New York Is in a Baseball State of Mind – Wall Street Journal

Yoenis Cespedes has been a hitting spark for the Mets.

Flushing, N.Y.

New York City can really drive you bonkers—I say that as somebody who lives in this madcave and loves it. New York always sees itself as the most important place in the solar system, even when it’s not. We have no humility, no chill, no sense of proportion about ourselves, and our 4 p.m. traffic will make you weep. Also two bedroom apartments here cost more than small tropical islands.

But sometimes New York City can genuinely feel like the red-hot center of something besides $18 cocktails. It feels that way right now in baseball. For the bajillionth time in franchise history, the Yankees are playing well. The Mets are playing well for the first time since the 11th century. Barring disaster, both teams are making the playoffs, and there is already bold talk in town of another Subway World Series. Yes, if you live in a different part of the country, I know what you think of a New York World Series: you want to flee to Spain. If there’s a Subway World Series, you want to be in Barcelona, drinking something red and delicious, watching anything besides New York City fall more deeply in love with itself.

New York, however, can’t get enough. This town has diamond fever. Over the weekend there was a Subway Series joust at the Mets home stadium, Citi Field, thanks to the first September interleague series between the American League Yankees and the National League Mets. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough of interleague play, a gimmick which was fun for a couple of seasons but has now vaporized the mystique that used to exist between the leagues. Of course, I stopped trying to understand anything baseball does after it decided to award World Series home field to the team that wins its exhibition All-Star Game. When I think about that, I need to lie down in a hammock.

I went to Saturday’s afternoon game with my son Jesse, who is closing in on 3 years old. I was raised with the Red Sox in Boston, and my wife is an Orioles fan from Baltimore, and Jesse is growing up a kid in Brooklyn, so you know what that means: he’s being raised as an Orioles fan. You might think we should let him decide, but if that kid does not have a smirking bird on his cap, he is not going to be allowed back in Maryland for Thanksgiving.

Still, Citi Field would be the scene of Jesse’s baseball debut. Now you might love October playoffs or the chilly optimism of Opening Day, but to me, there is no finer time to watch baseball than in September, when the weather is neither oppressively hot nor so cold you need whiskey and mittens, and each inning is meaningful, unless you live in Philadelphia. I wanted Jesse to see the poetry of the game, to notice how beautiful a baseball field looked, and realize how even a $37 hot ballpark dog could be a transcendent experience.

Instead this is what Jesse loved about baseball.

1. Ice cream served in a tiny plastic helmet.

2. Riding up and down a giant escalator to the upper deck.

3. The automatic paper towel dispenser in the men’s room.

Oh, well. Toddlers, man. I still consider the afternoon a success, if only because it was an opportunity to witness this riveting Mets-mania in the flesh. It is difficult for me to view the Mets as woebegone sad sacks, because I lived in Boston in 1986, and after what happened during Game 6 at Shea Stadium, my family did not speak with each other for a month. But outside of some fleeting joys (a run meeting the Yankees in a 2000 Subway Series) the Mets have spent much of the time since ’86 inflicting a maddening torment upon their loyal fan base. Lately there have been questions about decision-making and finances—at the trade deadline, it seemed as if the Mets would suddenly excuse themselves from the table, like a shirking friend when the dinner check arrived.

But this Mets season? This season has reversed that frustration. For the first half, the Mets were irritatingly impotent—they’d assembled baseball’s finest young pitching staff, but they’d paired it with a lineup that could not outslug The Wall Street Journal’s company softball team (this is not a joke—the WSJ company softball team won its fifth media league title this past weekend.) The fear was that the Mets would again sit on their hands at deadline, but then, amazingly, they maneuvered like sharks in the shallows, landing, among others, outfielder Yoenis Cespedes from Detroit. Since then, the Mets offense has been electric—after Aug. 1, they’ve scored the second-most runs in the majors. Entering Sunday night’s finale with the Yankees, they’ve run off a record of 31-14, scampering away with the wobbly NL East. Cespedes, meanwhile, has 17 home runs and a .965 OPS as a Met, and is talked up as a legitimate NL MVP candidate, partly because he deserves it, but mostly because New York cannot stop yapping about anything that happens in New York.

New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez greets teammates in the dugout.

Citi Field, which debuted in 2009 as a perplexing tribute to Ebbets Field, where the Mets had no history, has never rocked like it has lately. By August, it usually felt like an abandoned yard sale. But this weekend, it was vibrant, packed, brimming with a a new and uncharacteristic optimism. The Yankees are a surprise, too—uh, did anyone expect this kind of season from a Scarlet Lettered Alex Rodriguez?—But the Mets are the ones with the grip upon the city. This is reasonable. Yankee fans have enjoyed a lot of success. Mets fans, conversely, act like any minute a flower pot could land on their heads.

Now is the part where we’re supposed to remember the rest of the country. As if! But a Subway World Series is anything but assured. First both New York teams have to make the playoffs, and then there will be fierce competition—likely in the NL from the Cardinals and Pirates and Dodgers, and in the AL from the Blue Jays and Royals. Other hazards will arise. A Subway Series isn’t even the most delicious postseason possibility: the sentimental story will be the Chicago Cubs, attempting to win a championship for the first time since John Adams was President.

New York is going to be New York, however. You can’t stop it. During an otherwise quiet Yankee win on Saturday, the Citi Field PA began to blare the sweeping “Rhapsody in Blue” by Brooklyn’s George Gershwin and it was possible to feel the scale of significant things happening. Not long after, Cespedes stepped to the plate to “Empire State in Mind” from Brooklyn’s Jay-Z and Hells Kitchen’s Alicia Keys:

One hand in the air for the big city.

Street lights, big dreams, all lookin’ pretty

No place in the world that could compare.

I know: you’re probably taking two fingers and making the barf sign. But give this town its moment! New York is soaring again in baseball, and it’s starting to feel like a big deal. Maybe not as big a deal as an automatic paper towel dispenser, but a big deal nevertheless.

Write to Jason Gay at Follow on Twitter: @JasonGay


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