By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Back when Pedro and El Duque still had two functioning legs, pitching coach Rick Peterson explained to me his theory that the ability to overcome adversity was what set winning teams apart, which, if not exactly groundbreaking, seems ready-made for a bestselling Mets-themed self-help book, Tuesdays With Pedro. "You're going to have multiple flat tires along the road on the way to a championship," said Peterson, "and the person who doesn't make it to October, they sit on the side of the road and say, 'Jeez, I can't believe I have a flat tire.' Well, the good news is we have a spare, let's get out of the car and put it on." Meet John Maine and Oliver Perez, spare tires. Peterson also pulled out a small black notebook containing his "twelve checkpoints for mental and emotional behavior" and a triangular diagram ("it's isosceles") of his pitching systemfundamental skills, physical conditioning, and emotional skillsby the end of which I was just about prepared to go out and pitch Game 4 myself, if needed. Should the Mets win it all this year with their sutured- together rotation, expect George Steinbrenner to hire a private investigator to pinch Peterson's notebook.
The already sizable media presence at Shea and, especially, Yankee Stadium during the season quadruples during the playoffs. Much to my disappointment, because of the crunch, the teams stop serving hot food in their press dining halls, giving out box lunches instead. I'd been curious to see where they were going with their respective menus: On my first day at Shea, the Mets organization offered alligator kebabs ($3); the Yankees, of course, served steak ($7.50). To be fair, I'm told the alligator was pretty good, but while there are placesFlorida, a nice Cajun restaurantwhere I would be happy to try reptile kebabs, Flushing is not one of them.
Press conferences are not generally known for their profound insights into the human soul, but once in a while they can surprise you. The Division Series highlight came during Kenny Rogers's oddly touching (though, as a Yankee fan, psychotic rage inducing) ramblings after thoroughly dominating his old team. "For my time being there," he said, "I don't understand New York as much as some other people, but I would think that they would appreciate the effort that people give. Not always the results that you want, but playing there for those years really made me a better pitcher, better player by far, and I think that's what New York would probably be proud of. . . . Whether I was prepared to be there or not, I gave everything I had every time out there. One of my wishes would probably be that they would appreciate that." Don't hold your breath on that one, Kenny.
Mike Mussina, on the other hand, a Stanford graduate with little patience for the media routine, was hilariously snarky. "The token 'where-you-need-to-be' question," he sighed. Managers Jim Leyland and Torre spent much of their conferences discussing the enormous respect, admiration, and affection they have for each other, while the Yankees' Taiwanese ace, Chien-Ming Wang, as usualdue to some combination of natural reticence and the lack of a translatorcould barely be persuaded to string five words together. Asked if he was nervous, he smiled apprehensively at the dozens of tape recorders pointed his way and said, "In the field, no; in here, yes."
The Mets, as is their wont, were chattier. Cliff Floyd mused on the force of nature that is Jose Reyes: "I love him a lot. . . . You can always talk to him about anything. He's always laughing. He probably doesn't know what they heck you're saying most of the time, but he's laughing anyway." After his excellent rise-to-the-occasion performance in Game 2 of the NLDS, Tom "Big Game Tommy" Glavine talked about his intense nervousness earlier that day, while "driving in with Wags." That's Billy Wagner. No NLCS-bound Met will ever go nickname-less.
The Mets' NLDS win at least made sense, based on their strengths: their offense and their bull pen, shrewdly managed by Randolph, plus Glavine. The reasons for the Yankees' loss are more muddled. The old saw about good pitching trumping good hitting is as true as it is overused, but no one predicted that the Yankees' high-octane lineupdubbed "Murderer's Row Plus Cano" in the press, a catchy phrase that now, sadly, seems doomed to be short-livedwould be so utterly stifled by Rogers and then by Jeremy Bonderman, a 23-year-old who bears a striking resemblance to Alice the Goon from Popeye. I'm sorry, did that sound bitter?
Occasionally, during a fight with my dad in high school, I would point to a Yankee game on TV and say, "I wish Joe Torre was my father!" ("So do I," was his usual response.) Torre has a near constant air of understanding, patience, and goodwill. Think about the kind of mood you'd be in if your boss was George Steinbrenner and this becomes all the more remarkable. As of this writing, Torre's fate remained unclear; reports were published of his imminent firing, as were columns suggesting his replacement by Lou Piniella, and New York papers sent reporters to stake out his house in Westchester. While there are arguably a number of things that Torre could have done differently in this past Division Series, he's led the Yankees to the playoffs in every single year of his tenure, and if I've learned anything from the last decade of baseballand life, too, now that I think about itit's that sometimes Kenny Rogers happens to the best of us.