The major league baseball season is reaching its climax, so a few train metaphors are likely to be trotted out. We will be told that it is the end of the line for most teams, their seasons derailed, but that for a select few the next stop is the play-offs and that we should all hop aboard the such-and-such express.
As clichés go, these are about as hoary and unimaginative as it gets. Nonetheless, train metaphors are hard to resist. That is because as the regular season grinds to a halt – there, another one – a “subway series” may be in the offing.
The two best teams in baseball at the moment are the New York Yankees and the New York Mets, who appear to be on a collision course (one more for good measure). All that now stands between them is a handful of subway stops and six other play-off-bound teams.
If there happens to be a subway series this year, one attribute it will not have is novelty. The Yankees and the Mets played in the world series in 2000, with the team from the Bronx (the Yankees) besting their Queens neighbours in five hard-fought games.
But while it was an exciting world series, it lingers in memory mostly because of an ugly scene that took place in the second game, when the Yankees’ notoriously gruff pitching ace Roger Clemens hurled the jagged remains of a broken bat at Mets catcher Mike Piazza. The series is perhaps also remembered as New York’s last moment of unbridled joy before a gaping hole was punched into its skyline.
But if the 2000 world series was an event that sent the city of New York into spasms of euphoria, the rest of the country was not so tickled.
Indeed, the presence of two deep-pocketed New York clubs in the title series seemed to rekindle old resentments and baseball fans west of the Hudson River conveyed their displeasure with the most effective weapons at their disposal – their remote controls. The Mets-Yankees pairing drew the worst television ratings ever for a world series.
With post-9/11 sympathy for New York having ebbed, there is no reason to think that non-New Yorkers will be any more receptive to a subway series. But if it is the Mets and the Yankees again, tuning out this time around could mean missing another enthralling clash.
In 2000 the Mets were surprise finalists. They were certainly a good team but they only got into the play-offs as a wild card and few expected them to survive the first round. They shocked baseball fans, and probably also themselves, with masterful performances against both the San Francisco Giants and the Saint Louis Cardinals to reach the world series.
This year, by contrast, the New York Mets will cause shock only if they fail to get to the title round. Shrewd deal-making by Omar Minaya, their general manager, has given the team a formidable roster and this, combined with the quiet but capable leadership of manager Willie Randolph (a legendary former Yankee), has enabled the club to take full advantage of a weak national league.
True, the Mets have some pitching concerns – their biggest asset, Pedro Martinez, has struggled with injuries the entire season and another starter, Tom Glavine, is also in questionable form – but nearly every other contender, including the New York Yankees, has similar worries. This could be one year in which that old clubhouse maxim – “Pitching wins the world series” – proves not to be the case.
The Yankees, as usual, will start the play-offs, which begin a week on Tuesday, as favourites to win the championship. But this, too, is a very different team from the 2000 version. That year, they entered the world series as the two-time defending champions and as winners of three of the previous four titles. It was an irresistibly likable squad that had a perfect balance of glamour (Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams) and grit (Paul O’Neill, Chuck Knoblauch, Scott Brosius). The grit has since been lost to retirement and though the Yankees have added a raft of superstars to their line-up and pushed their payroll to an unprecedented $200m, the pixie dust appears to have vanished.
Over the past five seasons they have lost twice in the world series and have been tripped up three times in earlier rounds. These are unpardonable failings in the eyes of the querulous septuagenarian who signs the cheques, owner George Steinbrenner. Moreover, memories of all those turn-of-the-century titles must now compete with the lingering scars from one very bitter defeat: New York’s collapse against the Boston Red Sox in the 2004 semi-finals. The Yankees were leading three games to none but lost the next four and the Red Sox went on to win their first title in 86 years.
There might also be some unanticipated clubhouse tension for the Yankees to contend with. The cover story of this week’s Sports Illustrated is an astonishingly detailed look at the struggles of Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez.
Since joining the club in 2004 Rodriguez has become the principal object of fan ire. He is an easy target, a pretty boy who is slightly too smooth and was also the beneficiary of the biggest contract in sports history. In 2000 the Texas Rangers signed him to a 10-year, $252m contract, and the Yankees and the Rangers divided up the remainder of the agreement when he left for
Rodriguez has accumulated impressive statistics with the Yankees but has been a flop in key situations. And while Yankee loyalists lost patience with him long ago, it appears his team-mates and coaches have now also had enough. Sports Illustrated reports that manager Joe Torre and first baseman Jason Giambi both upbraided Rodriguez for his lacklustre play earlier this season. The article also examines the frosty relationship between Rodriguez and Jeter, the Yankee captain.
That all this would find its way into the sports pages on the eve of the play-offs is remarkable and the article will almost certainly leave Rodriguez feeling even more embattled. That is not a great frame of mind for a player who is desperate to prove he can deliver when it really matters.
Between injuries, internecine battles and the like, there are enough intangibles now in play to suggest that a second Yankees-Mets world series could be every bit as competitive as the first.
Another subway series would, at any rate, leave New Yorkers quivering with delight all over again. But before either team pulls into the ultimate destination, there are still a few miles of track left to navigate.