Subway Series wins used to exhilarate me to a 52 on a scale from 1 to 10. The wins from this past Monday and Tuesday rated a 9.8 and a solid 7, respectively. Not bad, but not Matt Franco. Subway Series losses, when the Subway Series was new, cast black clouds all about me. From Wednesday’s and Thursday’s I thought I felt a slight drizzle.
It’s not the same as it was when Bobby Valentine was manning the dugout instead of a studio. Bobby V made everything feel like life and death…except for life and death, which he made feel secondary to the Mets. That’s probably for the best, because you can only take so much life and death in the course of a season. But Mary Hopkin wasn’t kidding when she said those were the days, my friend. Like her, I thought they’d never end. They did, though. Whether it’s faded novelty, saturation or turning weekend theater into midweek humdrum, the Subway Series is a four-game set against an Interleague opponent that you sure as hell want to win and sure as hell don’t want to lose, but also only a few degrees more intense than four games against anybody in May would be.
I’m not happy the Mets couldn’t beat the Yankees in two games at Citi Field after beating them twice at Yankee Stadium, but I’m less happy that the Mets didn’t score a run, an unhappiness that would apply in exact proportion to not scoring against St. Louis, Miami or whoever. There is no particular shame in being shut out across eighteen innings by the Yankees. There is great alarm in being shut out across eighteen innings by anybody.
Gazed upon with Collector’s Cups half full, these are the days of Jacob deGrom and Rafael Montero, which produced two days of good sidebar news in a pair of senses. One, of course, is that two reasonably highly touted rookie pitchers were promoted and matched their hype, at least on an introductory basis. DeGrom exceeded it, actually, doing everything he could to win his debut. Not only did he throw seven innings and give up but one run — the product of shaky defense, mostly — but the kid ended the notorious hitless-by-pitchers streak at last. Jacob singled in the third and somewhere, I’d like to believe, Tom Seaver stood on first base snapping his warmup jacket shut as he looked to Eddie Yost to see if the hit-and-run was on. DeGrom also laid down a beautiful bunt, proving the young man was born under the sign of Chub Feeney…or at least the former National League president’s signature on a Spalding baseball.
Of course it’s wonderful that deGrom pitched (and hit) well and Montero pitched well. Of course it will be wonderful when Zack Wheeler settles down a bit and Noah Syndergaard Super 2’s his way up and Matt Harvey recovers and Steven Matz maybe keeps coming. Take those guys, mix in Niese and Gee and whoever else is bubbling under the Hot 100, and you know what you might very well have in the not-too-distant future?
A genuine pitching surplus. And you know what you can do then? Trade for some hitting, because Jacob deGrom and his hurling brethren can’t do it all alone. You can never have enough starting pitching, but you also can never ask your starting pitching to bear the burden of getting outs without somebody on his side getting runs for him. Unless the Mets are playing in a certified bandbox or facing a depleted bullpen, they don’t hit and therefore they don’t score. Every National League president from Harry Pulliam to Leonard Coleman could tell you that.
While the Mets christen some careers while impeding others (reserve outfielder Juan Lagares’s, for instance), the Yankees go about their business of trying to be the Yankees, which at the moment doesn’t seem to be happening. Putting aside their so-so, similar-to-the-Mets record, they just didn’t seem all that frightening this series, did they? I was going to say “all that intimidating” or “all that imposing,” but frightening seems more accurate. Frightening is what the Yankees have been almost without pause through the history of the Subway Series. There was always this lurking terror in their dugout. No lead was safe. Didn’t matter if it was the heyday of Paul O’Neill or the denouement of Vernon Wells. Either they were going to stick it to us or they were going to make us hang on for dear life.
I gotta tell ya — I didn’t feel it this time. It’s gone. There is no Frightening Factor to these Yankees, and I say that without intent to needle or declare a shift in municipal fortunes. The Mets have their own problems. The Yankees aren’t one of them, but they have their own problems, too. I enjoyed the wins on Monday and Tuesday but not so much that they vaulted me into a heretofore undiscovered stratosphere of ecstasy. I was annoyed by the losses on Wednesday and Thursday, but just garden-variety annoyed, not it’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel the diametric opposite of fine annoyed.
I’d hate to think the “maturity” everybody warned me about is finally kicking in. I’m pegging this lack of emotional resonance partly to the Yankees hosting a roster packed with relative strangers (some handsomely compensated, some totally anonymous, few as sensational to date as Masahiro Tanaka or Yangervis Solarte) and partly to the impending retirement of the Yankee who’d defined the Yankees for the past two decades.
“Why are the Mets giving Derek Jeter bathroom tiles?” was my wife’s reaction to the Subway-themed sculpture Jeff Wilpon presented the other team’s shortstop Thursday evening. After I made a few extraordinarily mature references to “No. 2,” vis-à-vis the bathroom theme, I took in the tableau of Jeter accepting the Mets’ gifts (including a nice tax-deductible donation of some of that Farnsworth money to his foundation) and realized that at this moment when his media-driven beatification is mounting to absurd levels, I no longer despise Derek Jeter.
Maturity did get to me. Or perspective. Or whatever. Jeter’s no longer frightening. Except for the ceremonial aspects, he didn’t impact these four games whatsoever. His final swing in his final Subway Series contest, in the eighth inning, produced a fielder’s choice ground ball to Ruben Tejada, who threw it home to nail Kelly Johnson as the batter wound up on first, where he’d be stranded once Josh Edgin flied out Jacoby Ellsbury. In years past, you know that the ball he hit would’ve gotten by Tejada; or Ruben’s throw would have sailed past Juan Centeno; or Jeter would’ve taken off for second and scored in a flash and the Yankees would have added another eight or nine runs off Armando Benitez in short order. That was the Frightening Factor that always loomed the moment Derek Jeter stepped to the plate, raised a hand in the air to signal to the umpire that he was prepared to be pitched to, and wrought irreparable harm to our collective psyche.
But not last night and not this week. There were hits and walks through Jeter’s final Subway Series, yet only remnants of mystique and aura. He’s a rangeless almost 40-year-old middle infielder whose OPS hovers below .650. What’s the point of despising that?
To the world at large he was treated as the Face of Baseball before they started having silly contests to determine such things. To most of us on this side of the New York divide he was the face of baseball oppression. The more Jeter and the Yankees won, the further the Mets were stomped — inadvertently or otherwise — into the depths of obscurity. That is what I despised. He had dozens of accomplices, but Jeter was the poster boy for all of it.
I resented Derek Jeter in 1996 for overwhelming defensive savant Rey Ordoñez in the battle of rookie shortstops that was concluded before it could commence. I resented Derek Jeter c. 2000 for being placed on the same pedestal as Mike Piazza when Piazza was carrying the Mets on his back and Jeter had all kinds of high-priced help. I resented Derek Jeter by 2004 when the Mets brass was preemptively positioning young David Wright as “our Jeter,” which might have been meant to flatter but (like everything the Mets brass says) landed on a sour note. Wasn’t it enough that Jeter had conquered the universe without infiltrating my Mets consciousness?
No doubt Jeter never gave the Mets a second thought when he wasn’t playing and beating them. Perhaps if Interleague hadn’t been invented, I’d have accepted Jeter’s status as an all-time great in progress with more grace and less bile. If you come across Mets Yearbook: 1968 on SNY, you’ll see Mickey Mantle at that year’s Mayor’s Trophy Game being presented a retirement gift of his own (a painting, and not of the 7 train). Mantle never played the Mets for real. He was an icon before the Mets existed. If I were at Shea that night in 1968, I imagine I would’ve stood and applauded Mickey Mantle. I was at Shea Stadium and Citi Field several nights and days between 1998 and 2009 and never did anything of the sort for Derek Jeter.
Last night, upon his final regular-season appearance against the Mets, I probably wouldn’t have, either. But I wouldn’t have booed him the way I did most every time he appeared in my midst when he and his frightening teammates always seemed to be getting in our way, blotting out our sun and snatching away our city. My imagined respectful silence toward Derek Jeter would have been the most heartfelt going-away present I could bestow on him.
I would have given it to him gladly.