Once in a Lifetime

By the time Todd Zeile dug in his foot to keep from overrunning second base, 55,695 fans at Shea Stadium were standing, screaming, shouting, laughing. Three runners had crossed the plate thanks to Mr. Zeile’s double, and the Mets were ahead 6-0 in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series. Mr. Zeile’s two-strike rocket made the end inevitable. As the Cardinals made a pitching change, the high-pitched roar gave way to a sustained yowl of release. Middle-aged boomers grew up on stories of baseball in the 1950’s, when two New York teams appeared in five of the six World Series between 1951 and 1956. Their parents assured them that such an era took place but once in a lifetime.

But when David Justice lifted a pitch into the high right field stands of Yankee Stadium last night, where once Babe Ruth lifted them as well, it seemed as though history had happened once more.

Justice was followed by Bernie Williams and Tino Martinez, and by the time the Yankees had finished pummeling the Mariners in the seventh inning, it seemed as though the amazing Mets and the regal Yankees were finally in place for their nuptials. Those Met fans who left Queens prepared to abuse their crosstown rivals found themselves pulling, improbably, for the Bronx Bombers, and most of the Bronx exhaled. For the first three innings, the Yankee hitters had looked as puzzled as George W. Bush trying to talk himself around Al Gore’s wasp-swarm of health-care numbers during the night’s Presidential debate, while the Mariners came out of the box focused, passionate, aggressive and surprisingly effective.

And as the two candidates glowered at each other, using threatening postures and physical stances, the tension built. “I’m glad I had a chance to knock that down,” the Vice President said of Mr. Bush’s fuzzy charges about Mr. Gore’s zeal for spending. “I will pay down the debt,” he added, his pasty features turning wolverine as he tied his spending plan to education reform. “Just add up all the numbers,” Mr. Bush responded, looking ever-so-slightly punch-drunk, as simultaneously Jorge Posada’s bases-loaded double scored two runs and Paul O’Neill drove another home to make it 4-3, Mariners.

The Dempsey-Firpo scene in the Presidential debate became sweatier and tenser, as Mr. Bush struggled with his definition of “affirmative access”–while from the Bronx, a rumbling noise. If only. If only. If only the right history would happen. If the Yankees could come from behind to make this once-in-a-lifetime moment happen. If only Mr. Bush the Younger had depth or intelligence; if only Mr. Gore had an iota of the Clintonian seducer. Put together, you’d have a candidate. If only our history would happen. It was a matter of escaping the giant holographic ghosts of Jackie Robinson and Don Larsen; F.D.R., Ike; Tom Brokaw! That’s what was behind the yearning–to haul history into our own backyard. A generation of New Yorkers taught to believe in glory days was seeking its own glories, its own myths. Tired of playing the literary foil for the greatest generation, aware that the stories of 1951 and 1955 and 1956 belong to somebody else, the open stadiums in Queens and the Bronx desperately sought a legend to claim for their own as both coda to the last century and springboard to the next.

A weekend of color and sunshine had faded into a dull, chilly, wet night by the time the cast of Cabaret sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Shea for Game 5 on Oct. 16. A cone of gray-blue smoke hung languidly over left field–they were cooking meat on a barbecue in the picnic area. The mood was anticipatory, but with an edge. Fans at field level, where seats went for $150 apiece, chatted on cell phones, some wondering aloud if, or where, they should flee if rain began to fall.

The weather was worse at Yankee Stadium the following night; the rain was steady at game time as the Yankees fell behind 2-0 in the first inning. Pre-game cheers for yesterday’s legend Don Mattingly, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch, were instantly transformed to Al Gore–like sighs as the Seattle Mariners scored on a pair of one-out doubles by Alex Rodriguez and Edgar Martinez.

The trajectory of New York in the 90’s–the successes, the excesses, the anxious certainty that a big and possibly dreadful event lay just over the horizon–brought the city to a millennial autumn certain to be of famous memory. The President and the Mayor who attached their names to the decade’s peace and prosperity were fading–their time finished, their successors uncertain. A woman from Illinois and Arkansas was seeking to represent the state in the Senate, and the nation was forced to endure the spectacle. The World Series was poised to become an intra-city affair for the first time since 1956–a symbol of triumphalism, yes, but also of isolation. The Presidential candidates have ignored New York. During the debate in Missouri, the two Ivy Leaguers who would lead us talked about the depredations of the IN-surance industry, a pronunciation not recognized east of the Hudson River. Twangy baseball fans in the heartland and beyond might act similarly if faced with seven nights filled with New York nationalism.

Would that the rest of the nation understood how uneasily the crowns would lay on New York’s brow. After a magnificent run, the Yankees had the look of yesterday’s champions, especially after their dreary first inning. Mr. O’Neill is a star on decline; David Cone finished the regular season with four wins and many embarrassments. Their best moments are memories. Joe Torre cried when this aging team clinched the Eastern Division–why not? The most memorable years of his managing career may be behind him.

The Mets’ pitching staff, the key to the team’s resurgence, is made up of aging veterans; of the four post-season starters, only Mike Hampton is under 30, and he will be a free agent after the season. His return is uncertain; likewise, Met manager Bobby Valentine. There was a palpable sense at both stadiums on consecutive rainy nights that if there is to be an all–New York World Series any time soon, it will have to be this year, or it will be in somebody else’s lifetime. These two teams are not built for the future. They have been designed to win now.

Players often say they savor championships because they never know if they will experience the thrill again. Fans, who see generations pass before their eyes, often are luckier (assuming they don’t live in Boston or Chicago). If they keep showing up, they generally are rewarded. Sometimes they are rewarded amply, as Yankee fans have been. And certainly Shea Stadium is no stranger to epic victories. The Mets are not the tragic Red Sox or the forlorn Cubs; they have won the World Series twice in the last three decades, clinching at home both times. The inevitable between-innings videos reminded fans of past championships: Cleon Jones dropping to one knee after catching the last out of the 1969 World Series; Jessie Orosco flinging his glove after getting the last out of the ’86 Series. So the almost desperate quality of the cheers after Mr. Zeile’s hit was a little shocking. It was as though 1969 hadn’t happened, or 1973, or ’86.

On this night, with the Yankees on the verge of clinching the American League pennant, images of the Gary Cooper–like Gil Hodges, manager of that ’69 team and one of the long gone boys of summer, of Casey Stengel, the eccentric manager of the team that beat the boys of summer and who ended his career as manager of the famously incompetent early Mets–these were scenes from a past life. On the chilly, damp fall night of Oct. 16–the 31st anniversary of the ’69 Met miracle–Met fans who remembered Stengel as a cuddly grandfather (he once went on and on about all the children who said “Metsie, Metsie, Metsie” in their cribs) and Hodges as a solid, infallible father were peers of 50-year-old Mr. Valentine. This was their moment, and they embraced it without regard to caution. By the seventh inning, a few thousand fans were chanting “Yankees suck, Yankees suck,” never mind that the Seattle Mariners were standing in the way of their dreams. An intellectually challenged young man wearing, of all things, a Yankee jacket inspired a chorus of “ass-hole, ass-hole.” More-civilized fans began plotting match-ups: Mike Hampton vs. Roger Clemens, Al Leiter vs. Orlando Hernandez. “Nah, Hampton’s gotta pitch at Shea so he can hit,” somebody interrupted, insisting that the Met ace shouldn’t pitch until Game 3 at Shea Stadium, where there will be no designated hitter. “Pitch Leiter in the Bronx so we can hit for him.”

Met fans were making assumptions about their rivals that they wouldn’t have made for their own team, not until Mr. Zeile’s double.

Faith of Their Fathers

They wanted a championship; all fans do. But these Met fans craved the seemingly mythical Subway Series as a capstone to the fat years of the late, departed century. Their parents had prosperity and Ike and Robert F. Wagner and childhood memories of Fiorello LaGuardia, and, boy, they said, there was nothing like watching DiMaggio cover ground in Death Valley, or Willie Mays lose his hat as he raced from first to third on a single, or Carl Furillo gun down runners foolish enough to test his arm from right field. They had Campy and the Duke; Mickey and the Scooter; Bobby and the Barber. Their New York reached its apogee in 1956, in the last Subway Series of the era, of the time of their lives, when the Yankees beat the Dodgers and Mr. Larsen pitched a perfect game. The Giants and Dodgers moved to California after the ’56 Series, and the postwar New York of their youth and middle age–the glory that was the Grand Concourse and Bedford Avenue–vanished in less than a decade. Twenty-one years later, when the Dodgers, now representing Los Angeles, returned to New York to play the Yankees in the 1977 World Series, a national television audience saw flames engulf a building blocks away from the Stadium. “Ladies and gentlemen: The Bronx is burning,” intoned Howard Cosell.

The fans who shook Shea Stadium after Mr. Zeile’s double, who nearly drowned out Bob Sheppard as he read the lineup for Game 6 at Yankee Stadium a night later, were cheering not only for their teams but for this moment in their lives, the time in their lives and in the life of their city, not likely to be replicated until they are old enough to remember the Clinton-Giuliani years to children born in the uncertain future we have glimpsed with some apprehension this fall. For the moment, it is 1956 again. Bernie Williams patrols center field, the legatee of DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. Mike Piazza is our Yogi Berra and Roy Campanella. In place of Ike and Bob Wagner, we have Bill Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. The Mayor appeared at 8:17 p.m. at Shea, a minute before the first pitch. He wore a neutral New York Rangers cap, and he led Judi Nathan to a box near the St. Louis dugout, where Ms. Nathan twirled her hair, nervously, for the next three hours. Mr. Giuliani’s name and Mr. Clinton’s are destined to be linked together when the fortunes and foibles of New York in the 90’s are recorded as history. Our prosperity, like that of the 1950’s, has been unfathomable, and like all others, it is destined to end, perhaps sooner than later as the New Economy bows to the laws of the Old. Peace, too, seems more fragile now, with faceless enemies armed with rubber boats blowing holes in billion-dollar warships. In 1956, when the only war America was fighting was of the cold variety, the French had already been routed at Dienbienphu, and only the best and brightest could identify the nations of North and South Vietnam.

A Tarnished Beauty

The beauty of Game 5 at Shea was not untarnished. Jay Payton, the Mets’ 27-year-old rookie center fielder who had a splendid season, was hit on the forehead by Cardinal reliever David Veres in the eighth inning. There was no reason for Mr. Veres to bean Mr. Payton; the game was over, and Mr. Payton, while contributing several key hits, had been relatively quiet during the series. The sound of the ball hitting Mr. Payton’s helmet could be heard in the mezzanine, and the crowd was quiet for the first time all night when Mr. Payton fell to the ground. But he was up quickly enough, charging the mound as the benches emptied. As Mr. Payton sought revenge, a welt blossomed over his eye, and a vivid rivulet of blood began trickling down his cheek. Later, in the locker room, Mr. Payton admitted that Mr. Veres probably wasn’t throwing at him. His anxiety got the better of him, even on the verge of triumph. Anxiety got the better of the New York Police Department, which issued a hyper-alert, like that for this past New Year’s Eve, in anticipation of Subway Series trouble. The private Yankee Stadium parties that were part of the World Series atmosphere in 1998 and ’99 have been canceled because of security concerns.

Rudyard Kipling wrote his poem “Recessional” on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1896, when the British Empire was master of a quarter of the globe and General Kitchener was safely in charge of the Sudan. Those who lined the streets of London thought they were celebrating the present; Kipling saw that they were saluting the past. A year later, Winston Churchill was part of the world’s last cavalry charge, at Omdurman under Kitchener’s command, and Britain was becoming mired in its Vietnam, the Boer War. By 1918, the Empire was exhausted; by 1945, it was finished.

“The tumult and the shouting dies / The Captains and the Kings depart,” Kipling wrote.

The shouting at Shea ended by midnight. The Mayor slipped away from his seat minutes before, so he, the defiant Yankee fan, could celebrate in the Mets’ locker room. The next night in the Bronx, an hour after Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush shook hands and withdrew to their tents, the roar in the east began once more. It was loud enough to wake Victoria.

–additional reporting by Mary Ann Giordano Once in a Lifetime