Timo's Dance Roger's Trance

Transfixing a City and a Game

At the last minute, after the Voicetried and failed to scalp me a Game 1 ticket at prices like $800, a media credential materialized, and so I found myself sharing a row in left field with VoiceMetman Billy Altman, ESPN analyst Rick Sutcliffe, some Fourth Estaters whose names I didn't get, and two television sets. We were far away, and except for the TVs—which my fellow reporters consulted with alacrity, especially when the alternative was standing up—the visual experience recalled the bleachers more than it did, for instance, sitting behind first at a Norwich Navigators game. But the emotional surges were so muted that the feel was completely different. World Series crowds are notoriously spectatorial, and games that go 0-0 into the sixth are often quiet, but the main reason was the press-box dictum that forbids cheering. Not until the action-packed late and extra innings of the longest game in Series history, after most of the scribes had gone downstairs to file and paying customers were turning around to ask the TV-equipped where that pitch was, did the gutty drama of this contest go into full effect for me.

The hands-down goat was Timo, subject of already-written Sunday features in the Times and the Post. He bunted when he should have hit away, threw to a phantom cut-off man, bailed out on a Mike Stanton curveball not yet for sale in Japan, and, crucially, cost the Mets the winning run when he went into a home-run trot on what proved to be a double by Todd Zeile. His battered opposite number, veteran and quite possibly retiring Yankee rightfielder Paul O'Neill, wore down Met reliever Armando Benitez for a 10-pitch walk that led to a tie in the ninth. The Mets, who had rebounded from an even more devastating ninth-inning comeback to beat the Giants, stiff-armed serious Yankee rallies in the 10th and 11th. But in the 12th, surprise second baseman Jose Vizcaino, who in June had taken the red-eye so he could don his pinstripes as fast as possible after he was acquired for 1996 World Series hero Jim Leyritz, knocked in the decisive run with his fourth single. In the interview room, ex-Met Vizcaino, a Dominican-born 12-year journeyman, spoke in soft, heavily accented English about how all he'd wanted was to play in a Series, never dreaming he'd be a "hero." He had trouble aspirating the h in hero. Nine years older than Perez, he'd leapt too as he ran out his hit. He was still glowing slightly.

This was the second straight one-for-the-books I'd witnessed at the ballpark, where free-floating pheromones magnify a game's psychic impact in a way close-ups and replays cannot. But as I pushed downstairs with chants of "lets-go-yang-keys" and "viz-kuy-A-no" outpowering those of "mets-suck" by a factor of 10, I was reminded that the true adversaries in the local rivalry kicked up by thefirstSubwaySeriesin-44years were New York and America. It wasn't us who had to prove we loved the game as much as we loved our team—we came close enough. It was all the putative devotees of the national pastime who were giving Fox acute ratings anxiety. Though I had no way of ascertaining how this epic would have gone down in my living room, my working theory was that 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.

Like it or not, television has been America's chief conduit to baseball for half a century. Pheromones are great, nothing like 'em, but our memories of close-ups and replays inflect all the ball most of us see at the park or hear on the radio. Where the sports pages mythify the players, magnifying their pronouncements and peccadillos, and recap photo ops turn them into cartoons, TV game coverage humanizes them. Baseball is so leisurely that you can spend hours scrutinizing pitchers' and batters' facial expressions and body tics; it's one of the few public endeavors structured to generate random moments like the NLCS shot of Mark McGwire unpeeling a popped pink bubble from his nose. And so modern fandom is as much about imaginary relationships as local loyalties.

Great players are pleasures and .300 hitters are hard to hate if they're on your side, but fans hunger as well for fellow spirits—in my case, mensches and eccentrics, thinkers and innocents, no matter that they're as overpaid as big-time entertainers and come together by sheer force of capital more than anything else. Due in part to Joe Torre's emphasis on clubhouse harmony, the Yankees are a little bland, but in their distinct ways Jeter and Williams and David Cone and Mariano Rivera and Luis Sojo and Jorge Posada and, of course, El Duque are all guys you can tell yourself stories about. However much I enjoy the Mets' budget outfield, I wish they had more Turk Wendells and John Francos. Mike Piazza hits the ball so hard he's a wonder for that alone, but as a person he seems a bit of a clod. And although hitter-for-hire Todd Zeile has fielded valiantly, he sure isn't taciturn John Olerud, who last year started going to museums on the theory that he'd never have the chance again—and who called up memories of Keith Hernandez around the bag.

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