The Epicenter

It may not be the most successful baseball market in the second half of the season, but it’ll be by far the most entertaining one.  New York City, the home of what can be safely categorized (at least this season) as two underachieving, middle of the road and at times hard to watch baseball teams made what has recently been in its own right a hard to watch baseball game matter again, at least for one night.  For right or wrong, New York is a place where the storylines are force fed with enough intensity to drown out the mediocrity in their context, a place where every corpuscle of that context is blown up and hyped with such a convincing level of vehemence that it’s impossible to ignore even the most insignificant calamities.  When the Mets lose four meaningless games in August to the Colorado Rockies, you hear about it.  When Mark Sanchez dances pantsless with a bunch of supermodels, instead of living in gleeful vicariousness, we tear him to shreds.

When you start to break down the forces that were at work last night and recognize some of the poetical symmetry that was in play, you understand that the game didn’t need any extra hype.  For the first time in a while, we had an All Star Game that was interesting as a baseball game, rather than simply for the conglomerate of talent playing in it.  While the game didn’t need the New York Hype Machine to make it more compelling, the irony is that it was the manner in which the New York franchises were represented in the game, played in New York City, that gave the game such a high level of relevance.  New York City didn’t create the enchantment; it was the enchantment.

I have this vision of Bud Selig spending his final days as commissioner locked in an 8 x 8 cement room as a long parade of lackeys spend the day delivering him bad news that he immediately transforms into his own legacy-elevating reality.  Example:

Lackey: Hey Bud, we’ve got this guy who opened up this clinic in Florida–

Bud: He’s a hero, a modern robust stalwart Centurion of Rome. 

Lackey: Criminal, actually, and anyway he was supposedly a doctor who had this practice where they maybe sold a deer antler or two to a couple of our star players and a bunch of others no one’s ever heard of–

Bud: A-Rod.  The Hero will help me crush A-Rod.  

Lackey: Well, the thing is, that this so-called medical practice kept track of all of its prescriptions and transactions on paper notebooks and used code names for all of its patients, so we kind of have to rely on this guy–

Bud: Daredevil Demigod Conquerer who will help erase the stain of everything I did previously in the name of the values I promise I now uphold for the most part.  I can’t even look at him.  My corneas are set ablaze by the aggressive force of his radiance.

Lackey: –to help us decipher the records.  He doesn’t really have any credibility and it turns out he tried to shake down A-Rod for a cool million or five, and if we’re going to do this we’ll have to build our entire case around this shadowy crook.  What is happening to your face right now.

Bud: I am winking at you, Lackey.

Lackey: Right, well, all of our lawyers and also everyone who has ever watched the first segment of any episode of “Matlock” is telling us “Nope, nope, if that’s your guy, you’re doomed” and realistically, I mean, Braun actually failed a drug test, we had him dead to rights and we still couldn’t get him, and this case is so much worse, Bud, so much worse, and if you get in cahoots with this guy it could really finally destroy you, on top of which this seems like the kind of thing that we’ll spend a year and a half in fruitless litigation over–

Bud: When A-Rod’s bones are lying inert before me, I will pick one up and beat you with it.

And so on.  Anyway, this is how I’m picturing last night’s All Star Game was pitched to Bud in his confined Fantasy Chamber:

Lackey: The game’s in New York this year–

Bud: At one of our gorgeous new stadiums in the biggest sports market in the country, with the hosting team’s phenom pitcher starting the game and the legend from the city’s opposing franchise potentially finishing it–

Lackey: Um, yeah, actually.

Bud: –with a record number of first-time All Stars representing a generational transition in front of a hometown crowd whose team, the Mets, are commencing their own generational transition–

Lackey: Unbelievably, that’s all true.

Bud: –and the fan base in our most important city, which is experiencing across the board one of the worst baseball summers in its history, will be completely re-energized and hopeful going into the second half–

Lackey: This is weird.

Bud: –and people might be so impassioned about the game itself that they’ll finally forget how I ruined it ten years ago by tying home field–

Lackey: Now you’ve gone too far.

This was, to me, the most legitimately intriguing All Star Game since Ted Williams in Boston in ‘99.  The Harvey-Mariano start-finish dynamic was great, and we’ll get to Mariano in a minute, but allowing Matt Harvey to be showcased to the nation in front of a Mets crowd was a big deal, and it was absolutely a Mets crowd and “allowing” was absolutely the correct verb there, because Clayton Kershaw stepping aside and saying publicly that he endorsed Matt Harvey being the NL starter is the exact reason that Matt Harvey was the NL starter.  Bruce Bochy is of course going to claim that Matt Harvey would have been the starter regardless of the game’s venue because he doesn’t want to publicly denounce Harvey’s merit, but the starter in this year’s game without a doubt had to go through Kershaw.

We finally saw a sold out Citi Field last night (there’s room here for a little tangent about the Mets attendance problems, but I don’t think it’s worth it – the Mets attendance is directly tied to its performance; they’ve never had difficulty drawing fans when they’ve had good teams), and this was not a Yankee-Mets split crowd.  It was decidedly pro-Met, and it’s indicative of a shift that’s taking place in New York with striking definition.  

Mets fans are coming out of the woodwork – the word on the ground is that Harvey jerseys are taking over the city – because they finally have hope, and it’s not just Harvey.  Zach Wheeler is shaping up to be a pivotal number two in the rotation, and the probable near-future of the back-end of their rotation was on display in Sunday’s futures game in Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero, both of whom project to be in the big leagues by the start of 2014.  Mets fans don’t want to hear a word about “Generation K,” but they have legitimate arms right around the corner in their farm system, not counting a drastically overachieving Jeremy Hefner and Dillon Gee, whose value is skyrocketing and contributes to a sudden preponderance of pitching that should, and I think will, help them land via trade the power outfield bat that they so desperately need.  They have to use the rest of this season to figure out who in that lineup stays next year, with the pressure being most strongly on Ike Davis, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Lucas Duda, and Ruben Tejada, but as Sandy Alderson said this week “If the jury’s still out, really, the jury’s probably in.”  They have and are quickly developing the pitching that they’ll need to win as soon as next year, and they have the pieces in place to get the speed and power that they need in the outfield, plus $50 million in the dead contracts of Johan Santana and Jason Bay finally coming off the books after this season, so it’ll be possible to replace any combination of the aforementioned “borderline” players who don’t make the cut – this is a team whose timeline is shrinking drastically, and there will be more hope and excitement around the Mets in the second half than maybe has ever been around a team that’s ten games under .500.

As hopeful as Mets fans are, Yankee fans are tearing their collective hair out.  It was nearly comical to watch Youkilis, Granderson, and Teixera come off the DL and go right back on it within weeks, and then Jeter was back for exactly seven innings before being pulled and sent for an MRI and promptly benched, and suddenly the entire Evil Empire is on watch.  As we watch the Mets rise, we could be seeing the Yankees fall just as quickly – the team is finally making the luxury tax threshold a hard cap, which means that payroll has to be shed going into 2014.  Hughes, Granderson, and Joba are all likely gone next year, and there’s not a lot they can do to better their team this year, because they don’t have a strong farm system and they can’t take on any non-expiring contracts because they’re not looking to add to their 2014 payroll.

Which brings us to Cano.  He’s a free agent who the Yankees almost have to sign, which is why the jettisoning of Hughes and Granderson seems so certain, but he’s a guy that the Yankee front office has to be wary of.  We know the talent is there, but what if, as a 30 year old, he demands 5 or 6 years?  We’ve seen what happens to guys who get long contracts at the wrong side of 30 – whatever total salary the Yankees give him, they’re going to be giving him for the first three years of the contract.  If they sign him for 5 years/$100 million, history has shown that they’re essentially investing $100 million for three years of strong production.  From age 34 on, his numbers are going to taper drastically, and another crucial point for the Yankees, who all of a sudden aren’t willing to throw big money at every name free agent on the market and with Jeter and Mariano and A-Rod’s careers coming to a close, is that Cano does not draw a crowd on his own.  We’ve seen it this year, as Cano is the last star left standing on the team and the crowds at Yankee Stadium, despite their relative overachieving, have, at least by their standards, fallen off a cliff.  He’s not enough on his own to turn the stiles, and if the Yankees want him, they’re going to have to pay him as though he is and still try to find room for a star or two that they can market.

Despite this melancholy in the Bronx, the facets of which are riveting enough to merit a spotlight on the Yankees in the second half even if they flounder, they still had last night.  The crowd of 45,000 at Citi Field and the millions watching at home listened to a strained rendition of “Sweet Caroline” while waiting impatiently to hear the opening of “Enter Sandman.”  Even with the nice story that would’ve been on the table had he closed the game, the difference between seeing Mariano enter in the eighth or in the ninth proved to be irrelevant.  The power of the moment, as both teams gave their ovations in their dugouts and allowed Mariano to have the field to himself, was enough to pump life into what many thought turned out to be a dead game, and it was a moment whose impact could have only been maximized in that venue.

It often happens in New York that the hype of an event far outweighs its end performance, and some might argue that there lacked substance in last night’s routine 3-0 affair.  I disagree.  The game represented too much for and reflected too diversely on two of the sport’s most influential franchises for the game to have been considered “boring.”  When you saw Matt Harvey plunk Robinson Cano, then watched as another Yankee star limped off the field while the most impactful Met followed it with six straight outs, how did you not see the exact state of both franchises manifested beautifully in the very city in which they both abide?  It was impactful theater.  

Part of following sports is following its sometimes justified, sometimes not, threads of enchantment to their inevitable fulfillment or dissatisfaction, and there’s no place more fun to do it than New York.