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Only in New York
Baseball's Civil War tells all the wrong stories

click to enlarge Paul ONeill mixing and maxing in the laboratory of batting practice - OWEN PERKINS
  • Owen Perkins
  • Paul ONeill mixing and maxing in the laboratory of batting practice

Kurt Vonnegut still claims that his prettiest contribution to his culture was his master's thesis in anthropology in which he theorized on the graphable shapes of stories using the x axis to depict the movement of the plot and the y axis to represent the range of fortune from ill to good.

A typical story curve follows someone with a bearable life who experiences misfortune, overcomes misfortune, and his happier afterward for the experience. Variations include someone who becomes happier after finding something he or she likes a lot (like love), loses it, and gets it back forever. Creation myths tend to be steady staircases, following characters who start out with nothing and are given everything, with the Old Testament story being unique in the sudden drop back to nothing that comes with eating the apple. A couple notable oddity graphs included Kafka's "Metamorphosis," in which an already hopeless person plunges further down the ill fortune axis when he wakes up as a cockroach and the Cinderella story, which follows the standard creation myth staircase with an Old Testament crash at the stroke of midnight only to be followed by a new testament ascension following a Christian redemption.

By Vonnegut's standards, the New York Yankees are the anti-story, the proverbial flat-liners. They start out with exceptionally good fortune and essentially stay there from start to finish of the season's plot. Perhaps you can detect the slightest of blips as they lose key players to injury and finish the season with a seven-game losing streak, but the fact is, they suffer their ill fortune from the vaulted status of first place. They are World Champions now, before, and always. Try selling that story to a Hollywood pitch broker. It's dog bites man, Goliath slays David, and it just extended its three-year run.

The Series started in the Bronx, but the New York press had come to Colorado for the world premiere of Tantalus. All right, so maybe it was just the theater press, but as the world's longest play got longer, the eastern critics could be found at intermissions sneaking into a back room to watch half-inning bytes of the epic first game. In a dramatic act of coincidence, the game took on epic proportions of its own, registering as the longest World Series game ever played, at twelve innings, four hours, and fifty-one minutes.

It's fitting that the two events opened on the same long Saturday in October. While Tantalus started out as two grocery bags full of scripts, sports is known as the great unwritten drama, containing all the conflict and complication of Greek tragedy and Shakespearean intrigue without the lens of authorial perspective to filter the action. You try to identify the protagonist and anticipate the outcome before the central conflict is clearly established. Foreshadowing is a gamble in a story whose climax has yet to be decided, and the journalists and players vie for authorship, pitting the story that should be against the story that is.

Battle in the Bronx

If New York--New York sounded like a Series without conflict, there was good cause. Yankees and Mets fans don't have a built in animosity the way Yankees and Red Sox fans, for example do. Wear a Mets cap in Yankee Stadium and the only reaction you'll get is a beer raised in subtle salutation. Put a Red Sox cap on and you'll be wearing the beer.

Leading up to the second game, all the buzz in the boroughs was on the anticipated showdown between Roger Clemens and Mike Piazza. Their face-off was marquee material, featuring the two players with arguably the highest profile on their respective teams, the four-time Cy Young Award winner and only definite Hall-of-Famer on either team head-to-head with a viable MVP candidate and the man Joe Torre calls "one of the few players that's in scoring position when he gets in the batter's box." After a mid-summer beanball from the Yankee fireballer took the Mets slugger out of commission for two weeks in July, the press was primed to make the conflict into the central event in the story of the Series. The replay was played endlessly on sports highlights shows, and even the unflappable Joe Torre showed his wearing patience.

"I'd like to believe that they'd rather watch the World Series," Torre told reporters before Game 2, "than to see if Roger Clemens is gong to hit him again, or if Mike is going to throw the bat at him."

Ironically, it was Clemens who started the top of the first inning off throwing bats. It didn't even take a New York minute for Game 2 to escalate into riot-worthy fodder. Roger Clemens struck out Timo Perez and Edgardo Alfonso to open the inning, hitting 97 mph on his fastball and bringing the crowd to its feet every time he got two strikes on a batter. In an "only in New York" moment, Mike Piazza hit a broken bat foul squibber and Roger Clemens fielded the bat cleanly and threw it at Piazza's feet as he ran half-paced and confused down the line. When he saw his bat come flying back at him, Piazza had a dumbfounded look on his face, which he captioned later explaining that he'd shouted to Clemens "What's your problem?" while taking a step towards Clemens with the broken bat handle still in his hand. Both benches cleared, but no blood was shed. "It was bizarre," was all the sense Piazza could make of it. "It was bizarre."

Clemens appeared even more disoriented after-the-fact, pleading temporary insanity and reiterating that "I was pretty pumped up and emotional" as an excuse for his actions.

Another showdown lingered between the Mets showboating manager Bobby Valentine and low-key stalwart Joe Torre in the Yankees dugout. Valentine had the chance to be the deer-in-the-headlights, the first to answer to the press and fend off theories that it was a calculated effort on Clemens' part to intimidate the opposing line-up.

"Jesus, I didn't think there was intimidation. You think that's why we didn't get any hits? I think it was a 95-mile-an-hour fastball and a hell of a split with a slider and good control."

Clemens' decision to "pitch tight" with the broken bat set Torre up to take on the role of martyr as the media blew the action into front page sensationalism.

click to enlarge Mike Piazza savors the drama of the moment, two outs, bottom of the ninth - OWEN PERKINS
  • Owen Perkins
  • Mike Piazza savors the drama of the moment, two outs, bottom of the ninth

"Why would he throw it at him?," Torre demanded of the press, "So he could get thrown out of second game of the World Series? Does that make any sense to anybody? Or is that too shitty a story to write?" Fed up, Torre started to leave the room in a tantrum, saying "Jesus Christmas! I'm--see you." He stopped himself and returned apologetic while Major League Baseball's collective jaw dropped at the sight of their golden boy, the symbol of the new Yanks, erupting in a tirade, albeit a barely detectable blip on the radar screen of explosions established by the likes of Billy Martin.

"All you people are here because this is the World Series," he explained, deflating the expectations that the teams be machine-like in the midst of all the hype and frenzy. "If you think that you go out there and you are robots and you throw the ball, you catch the ball, and that's what we do--you have to be emotional and you have to be passionate about this."

The speculation about psychological motive sparked a narrative low on complication. Torre scoffed at suggestions that there was any intent from Clemens, saying "Not throwing a bat. That's something you don't work on when you throw between starts." It's plausible to think that Clemens fielded the bat out of the split-second instinct it takes to survive defensively on the pitcher's mound, and that the even more fully developed killer instinct of an overpowering strikeout pitcher turned into spontaneous rage in which all he could see was the danger the flying bat posed and the source of his frustration trotting down the line in front of him.

"It's bad enough when you're out there and you know you want to pitch him in, but you know you can't afford to miss up-and-in," Clemens said, hinting at the effect the earlier beaning fiasco had on his mental approach to Piazza. "I'm almost going away from what I feel my strength is to Mike, and to try and open up the outside part of the plate."

"The intent is not the important thing," Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, baseball's vice-president in charge of discipline, told the Indy the next day, after levying a $50,000 fine on Clemens. "It was the act itself that I felt was inappropriate and reckless and could have led to some injuries. The way he said he disposed of an object, a broken bat with a point on it, the velocity he threw it off the field and the direction he threw it in. He threw the bat across the baseline, which the batter has a right to." Though Robinson saw no grounds for an appeal, Clemens has since appealed the fine, claiming the "excessiveness" of the fine indicates the assumption of intent.

With the spark of a controversy to ignite him, George Steinbrenner couldn't resist the instinct to breath fire into the situation, claiming the complainants were simply reacting to an overpowering pitching performance. "He pitched an outstanding game for us tonight," he told reporters in the clubhouse after the game. "They don't have a clue."

Queens for a day

The only match-up that favored the Yankees in character logic was won by the Mets, perpetuating the anti-story nature of the Series. Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, the heroic Yankees pitcher who escaped from Cuba three years ago on a raft was up against Rick Reed, one of the few replacement players from the ''95 strike-shortened season to overcome his scab status and catch on as a major leaguer.

Before the game, the Olympic baseball and softball teams were honored. "Make sure to put those gold medals inside your jacket when you go into the stands," a security guard told them before they took the field. "You are in New York." Olympic manager Tommy Lasorda was there to throw out the first pitch, and in the tunnel shortly before the game he ran into Robin Ventura, telling him to "hit two tonight." Ventura managed only one for the Mets, a second inning solo shot to right, but it was all the difference in the Mets one-run victory.

The two pitchers started the game with an exhilarating three innings in which twelve of the first thirteen outs were strikeouts, and the clubs went on to set a record for most combined strikeouts in a World Series game. El Duque was sneaking pitches past the Metropolitans, escaping a bases loaded jam in the sixth with two strikeouts and an inning-ending grounder. Both pitchers benefited from a wide strike zone.

"Early in the game I was noticing that a lot of balls weren't being hit, on both sides," Reed told the Indy after the game. "We knew we were in a battle. He's a backbreaker in the post season. We just clawed, scratched, and came away with a win.

"This is why we play in the minor leagues, getting up at three in the morning and riding the bus at four in the morning," Reed continued, neglecting to cite his scab experience in the catalogue of hardships on the way to the World Series. "This is why you do all that. Just to stand on the mound would have been thrill enough, but to win the game is the biggest thrill of all."

Valentine took solace in the Mets victory, ending a record 14-straight World Series game victories for the Yankees. "I think baseball fans--and I'm one of them--have been watching the World Series the last few years and thinking it doesn't look like there's much competition."

Flopping in Flushing

Come World Series Time, the pre-game batting practice ritual becomes a spectacle with everyone from Reggie Jackson and Rollie Fingers--members of the '72-'74 A's, the last team to win three straight championships--to sports artist LeRoi Neiman and filmmaker Spike Lee, who takes a perch beside me to get some home movie footage of batting practice. "My son is 25," Yankees coach Chris Chamblis tells Lee. "He's written a couple scripts of his own." Lee patiently endures the pitches that come with the luxury of on-field access. I look over his shoulder into his viewfinder as Yankee security apologizes when they get in Spike's way, moving politely into mine.

click to enlarge Joe Torre did more managing than ever to raise the World Series trophy a fourth time in five years - OWEN PERKINS
  • Owen Perkins
  • Joe Torre did more managing than ever to raise the World Series trophy a fourth time in five years

The emotional tide turned toward the Yankees in Game 4 when Mike Piazza took center stage in a tie game in the fifth inning. Torre brought in struggling former Met David Cone for a one-batter showdown against Piazza. "I'm not sure if I'd be comfortable with David Cone pitching 8 innings for me," said Torre the next day in the tunnel before taking the field, noting that he always puts loyalty to all 25 players above loyalty to any one individual, "but I'll tell you one thing, he can muster up a big out. The trust factor was still there, in my mind." Cone validated the trust by inducing Piazza to hit a weak pop fly to second to end the inning.

Cone had come in to relieve Morrison, Colorado resident Danny Neagle, the fourth man in the Yankees starting rotation. Neagle, a mid-season addition to the Yankees roster, was somewhat frustrated at being pulled when he was one-out short of earning a victory in the game, and reiterated his plans to file for free agency after the Series, pointing out that "I'd certainly like to hear from the Rockies."

Later in the game, with the Yankees up by a run, Mariano Rivera came in to pitch the last two innings. Rivera is the perfect flat character. He's 100 percent predictable, taking all the suspense out of the game upon entry and making the final innings a mere formality. At clutch time, Rivera is invulnerable, flawless, and dramatically stagnant.

"It's really hard to center him," says Valentine of the difficulty of succeeding at the plate against Rivera. "The ball's moving two ways, and it's moving pretty quickly. It's moving forward at 90-plus and it's moving sideways rather late and rather quickly. Yeah, he's not an illusion; he's the real deal."

The last major conflict came in the battle for sympathy from steady veterans. Paul O'Neill came into the Series on the verge of retirement. He slumped through the first two rounds of the post season, and was dropped from third to seventh in the batting order. O'Neill caught fire, hitting .474, knocking doubles and triples and battling tirelessly through every plate appearance.

"It's like he's in the laboratory mixing this with a little of this," Torre marveled. "He comes up with a different swing every at-bat that he needs to have against a certain pitcher."

On the Mets side, Al Leiter seemed to shoulder all the weight of bringing the forces of good to match against the forces of the Yankees. A sentimental favorite after two days earlier winning the Roberto Clemente Award for distinguished character on and off the playing field, Leiter kept the Yankees in check through 8 2/3 innings in the do-or-die Game 5. While Yankees starter Andy Pettitte paid homage to Clemens' mentoring by pointlessly shoving the first base umpire after bobbling a toss from Tino Martinez and setting up a two-run Mets second inning, Leiter was quietly reestablishing his legacy with a sterling pitching performance.

In a moment of comic tension in the middle of another one-run nailbiter, former Rockie Kurt Abbott broke his bat in the direction of Yankees shortstop and Series MVP Derek Jeter. There was a momentary hush followed by an ironic ovation as Jeter fielded the bat and carefully handed it, sharp side in, to the Mets bat boy.

In the top of the ninth, Leiter struck out Martinez and O'Neill without yielding a single ball, and Valentine kept his bullpen inactive, gambling that the vote of confidence would give Leiter the push he needed to finish the job. It was an emotional move, a bad move, but a dramatic move, capturing all the white-knuckled strategy that strung out the tension of four one-run decisions and a final game tied in the ninth. He finally gave up a hard-earned 10-pitch walk to Jorge Posada. A single to Scott Brosius was followed by a double from pinch hitter Luis Sojo, scoring the go-ahead runs. Even Mike Piazza stepping to the plate as the potential tying run in the bottom of the ninth couldn't keep the Yankees from their third straight World Series victory, four games to one.

"I was wrong," Valentine said later about pushing Leiter to throw 144 pitches. "If I brought somebody else in, they definitely would have gotten the guy out and we'd still be playing." Who could help but ache for Leiter as he finally returned to the dugout where slumped over, head in his hands, agonized with a goat's guilt.

The spoils of victory

In the Yankees clubhouse the champagne sprayed as a chorus of players mocked the Mets by singing their fight song, "Who Let the Dogs Out?"

"It's as sweet as it gets," said Pettitte.

"Our whole team has done a great job," added Jeter, deflecting the attention off his MVP Series. "We have the most valuable team."

Torre, the best part of any Yankee story, let down his guard, gushing his answers in the elbow-to-elbow locker room. "You want, as a child, to get into a World Series, and to be able to experience this four times, and to have it be in my home town," he said before cutting himself off. "Yes, I am planning to manage next year. Unless George fires me. I won't be back if he fires me." He was making progress through the room, but he made sure the everyone realized "that's tongue in cheek, please."

In the chaotic aftermath that takes hours to unfold on the field after the final out, awestruck men stand on the hallowed ground of the pitcher's mound, toeing the rubber, as Clemens scoops up some dirt for his collection. A jubilant Mayor Giulliani beams in pride and praise, declaring that "Mariano owns the World Series. They should just call it the Mariano Rivera World Series."

Around 2 a.m. there is a nerve jangling explosion in center field that sends most stragglers running for home. A nervous investigation in the smoky outdoors yields the discovery that the Mets had set off the fireworks that had been prepared for a Mets victory. Once they are set up the only way to put them away is to detonate them.

Three 12-year-old kids venture into the outfield as the stadium nears vacancy and 3 a.m. "This is the most fun I've ever had in my life," says one. They catch flies, run the bases, and laugh when the ball lands in a pile of horse dung left by the mounted police, not hesitating to pick it up again. In a Series whose every conflict was resolved at the expense of narrative empowerment, the storytellers must be satisfied with the simple symbolism of a shit-stained ball smacking the leather of a still-hopeful kid's glove.


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