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Biting the Big Apple

Patrick Merewether

Americans don't give a damn if Slobodan Milosevic goes nuts and murders half of Eastern Europe. They don't care if bubonic plague decimates Philadelphia, Homer Simpson gets elected president as a write-in or Firestone starts putting its tires on baby strollers.

No, what most of America really worries about is the possibility that two baseball teams from New York City will play each other in this year's World Series. Or so we are told. If we can believe the whining of assorted sports columnists, TV hairdos and other champions of the common good, a subway series would be a social catastrophe akin to the Great Depression or supplying the nation's serial killers with machetes and machine guns. The country's Yankees- and Mets-haters would rather see Bill Clinton set loose in the Playboy Mansion with a bellyful of Viagra than endure the sight of Mike Piazza standing at the plate versus Roger Clemens, who beaned him in July. The Yankees are arrogant aristocrats who've bought all 36 of their American League pennants and 25 world championships, the conventional wisdom goes (at least in the heartland), while the Mets, well, the Mets are the other team from New York. And if you can't hate everybody and everything associated with loud, obnoxious, overbearing New York (even if you've never seen the place), then what good are you, pardner?

Well, some of us on this side of the Hudson take the contrarian view. Should the Yanks and Mets meet up -- and there's a pretty good chance that they will, since the Mets are already in and, at press time, the Yanks were looking good -- we are actually looking forward to the terrible things sure to befall visitors to the Big Apple in coming days. Imagine. Visiting reporters from Milwaukee and Denver held down by enraged mobs of New York baseball fans and force-fed soft-shell crabs from La Côte Basque. Perfectly innocent women from Miami asked to haul huge pastrami sandwiches from the Stage Deli back to their rooms. Savage New York vigilantes abducting real Americans from Dallas and Detroit and exposing them to those weird-ass Picassos and Chagalls at the Museum of Modern Art. Or dragging them out at night to endure Yo-Yo Ma at Carnegie Hall and Elvin Jones at the Blue Note. Angry natives herding out-of-towners into the Oak Bar at the Plaza or P.J. Clarke's, where they are forced to drink perfect Manhattans and big tumblers of Jameson.

Oh, the horror of it all. Game days are sure to be even worse. Unwary aliens from Iowa City will be shackled and chained in the hotel lobby, then transported off to the Bronx to serve their afternoon-long sentences in the same white-walled hellhole where evil Babe Ruth and monstrous Joe DiMaggio once did time. Daredevils foolish enough to board the infamous 7 Train to Shea Stadium -- the one writ large in the folklore of John Rocker -- will find themselves swept into a dark nightmare of...song: Meet the Mets, Greet the Mets, Step Right Up and... Everybody singing and smiling. So keep your guard up and your cash clutched to your heaving bosom. Some swarthy New Yorker of mysterious ethnic origin, speaking in an accent you've never heard before, might get really aggressive and invite you to have a beer with him.

Enough of local color. If we can believe the current commentators, the two New York baseball teams remain the personification of the city's hubris and strut. Take the Yankees. They won the last two World Series (have you heard?) purely because moneybags owner George Steinbrenner told them to, and they soared into the 2000 postseason on the strength of 6 wins and 17 losses in their last 23 games. What's not to hate about the highest-paid team in the game? After all, their regular-season record was fifth-best in the American League. Their second baseman, Chuck Knoblauch, finds it easier to throw the ball into the stands than to the fellow playing first. One of their star pitchers, David Cone, failed to win a game for almost three months and went 4-14 for the season. Up at Yankee Stadium, the public-address announcer has the nerve to announce batters in quiet, dignified tones, without benefit of any screeching pop theme music whatsoever. There's no exploding scoreboard. When the Yankees eked out a three-games-to-two victory for the division title over the scrappy (albeit underpaid) Oakland Athletics, almost every Yankee on the squad expressed his arrogance by congratulating the A's for their extraordinary effort and by sighing relief that the team formerly known as the Bronx Bombers had squeezed by.

As for Yankees manager Joe Torre, his villainy is measured by the fact that virtually every player and fellow manager in both leagues openly admires him as a strategist...and as a man. And Derek Jeter, the Yanks' star shortstop? Locked in mortal playoff battle with the upstart Seattle Mariners last week, he told the world again that his best friend is none other than his opposite number, Seattle shortstop Alex Rodriguez.

Still shopping for ogres in the five boroughs? Over in Queens, the swaggering Mets have reached the postseason (aren't you just sick of these guys?) for the second time in twelve years. When they last played in the World Series, Reagan was president. This year the Mets have a big payroll, too, although it's only marginally larger than that of the Rockies, and the value of their investment is not always obvious. That's because of the hex laid on the Mets by America's Team, the Atlanta Braves -- who are almost never perceived as arrogant, because they're not from New York.

Still, the Mets can't seem to beat the Braves anywhere or anytime, and the real reason they're going to the World Series this year is -- bingo! -- your own beleaguered, ever-in-flux, resolutely non-arrogant Colorado Rockies. On the last day of the regular season, exemplary Rockies first baseman Todd Helton (the present and future of the franchise) hit a home run to ignite a seven-run, ninth-inning rally that beat Atlanta 10-5 and took the home-field advantage away from the Braves in the playoffs. The home-standing St. Louis Cardinals promptly swept favored Atlanta out of the postseason picture and gave the Mets a new second-round opponent.

Do dollars and braggadocio win the day? Well, sometimes. But aside from their able (and highly paid) brace of free-agent left-handers, Mike Hampton and Al Leiter, the Mets' best player this October has been one Timoniel "Timo" Perez, an anonymous Dominican utility man who didn't play his first major-league game in the United States until last month. The Mets picked him up in March for $95,000 -- which is precisely what Atlanta third baseman Chipper Jones earns per game -- brought him up to the Bigs August 31, and watched in wonder as he helped knock off the San Francisco Giants in round one and did more damage in early games against St. Louis. For Timo, Time is not Money.

Meanwhile, Mets catcher Mike Piazza is the guy every non-New Yorker loves to hate (he makes about a thousand bucks a minute), and Mets manager Bobby Valentine is the guy everyone, even in New York, calls a flake. Valentine matched wills with Mets stars like Bobby Bonilla and Ricky Henderson. He once got himself ejected from a game and re-entered the dugout wearing a false beard and mustache. He's also the only manager in the playoffs who was once fired by a presidential candidate. George W. Bush, then managing general partner of the Texas Rangers, canned Bobby Val in 1992. As every fan knows, that was the same year Al Gore invented baseball.

Those who decry the possibility of a subway series have their reasons. Checkbook baseball, they call it. Championship play in a city everyone hates -- except those who've tried the paglia e fieno at Il Monello on Second Avenue or seen the Chrysler Building bathed in sunset. It's baseball for loudmouths and boors, the critics say, and every real, red-blooded baseball fan is tired as hell of that. After all, it's been only 44 years since the last subway series, and that one was hardly worth watching. The Yankees won in seven. Mickey Mantle hit just .250. Brooklyn Dodgers starter Don Newcombe ran up an earned-run average of 21.21. And, oh yeah -- some guy named Don Larsen pitched a perfect game. So let's just forget the whole thing this year and tune in to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, shall we?


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