Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Timo's Dance Meets Roger's Trance

Up till October 21, the most precious moment of New York baseball 2000 came seconds before the Mets won the pennant, as a St. Louis pinch hitter lofted the final out toward tiny rookie Timo Perez, in center because eternal rookie Jay Payton had been beaned 10 minutes before. Like the now injured Shane Spencer in 1998 and the now departed Melvin Mora in 1999, Perez is a kid out of nowhere whose life may well have peaked in the climactic weeks of a championship season. He began 2000 in Class A and couldn't even stay in the Japanese majors in 1999. Yet his slapped hits and darting defense energized the Mets, and his eight NLCS runs scored joined the thousands of postseason records made to be broken. As the ball neared the top of its arc, he couldn't contain his delight that this was happening to him. So he began jumping up and down--a sin, but a venial one in a 7-0 game Mike Hampton owned. When he caught the ball he was in the air, trying his darnedest to fly.

I make this judgment as a Yankee fan since 1949 who tunes in every game and follows the Mets in his spare time--this September, for example, when the Yanks' losses became too lopsided to bear. I make it too as a New Yorker who's always rooted for the Mets, and was lured back to baseball after a Steinbrenner-induced hiatus by Gooden and Strawberry and Keith Hernandez in 1984. Around 1991, however, the play-by-play acuity of John Sterling and Michael Kay combined with the depressing compulsions of Strawberry and Gooden and the sexist ugliness of Vince Coleman to return me to the passion of my youth, which is one thing baseball is always about. The Yankees were improving by then, as Gene Michael built a viable team over the suspended Steinbrenner's dead reputation. So I invested my emotions in Roberto Kelly and Pat Kelly and steadfast Randy Velarde, and then, more fruitfully, self-lacerating Paul O'Neill and doe-eyed Bernie Williams and that superstitious weirdo Wade Boggs, source of the work-the-count, tire-the-pitcher batting ethos that proved key to the team's '90s success--and that's taken over baseball like tenacious D in the NBA.

It was as a Yankee fan that I was at the Stadium last Wednesday, in the bleachers, where I hadn't sat since the Reds skunked the Yanks in the '76 Series--when I go, once or twice a year, I'm deep upstairs somewhere. Wearing the Chase-logoed Newark Eagles cap I got at Negro League Cap Day at Shea a few years back, and hence the only person within eyeshot displaying no Yankee gear, I shouted myself hoarse at a wild ALCS clincher my team won 9-7 after trailing 4-0. Watching David Justice's pivotal seventh-inning homer disappear into the upper deck over my head was quite an up--I was still whooping minutes later. Yet on balance I preferred Timo's dance.

The only image that might have measured up would have been Derek Jeter throwing out not Yankee nemesis Edgar Martinez to ice a game that was still in jeopardy, which was pretty sweet, but his dear friend Alex Rodriguez--by a hair. For sentimental grouches, the almost Hellenic attachment between these two paragons epitomizes a baseball in which a richly rewarded elite of experts-for-hire share more with their nominal opponents than with the fans they supposedly represent. But as one of those surprising formal twists that any new system of relations produces, the Jeter-Rodriguez connection, in which Derek goes so far as to stay with Alex in Seattle, has the makings of primal metaphor and psychodrama, and I want to see it tested. Will these postracial standard-bearers be allowed to love each other like brothers? And if so, can their bond survive two careers' worth of competition?

Always lurking beneath the avalanche of balderdash that was burying this--what's the phrase again?--Subway Series before Andy Pettitte threw ball one to Timo Perez was a related paradox, one no one could untangle: loving a team versus loving a game. Edgar Martinez you can hate if you want; he can't play the field anymore, and he's got the kind of banker-gone-bonkers face once seen in group photos of Argentinian death squads. But Alex Rodriguez is too gorgeous an athlete to deny. The same bleacher bully who spent two innings bellowing witticisms like "You're fat!" and "Homo!" at a second-deck plutocrat--and who muttered, "If the impossible happens, God forbid, I'm not even gonna say what it is out loud, it will be terrible. We could win the World Series for the next 30 years and we'd still never hear the end of it"--was reduced to attempted annexation: "See you next year, A-Rod--at third base!"

In the end, though, my bleachers experience didn't convince me that the intracity bloodshed the dailies kept pumping was realer than any other news peg. Sure these were serious fans who craved total triumph--anyone who believes there's special honor in supporting a loser should forget sports and work on banning war toys. But only the 50 or so who gathered outside to chant "The Mets suck, they always have, they always will, so what's the fucking difference?" and other mystic postgame formulae evinced the kind of pathology the papers insisted was dividing husband from wife and friend from neighbor all over Gotham, and the Mets-versus-Yanks rally called for Bryant Park Friday afternoon was so trite and tepid that the mayor's inevitable speech played as a highlight. 'Tis ever thus. Read about fandom and you fear that the end of civilization is at hand. Venture out among the actual hordes and the worst you generally encounter is a few hormone-damaged jerkolas--the crassest loudmouths at the Stadium reminded me of nobody so much as the stupidest headbangers at a Beastie Boys show.

At the last minute, after the Voice tried and failed to scalp me a game-one ticket at prices like $800, a media credential materialized, and so I found myself sharing a row in left field with Voice Metman Billy Altman, ESPN analyst Rick Sutcliffe, some Fourth Estaters whose names I didn't get, and two television sets. We were far away, and except for the TVs--which my fellow reporters consulted with alacrity, especially when the alternative was standing up--the visual experience recalled the bleachers more than it did, for instance, sitting behind first at a Norwich Navigators game. But the emotional surges were so muted that the feel was completely different. World Series crowds are notoriously spectatorial, and games that go 0-0 into the sixth are often quiet, but the main reason was the pressbox dictum that forbids cheering. Not until the action-packed late and extra innings of the longest game in Series history, after most of the scribes had gone downstairs to file and paying customers were turning around to ask the TV-equipped where that pitch was, did the gutty drama of this contest go into full effect for me.

The hands-down goat was Timo, subject of already-written Sunday features in the Times and the Post. He bunted when he should have hit away, threw to a phantom cutoff man, bailed out on a Mike Stanton curveball not yet for sale in Japan, and, crucially, cost the Mets the winning run when he went into a home run trot on what proved to be a double by Todd Zeile. His battered opposite number, veteran and quite possibly retiring Yankee rightfielder Paul O'Neill, wore down Met reliever Armando Benitez for a 10-pitch walk that led to a tie in the ninth. The Mets, who had rebounded from an even more devastating ninth-inning comeback to beat the Giants, stiff-armed serious Yankee rallies in the 10th and 11th. But in the 12th, surprise second baseman Jose Vizcaino, who in June had taken the red-eye so he could don his pinstripes as fast as possible after he was acquired for 1996 World Series hero Jim Leyritz, knocked in the decisive run with his fourth single. In the interview room, ex-Met Vizcaino, a Dominican-born 12-year journeyman, spoke in soft, heavily accented English about how all he'd wanted was to play in a Series, never dreaming he'd be a "hero." He had trouble aspirating the "H" in "hero." Nine years older than Perez, he'd leapt too as he ran out his hit. He was still glowing slightly.

This was the second straight one-for-the-books I'd witnessed at the ballpark, where free-floating pheromones magnify a game's psychic impact in a way close-ups and replays cannot. But as I pushed downstairs with chants of "lets-go-yang-keys" and "viz-kuy-A-no" outpowering those of "mets-suck" by a factor of 10, I was reminded that the true adversaries in the local rivalry kicked up by thefirstSubwaySeriesin44years were New York and America. It wasn't us who had to prove we loved the game as much as we loved our team--we came close enough. It was all the putative devotees of the national pastime who were giving Fox acute ratings anxiety. Though I had no way of ascertaining how this epic would have gone down in my living room, my working theory was that if the goyische sports mavens of Dallas and Baltimore could resist a series that had already provided so much human frailty and tough play, they deserved to watch hockey until their dental insurance ran out.

Like it or not, television has been America's chief conduit to baseball for half a century. Pheromones are great, nothing like 'em, but our memories of close-ups and replays inflect all the ball most of us see at the park or hear on the radio. Where the sports pages mythify the players, magnifying their pronouncements and peccadillos, and recap photo ops turn them into cartoons, TV game coverage humanizes them. Baseball is so leisurely that you can spend hours scrutinizing pitchers' and batters' facial expressions and body tics; it's one of the few public endeavors structured to generate random moments like the NLCS shot of Mark McGwire unpeeling a popped pink bubble from his nose. And so modern fandom is as much about imaginary relationships as local loyalties.

Great players are pleasures and .300 hitters are hard to hate if they're on your side, but fans hunger as well for fellow spirits--in my case, mensches and eccentrics, thinkers and innocents, no matter that they're as overpaid as all big-time entertainers and come together by sheer force of capital more than anything else. Due in part to Joe Torre's emphasis on clubhouse harmony, the Yankees are a little bland, but in their distinct ways Jeter and Williams and David Cone and Mariano Rivera and Luis Sojo and Jorge Posada and of course El Duque are all guys you can tell yourself stories about. However much I enjoy the Mets' budget outfield, I wish they had more Turk Wendells and John Francos. Mike Piazza hits the ball so hard he's a wonder for that alone, but as a person he seems a bit of a clod. And although hitter-for-hire Todd Zeile has fielded valiantly, he sure isn't taciturn John Olerud, who last year started going to museums on the theory that he'd never have the chance again--and who called up memories of Keith Hernandez around the bag.

Rarely, however, does baseball's human interest quotient exceed that of game two, which was yet another reason I was glad to take it in at home. As you may have read, the biggest moment of the game if not the year 2000 occurred in the very first inning, when Mike Piazza fouled away a strike-two pitch by Roger Clemens. For the record, I opposed the 1999 Clemens deal as Steinbrennerian name acquisition; not only do I miss David Wells, I miss Homer Bush, and I've never liked the big lunk, although once his fastball came back to him he was certainly hard to hate. But I don't believe he was throwing at Piazza, on July 8 or October 22. As Tim McCarver--a ground-breaking announcer who's taught me more about baseball than anyone except my father, but who should take some understatement lessons from Joe Morgan before his next network gig--pontificated on about the horror of it all, the endless replays clearly showed that Clemens was not flinging Piazza's sheared-off bat barrel "at" or even, in the meaningful sense of defining a target, "toward" him. Switching to MSG for the postgame, I found Clemens's account of his demented behavior as credible as Piazza's account of his sane response, and sussed for the first time that my basic problem with Clemens is that he's an alien--one of those rare athletes, like the magnificent Michael Jordan or the lamentable John McEnroe, who competes so intensely he occupies some other astral body. When Clemens, not exactly a verbal guy, avers that he was so "extremely fired up" he doesn't remember what he or anyone else said, it's obtuse to doubt him. Not guilty by reason of temporary insanity--maybe even permanent temporary insanity.

And oh yeah, what a hell of a game. For Clemens to gather himself for a two-hitter was miraculous, but he had his stuff. So I was just as impressed with Mike Hampton, the only pitcher to lie in the postgame--mindful of game six and his upcoming contract, he insisted that the frigid weather hadn't affected him. Hampton had very little stuff, yet, down 3-0, surrendered just one tack-on run in innings three through six. Note that it would have been two if Timo hadn't made a barehanded pick in right that nobody remembered later, and that O'Neill delivered a key hit after Hampton walked Posada intentionally and had three all told. The extra runs mattered because the weary Yankee relievers gave up five of their own after Clemens stiffened in the cold and didn't come out for the ninth. As someone who argued going in that the Yanks' decisive advantage in this Series was Orlando Hernandez, who the right-handed Mets wouldn't have time to figure out before he beat them twice and who was slated to start game three, I'd been feeling for the Queens upstarts--New York deserved a long series, and so did they. But when Kurt Abbott looked at strike three to end the game it did wonders for that hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach.

It would be a bummer if the latest Clemens-Piazza brouhaha--fanned by a branch of journalism formally required, and not always for the worst, to make something out of nothing--were finally to foment the animosities said branch of journalism has been exaggerating since two never-say-die teams put the story in place. In that respect, I suppose it would have been more salutory for the Mets to come all the way back Sunday night, because a Mets victory would have transferred the struggle firmly back to the field. As it stands, even I'm afraid that if the new kids get swept, which as of Saturday morning seemed inconceivable given how tired the Yanks were and how tough we knew the Mets to be, real-life ugliness could erupt, on the field and off. And that would make two things I love look bad--my city and my game.

But I gotta tell ya. If El Duque wins Tuesday, as I predict he will, and David Cone starts Wednesday, which with the Yanks up 3-0 is just the kind of move sentimental grandpa Torre might make--well, I love David Cone. So of course I'll be rooting for him.

Only yeah, I'll also be rooting for Timo.

Village Voice, Oct. 31, 2000