Escape from New York

The San Diego Padres hope getting out of New York will change the momentum of the World Series.


Steve Kettmann
October 20, 1998 12:23AM (UTC)

Four hours before the start of this year's World Series, a bus rolled to a halt in front of Yankee Stadium. The assembled fans, usually held back behind metal barriers, swarmed free on the picture-perfect October Saturday except in a narrow corridor from the Padres' team bus to the stadium. A few players appeared, each walking quickly and with his head down. Catcalls rained down like hail.

Then Kevin Brown, the Padres' Game 1 starter, showed his face. Brown did not hurry and he did not bow his head. He walked proudly and with a playful little smirk, the look of a man who believes he knows things others don't, the look Mickey Rourke built into entire film roles before he lapsed into scuzzball self-parody. Brown was laughing at all that New York bluster, just waiting to make his statement a few hours later.

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"You gonna get shelled!" a moon-faced fan with a voice like a fire alarm screamed.

As it turned out, the jeering fans knew something Brown didn't. They understood that sometimes when New York demands something as insistently as it demands a World Series victory this year, events will find a way to fall into place. That might mean a key home run from an unlikely source (diminutive second baseman Chuck Knoblauch) or it might mean an umpire (Richie Garcia) blowing an important call, but one way or another the Yankees were going to get all that talent untracked in Game 1 and in the Series, helped along by the manic energy of a manic city, funneled down into frenzied sellout crowds at the Stadium.

"I'll be pretty vocal on the plane to loosen everyone up," Padres slugger Ken Caminiti said late Sunday night in the quiet of the visitor's clubhouse after his team's second loss to the Yankees. "I sensed a little pressing this weekend. It's hard not to press in the Stadium. The crowd's on you all the time, telling you, 'You suck!' They work with the team. It's impressive. The whole Stadium is built right on top of you, so you can hear 'Ken you suck!' Today I did."

The Padres had that monster crowd silenced during Game 1 until the blown call in the seventh inning. San Diego left-hander Mark Langston made a 2-2 pitch to Tino Martinez that was at the knees. It was an obvious strike, as obvious as Jay Leno's jokes, and yet Garcia called it a ball. Somehow. And Langston, understandably agitated, left his next pitch up where Martinez could jack it to right for a grand slam that turned that game, and probably the Series.

Padre pitching coach Dave Stewart wasn't about to question the bogus call in his postgame comments to reporters Saturday night, saying again and again it could have gone either way, and doing so with a poker face, not a wink. But Stewart did add: "You just hope the guy calling the balls and strikes is as deep in concentration as you are." Garcia wasn't, lending an air of prescience to the screaming Sports Illustrated cover already on news racks: "Kill the Umps!"

So instead of having a chance to take the game into the late innings, all tied up, the Padres had to watch as a crowd of 56,712 erupted in rapture. The Padres had to face down the fact that despite getting two homers from Greg Vaughn and one from Tony Gwynn, they were going down in Game 1 and letting the Yankees set a tone that had most people expecting the Series to go five games at most. The only question was how strong a claim this year's Yankees would stake on being the greatest team ever. If they sweep the Padres, the way the '27 Yankees did the Pirates, that could be quite a claim.

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During the second inning of Sunday night's 9-3 Yankee demolition job, the Fox camera zoomed in tight on Stewart, slumped over in agony, and it was almost shocking to see: the indomitable Stewart looking like a man wishing he could find an exit door. An hour earlier, Stewart had escorted starter Andy Ashby all the way in from the bullpen in left field, talking to him the whole way, trying desperately to pass on some crucial spark, some trace of that iron will that made Stewart 10-2 as a postseason starter. But the Yankees jumped on Ashby for three runs in the first and had him reeling again in the second. Stewart, holding his hand to his head like a man fighting a New Year's Day headache, sensed Ashby didn't have much of a chance.

And sure enough, just after the extended shot of Stewart, Bernie Williams nailed a low Ashby fastball to center for a two-run homer to make it a 6-0 rout. "I can't go by what I did as a pitcher," Stewart said after the game. "The toughest part is as a coach, and a teacher, you worry that you left something out. I thought I had prepared my staff better than this. I have to keep searching until I find the right answer. Hopefully I'll find it before we play Game 3."

Fairly or not, Game 2 had the feel of being over before it started. Orlando Hernandez was going for the Yanks, and this is a man whose air of destiny is as impossible to miss as his high leg kick, probably the most distinctive since Juan Marichal's heyday with the Giants in the '60s and '70s. Hernandez has the look of an old-time ballplayer, and his great pull-the-cap-down-on-the-head motion is as classic as his nasty, hard-dropping curve. Hernandez was a hero back in Havana, where the papers dubbed him "El Duque," and now he's the Duke in New York, too, a nickname for the ages that Hernandez looks ready to live up to and more.

He was in Havana a year ago, dropping in on the CNN bureau to watch his younger brother Livan pitch the Florida Marlins to a World Series victory. He didn't survive a weeklong raft exodus from Cuba just to show up at Yankee Stadium for his own World Series start and fail to live up to the moment. Once Paul O'Neill made a beautiful leaping catch in the first, slamming into "The Wiz" sign in right to rob Wally Joyner of extra bases with two runners on base, Hernandez was in command. So were the Yankees, giving an entire city a chance to revel in feeling on top of the world, a feeling New Yorkers claim as a sovereign right.

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New York-style brashness has become so famous in sports, it's often rendered in broad-stroke caricature. Yes, New Yorkers are more demanding of their athletes and their teams than anyone this side of English soccer hooligans. Yes, the New York media has a way of boiling things down to a testy, insistent shout, as in New York Post headlines like "SLAM DIEGO!"

But a lot of that New York swagger is pure pose. Scratch beneath the surface of a New York sports fan, and more often than not you find a big softy who just wants to feel like a kid looking up to sports heroes again. The archetypal Yankees fan could be 9-year-old Edward, a gray-eyed, rail-thin youngster from the Dominican Republic who rode the No. 4 subway home to the South Bronx on Friday, clutching a baseball bat in his hands like a totem, shyly predicting (in Spanish) that the Yankees would win in seven, then prancing off the train and taking a few cuts, no doubt imagining himself hitting a big homer. New Yorkers remember.

Even if the sun-baked lightweights out in California may have forgotten from what far-off quarter they imported their two most-storied baseball teams 40 years ago, the loss of the Brooklyn Dodgers still registers here as a psychic wound almost beyond comprehension. Riding the subway, you are liable to spot a big photo of four smiling Dodgers huddled together. Jackie Robinson and the others are boyishly happy, exemplars of joy and light. Then you read: "In Brooklyn, we know a thing or two about healing broken hearts ... The Brooklyn Hospital Center."

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Still mourning that loss, New York demands satisfaction on the playing field time and time again, as the Padres learned this weekend. Anything else seems like a slap in the face. That's why the Padres couldn't wait to board the team's charter to San Diego Sunday night. Caminiti spoke for his teammates as he got ready to leave the visitor's clubhouse. "It'll be a big relief to get out of here."


Steve Kettmann

Steve Kettmann, a regular contributor to Salon, is the author of "One Day at Fenway: A Day in the Life of Baseball in America."

MORE FROM Steve Kettmann

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