Poetic Justice

This epic poem of a baseball season is drawing to a close. But before Tino Martinez hangs up his spikes for the winter, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa settle into the history books and the game's financial titans dare to believe that the game's wronged fans have returned, there's a World Series to finish. Media shark Rupert Murdoch, who's televising the proceedings on Fox, must have mixed emotions about this year's matchup. On the one hand, Murdoch's old nemesis Ted Turner isn't at the park waving his foam rubber tomahawk; on the other, the San Diego Padres are not the heavyweight post-season attractions Turner's Atlanta Braves are. Win one, lose one, Rupe.

Of course, the presence of the New York Yankees never hurts anything in the TV-ratings department. Winners of an American League record 114 games this season and 23 World Series this century, the Yanks remain the most storied franchise in sports. Their owner, George Steinbrenner, is himself a tyrant of considerable force, whose rages amuse friend and foe alike. It's painful to say this, but the team of Ruth and Gehrig, Mantle and Maris probably belongs in the Series at the end of this extraordinary season: Love them or hate them, the Yanks embody the history and grandeur of the game. Had, say, the Texas Rangers represented the American League in 1998, the Fall Classic wouldn't have given off quite the same resonance.

And thank heaven for small favors: Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter and company still practice their trade, for now at least, in one of the great shrines of baseball--Yankee Stadium.

Meanwhile, aren't the Padres ideal opponents for the Yankees this year? Don't they provide just the right David and Goliath contrast? For most of their brief history, after all, they've been baseball's anonymous strivers, mired at the bottom of the standings, an afterthought when the late scores drift in from the West Coast. Quickly, now: Who plays second base for the Pads? San Diego is the team that traded the great shortstop Ozzie Smith to St. Louis for Garry Templeton. The Padres used to wear brown and yellow uniforms. In 1997 they finished dead last in the National League West--seven games behind the Colorado Rockies. They are the team that in their only other World Series appearance, in 1984, set a couple of unenviable records: Their starting pitchers ran up a 13.94 earned-run average against the Detroit Tigers while losing four games to one.

By the way, Quilvio Veras plays second for the Pads.
In two World Series games this year, the Yankees overcame a late-game deficit with a seven-run seventh inning to take game one, then blew San Diego out of the Bronx with a 9-3 win Sunday night. They look unbeatable on the field, and in the clubhouse they have an inspiration every bit the equal of the one that motivated them to win the 1996 Series: That year it was the heart transplant surgery of Frank Torre, older brother of Yankees manager Joe Torre; this time it's the colon cancer of teammate Darryl Strawberry. Looking haggard, the Straw Man got out of the hospital just in time for game one, to inspire his mates along with the fans: Instead of hanging printed "K" posters around the ballpark to mark strikeouts, the Yankees' notoriously intemperate, hard-hearted supporters are displaying pictures of big red strawberries. How can the outmanned Padres compete with that kind of emotional firepower?

Should New York win its 24th title this week, Yankee-haters (we are legion) will once more bemoan the unfairness of life. Consider, for instance, the legendary non-Yankee Hall of Famers who never got to play in a World Series, much less win one: Ernie Banks and Nap Lajoie, Wee Willie Keeler and Rod Carew, Gaylord Perry and George Sisler, Phil Niekro, Billy Williams and Ralph Kiner, among others. This month, Sport magazine points out the genetic inequities in World Series glory: Yankees have won 23 times, Native Americans five, Giants five, Twins two.

Consider also the geographical distribution of October success: Among them, the Yankees, Dodgers, Giants and Mets have brought thirty World Series titles to New York; St. Louis holds a distant second place, with nine; Boston and Philadelphia have six each. When last we checked, San Diego led the Bronx in the production of surfer babes and fish tacos but had not experienced a hint of baseball euphoria. Fact is, the Padres finished last in eight of their first fifteen seasons and haven't done much since.

The franchise highlight? Well, let's see: The splendid junk-baller Randy Jones won the Cy Young Award in 1976. Steve Garvey once played first base. Tony Gwynn has racked up eight National League batting titles. And if you like, revisit the night of August 1, 1972, when San Diego first baseman Nate Colbert hit five home runs and drove in thirteen runs as the Pads won both games of a doubleheader in Atlanta. But even the brief wonder of 1984 was tainted, through no fault of the players: San Diego's startling trip to the World Series that year should have been cause for great joy among Americans in love with the underdog. Except for one glaring irony: The team San Diego beat in the National League Championship Series was none other than the hapless Chicago Cubs, lovable losers of such long standing that baseball fans everywhere actually resented the Padres for overcoming a two-games-to-none deficit and winning the pennant after a ground ball slipped between the legs of Chicago first baseman Leon "Bull" Durham.

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