One of the problems with being a baseball fan who’s reached a certain level of insanity is most every game is seen as part of your team’s ongoing drama, with the other guys walk-on antagonists who exist only to thwart us. When our team wins, if we can we attribute it to pluck or fortitude or togetherness or some other quality detectable only by emotional instruments. When our team loses, if we can we attribute it to incompetence, laziness, a lack of heart or some equally unquantifiable failing. Now and then our team faces an opponent that plays so well or so badly that we can’t turn the game into a morality play, but most of the time we find a way.
You could write a book on why this is so, but I’ll try to sum it up in two sentences: We’re natural storytellers, and few things are less satisfying than a story that turns on random events. Luck (or its lack) makes for a lousy narrative, particularly compared to virtue (or its lack). I’ve always thought this is what’s at the heart of the increasingly tired and ridiculous divide between traditionalists and stat guys. But it’s also a remarkably one-sided way of looking at a baseball game.
Which brings us to the Yankees.
There’s no shortage of things to despise about the New York Yankees and their fans. There’s the insane payroll. The thoroughly awful combination of a sense of entitlement and an animal delight in others’ misfortunes. The humorless fetishizing of history, Kultur and numbing scale. The insistence among Gotham media hacks that any baseball story is ultimately about them. Their paranoid Tokyo Rose approach to covering themselves. The enshrinement of vaguely fascist rules. The overt, not even faintly apologetic appeal to greedy, front-running wannabe overdogs. I could go on, until I was punch-drunk with hatred for them.
But the Yankees are also 25 guys who are, on average, pretty good at baseball.
Two pitchers took the mound for the Mets in the ninth — a clearly overamped Ryota Igarashi and a clearly underwhelming Francisco Rodriguez. They were facing a pretty good ballclub trying to fight out of a five-run hole. That was it — two pitchers not having good nights trying to get three outs before the other guys got five runs. Because they’re Mets, though, the story tried to become one of their heart and courage and ability to keep cool. And it tried to become our story — thousands upon thousands of fans no longer having good nights trying to have desperate hope win out over despair, doubt and disaster.
And because tonight’s antagonist was the Yankees, all of those unquantifiable, invisible things were magnified until they turned monstrous. Iggy and K-Rod were facing a subset of those 25 guys in Yankee uniforms — not a pack of big dollar signs, a bunch of World Series rings, Michael Kay, a lack of facial hair, or 15,000 baying hyenas. Those opponents were playing only in our own private potential hells.
But what hells they were. Nick Swisher walked and the prickles of dread began. How enthusiastically will John Sterling stutter through his loathsome victory call? Francisco Cervelli dropped in a single. God, WFAN will be unbearable. Kevin Russo hit what first looked like a double-play ball, only Igarashi turned wild-eyed to third and only got Cervelli at second. I swear I’ll wind up punching that guy [from payroll/on the subway/upstairs/beside me at Citi Field/who’s related to me] if they pull this out. Juan Miranda singled, plating Swisher and cutting the lead to four with the hammer-and-tongs part of the order in sight. Exit Iggy, enter the always-suspect K-Rod. The Yankees were pulling their usual act of getting contributions from the fill-in guys and setting it up for the varsity. Joe Girardi will say something to that effect in an hour and I’ll throw the radio through a window. K-Rod battled Derek Jeter through a long, tense at-bat that revealed Francisco was missing most of his arsenal, culminating in a double over Jason Bay that scored Russo and made it 6-3. Various media idiots will roast Jerry Manuel for having K-Rod get five outs the night before, talking about how the Yankees take things one game at a time. Not discussed: Those same media idiots would have roasted Manuel for not using K-Rod, yammering about how the Mets had to make a statement. Brett Gardner hit a little chopper to David Wright, who grabbed the in-between hop and hurled the ball to first, where Ike Davis was pulled off the bag — safe. NO! OUT! Gardner was indeed out by an eyelash, but now it was 6-4 with Mark Teixeira coming up as the tying run. A million Yankee fans will still be whining about the call tomorrow, and we’ll hate them not so much for that or for whatever happens, but because secretly we were astonished it didn’t go their way. Teixeira, showing no flair for drama, promptly hacked at K-Rod’s first pitch and hit a Baltimore chop that Alex Cora had no chance of turning into the final out. Now the tying run was on first, A-Rod was at the plate, and Citi Field’s invaders had put aside their pose of being above caring to whoop and bray for the outcome they think is their birthright.
A-Rod and K-Rod, a showdown between horribly boring nicknames, with Francisco having the advantage according to the numbers but clearly scuffling for velocity and location, and A-Rod having the advantage of all of the above phantoms. You probably saw one or two materialize in your living room, on Gameday, or in the aisle at Citi. Between pitches, Alex Cora threw the ball wide right, Luis Castillo scuttled under a drifting pop fly, Armando twitched as Paul O’Neill fouled off pitches, Jeter noticed Timo Perez clapping his hands instead of running, Roger Clemens fired something at Mike Piazza’s head and the Wilpons gave Citi Field’s pitching rubber to Mariano Rivera. On the couch, I was yelling and pleading and clapping my hands and trying to baby the Mets home like they were a rental car on E, I’d bought the fuel-service option and was only on the Grand Central in traffic.
But wait. K-Rod harnessed a curve, A-Rod swung over it, and we’d won. The ghosts and goblins evaporated. The Yankee fans leaving Citi Field tonight and haunting the office or breakfast table tomorrow would chide us that we hadn’t won the World Series, but that one never stings, because only in the shriveled souls of Yankee fans is winning the World Series the lone yardstick for success.
K-Rod had made his pitch. A-Rod had swung and missed. That was it. The rest had been in our heads, not those of the Mets’. And all was fine. Well, until next time.
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Condolences to the family of former Met Jose Lima, dead at just 37. The peerless Joe Posnanski remembers.