When a modern contrivance becomes a grand tradition, mister, you're growin' old. So it is with the Subway Series, quite obviously a cynical money-making scheme — hatched in the aftermath of a bad-for-business labor dispute, designed as a no-brainer crowd-pleaser, schemed to lure in those who couldn't be bothered with a regulation N.L. or A.L. game. After a dozen years of this stuff, the whole concept still sticks a figurative tongue out at baseball's timeless sense of ritual.
But time isn't timeless, y'know? Time has passed since Interleague play introduced itself to us, a pretty darn long time. It's been eleven years since Dave Mlicki laid down the first marker and a decade since the whole shebang came to Shea. It comes back every spring or summer and that, by definition, makes it tradition.
A special tradition, it turns out. The Mets-Yankees series every year stops the clock for me. Even as I am the first to observe and acknowledge it doesn't rock the packed house the way it did at the very beginning when a moment's silence was to be avoided because your sworn enemy might otherwise have the last word (and that was before the lineups were introduced), it's not yet humdrum and I doubt it ever will be. A special tradition deserves to be treated specially.
It deserved my friend Rob, he who gritted and groaned with me through seven innings of the first Subway Series debacle at Shea Stadium on June 26, 1998 and, for good measure, a bonus pounding at Yankee Stadium on June 10, 2000. Rob has waited not just ten years but his whole life, really (including Saturday), to watch the Mets beat the Yankees in person. How could I think of going to the final Subway Series game at Shea Stadium and not think of Rob?
It deserved my friend Richie, he who materialized without warning on the morning of July 10, 1999 with three tickets to that Saturday's Mets-Yankees game, one for him, one for his son, one for me. The day ended with each of us raspy — something about a 9-8 win captured on a pinch-hit, two-RBI single with two outs in the ninth affected our throats adversely yet did our hearts a world of good. I couldn't speak clearly for weeks after. When I next saw Richie at Shea, in August, he said he couldn't either. How could I think of going to the final Subway Series game at Shea Stadium and not think of Richie and his son?
His son, strangely enough, has aged nine years since Matt Franco's day in the sun and had a “gig” today, I learned; he's a drummer now, which is strange, 'cause in my mind he's eleven and eleven-year-olds don't have gigs even if twenty-year-olds apparently do. Thus, that left me with an extra ticket from the four my friend Sharon graciously passed in my direction when she determined her family couldn't make it from deep in the heart of Jersey all the way up to Shea.
Who deserved this fourth ticket? I had put out a couple of feelers to fine folks who, for whatever reason, were unavailable, until I discovered there was one person I never dreamed would want a piece of this action.
Stephanie! After listening to me come home hoarse and cursing over what wonderful or terrible incident had transpired in the boiling cauldron of hatred that Shea became every May or June or July when the Subway Series returned, my low-key wife finally grew curious enough to dip a toe in and discover for herself what all the fuss was about. That, plus she hadn't seen Rob or Richie in quite a while and she'd figured out from television that the ol' Subway Series tension, it ain't what it used to be.
And it ain't. How could it be? How do you match the stunning sense of juxtaposition from 1998 when Yankees and Yankees fans louted among us? How do you keep up the chanting that defined 1999's get-togethers, the constant din of Let's Go Mets! challenged by Let's Go Yankees! trumped in turn by Yankees Suck! made too often moot by the deleterious actions of one the grayshirts on the field? Some said it would never be the same in any June after they did this in October of 2000. I don't think that's it. It's novelty, or the lack thereof. Today marked the 33rd time the Mets played the Yankees at Shea Stadium in the regular season, the 66th time the Mets played the Yankees in the regular season anywhere in New York since 1997. The Mets and Yankees have played each other in recent seasons just about as much as the Mets have played the Rockies. Even allowing for hostility born of proximity, the 66th time isn't likely to be the charm.
And it wasn't. Oh, I don't mean the game itself, which was reasonably tight, or the result, which was absolutely agreeable. I don't give a damn if it's the 666th time they meet (at which time Satan himself will still be playing short for them), the Mets beating the Yankees is capital stuff. It will always mean more than the Mets beating the Rockies and, if we take our full dose of truth serum, more than the Mets beating the Braves, Phillies, Cardinals and Cubs combined.
But we don't chant nearly as much anymore. We chant more than we do against the Braves, Phillies and less inflammatory National League opponents, but there's far less anxiety about leaving a rhetorical vacuum unfilled. The catcalls wear themselves out. There's actually full at-bats that don't elicit any particular passion. Stephanie and I got up to stand in the Carvel line in the sixth and I didn't worry all that much that I was missing the Subway Series.
Then came the top of the ninth. Then came the Subway Series that I know and love and loathe. Then came Billy Wagner out of the pen and it was the second game in '06, the one where Sandman poured enough salt on a 4-0 lead to turn it into an extra-inning loss, all over again. Then came Jeter up to bat and it was…well, it could have been any of dozens of death knells. Sure enough, Ford boy singles just past Luis Castillo and, sure enough, bill.i.am bounced a wild pitch and Captain Intolerable was on second with nobody out and Alex Rodriguez still up.
Now it was that Saturday in May of 2006, the Billy meltdown special, the one I hadn't been to but felt every bit as scarred through the TV and radio as I was for the ones I had absorbed up close. Now it was the Sunday the May before, Jose and David not handling their positions particularly well. Now it was a Friday night in June of '02, Armando Benitez burning off the last of his save-percentage goodwill and Satoru Komiyama welcoming Robin Ventura home with arms wide open, and the Friday night the year before when Todd Zeile, on second, coached Mike Piazza, on third, to get thrown out, at home (while Yankees fans directly behind predicted every misstep with uncanny accuracy). Now it was the first one in '98, O'Neill doing in Rojas, Rob and I sporting mood rings that were stuck on black.
Every Sunday at Shea, they play Bobby Darin's “Sunday in New York,” the ditty about the “big city takin' a nap”. Until the top of the ninth, we were all pretty much asleep by Subway Series standards. Not anymore. I was awake and I was incensed. All day the presence of Skankophiles was no worse than offensive. Now it was worse. Now they were in the way of happiness and vindication. It was these people and their cause who had made Rob miserable since 1998. It was these people who yesterday tripped up Dave Murray, who'd been waiting for a win in these parts since 1991. It was these people who front-ran and ruined junior high for me, who were insufferable to work alongside in my late thirties, who piss me off by their very existence.
I hated these people. If Yankees fans were an actual ethnic group or religion, I'd be on the Justice Department's watch list for likely intent to commit hate crimes. If I talked about a race or a creed the way I talk about Yankees fans, I'd not be accepted in polite society.
Guy in front of me was telling a Mets fan in the top of the ninth, “rings…26 to 2…that's why we're going to win,” and I swear it was all I could do to keep my voice modulated as I snarled “choke on it, choke on it, CHOKE ON IT!” If he'd heard me, I'm not convinced I would have seen how the game ended because I'd be dragged away by walkie-talkie-wielding men in orange golf shirts.
But he didn't hear me and I remembered that the things I say to the television set probably don't belong in public, so I focused on Wagner and Rodriguez and the tall fly ball A-Rod lofted to the warning track. I focused on Endy and knew it wasn't going out. I knew Jeter could nail himself to second for at least another batter, even if it was Posada and even if Posada shouldn't have been guaranteed a stick in the inning but was thanks to the dopey fielding of Reyes and/or Delgado earlier.
This was indeed the Subway Series I knew and loved and loathed. The clock stopped. The world waited. Nothing mattered more than the Mets beating the Yankees.
Billy Wagner got Posada to ground to Reyes who didn't throw it away. Then he struck out Wilson Betemit, he whose seventh-inning shot screwed up air traffic at LaGuardia if not Ollie Perez altogether.
Then it was last year's Saturday game, a cold and wet May afternoon when David Wright unofficially opened Citi Field. It was the chilly Sunday night the May before when Wright and Delgado cleaned up Wagner's lingering mess. It was Piazza buzzing Clemens on a Friday night very late in the last century and it was, of course, Matt Franco when Richie and I and a couple I never saw before or saw again crafted a group hug that would put Dr. Phil to shame.
Not that dramatic this time, but I couldn't resist pounding laconic Rob on the shoulders before high-fiving him to certify that schnieds were abandoned and monkeys could find new perches on others' backs — Rob had seen the Mets beat the Yankees. I couldn't wait to slap palms with Richie and couldn't help but get in the way of him and Stephanie reaching to do the same. I couldn't wait to give Stephanie live and in-person emoting to the bliss of Mets 3 Yankees 1 as opposed to the way I breathlessly and scratchily recounted Mets 9 Yankees 8 several hours after it was over nine suddenly long years ago.
That's tradition, I think. That's a feeling of being part of something significant and ongoing, even if in fact there will never be another regular-season Subway Series game at Shea Stadium, even if I've probably seen the last of Rob and Richie at Shea Stadium. It's not a sure thing, but I generally don't get to more than one game a year with either of them these days and how exactly do you top the last Subway Series game at Shea Stadium, the last Mets win over the Yankees at Shea Stadium? Whatever else they've been to me, Rob and Richie have been two of the Mets fans I've been closest to as Mets fans, and we did that at Shea Stadium. When I asked if they'd mind posing with me for a picture just before we left, I didn't say why. I didn't have to.