The New York Mets play the New York Yankees for the sixtieth time in regular-season competition tonight. That is if the weather cooperates. Three times the weather hasn't cooperated: June 11, 2000; June 21, 2003; and June 25, 2004.
I remember those rainouts. I remember almost everything about every Subway Series. A few details about a few losses have probably fallen between the cracks — there have been 34 losses spread over 11 seasons, so it is probably best to let a few slip away — but mostly it's all fresh in the mind's eye, no part more fresh than the segment that came first.
Imagine something for the better part of 35 seasons and once it finally happens it's pretty thrilling. That was what every New York baseball fan likely did at least once between 1962 and 1996. Mets versus Yankees? It may not have been a universal concern, but there were enough Grapefruit League and Mayor's Trophy games to make one wonder what if they actually played each other for real? And so, by aegis of the commissioner's office, it happened.
You may have forgotten a lot about 1997, but you haven't forgotten June 16. Even if you don't remember the date, you remember Mlicki. We all remember Mlicki. We're all still lining up, if we're any kind of decent people, to buy Dave Mlicki a drink or a car or some token of affection for putting the Mets up 1-0 in all-time competition versus the Yankees ten years ago yesterday. Dave Mlicki was one of the most frustrating right arms the Mets ever had. He should have won 15 games every year. He never won more than nine. The year he shut out the Yankees 6-0 — we beat the Yankees! — his record was 8-12. While he was on the job, Dave Mlicki could be irritating in his determination to not get the third out, not throw the third strike when he needed it.
Do you remember that? No, you remember 6-0 on June 16, 1997. You remember barely controlling your excitement and/or your angst if in fact you bothered to try. From the first pitch of that first game, Andy Pettitte to Lance Johnson, I needed weighted boots to keep my feet on the ground. Strip aside playoff games from '88 and key pennant race games from the years surrounding those and this was the biggest game since Game Seven against the Red Sox. In the Self-Esteem Division of the Emotional Well-Being League, it was the biggest game ever.
We led from the first inning on. We never trailed. We won. What if the Mets played the Yankees in a game that counted? The Mets would win 6-0. We had our answer.
So why did the question have to be repeated 58 going on 59 more times?
If we had stopped with Mlicki and 6-0, that would have satisfied everybody. We would have had our win for all time and they…well, what do I care about them? Part of the social contract of following one team in a two-team market is the implicit understanding that you don't have to bother with the other team. Prior to June 16, 1997, I didn't have to think about the New York Yankees very often if I didn't want to. I didn't want to. If I did, they were right there for the following when I started with baseball. I went with the Mets and that was that. The Yankees had their downs and ups and their cycles (some lasting distressingly longer than others) but they existed in somebody else's vacuum for my purposes.
That changed as of June 16, 1997. They weren't just a psychic enemy by dint of obnoxious co-workers and classmates, they were opponents. They were on the schedule. You could ignore the Yankees to the best of your ability — preblog media making that a tough enough task — but now you had to stare them in the face three, then six times a year every year whether you wanted to or not.
It's easy to bash Interleague. It's easy to point to any game that involves the Devil Rays or Royals taking on a National League team, or the Pirates or Rockies going against an American League team and snottily dismiss it with “well, there's a rivalry everybody wants to see.” To which I say, what do you want from these clubs? They're part of a larger structure, they have to play somebody. I imagine there was a moment in baseball history when the Pirates playing the White Sox would have caused quite a stir, maybe around 1960 or 1972. I tuned in briefly to their game last night and saw loads of empty seats at PNC Park, no different than it would be if the Pirates played just about anybody these days.
So Interleague isn't a panacea through no fault of its 30 participants, some of whom undeniably suck regardless of matchup. But it does rock New York and a few other intracity locales as has been well documented by the Attendance line at the bottom of boxscores since 1997. People show up. Hardly anybody claims to like it anymore, but I'm waiting for the first Subway Series game in which you can walk up to the ticket window an hour before first pitch and purchase four on the aisle in either Queens or the Bronx. I made it my business to go the first one at Shea in 1998 for the sake of history. I relished the chance to go the next couple of years because, duh, it was the Mets playing the Yankees. Since 2001, I simply hate the idea that a Yankees fan's ass might be taking up my rightful space.
Hmmm…I wonder how much more they could charge for admission if they marketed it as “Don't Let Those Bastards Sit In Your Seats.”
It's not like we don't get our money's worth out of the Subway Series. Pound for pound, Mets-Yankees games have to be the most breathtaking of any games in the Majors in just about any year. Tell me each side doesn't play its heart out even after they spew quote after quote about how it's either just another game or, worse, a pain in their excessively compensated ass. Think how many games you can instantly identify by name since 1997. The Mlicki Game. The Matt Franco Game. The Shawn Estes Game. The Mister Koo Game. Think how many obscurities spring to life through the prism of the Subway Series and how instantly incandescent they become. Shane Spencer…Ty Wigginton…Richard Hidalgo…and that was just one weekend in 2004.
Come to think of it, save for Piazza being Piazza on multiple occasions and Wright and Floyd using Yankee Stadium's upper deck for target practice on June 25, 2005, does it strike you odd that so many of our triumphs against baseball's best-funded corporate entity have been won on the wings and prayers of relative obscurities? Even obscure for the Mets? Would you be able to differentiate Dave Mlicki from Robert Person or Mark Clark if not for the Subway Series? Would Steve Bieser's Q rating be anywhere near as high as it is if not for the balk he teased out of David Cone on June 18, 1997, two days after Mlicki had his passport to Amazin' immortality stamped? Would Tsuyoshi Shinjo's orange wristbands burn as brightly in memory if he hadn't given over a quad to beat out a play at first, thus setting up Mr. Mike's midnight roughshod ride over Carlos Almanzar on June 17, 2001?
Perhaps it's a function of not having that many stars, at least not until fairly recently. Who does the damage for the Yankees? Not Carlos Almanzar or Enrique Wilson or Tanyon Sturtze, cherished goats from our perspective. It's Jeter and A-Rod and Jeter and Posada and Jeter and Giambi and Jeter and, earlier, Williams and Jeter and Martinez and Jeter and O'Neill and Jeter.
It's always fucking Jeter, isn't it? He kicks our brains in and then he's selling us a Ford Explorer. Can somebody please screen these ads ahead of time?
We play the Yankees just about as much as we play any N.L. Central or Western opponent. Mets-Astros games may have their own particular flavor but there's no denying a unique culture has sprung up between the Mets and Yankees. There are five essential types that can describe just about every Subway Series game.
• The joyous bizarrofest won by the Mets, definitely the class of the genre of which The Matt Franco Game of July 10, 1999 is the archetype and patron saint.
• The inane choke lost by the Mets, such as the end of the world brought to us by Billy Wagner on May 20, 2006 but honed to imperfection by Armando Benitez on June 14, 2002 and Braden Looper on June 26, 2005.
• The scintillating pitching & defense duel won by the Mets, last spotted Friday night, previously spun May 18, 2007 via Oliver Perez and Endy Chavez.
• The slopfest lost by the Mets — you know, like Saturday.
• The dull Yankee win, representing probably a bulging plurality of the 34 Met losses since June 17, 1997, particularly on Sunday nights.
Ah yes, ESPN games are a notable subgenre of the Subway Series. They used to present the occasional uplifting breakthrough (Luis Lopez sac-flying home Carlos Baerga while Brian McRae dawdled around first on June 28, 1998, thus saving us from completely losing Shea face; Al Leiter stopping the coach-firing, losing streak madness of June 6, 1999 and sparking up a 40-15 run for glory), but ever since the first Subway Series rainout — Ventura flopping around on the tarp with a fake Mike mustache which was funny until it wrought that horrendous shame-of-the-franchise day-night doubleheader of July 8, 2000 — Sunday nights have increasingly morphed into episodes of embarrassment. We actually won the first four ESPN games we played against the Yankees. Yet after Sunday night June 16, 2002 — Mo Vaughn hammering David Wells at Shea — we are 1-7 in the Simpsons/Sopranos slot, up through and including the unawaited debut of Tyler Clippard on May 20, 2007. Lifetime with Joe Moron and Jon Imbecile bungling the action, we're 6-8. You can keep prime time.
Let's say you have a game like Saturday afternoon's. I'd rather not, but we did. Even as it dragged on until Carlos Beltran courteously ended it with one swing, we were guaranteed the agony of 24+ hours without a chance for revenge. That's the worst part of the Subway Series, save for the 34 losses. The waiting is indeed the hardest part. I don't do or think anything special for games against the Phillies or the Nationals or even the Braves unless circumstances dictate otherwise. For 15 regular National League and 13 intermittent American League opponents, it's generally enough to pay a little attention beforehand and turn on the TV once the clock strikes 7.
Not with these games against the Yankees. I try everything including trying nothing. When the Subway Series was still novel, even when it was getting old, I allowed myself to get sucked up into the hype Subway Series Fridays brought. I bought all the papers, I stayed glued to the FAN, I watched the idiots-screaming-into-the-camera features on the news. This past Friday, I decided to go unspoiled. I read nothing. I heard nothing. I watched nothing. I didn't even wear a Mets t-shirt. Because my strategic disengagement worked (that and Ollie), I tried it again Saturday. The results were mixed, then abysmal. Once it was 10-5, I pulled out a trick I use only in dire circumstances. I dropped all television and radio contact, which is different from simply turning off your sets right there. We needed to pick up a few things at Stop & Shop, so pick up we did. Pick up and leave Channel 11. No earbuds, bud. No concern for what was going on in the late innings. None evinced, anyway.
We arrived home for the top of the ninth, groceries in, garbage waiting to be taken out. I'll just sit and watch this disaster, now 11-6, go final and then hit the dumpster, figuring I'll see the Mets there in about two minutes. Then Delgado gets a hit. And Lo Duca. An out but then Castro gets a hit. Gotay doesn't, but Gomez battles Rivera so hard that it must elicit a reflexive smile from Art Howe in Cincinnati with the Rangers. It's 11-7. Stephanie hands me a rainbow roll from the Stop & Shop seafood department. I chew on it as if it's the most important thing in the room. I can't invest outward interest in what's on the TV. I walked away from this game and now this game has come crawling back to me. If I embrace it, it will only turn on me in anger.
Reyes's turn to not give up the ship. And he doesn't. It's 11 to 8. I'm out of rainbow roll. I just sit and stare and Beltran. If I make too much out of the bases being loaded and our technically best player coming up, there will be nothing to come of it.
I act like this at Shea once in a while. And I certainly twist my thoughts into pretzels dozens of times a night so as to bring good luck or not bring bad luck to the Mets. But this kind of thinking, this kind of anxiety, this brand of intense, insane, insipid ohmigodibetternotscrewthisupforus contortionism doesn't happen when the Mets play 15 regular National League and 13 intermittent American League opponents.
I don't know if I should credit or blame the Subway Series for this strain of behavior. Anything that makes you feel baseball this much is probably a worthwhile if utterly unhealthy endeavor. I love beating the Yankees. I hate losing to the Yankees. Fifty-nine times since June 16, 1997, I've experienced the sweet and the bitter ends of this particular rainbow roll repeatedly. Both are tastes you never quite get out of your mouth.
But on the eve of my sixtieth bite, I wouldn't put up much of a fuss if they decided not to serve us any more after this. Really, I was sated after the first helping ten years ago yesterday.