Beat the Mets

Sunday’s sad news about Lima Time prevented me from catching up with my latest BP links. In addition to the usual Hit Lists (AL here, NL here), I had my second press box adventure inside of a week, attending Friday night’s Yankees-Mets game at CitiField. For a Subway Series, this one kicked off under rather inauspicious circumstances:

Fourteen seasons since interleague play was first introduced, it’s fair to say that even the small handful of natural rivalries which drive these annual matchups have lost some of their luster. So it appears to be with the Yankees-Mets Subway Series, which began on Friday night surrounded less by buzz than buzzkill. Not only did both teams enter the weekend’s series reeling from injuries and late-inning defeats, but amid an 18 percent drop in attendance at CitiField, the Mets were reduced to the indignity of giving premium tickets away to former season ticket holders.

The Yankees limped into Citi having lost eight out of their previous 12. Despite their lineup’s scrubbiness — Randy Winn, Marcus Thames, Francisco Cervelli, Juan Miranda and Ramiro Pena had all seen extensive action throughout the week, owing to the absences of Nick Johnson, Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher and now Jorge Posada — the Yanks had scored a respectable 5.2 runs per game across that stretch, maintaining their spot as the majors’ most potent offensive team thanks to the recent resurgences of Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez. Alas, their pitching staff had let them down, allowing 5.6 runs per game, a problem owing a fair deal to the bullpen’s sudden decrepitude — 20 runs allowed in 16.1 innings across their last five games, playing a major part in the four defeats they’d suffered since I’d seen them at Yankee Stadium last Saturday.

Still, their 25-16 record and second-place standing put them miles ahead of the Mets, who’d lost nine of 12 — including one game on a walkoff wild pitch and another on a walkoff throwing error, rekindling uncomfortable memories of last season’s debacles — and entered with a 20-22 record, bad enough for last place in the NL East. As has been the hallmark of the latter-day Omar Minaya regime, an air of constant crisis once again enveloped the club. Earlier in the week chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon had flown to Atlanta for impromptu organizational meetings that put manager Jerry Manuel’s job status in doubt; the deathwatch on his regime has begun.

To make matters worse — and these days, it almost goes without saying that the Mets are major league baseball’s foremost experts in doing so — injuries continue to decimate the club, exposing the winter’s scrimping. Where the Yankee’ recent championship gives them the latitude to view their injuries in the context of the big picture, the battered Mets have become all too prone to treating key maladies with the panic of a claustrophobe in a broken elevator — one full of hungry alligators, at that. How else to explain the conflicting stories arising from multiple clashes between player and team over diagnoses, doctors, rehab plans, and endless setbacks involving stars such as Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran? While it’s tempting ascribe the constant siege under which the team finds itself to a ravenous New York media the reality is that any team with a sub-.500 record over the past season-plus while carrying one of the game’s top five payrolls might as well paint a target on its back.

The game turned out to be a good one, a scoreless duel for its first six innings between Javier Vazquez, making just his second start in 20 days, and Hisanori Takashi, a 35-year-old Japanese southpaw pressed into rotation duty by the Mets’ myriad injuries. The latter befuddled the Yankee lineup, scattering five hits and whiffing five despite his lack of velocity, which he made up for with a deep arsenal of offspeed stuff and a herky-jerky motion. Vazquez, despite bringing an 8.01 ERA into the game, was even better, limiting the Mets to just a fifth-inning single over the course of 70 pitches. Alas, he hurt a finger bunting amid the Yanks’ seventh-inning rally against Elmer “Glue Factory” Dessens and had to depart, and from there Manuel and Joe Girardi swapped pitchers in and out like it was an international hockey game. The Yanks won, 2-1, surviving a shaky ninth inning by Mariano Rivera in which he yielded back-to-back doubles against Jason Bay and likable Ike Davis.

The CitiField press box experience wasn’t quite the smooth sailing that Yankee Stadium had been; from the time I entered the ballpark, it took about 20 minutes for me to find my way to a seat. I was turned away at the Mets’ clubhouse for insufficient access privileges (unlike last week), and then seemingly every security official I asked for directions looked at me as though it was the first time the words “press” and “box” had ever been used in the same sentence. Whereas in Yankee Stadium you simply take the press elevator to the right floor, make one turn and you’re there, at Citi one must survive a byzantine maze that takes you past the radio and TV personnel, up and down multiple staircases through unmarked doors, through the media lounge (cafeteria) and out another unmarked door. Whereupon there was no seating assignment for me.

After asking four different people to help me find an unassigned seat, I finally emerged with one just behind a pair of stringers charting pitches and hits for their Gameday application. Next to them were River Avenue Blues’ Mike Axisa and eventually my Bronx Banter homeboy Alex Belth. When the seats eventually filled up, to my left was a pair of Japanese writers to cover Takahashi, one of whom annotated his scorecard in Japanese. To my right was none other than Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, for my money just about the hardest working man in the industry. Rosenthal was a frenzy of activity, typing out a column (or merely some bits for the next night’s Game of the Week) broadcast and contending with a Blackberry that buzzed every 30 seconds for an incoming email when he wasn’t actually talking to somebody, no doubt pursuing one of his rumors. Rosenthal is the gold standard when it comes to trade rumors, making similarly-calibered big names sound like plants on behalf of various interested parties. To my relief once I struck up the nerve to introduce myself, he also turned out to be a swell guy who had nice things to say about BP. In all, he scores big points in my book.

I’d set up my ballpark visit with an eye towards a feature on the Mets; I’ll link that one in the next post…

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