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-alien–mutant 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 us—there’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 year—for 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.
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 system—fundamental skills, physical conditioning, and emotional skills—by 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 places—Florida, a nice Cajun restaurant—where 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 usual—due to some combination of natural reticence and the lack of a translator—could 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 lineup—dubbed “Murderer’s Row Plus Cano” in the press, a catchy phrase that now, sadly, seems doomed to be short-lived—would 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 baseball—and life, too, now that I think about it—it’s that sometimes Kenny Rogers happens to the best of us.