Sure, we would like these annual intramural skirmishes to mean as much to the players as they used to. We would like it if someone on the Mets or the Yankees could command the spirit of Sal Maglie, who was a one-man wrecking crew for both the Giants and the Dodgers in the ’50s (and later also played for the Yankees), when the idea of New York-on-New York baseball crime wasn’t just possible, it was essential.
There was a day when Maglie, known as “The Barber,” did what he did best, which was throw a fastball that nearly skimmed the whiskers of Carl Furillo, the Dodgers’ right fielder. Furillo responded by pretending his bat was a javelin, and aiming the business end at Maglie. (Men were men in those days, of course, so the umpires simply shrugged and said, Play ball!”)
A few years later, Jackie Robinson, who knew a thing or three about some lowdown dirty tricks since he was on the receiving end of so many his first few years in the bigs, laid down a bunt along the first-base line for no other reason than he knew Maglie would have to field it, and it would give him a chance to plant his spikes on Maglie’s legs.
“I didn’t talk to any of them,” Maglie would say the rest of his life. “Because I didn’t like any of them. Depending on who ‘they’ were.”
The closest we’ve come to this during the now 23 seasons of interleague play is Roger Clemens, of course, who one time tried to bore a fastball into Mike Piazza’s skull, who another time tried to whip the shards of Piazza’s bat back at him, who a third time spent an afternoon serving as target practice for Shawn Estes, who never did hit him with a baseball but did hit a two-run homer off the so-called Rocket.
But Clemens hasn’t been a Yankee since 2007, and there are no more lightning rods left. Every year the managers pay lip service to the rivalry because they have to, because that is their duty, to spend 10 minutes acting like old Leo Durocher trying to work up a good lather about the guys in the other dugouts. Usually, they can barely keep a straight face while doing this.
No. More than ever, what makes the Subway Series the spectacle that it is?
That’s you, Yankees fan, who enjoys these little encounters because so often they turn out well for you (the Yankees will bring to Yankee Stadium on Monday night a 69-49 advantage in these regular-season games since they were introduced in 1997). And also because so much else also turns out right for you. The Yankees have lost five of seven heading into Monday’s series opener. For Mets fans, that would be a harbinger; for Yankees fans it’s a blip.
That’s you, Mets fans, who stubbornly cling to belief and to hope as if they are all that keep you from falling into the abyss. So much is made about the dark-cloud paranoia that infiltrates Mets fans, and much is always made about how much more Mets fans can take shaking their fists at the fates. But they are also a group that, despite so much evidence to the contrary, always believes, heart of hearts, that things can work out, even if they probably won’t. You’ve seen one or two miracles, after all, you start to believe in them.
That is what these Subway Series games are about: Mets fans who wear their orange and blue proudly and defiantly into Yankee Stadium, knowing they’ll be surrounded, knowing the odds are good they’re in for a couple of hours of disappointment, never seeming to mind. And Yankees fans, doing their roll-call cheers, ever vigilant and ever militant in making sure the odd “Let’s go, Mets!” cheer is immediately smothered and vaporized by their “Let’s go, Yankees!” chants (more rhythmic, less poetic).
Mets fans are always looking for the other shoe to drop; Yankees fans are forever expecting the other hammer to fall. Mostly, those self-fulfilling prophesies work themselves out. And, mostly, all of it is greeted with good, if occasionally gritted, good humor. Mets fans and Yankees don’t fear for their safety, the way Giants fans do in Los Angeles, the way Yankees fans do in Fenway Park. We are all of New York, after all, and that still matters.
That, at the end of it, is why it’s so fun. Still.
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