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 now—but 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 mercurial—when 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 too—it’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 Williams—my 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.
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 versa—that 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 Matsui—a 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.
As the Mets dressed for their last regular-season road trip of the year, still unaware of the Pedro-related doom hanging over their heads and only beginning to seem worried about their recent slide, Anderson Hernandez struggled to tie his tie. Endy Chavez tried to help him, but he couldn’t quite get it either. Several minutes of determined but ineffective fumbling got them nothing but wrinkles, until finally Carlos Delgado came over and, with a patient impromptu lesson in Spanish, did it for them.
There is no better way to make yourself look stupid than by trying to predict the playoffs. The absence of Pedro Martinez, arguably one of the greatest pitchers of all time in his prime, does not bode well for the Mets, who ended their season with a losing skid that snapped their fans out of their new NL East champions complacency in a hurry. I actually found this reassuring; New York isn’t quite itself if Mets fans aren’t solemnly debating the merits of jumping out their windows versus leaping off the nearest bridge. On the other hand, it will only take a few good starts from Steve Trachsel or John Maine to make everyone forget all about Pedro—and to get the Mets the kind of media attention that may prevent them from being, in the traditional sense of the word, the Mets.
As for the Yankees, on September 27, all their stars finally returned after the injuries that made the team an unlikely underdog—or, rather, as much of an underdog as it’s possible for the Yankees to be— for much of the summer. They fielded a starting lineup that would have had a very decent shot at beating the National League’s starting 2006 All-Star team. It did not feature Melky Cabrera, Aaron Guiel, Miguel Cairo, or any of the other bit players that helped the Yankees hold onto their division while the big guns were out, and while no one could possibly argue that any of those players can hit better than Gary Sheffield, it still struck me as a little sad; so much for dancing with the one you came with. This lineup featured batting-title contender Robinson Cano hitting ninth—”a lineup you dream about,” said Johnny Damon, though I’d bet good money that Damon’s dreams are more interesting than that—and massacred the beleaguered Orioles pitching staff en route to 16 runs. The next day, however, a little-known Orioles right-hander named Daniel Cabrera came within two outs of pitching a no-hitter.
It is a long-standing baseball truism, and for good reason, that anything can happen in a short series. I don’t subscribe to the Steinbrenner view that every season is a total failure if it doesn’t end with a championship; the Mets surged back to prominence this year and the Yankees refused to die, and even if that’s all there is, it’s been highly entertaining. Yes, yes, I know: the better to crush your soul with bitter disappointment later on. It was still fun while it lasted.