And yet, the very size of this event causes us to overlook things that under normal circumstances we'd latch on to. For instance, about three hours before game time Sunday I was walking on the outfield grass at Yankee Stadium and stumbled on Joe Torre's special drill for the Yankees pitching staff where they field barrels of baseball bats and throw them at the knees of cardboard Mets figures. Of course, now, in retrospect, I wish I'd paid attention.
As it is, all I have to go on is the replay. Here's what it looks like on tape: Roger Clemens delivers a 97 mph cut fastball that saws off the barrel of Mike Piazza's bat, which Clemens reaches for and scoops up -- thinking, he would later say, that it was the baseball. He then underarms it in the direction of the Yankees dugout -- or, he later insisted, in the direction of the Yankees bat boy. Piazza, who is halfway to first base, looks over to Clemens, somewhat surprised.
What actually happened? Hey, I haven't got a clue, but all I can say is that it hasn't been sufficiently remarked upon that Clemens seems equally surprised to see Piazza there. And why not? He was the first Met in two days to try to run out a batted ball! Actually, running the tape through in slow motion it does seem as if Clemens started to toss the bat before Piazza strode into the line of fire; at least both umpires seem to think so. But to the majority of the press and to anyone wearing an article of clothing with a dash of orange, there was no doubt that Roger Clemens had lost it.
In fact, Clemens lost it so badly that he ended up allowing two hits (one more than he had given Seattle in his last outing) and striking out just nine (six less than against the Mariners). To some, this must have seemed like a remarkable impression of someone keeping his head together while the Mets, who made three errors, were losing theirs.
Happily, for two other Yankees who really are head cases -- or at least who let their heads interfere with what happened on the field -- that broken bat toss dominated postgame discussion. Jeff Nelson and Chuck Knoblauch played poorly enough to crack the Mets' starting lineup, and between them nearly succeeded in undoing Clemens' work. The former was entrusted with a lead that looked too big for even him to blow, six runs with three outs to go. Actually, it wasn't the lead he was supposed to be protecting but Mariano Rivera's arm; Rivera had gone two innings the night before and Torre didn't want to have to use him on a cold night with little warm-up time. But eight pitches later the score was 6-2, runner on first with no outs, and a stiff-shouldered Rivera was hurried on.
All this would have been unnecessary had Knoblauch simply not made two bonehead mental errors in the same inning. In the second, with the Yankees up 3-0 after Scott Brosius' solo home run, Jose Vizcaino reached base on Mets shortstop Mike Bordick's error. Knoblauch failed to pick up a hit-and-run sign and didn't swing at a pitch, and Vizcaino was thrown out by 4 feet at second. Knoblauch then made up for his blunder by walking, advancing on Derek Jeter's single, taking third on Timo Perez's bobble, then running through Willie Randolph's red light and getting thrown out at home by 5 feet. Well, you can't expect a designated hitter to know much about base running, can you? At least he didn't get picked off again, as he had on the previous night. Besides, Knoblauch makes up for his base-running ineptitude with his defensive work. While playing DH.
The Yankees survive these kinds of head cases because, simply put, they make the plays. In Game 1, Paul O'Neill, 38 and creakier than a plot in a Clint Eastwood movie, led off the ninth by fouling off four two-strike pitches from the Mets' fireballing closer, Armando Benitez, and working him for a 10-pitch walk that became the tying run.
The Mets, for their part, couldn't work a home run into a run. When Todd Zeile's smash off the top of the left-field fence bounded back onto the field -- had Jeffrey Maier been out there the ball would have wound up in his pocket -- David Justice recovered and made a perfect throw to Jeter, who wheeled, falling away to his right, and fired a perfect one-bounce strike to nail rookie Perez at home. Timo, who must have been studying Knoblauch's instructional videotape on base running, was loping into second before he saw the ball was in play, and by the time he realized it wasn't he should have been reaching for the water cooler in the Mets' dugout. Instead, Jeter made the play of the Series so far, one that has yet, curiously, to make the highlight film.
Well, as Custer reminded his men as Crazy Horse attacked, there is still plenty of time for a comeback. Meanwhile, psychologists are being interviewed by everyone with a mike in their hand about how "Roger Clemens should learn to deal with his anger." When they're done, they'd better remember to tell the Mets how to deal with Clemens' anger.