Seldom do baseball fans have the pleasure of watching two teams in a postseason that deeply dislike each other. The scene is especially sweet when it's set in New York, that bastion of civilized goodwill toward out-of-towners. No, we don't mean the current American League Championship Series between the Yankees and Red Sox, two franchises that have hated each other for generations. Unfortunately, the current Bosox and Yanks sometimes, horror of horrors, seem to like each other.
Instead, it's the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves, a rivalry of recent vintage, that has turned into the true bad-blood, bad-mouth battleground. It's an old-fashioned hardball pleasure to watch them bench jockey, barrel-roll and knock each other head over teakettle. It's personal. No agents, marketers, ad men or other intermediaries involved. No fake fuss for hype. Just two very good teams that want to settle matters. And a lot of extra police on duty all around Shea Stadium--just in case.
The general tone of the evening, you ask? New York has been hit with a mysterious disease called West Nile virus that is carried by mosquitoes. So, the big banner on the upper deck said, "Release the Mosquitoes."
For some of us, this lovely ugliness may be over all too soon. The Braves are on the verge of clinching this series after a 1-0 win Friday night for a three-games-to-none lead. No team in any baseball playoff has ever come back from such a deficit.
The only run scored when the Mets' great catcher, Mike Piazza, lost his balance while trying to decide whether to throw to third base or second on an Atlanta double steal. As he toppled, he heaved the ball 10 feet over his shortstop's head into center field for a gift run. Oh, they are laughing their juleps off in Georgia over that. Way to defend your turf, big tough New York.
As irony would have it, the Mets had gone an entire season without making two errors in the same inning. Many think they have the gaudiest set of glove men in history. Yet the only run Friday night came on a leadoff walk, an error by starter Al Leiter on a wide throw to first after fielding an easy chop back to the mound and, then, Piazza's slapstick throw.
Fittingly for such a feud atmosphere, the pitcher who got the save for the Braves was fireballing closer John Rocker, who has been the most outspoken antagonist of Mets fans. After Game 2, he said, "To hell with New York fans. They're stupid anyway. We've beaten them 20 of [the last] 26 times and they [still] say we [stink]. If we [stink] so bad, how come they can't beat us? They're a tired act."
"Rocker, You Ain't Heard Nuttin' Yet," said one bedsheet sign. "John, You're Off Your Rocker," said another. As for the entire crowd, they greeted his appearance with a favorite obscene New York chant, which, you might say, added to the credibility of Rocker's evaluation of his foes.
"Most of the [pitchers] on this team like to come into town quietly and beat somebody, then leave town just as quietly," said winner Tom Glavine, who pitched seven innings. "But John [Rocker] is an emotional individual. He likes to do it differently. . . . He talked the talk and then he walked the walk. . . . As much as we might not like it, it's hard to argue with his success."
Long after this game, the remnants of the crowd were still yelling their favorite blue chant for Rocker's benefit. After his last interview, he walked off the field, waving his hat to them in a blatant mockery more characteristic of the rowdy game of 1899 than 1999. Who says progress is such hot stuff?
Regardless of how long or short this NLCS ends up being, this game was a perfect illustration of the kind of intensity that postseason baseball can offer. On chilly, edgy evenings like this, we want to see a future Hall of Famer such as Piazza bowled over at the plate in the very first inning. Piazza was knocked woozy by a full-speed shoulder to the chin by third-generation big leaguer Bret Boone.
We want to see the most acrobatic shortstop in the game, Rey Ordonez, flipped upside down when he tries to turn the double play. We want a multimillionaire like Chipper Jones gambling for extra bases and coming in spikes high. Only to get gunned down by old Rickey Henderson.
And it's nice--just for a change from normal decorous postseason fare--to see a dozen hitters per team driven off the plate with fastballs that make them jump back like they just got served with a paternity suit.
How did this lovely Mets-Braves mess come to pass? Such little things can cause bad feelings. Chipper Jones ignited the fuse last month. The Braves' most valuable player candidate hit four home runs in one series to (apparently) knock the Mets out of the postseason last month. Then, he added insult to injury, saying, "Mets fans can go home and put their Yankee stuff on."
The Mets survived. So, last night, Chipper's words were served back to him as Crow a la New York, in a nice bile sauce.
Jones's real name is Larry. And he hates it. So, the signs throughout Shea were addressed to "Larry." So were the sing-song serenades every time he came to bat. "Hey, Big Mouth, Larry, Got Ear Plugs?" said one placard.
Jones couldn't have made the crowd happier. With two on and none out in the first inning, he helped Leiter out of a prize jam by popping up anxiously on a 2-0 pitch. He turned his leadoff single in the fourth inning into an out by challenging Henderson's arm. Then, he struck out twice.
Nobody has been happier at Chipper's indiscretion than Mets Manager Bobby Valentine, who has appointed himself chief instigator. At various times, Valentine has been described as the most disliked man in baseball, as well as its biggest phony. He's also smart and competitive, which tempts him to tell the truth. Then the fun starts.
"[Over the years] they've shown us very little [respect]," Valentine said before the series. Then, he nicknamed his own team the Ghosts, because, he said, Jones thought the Mets were dead.
"We're not dead," Valentine said said. "I think he was pretty confident he wouldn't have to deal with [our fans] again this year. Guess what? He's going to have to deal with them again."
Now, it's Valentine and the Mets who aren't feeling so chipper. "I thought we'd score tonight. I felt it in my bones," Valentine said. "I'm going to have to get some new bones."
Now, with Rocker having the last word once more, the Mets are, in fact, looking extremely, shall we say, semi-dead. But they've been there before. For the sake of this hatefully first-rate NLCS, maybe they still have a ghost of a chance.