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      F I E L D  T R I P S

JULY 17, 2001

July 7, 2001: New York Mets at New York Yankees, Yankee Stadium

I'm not a big fan of interleague play. But living in Manhattan, I enjoy the way New York City sets itself on edge over the midseason collision between the Mets and the Yankees. The Subway Series may not play so well with folks in Peoria, but they're too busy watching the Cubs battle the White Sox for crosstown supremacy to complain. Matchups like these are the crown jewels of interleague play; the opportunity to consumate these long-hypothetical geographic rivalries is what mitigates (in the mind of Bud Selig, at least) the dreck at the other end of the spectrum. Minnesota-Pittsburgh, anyone?

The powers that be have been fortunate that both the Yankees and the Mets have been contenders during the interleague era. But even the Subway Series has lost some of its luster. For one thing, the two teams met last October in the World Series, a true Subway Series reminiscent of a Golden Age when the Dodgers and Giants took turn battling the crosstown Yankees for baseball supremacy. The artifice of their regular-season meeting has been made too obvious; this season only the tabloids interested in stirring the Roger Clemens-Mike Piazza controversy have greeted the home-and-home series with much more than a collective raised eyebrow.

Of course, the teams' divergent fortunes haven't helped matters. The Mets have been shadows of their championship form this season. General Manager Steve Phillips's anti-plan of making no significant effort to improve his team last winter has reaped the rewards of mediocrity: a team which entered the weekend series 12 games under .500. Stars such as Edgardo Alfonzo, Al Leiter and Mike Piazza have struggled at times, and manager Bobby Valentine, hailed as a genius or at least tolerated as an excellent motivator of troops during happier days, is now pilloried as a blowhard responsible for his players' underachievement.

Meanwhile, in another part of the galaxy, the imperial force known as the Yankees has finally rediscovered their winning ways, having captured their ninth straight victory to open the series on Friday night. Thanks to the recent opportunity to feast on Oriole and Devil Ray pitching, their long-dormant offense, particularly first baseman Tino Martinez, has sprung to life.

With the Yanks' recent success, I was surprised—even with the diminished luster of this matchup—to find our subway ride up to Yankee Stadium felt like a ghost train. There was no shoving anyone else out of the way to get a seat, no taunting anyone for wearing the wrong color hat, no buzz whatsoever among the few passengers bound for the game. But our arrival in the Bronx heralded a return to order—the stadium was packed with fans of both stripes; we were simply a bit late. A near-comical effort to find our seats ensued, as we trekked from the upper deck of right-field to the main level of left-field in bewilderment.

Our assigned seats, which we reached in time for the first pitch, were far from optimal, and even further from home plate. Stuck way down the line and practically looking over our right shoulders, we were unable to pick up the ball as it reached the hitter. Fly balls disappeared from view, their location only to be surmised from the scattering of outfielders. Worse, our near-aisle seats apparently called for each and every patron in the adjacent section to block our view of at least one pitch. My beer-addled neighbor crawled over me twice en route to the bathroom before either side had batted around. By the top of the third inning, I lost patience and suggested a trip to our familiar upper deck.

Once we improved our seats to a previously unoccupied pair in Section 640, we were afforded a birds-eye view of a tight pitcher's duel between an Ape and a Moose (a matchup apparently sponsored by Mutual of Omaha's "Wild Kingdom"). But it wasn't a particularly exciting one, unless you were Marlon Perkins. I've already filed my position paper with regards to Mets pitcher Kevin Appier's style—he works so slowly they could run advertisements between his pitches. But whatever he was doing was baffling the Yankees. He held them hitless through five innings, then survived three straight frames with runners on first and second. Appier departed after a economical 107 pitches, allowing only four hits, all singles, in his eight innings. If the Mets had gotten more performances like this from their $42 million pitcher, this crosstown matchup may have resonated more loudly.

Mike Mussina was less economical, but much more engaging. Seven baserunners gave him ample opportunity to exhibit the "drinking bird," his stretch delivery consisting of an extreme bow toward home plate at the beginning of his motion. Jorge Posada came to his aid, throwing out two runners tyring to steal. The Moose still had most of the Mets hitters fooled; he struck out the side in the first, and ten overall in his seven innings. But like Appier, he departed without a decision for his troubles.

The Yank offense was listless all day long, swinging early in the count, tapping weak grounders to the left side of the infield. Paul O'Neill embodied their misery, first hitting into a double play, then striking out, "+ helmet" as I noted on my scorecard. Shane Spencer finally broke up the no-hitter leading off the sixth, but to no great effect. The only real Yankee threat lasted about two seconds in the eighth inning. Scott Brosius blooped to center field, where Jay Payton failed to hold onto the ball following a sliding somersault. As the ball squibbed free, Brosius tried to stretch it to a double, but an alert Timo Perez scooped up in time to nail Scotty by two steps.

Three hours and nine innings into the afternoon, neither team had generated a single run. But the crowd remained intense. Cheers of a four-beat "Let's Go Yank-ees!" were countered by a "Let's Go Mets!" triplet, concentrated pockets of fans trying to outdo their opposing neighbors for volume until everything swirled together in a vortex of noise.

Mariano Rivera entered the game in the top of the tenth for the Yanks, and I couldn't help but wince a little. As dominant as he's been, he's struggled at the games I've attended—battered by Baltimore, bruised but not beaten by Boston and Oakland. He looked in command as he set down Rey Ordo-ez and Joe McEwing—then again, who wouldn't? Desi Relaford staved off defeat with a single, the first Philly hit since the fifth inning. Rivera worked Edgardo Alfonzo to 2-2, but Relaford stole second, and the pesky second baseman spoiled two potential game-ending pitches by fouling them off.

Then the dam broke. Rivera proceeded to walk Alfonzo, and he seemed a passive observer as Piazza, Perez, and Todd Zeile all lashed consecutive run-scoring singles at his expense. The Yanks went down meekly in the bottom of the inning, the winning streak was over, and the Mets had saved face in this round of the Subway Series.

By the time I got home, the Yankees had announced that Rivera would miss the All-Star Game in Seattle due to an inflammation in his ankle. Whether this was a true injury or just a convenient spin to put on a rough afternoon, it seemed as lame as an excuse as Mario's pitching when I've seen him. With so many cogs in the Yankee machine underperforming this season, it would be fatal to have Mariano counted among them. Yankee fans can only hope that this is a blip on the radar, and that the extra rest will do him well.

Final score: Mets 3, Yankees 0. Zero beers, one soda, one hot dog, two nomadic Yankees fans, and a big three runs charged to the Yanks' ace reliever. BOX SCORE