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I've heard Shea Stadium described as "a DMV without the atmosphere," and its impending destruction has provoked remarkably little outcry from fans or locals, despite its location in a historic district of run-down auto body repair shops (if you enjoy the sound of hearty laughter, ask a group of Mets beat reporters to recommend a good restaurant in the neighborhood). But in the days following the Mets' NL East win, it was an awfully fun DMV. I am, thanks to my father and my upbringing, a lifelong Yankees fan, and it's far too late to change nowbut I defy anyone, aside from perhaps Braves fans, to actually dislike this year's Mets. If you can't see that Jose Reyes stealing second base is a thing of beauty, you don't like baseball.
The Met locker room, at least in the few becalmed post-clinching days, typically featured outfielder Shawn Green quietly working on a crossword puzzle; Reyes (fondly referred to by Cliff Floyd one day, in passing, as "King Ding-a-Ling") stretching and chirping away in animated Spanish to anyone in the area while wearing his omnipresent grin; Paul Lo Duca and David Wright talking fantasy football and cheerfully giving each other shit; and Jose Valentin sprawled on a couch watching Soul Food. They're a friendly group, visibly proud of their team and apparently happy to see each other even for the 155th time since April 1. Whether their obvious chemistry has helped them win, or whether, as Joe Torre is fond of saying, winning itself creates chemistry, is a chicken-or-egg-style conundrum.
"I think it helps," said Tom Glavine of the team's pleasant vibe, "but that's not to say you can't win if you don't have everybody getting along." Forty years old and a lock for the Hall of Fame, Glavine, who has deep laugh lines around his eyes and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of patience with needy reporters, resembles a friendly, unusually fit suburban father more than an ace pitcher. He struggled in his first years with the Mets, and acknowledges that the mood then was different"not to say we didn't have a good group of guys in years past, but . . . when you're winning, I think everybody tends to get along better and everybody tends to have more fun." Closer Billy Wagner, in his first and very effective if occasionally heart-stopping season, thinks that the influx of new players helped the team bond and cope: "We were all new to the organization, new to New York. . . . Everyone was able to lean on somebody because we knew we were all new to the situations and the crowds and the expectations."
Even the Mets' resident eccentric, Pedro Martinez, seems fundamentally well-meaning, albeit mercurialwhen Martinez enters the clubhouse, reporters eye him warily, attempting to evaluate his mood, and the mistrust is mutual. Before the penultimate home game of the season at Shea, tired of questions about his health (and just five days before the Mets announced that a calf injury would keep him out of the playoffs altogether), Martinez replied to one reporter's innocuous query with "We're like a skinny piece of meat, and you're like 50 vultures . . . 50 vultures on a dead raccoon." Then he headed for the training room, smiling broadly. I got the feeling that Rick Peterson, the Mets' voluble pitching coach, gets the opportunity to put his psychology degree to good use.
Kelly Stinnett, who served as the Yankees' back-up catcher this year until they acquired Sal Fasano (who boasts a little more power and vastly superior facial hair) and was then picked up by the Mets, firmly maintained that there is "no difference" between the atmosphere of the two teams, a statement so manifestly untrue that I can only assume someone in the Bronx is holding some type of incriminating photographs over his head. That's not to say that the common perception of the Yankees as businesslike, buttoned-down, and boring is accurate; judging by the multilingual hollering wafting from the back rooms of their clubhouse, they have their fun tooit's just that they have it out of sight of the media hordes.
You can't blame them. There were roughly twice as many reporters in the Yankee locker room as at Shea last week; at any given moment they might outnumber the players five to one. Given the long lines of questioners hovering around their lockers, most of the Yankees' star players, while uniformly polite and often friendly, understandably don't spend much time in the clubhouse. Bernie Williamsmy favorite player as a kid because, like me, he seemed shy and wore big dorky glasses (though sadly the similarities between us ended there, as he also had staggering athletic ability, blossomed into a superstar, and was embraced by millions, whereas I am still saving up for Lasik surgery)responded to each reporter's questions courteously and thoughtfully, with his trademark gentle smile, but as he did so, he was slowly and somewhat desperately backing towards the door. I'm sure that if I'd been more assertive, he would have talked to me too, but I just didn't have the heart.
Derek Jeter, taking his role as captain seriously in this as in all things, is an exception. But although he makes a point of being available, he's also savvy enough to avoid saying anything at all that might conceivably be twisted into any sort of controversy. Which is why, despite being affable and well-spoken, he hasn't had a truly interesting quote since roughly 1997. If a dozen streaking midgets ran through the clubhouse followed by Ted Williams's frozen head riding a fire-breathing unicorn, the captain would simply blink and then politely say that it's all about winning, and he's just focused on helping this team get another championship. If Yankee Stadium security weren't so tight, I would try to test this hypothesis.