By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
On the last day of the regular season, which was not as long ago as it now feels, everything seemed right in the Yankee clubhouse. Following team tradition, a veteran player managed the last meaningless game, and this year it was Bernie Williams. He sipped Joe Torre's customary green tea during the dugout pre-game press conference, joked about keeping Derek Jeter (then in the hunt for a batting title) out of the lineup, and con-templated an early argument with the umpires: "I was thinking about getting thrown out in the first so I could manage from the couch."
In a far corner of the locker room, Alex Rodriguez stood alongside Robinson Cano and Mariano Rivera, all of them chatting cheerfully in Spanish and occasionally convulsing with laughter. Without, of course, having any clue what was said (merde, I thought in my second language, which I'm finding increasingly useless as a sports reporter), I thought at the time that A-Rod, contrary to his usual portrayal, seemed both comfortable and relaxed.
After the game, when the Yankees had lost despite a two-out, bottom-of-the-ninth, pinch-hit double by the manager himself, Williams quipped that George Steinbrenner had called down and fired him after the game.
"You were kidding about that, right, Bernie?" asked a reporter as the post-game conference wound down. "Just making sure."
Looking back, this seems like the opening, idyllic scene of a gory horror movie, one in which, say, a cheerful and attractive young woman is out walking her cute dog in a beautiful forest, with no inkling that some kind of hideous werewolf-vampire-alienmutant spider is about to spring out of the shadows and devour her. I hope you appreciate my restraint in not bringing tigers into this analogy.
"They outplayed us, they outpitched usthere's not much else you can say," said Joe Torre after the complete and utter disaster that was the Yankees' Game 4 in Detroit. Oh, I don't know, I bet people will think of something.
The whole not-cheering-in-the-press-box thing started to become a problem for me once October hit; a lifetime of fan conditioning doesn't die quietly, particularly not with the stadium pulsating in Game 1. Last year I watched much of the ALDS curled on my futon in the fetal position, clutching a bottle of Jack Daniel's, but that won't fly this yearfor one thing, you'd have to share with way too many people, but for another, it's a studiously detached environment. Everyone does stand for the national anthem . . . but they don't necessarily stop typing while they do so. Baseball writers often rhapsodize about the beauty of a pitchers' duel, but I've come to suspect that this has very little to do with the inherent beauty of a low-scoring game and much to do with wanting to get home at a decent hour. In any case, it's probably for the best that, not adequately funded to travel with the team to Detroit, I was able to curse at my tiny television screen with impunity. As the playoffs began, I went from Brooklyn to Shea to Yankee Stadium and back three days in a row, leaving at 10 in the morning and returning around 2 a.m.; it was like a fun, baseball-themed version of the Bataan Death March. By the time the Yankees went on the road, I was so relieved to be sitting on the couch with a beer that I could barely absorb the fact that Kenny Rogers (Kenny Rogers? Kenny Rogers?! Sorry, I'm still not over this; that game must have been better than sex for Met fans) was pitching an inexplicably brilliant shutout against the Yankees. It set a tone of doom and futility that lingered over the team throughout Saturday's abysmal elimination game, which was too lopsided and low-energy to even qualify as heartbreaking. Later that day, the Mets completed their sweep of the Dodgers, consoling me more or less against my will.
By the end of the Mets' final regular-season home stand, Willie Randolph was becoming increasingly exasperated by the myriad questions about his team's post-clinching slump. Reporters had tried several different ways of asking if he was worried, to which he replied variously "no," "nope," or "not at all," before he was finally prevailed on to elaborate. "I think you guys are making too much of this," he said. "I've seen teams go into a post-season very flat and steamroll the whole way, and I've seen teams go into it hot as a firecracker and really not play up to their capabilities. . . . We're going to the playoffs, and it won't matter what we did this week at all, really. It won't."
Sure enough, the Tigers and Cardinals finished their seasons with a clammy, corpse-like chill and proceeded to demolish the much more lively Yankees and Padres; the streaking Dodgers and Twins were both swept. The loss of Pedro Martinez and then, the day before Game 1, Orlando Hernandez must have had the Mets ready to encase their remaining starters' calves in some kind of antiseptic, bulletproof protective bubble, but they got over their September hiccups in a hurry, beating Los Angeles in three hard-fought but decisive games. Some people expected the Division Series celebration to be far less intense than the explosive party that broke out at Shea when the Mets won the NL East; those people were wrong. This is a team that thoroughly enjoys spraying Barefoot Bubbly champagne.