The Stems Win


The crucible that is playoff baseball reveals so much about a team. Witness this exchange between injured catcher Mike Piazza and the ink-stained wretches after the Mets’ crucial Game 3 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks Friday night.

Mike Piazza: “When the Xylocaine wore off [my thumb] I couldn’t do the things I needed to do.” Pause. “I couldn’t wipe my ass.”

Reporter: “Are you left-handed?”

Piazza: “Yup. You know, sumo wrestlers, some of them have to have someone do it for them.”

Can you say “too much information”?

After being lulled to sleep by season upon season of business-as-usual playoff baseball in the Bronx, the Mets reminded us how much a postseason game can resemble an Ionesco play. Nothing is predictable, and little is as it seems. John Olerud goes yard against Randy Johnson. Bobby Valentine insists on playing Shawon Dunston in centerfield and still manages to outmanage Buck Showalter. Edgardo Alfonzo muffs a ball that Chuck Knoblauch could have easily gobbled up. Armando Benitez regresses into his old Charm City fireballer self. And in the end, the Bucky Dent moment belongs to a career backup catcher wearing a T-shirt that reads “THE STEMS WIN.”

“In baseball,” as a certain pennant-
winning Mets manager once said, “you don’t know nothing.”

Well, maybe you know a few things. As the team’s clubhouse theme song, “L.A. Woman,” segued strangely into the “The End” during the post-clinch celebration, Mets assistant GM Omar Minaya grabbed a bottle of Cooks champagne (with the $3.95 sticker still attached) and playfully sprayed a throng of reporters trying to huddle outside the line of fire. Everyone (well, almost everyone) smiles. A second later, manager Bobby Valentine saunters past and smirks, “That wasn’t good clothing, was it?” Those smiles turn upside down. Plus ça change . . .

Mostly, the Mets won because they played Mets baseball, the kind of play that won them 97 games (five more, you’ll remember, than the ’96 Yankees). They worked the count to the tune of five walks per game and forced Arizona to throw innumerable pitches over the fat part of the plate. (Rickey Henderson’s eighth-inning leadoff single capped an 11-pitch at bat in Game 4, and may have been the defining moment of the series.) The starting pitchers competed and the bullpen— with a few conspicuous lapses— gave opposing hitters as much chance as malathion gives a West Nile mosquito.

And if they can exorcise the ghosts of the season’s last two weeks, the Mets have a shot to continue this roll. For all their regular season excellence, the Braves have turned underdogs into overdogs in three of the last five NLCSs, and there’s no reason to think it can’t happen again. What do you get when you cross Bobby Cox with Ted Kaczynski? The Atlanta bullpen, which exploded twice in four games against Houston. But whether this improbable ride toward the Subway Series continues or stalls like the D train at rush hour, this Met team has already captured something: the imagination of a city situated squarely on the fault line between the improbable and the still possible.

“I’m walking down First Avenue with my wife, holding hands,” says Orel Hershiser after Game 3. “And this guy comes up to me with this real heavy New York accent and he yells,
‘C’MON BULLDOG, GO GET ‘EM!’ And I say, ‘I can’t. There’s no game tonight.’ So he stops and thinks for a second and he goes, ‘OKAY, THEN GO HOME AND REST!’

” ‘Um, can’t I at least eat dinner first?’ “