleman to return me to the passion of my youth, which is one thing baseball is always about. The Yankees were improving by then, as Gene Michael built a viable team over the suspended Steinbrenner's dead reputation. So I invested my emotions in Roberto Kelly and Pat Kelly and steadfast Randy Velarde, and then, more fruitfully, in self-lacerating Paul O'Neill and doe-eyed Bernie Williams and that superstitious weirdo Wade Boggs, source of the work-the-count, tire-the-pitcher batting ethos that proved key to the team's '90s success—and that's taken over baseball like tenacious D in the NBA.

It was as a Yankee fan that I was at the Stadium last Wednesday, in the bleachers, where I hadn't sat since the Reds skunked the Yanks in the '76 Series—when I go, once or twice a year, I'm deep upstairs somewhere. Wearing the Chase-logoed Newark Eagles cap I got at Negro League Cap Day at Shea a few years back, and hence the only person within eyeshot displaying no Yankee gear, I shouted myself hoarse at a wild ALCS clincher my team won 9-7 after trailing 4-0. Watching David Justice's pivotal seventh-inning homer disappear into the upper deck over my head was quite an up—I was still whooping minutes later. Yet, on balance, I preferred Timo's dance.

The only image that might have measured up would have been Derek Jeter throwing out not Yankee nemesis Edgar Martinez to ice a game that was still in jeopardy, which was pretty sweet, but his dear friend Alex Rodriguez—by a hair. For sentimental grouches, the almost Hellenic attachment between these two paragons epitomizes a baseball in which a richly rewarded elite of experts-for-hire share more with their nominal opponents than with the fans they supposedly represent. But as one of those surprising formal twists that any new system of relations produces, the Jeter-Rodriguez connection, in which Derek goes so far as to stay with Alex in Seattle, has the makings of primal metaphor and psychodrama, and I want to see it tested. Will these postracial standard-bearers be allowed to love each other like brothers? And if so, can their bond survive two careers' worth of competition?

Always lurking beneath the avalanche of balderdash that was burying this—what's the phrase again?—Subway Series before Andy Pettitte threw ball one to Timo Perez was a related paradox, one no one could untangle: loving a team versus loving a game. Edgar Martinez you can hate if you want; he can't play the field anymore, and he's got the kind of banker-gone-bonkers face once seen in group photos of Argentinian death squads. But Alex Rodriguez is too gorgeous an athlete to deny. The same bleacher bully who spent two innings bellowing witticisms like "You're fat!" and "Homo!" at a second-deck plutocrat—and who muttered, "If the impossible happens, God forbid, I'm not even gonna say what it is out loud, it will be terrible. We could win the World Series for the next 30 years and we'd still never hear the end of it"—was reduced to attempted annexation: "See you next year, A-Rod—at third base!"

In the end, though, my bleachers experience didn't convince me that the intracity bloodshed the dailies kept pumping was realer than any other news peg. Sure these were serious fans who craved total triumph—anyone who believes there's special honor in supporting a loser should forget sports and work on banning war toys. But only the 50 or so who gathered outside to chant, "The Mets suck, they always have, they always will, so what's the fucking difference?" and other mystic postgame formulae evinced the kind of pathology the papers insisted was dividing husband from wife and friend from neighbor all over Gotham, and the Mets-versus-Yanks rally called for Bryant Park Friday afternoon was so trite and tepid that the mayor's inevitable speech played as a highlight. 'Tis ever thus. Read about fandom and you fear that the end of civilization is at hand. Venture out among the actual hordes and the worst you generally encounter is a few hormone-damaged jerkolas—the crassest loudmouths at the Stadium reminded me of nobody so much as the stupidest headbangers at a Beastie Boys show.

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