New York state of mind

by Matthew B. Burgess | 10/18/00 5:00am

I ducked underneath the turnstile and my father took my hand in his, leading me up the stairs to the elevated 7 train. We rode the train four stops to Willets Point, and as we stepped off the platform I saw, for the very first time, Shea Stadium -- home of the New York Mets.

It was 1988, and I was a seven-year-old Met fanatic. Most of the game is a vague memory, but I remember springing to my feet when Gary Carter's line drive home run broke a scoreless tie in the ninth. A gigantic apple stuck out of a big top hat beyond the left-centerfield wall, Carter trotted around the bases and the crowd erupted in raucous celebration.

As we exited the stadium, the fans (as they do after every home win) began alternating chants of "Let's Go Mets!" and "Yankees suck!"

There I was, seven years old with a Darryl Strawberry jersey that went down to my knees, and already I was exposed to an intense baseball rivalry that divides New York City.

I always shied away from arguing with Yankee fans. There was no way to win. The Yankee fans had 25 World Series wins in their corner, an 11-7 advantage in interleague play, and "The House That Ruth Built." Conjuring up memories of longtime Mets Jerry Koosman and Dave Kingman did little against DiMaggio, Mantle, Mattingly and Jeter.

The Mets have always been the younger brothers trying to escape the long shadow of the Bronx Bombers. We were the team that had to fight for headline space on the back pages of The New York Post and The Daily News. We were those funny little guys in Queens that lost 120 games in 1962, traded Nolan Ryan and signed Bobby Bonilla -- twice.

The Mets franchise hasn't lacked excitement, what with the Miracle of '69, Mookie Wilson's grounder down the first base line in Game 6 of the '86 World Series and Robin Ventura's game-winning grand slam single against the Braves in last year's National League Championship Series. But the Yankees were always one step ahead, and their fans reminded me at every opportunity.

But with the Mets and Yankees on the verge of an interborough apocalypse, the most intense baseball war in America is about to be fought on an October stage. New York is buzzing with electric energy at the prospect of the first subway series since the Yankees played the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1956.

"You would need a month's vacation after it was over with," said Yankee manager Joe Torre of past Subway Series. "It would be exhausting."

This World Series will settle who the best team in baseball is, but more importantly in the minds of self-centered New Yorkers, the best team in the Big Apple. The Yankees are looking to further their metropolitan supremacy and become the first team to three-peat since the Oakland A's completed the tri-fecta in 1974. The Mets, with a World Series win, would escape from the shadow of the Yankees and, in the words of freelance writer Bob Bergen, "bring down the Yankee Empire, which, for four years, has ruled both the City and the Big Leagues." A Mets victory in the World Series would give me ample firepower in any future debate with Yankee fans.

But there are a few questions that need to be answered before we etch "New York Mets" on the World Series trophy.

Will the Mets' young outfield of Benny Agbayani, Jay Payton and Timo Perez continue to deliver game-winning hits or will their inexperience with 432 career games combined finally catch up with them? How effective will the Yankees' number three hitter, Paul O'Neill, be with a nagging right hip pointer injury and a postseason batting average of .200? Will Mike Piazza have trouble stepping in against Roger Clemens after getting beaned in the head in July? Will there be riots in the streets? Can Armando Benitez, who has a propensity for giving up home runs in the playoffs, shut the door in the ninth for the Mets (especially against the Yankees' Bernie Williams, who's hitting .833 against the Mets' closer)? Will the October stage vault the Mets' Edgardo Alfonzo into well-deserved superstar status? Can you get the number 4 train to Yankee Stadium at Grand Central? Can Chuck Knoublach overcome a terrible season and be his pesky old self at the top of the Yankee lineup? Which Bobby Jones will show up for the Mets, the guy that one-hit the Giants in the National League Divisional Series or the pitcher that gave up six runs in four innings to the Cardinals in the NLCS? Can the Mets' pitchers keep Derek Jeter off base? Which team will Hillary Clinton root for?

Despite the overabundance of inquiries, one thing's for sure -- a New York team will win the World Series, sweeping half the city into a state of baseball euphoria, and the other half into a despondent funk. Oh yeah, and the Yankees suck.

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