Rumble in the Bronx

This is the main event: The gritty Padres venturing into the hard-as-nails mayhem of Yankee Stadium to face one of the most elegant -- and greatest -- teams of our time.

Topics: Baseball,

The San Diego Padres have one hell of a ride waiting for them in New York.

That goes for the electric opening games of their World Series with the New York Yankees, the team that won 114 games this year with all the fuss and bother of a talk-show host silencing a crackpot caller with one push of a button. But it also goes for the 100 or so city blocks the Padres must travel just to get to the House That Ruth Built in the South Bronx — a trip that starts at their hotel near Grand Central Station, wends its way through the nervy bustle of midtown, the swank haughtiness of the Upper East Side and the burned-out brick boxes of Harlem — before the Padres can even think of hustling into the dank confines of the Yankee Stadium visitors’ clubhouse. This is the best pregame ride in all of sports, and it starts off with an explosion of weirdness so New York, so out there and in your face, it has a way of getting to visiting teams.

Joel Oks, a fellow who would have to be played by Dennis Franz in the made-for-TV movie, has it down to a science. He saunters out of his men’s clothing store on 42nd Street, Porta Bella, just before the visiting team bus rolls by amid the honking of cabs and the stench of exhaust fumes. Oks unbuckles his belt with the practiced efficiency of a blue-movie extra, flashes his translucent-white behind at the bus and its passengers, and then gives it a quick, curt slap for emphasis. “People walking by don’t even blink,” Cleveland Indians vice president Bob DiBiasio commented this week after one of Oks’ displays. “It’s become such a tradition, we get worried when he doesn’t do it.”

Sooner or later, the people at Adidas are going to line up Franz to run through the whole bit on TV for another of those shake-your-head-great “Only in New York” Yankee ads, the ones starring the fat-guy fans with Magic Marker letters on their guts spelling out Y-A-N-K-S (except in the one where the cab driver turns and asks, “What’s ‘ANSKY?’” setting off more squirming and Jell-O-vibration than in all of “Animal House”). Oks enjoys his small bit of infamy, but he insists he has a point to make, too. “I do it just to show them New York is messed up in the head,” he explained a few years back. “They go to so many cities. This way, they always know you.”

Oh, they always know New Yorkers, all right. That goes for the battery-throwing fans in right field up at the Stadium, the PA announcer with a voice like a pre-Revolution Cohiba and the official scorer with mutton chops, a pursed mouth like an exit wound and a ringing voice just made to scream, “Get me rewrite!” No world city demands to be taken on its own terms more than New York, and visiting teams either accept that or end up shuffle-stepping out of town mumbling to themselves and looking forward to a visit to Blockbuster so they can shut themselves up somewhere in the suburbs for the winter and try to forget.

That’s what is so intriguing about the Yankees’ matchup with the Padres, a team whose guiding philosophy is a kind of “Yeah? So?” defiance that has been personified during the playoffs by the photogenic face of pitching coach Dave Stewart. There’s no question that one of general manager Kevin Towers’ best moves last offseason was getting Stewart to take a job Stewart knew would not help him toward his goal of being a general manager. It also helped to add virtuoso psychopath Kevin Brown to give them a true staff ace; and to stick with Greg Vaughn and give him a chance to forget his forgettable 1997 season in a platoon situation with Rickey Henderson. Vaughn’s 52 homers were a lot of offense to add to a lineup that already featured the pure hitting brilliance of Tony Gwynn and the blunt power of Ken Caminiti. Stewart, looking right where he belongs back in uniform, has come to be the symbol for this team. Back in spring training, he got everyone’s attention on the first day when he put three thick rings down on a tabletop. There were no position players in town yet. This was a meeting of pitchers and catchers. Stewart put down his three World Series rings and got his point across: Pay attention.

That was his message then, and it’s his lesson all the time: Pay attention. A lot of people comment on what great mound presence Stewart had, especially during his incredible run of four straight 20-win seasons for the Oakland A’s (1987-90), and there’s no question the man has a look that’s both confident and intimidating. But people need to look a little closer. If you really watch Stewart giving one of his Stew looks, what you notice is his unblinking patience. The people who read hostility in there are coming up with that on their own. Look into those eyes and you see a certain blankness, a certain calm. Stewart is watching and waiting. He’s alert and he’s ready to pounce, but mostly the look is of a man waiting for the other man to blink first. A lot of times, he will.

That, in the end, was what the Braves did in the National League Championship Series. They had their freak-show rotation of pitchers with more control than Harvey Keitel in one of his “cleaner” roles, but it wasn’t enough. Just as the Cubs would have been doomed to a winter of seeing their kid left fielder drop that ball, late in the regular season, if they had not come back to squeak into the playoffs, the Braves can pass the offseason with bolt-upright-in-bed flashes of Danny Bautista rabbit-punching a sinking liner out in left field to turn Game 6 into a Padres rout. Now the slate is blank and all that’s certain is that the Yankee Stadium backdrop for this weekend’s first two games will be so thunderous, so delirious, so magical, the talk of this as the Summer Game’s dream year will keep up its rat-a-tat beat.

If it’s all about the Yankees at first, so be it. Even with all the power of their reputation, and their season, this year’s Yankees are not a cocky bunch. Someone with as much strut as Rickey Henderson back in his glory years with the Yanks would not fit in now. There’s flashy shortstop Derek Jeter, GQ cover boy and sometime companion to Mariah Carey, to represent Manhattan-style mega-glamour, but Jeter’s signature look is a heavy-lidded stare toward the horizon, one clouded with a sense of all it will take for the team to get where it’s going. Then there’s sure-handed manager Joe Torre, the man with a voice so suggestive of a ’40s radio announcer, and a gaze so direct and kind, you forget what decade he inhabits; and left-hander David Wells, the big doughboy who would be a punk if he were not a ballplayer, but instead is just a character, turning mellowed tyrant George Steinbrenner on to Metallica, lounging in the clubhouse before games with a kind of stately patience, and most of all taking to big-game pressure like a Harley nut to his first Hog.

But these are also the Yankees of right fielder Paul O’Neill, and that’s what makes them so dangerous in the World Series, even more than their great team speed and defense (with only second baseman Chuck Knoblauch’s throwing troubles to worry about). O’Neill, brother of New York Times food writer Molly O’Neill, has a certain kind of fussy intellectual’s approach to the game: That is, he’s easily disappointed. Specifically, he’s easily disappointed in himself. In fact, he might already have homered in a game, and his team might be up by four runs, and if he has a weak at-bat, you can count on watching the batboys run for cover when he comes back to the dugout. He’ll hiss imprecations at himself; he’ll throw his batting helmet and anything else he finds; and most of all, he’ll seethe. That seething dissatisfaction with anything short of triumph is the element, often invisible to outsiders, that takes all that talent and experience at the Yankees’ disposal and turns it into something special. This year’s Yankees are elegant, an architectural wonder, really, but they also spring from the streets that made attitude attitude, the same streets in which the crazed Porta Bella man flashes his get-used-to-it-or-fuggedaboutit message whenever he can.

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