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Jeter, however, looks like Hugo Chavez compared to Chien-Ming Wang, the Yankees' extremely talented young Taiwanese ace, who is a fan's dream but a reporter's nightmare. "Unflappable" is how Joe Torre describes him, but that is putting it mildly, as is "monosyllabic." The day Wang was announced as the Yankees' Game 1 starter for the Division Series, a truly impressive feat on a pitching staff that includes Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina, a throng of reporters waited by his locker after the game, with the following results:
"When did they tell you you were starting Game 1?"
"Were you surprised?"
"I was surprised."
"Will you be excited to start in the playoffs?"
"Maybe . . . a little bit."
The media situation around the Yankees made me think of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which states that the more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known in this instant, and vice versathat is to say, you can't study one aspect of something without inadvertently changing another. The Yankees are presumably guarded precisely because of the constant scrutiny that surrounds them (though I realize that, as now officially part of the problem, I can't complain about this without hypocrisy), and the Mets, a very young team, are in that sense lucky to have been so often overlooked. Willie Randolph, a sharp, practical, no-nonsense player's manager, clearly understands on an intellectual level that he needs to meet with the media twice a day and answer all their questions, but he's unable to hide his feeling that he has dozens of things he'd rather be doing than explaining, for the fifth or 18th time, the situation with Carlos Beltrán's quadriceps. Joe Torre, on the other hand, is a master of making you believe that there's no place on earth he'd rather be than surrounded by 30 to 40 reporters, all jostling to get their microphones closer to his face and demanding to know what he thinks of Gary Sheffield's play at first base; his pre-game dugout confabs are calibrated to raise morale and keep everyone happy, somewhat in the fashion of FDR's fireside chats. If Randolph had been forced to deal with the sheer length and volume of Torre's press conferences, he might very well have been institutionalized by the end of July.
Walking into the dugout at Yankee Stadium for the first time is a fairly staggering experience; not that there hasn't been some truly great baseball played at Shea, but "this is where Babe Ruth once stood" just has a different ring to it than "that's the dugout bathroom where Keith Hernandez may have snorted a lot of coke." But, again, the upside of the Mets' relative freedom from the crush of history is an ability to remain lighthearted, be it via the endearing yet somewhat creepy hydrocephaloid that is Mr. Met, or the recent Dog Day at Shea, at which roughly 450 dogs were paraded around the edge of the field before the game. The day the Yankees allow hundreds of mutts the opportunity to piss on Joe DiMaggio's manicured center field grass is the day you should check the sky for winged pigs.
But Los Mets finally have their act together again, a remarkable turnaround in the last two years. Both New York teams are, fittingly, extremely diverse, but Mets GM Omar Minaya was criticized before the start of the season, particularly on talk radio, for signing so many Latin players; in phone calls that occasionally came uncomfortably close to xenophobia, fans worried that it would fracture the clubhouse in the name of marketing. That obviously hasn't happened, and I wanted to make a sweeping analogy in which the Mets represented a microcosm of an America where different cultures combine to form a better, stronger union, but found my metaphor derailed by the dismal failure in New York of erstwhile Japanese second baseman Kaz Matsuia valuable lesson that, no matter how tempting it may be to use Minaya's Mets as a refutation of George W. Bush's shortsighted immigration policies, it is in fact possible to read too much into baseball.
While the rise of Latin players in baseball is nothing remotely new, this year the young Spanish-speaking players on both teams have been particularly exciting to watch, and certainly seem to be having the most fun. Jose Reyes (age 23), Endy Chavez (28), Anderson Hernandez (23), Robinson Cano (23), and Melky Cabrera (22) are apparently engaged in an interleague conspiracy, designed to make me feel increasingly stupid for having taken French in high school. Cano and Cabrera, close friends who live in the same building and appear together so often that you half expect Joe Torre to switch Cano to the outfield just so they can continue their conversations, are a big part of what made the Yankees more likable than usual this year. With his near constant smile (shyer than Reyes's, but no less frequent), cuddly persona, and sizable MLB logo tattooed on the back of his shoulder, Cabrera seems like a prime candidate for a plush toy to be sold in Yankee team stores. I have never wanted to understand Spanish so badly in my life. Luckily for me, Shea Stadium now has a helpful daily scoreboard feature called "Learning Spanish With Professor Reyes," after several editions of which I could have approached the shortstop at his locker and said "bombero zapata carne" ("fireman shoe meat") had that seemed like a good idea.