Cracked Bat in a Mean Season

SOMEWHERE BEHIND ENEMY LINES-As he stepped into the batter’s box with two outs in the first inning of Subway Series Game 2, Mike Piazza inspired the cheers for which the Bronx is famous. The Mets’ Timo Perez and Edgardo Alfonzo had been greeted with a perfunctory razzing; the Yankee Stadium crowd saved its lung power for Mr. Piazza, having decided that he would be the Series Villain.

Wonderful people.

I’m a Mets fan, shareholder in a four-seat field-level box that my father-a onetime New York Giants fan-and some of his fellow firefighters have owned since Shea Stadium opened in 1964. The Mets draw plenty of cretins, but they are of the most discriminating sort. They save their smackdown-sanctioned barbarities for their peers: John Rocker, Pete Rose, Darren Daulton. Yankee fans, inculcated with a sense that the World Series is their personal property and that all opponents are usurpers, saw Mike Piazza as a threat to be crushed and humiliated. Not only does he have the Hall of Fame talent to stand between the Yankees and yet another world championship, he also dared say what Yankee fans surely were thinking when Roger Clemens knocked him out with a fastball last July.

Mr. Piazza said it was no accident, which, of course, is exactly what Yankee fans were saying about Mr. Clemens when he pitched for the Red Sox and Blue Jays. The Met catcher implicitly reminded Yankee fans of the bargain their team had made so that they might keep winning. They had traded affable, pinstripe-loving David Wells for a demented mercenary who can be counted on to embarrass whatever uniform he happens to be wearing. Yankee fans don’t like to be reminded that they will accept anything and anyone to keep their boys in rings and champagne. Mr. Piazza therefore was accorded treatment familiar to those fiery All Stars of the Old Testament.

When Mr. Piazza stepped in to face Mr. Clemens for the first time since the beaning, I positioned myself at the far end of a tunnel just above field level. My credentials entitled me to watch the game on television in a dank dungeon near the Yankee locker room. I chose instead to wander the stadium’s claustrophobic, chaotic, restroom-challenged perimeter, getting small glimpses of the game from the gateways to field level. (I’m used to this sort of thing. I watched George W. Bush give his acceptance speech in Philadelphia’s First Union Center from a similar vantage point.) From the tunnel leading to Section 10, I could see only Mr. Clemens; walls blocked my views to the right and left. The crowd reaction told me that Mr. Clemens’ first two pitches to Mr. Piazza were strikes. The fans roared-how glorious it would be to see Mr. Piazza strike out! Go, Roger! You the man!

I heard the bat crack, but again I could see only Mr. Clemens, framed by the tunnel walls. He scrambled off the mound and picked up a piece of Mr. Piazza’s bat. What followed seemed to be happening in slow motion, like a car accident. The Yankee pitcher sidearmed the broken bat to his left. I couldn’t see Mr. Piazza running down the line, suddenly in harm’s way. Mr. Clemens would later insist that his view of the proceedings was no different from mine. He couldn’t see Mr. Piazza, either. But suddenly all those fans who were screaming for Mr. Piazza’s humiliation were silent, save for somebody nearby who mumbled:

“What, is he crazy?”

Although the Yankees took a quick 2-0 lead in their half of the first inning, a few minutes after Mr. Piazza returned to the batter’s box and grounded out to second base, the stadium seemed subdued, even when the lead grew to 6-0. In the mid-innings, when those $6 beers led to traffic-clogging lines outside the few and scattered stadium restrooms, the talk was not of the Yankees’ imminent victory, but of Roger Clemens’ state of mind. He had few defenders, and those who tried to argue his case sounded cranky and impatient.

When, in the early 1990’s, the Mets were loaded with malcontents, borderline psychos and garden-variety embarrassments, the fans were zealous prosecutors, not cynical defense lawyers. Vince Coleman, Bret Saberhagen and Bobby Bonilla, all onetime All-Stars, were outcasts on their home field, and they were soon sent elsewhere to nobody’s regret. Yankee fans will never subject Roger Clemens to the scorn Met fans heaped on their miscreants. After all, he’s a winner. And so are they. Oh, yes, so are they.

So Mr. Clemens now becomes part of the city’s folk memory, the sight of him throwing Mr. Piazza’s bat as indelible as the images of Mickey Owen chasing down a missed third strike, of Sandy Amoros tracking down Yogi Berra’s fly ball to left field, of a fully extended Ron Swoboda, of an uncoiled Reggie Jackson. This is the autumn of Roger Clemens and his demons, and Hillary Rodham Clinton and her ambition, all of it played out in New York in the year 2000: Two outsiders, brought in to ensure a victory.

Did Mrs. Clinton play any role in the Travelgate case? “No, I did not,” Mrs. Clinton testified. The independent counsel thinks otherwise. Did Mr. Clemens intend to throw a shattered bat at Mike Piazza? “There was no intent,” he said. Reporters assembled in the Yankee Stadium interview room seemed to think otherwise. Mrs. Clinton was not prosecuted; Mr. Clemens remains unpunished, save for a $50,000 fine. New Yorkers who recruited these two may yet have cause to celebrate this fall, but surely the best of them must lay awake on occasion, wondering about the deal they have made.

Politics and baseball have merged this fall in New York in a way that ought to have made the jocks look good and the politicians look small, but may wind up diminishing both. We expect political positions to splinter on impact with hardball politics. Al Gore panders with his vow of 100,000 new teachers, George W. Bush assures us that he can cut taxes and increase military spending while acting like a steward of the nation’s finances, Rick Lazio assures us that we will be proud of him for reasons he seems not at liberty to explain. The Presidential candidates are aristocrats posing as meritocrats, and Mr. Lazio is but a light-hitting substitute for an All-Star. We know where to find a more perfect meritocracy-on the field, where there are no gentlemen’s C’s. We hold our Series stars to higher standards. They are supposed to represent the best of what we like in ourselves, whether it is the classy, pinstriped traditions so elegantly preserved by the Yankees’ Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter, or the scrappy determination of the Mets’ Al Leiter, Rick Reed and John Franco.

But Roger Clemens, rented to the Yankees before last season when the team larded its pitching rotation in a fashion Bill Gates or John D. Rockefeller would admire, has soiled what should have been a pleasant memory in the making. The enduring image of Subway Series Redux is Mr. Clemens with a bat shard in his right hand, his front teeth biting his lower lip, his face as taut and grim as your average West Bank rock thrower. Mr. Clemens went on to pitch a game masterful enough to deserve mention with the great performances of the golden age of New York baseball, but at the post-game news conference he found himself in a witness box. He said he didn’t hear Mr. Piazza shout “What’s your problem?” although the two men were not more than 10 feet apart. He said he didn’t remember saying, absurdly, of the bat, “I thought it was the ball” as he and Mr. Piazza moved close together.

Yet replays of the incident were conclusive; Mr. Clemens really did try to explain away his offense by saying that he thought he had a ball, not a bat, in his hand. (So, why did he throw it towards Mr. Piazza and not to first base?) Mr. Clemens started so many sentences with the self-conscious phrase “to be honest with you” that the phrase “congenital liar” came to mind.

This is the price New York pays for glory. Import a celebrity to run for Senate and then explain away the occasional prevarication. Import a future Hall of Fame pitcher and then justify traits associated with the hunter-gatherer stage of evolution as evidence of his admirable will to win.

By drawing attention to himself in so disagreeable a fashion, Mr. Clemens serves as a reminder that the Subway Series is not as remarkable as it seemed at the end of the league championship series. The Yankees, with a payroll of more than $100 million, and the Mets, who pay more than $80 million in annual salaries, are two of baseball’s six richest teams. They can afford to pay mercenaries like Roger Clemens $15 million a year for whatever glory he may have left in his aging right arm, just as they could afford to pick up such high-price castoffs as David Justice in mid-season as pennant insurance. The Mets are rich enough to pay Mr. Leiter $36 million and Mr. Piazza more than $90 million, and can entertain the thought of luring free-agent shortshop Alex Rodriguez to New York during the off-season. A World Series wholly contained within baseball’s largest market is the ultimate expression of the game’s financial divide. When Mr. Bush addressed the well-heeled Catholic elite at the Al Smith dinner in the Waldorf-Astoria on Oct. 19, he joked that he was with his natural constituency: the haves and have-mores. He could have been talking about World Series 2000.

The haves and have-mores of baseball get their money from individual television contracts; television makes its money by selling commercial time; commercial time, particularly during the World Series, worsens the game’s crosstown-street-during-rush-hour pace. Games that cross the Eastern Seaboard dateline ensure that few New York children will have their Pete Hamill memory moments of this year’s Subway Series. They’re asleep by the seventh-inning stretch, if not before.

Before Game 2, Met general manager Steve Phillips, standing near the batting cage at Yankee Stadium, was asked how the Mets and baseball could capitalize on the good feelings and replayed memories of an all–New York series. “We have little control over the post-season,” he said as Met outfielder Benny Agbayani, a fan favorite, launched one of John Stearns’ batting-practice pitches over the left-field wall. “It’s really under the control of Major League Baseball.” Still, he said, “I think kids will look back and remember this, but it’s definitely tougher now then it was back then [in the 1950’s].”

Mr. Hamill himself was among the legion of reporters probing the stadium’s innards before and during Game 2. Dressed in a heavy tweed jacket and a hat, and looking leaner than in the past, Mr. Hamill was a vision from a lost era. Seeing him working a Subway Series was like crossing paths with Mencken at a national political convention. Returned to the Post to cover the Subway Series after having contributed to the lore of Subway Series past, Mr. Hamill has raged against baseball’s slow pace today, arguing that it is killing the game. He should have seen a 9-year-old boy with a Yankee cap on the D train after Game 2; he collapsed into a seat with his father, pitched forward and was asleep on his father’s right thigh by 125th Street. Will he remember Mr. Clemens throwing a bat at Mr. Piazza, or the Mets’ ninth-inning comeback that nearly overcame a 6-0 Yankee lead? Or will he remember the chasms between innings as Fox tried to sop up its $2 billion baseball-rights investment with Gatorade ads?

The game itself remains as glorious as it ever was, and there is no better place to recall this than at Yankee Stadium during a World Series. After he finished batting practice, Met first baseman Todd Zeile whipped out a small video camera and took some pictures looking out towards the stadium’s majestic outfield and Monument Park. Underneath the grandstands, in a series of concentric tunnels that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani described as a “real labyrinth” as he tried to navigate it, the greats and famous of the past prepared to pay tribute to the present. Graig Nettles, who played third base for the World Champion Yankees of 1977-78, introduced himself to actor and former baseball prospect Kurt Russell, who was wearing a Mets shirt bearing the name of his nephew, Matt Franco. Phil Rizzuto shouted to broadcaster Fran Healy: “Hey, Healy,” he said. Singer Robert Merrill shuffled down a corridor on his way to the field to sing “America the Beautiful.” He passed a sign that quoted Joe DiMaggio saying: “I want to thank God for making me a Yankee.”

“You’re about to be introduced …” said a young blond woman escorting him to the field.

“Who’s doing the introduction?” the old singer said.

“It’ll be Mr. Sheppard,” the blonde said, referring to the Yankees’ voice-of-God public-address announcer, Bob Sheppard. Mr. Merrill seemed satisfied, and disappeared. He re-emerged a few minutes later on the field, the slump in his shoulders and the hesitant gait left behind in the catacombs. He was center stage at Yankee Stadium, after all.

No more than 15 or 20 minutes passed between Mr. Merrill’s performance, the ceremonial first pitch by Yankee legends Mr. Rizzuto and Whitey Ford, and Mr. Clemens’ reminder that victory, if it comes, will not be unblemished.

The firefighters and their families who own pieces of Box 38K may not see a World Series flag flying from Shea next year. But they won’t have to explain away Roger Clemens, either. Cracked Bat in a Mean Season