Friday, October 24, 2003
Reading into post-game rituals
By Eric Neel Page 2 columnist
It all comes down to this: one or two more games for the World Series title. One or two more games for a little thing we like to call the whole enchilada. One or two more games for bragging rights, parade routes, and rings the size of Tom Cruise's big front teeth.
It's crunch time, baby. And as you know, as I'm sure you've been told a few hundred thousand times before, come crunch time, it's the little things that can make the difference between oh-happy-day and woe-is-me. You know, bunting a man over, legging out a dying-quail double, hitting the cutoff man. Who's going to do those things?
The winner is, that's who.
The Marlins are one win away after a dramatic Game 5 victory.
But at this level and by this time, after weeks of trial-by-fire competition, you've got to figure both the Marlins and Yankees are doing all those little things pretty well and pretty consistently.
So maybe if we want to get a good read on how things will go down this weekend in the Big Apple, or best be able to explain what happened come Monday morning at the cooler, we ought to look not just at the little things, but at the very little things. Maybe it's not just about hits and pitches, stabs and throws.
Maybe it's about the smaller gestures that surround the game -- you know, the way a guy wears his hat or ties his shoes, the way he taps the plate with his bat, maybe whether he sprints or jogs to his position at the start of each inning.
This stuff seems trivial, I know, but it could be crucial. The baseball gods, they're some mysterious, whimsical dudes. Ask around Chicago and Boston, folks'll tell you. They could let the whole thing turn on their affection for one team's habits and their dislike of the other's.
They could. They're gods, man; they do whatever they want to do. For them, this whole Yankees vs. Marlins thing could boil down to something so small, so seemingly insignificant, that it escapes the eyes of us mere mortals at first glance.
What will they key on this weekend? Hard to say for sure, but my money's on each team's little postgame mound ritual. (Why? I don't know, why not? ... see how I'm thinking all capricious and random ... just like the gods, get it?)
For the Yanks, it's a fist-punch handshake line, a little knuckle-bump from player to player to player -- you saw it after games two and three. For the Marlins, when it's not the delirium of mobbing Alex Gonzalez, it's often a little kiss to the cheek from Pudge to Ugie after Urbina's closed the door on a save -- you saw it after Game 1 and again Thursday night.
Joe Torre and Mariano Rivera exchange a fist-bump.
There's a lot that separates these two clubs: Pinstripes and teal, Gotham grit and South Beach cool, and 26 titles to just one. But the split in these moments in the soft glow of a win might be the most telling.
On the one hand, there's this in the Yanks' fists:
They say this winning thing is just all in a day's work, brother. They say we ain't boys thrilled to be here, we're men who expect nothing less. They say toughness. And focus. And inevitability.
Those fists tell a story of reserve, too, of in-house, of keep-it-in-the-family. The outside world gets a look at our feats, even sometimes our failures, they say, but never our true hearts.
And, by the way, we were never worried, they say. Dynasties are built on skill and heart and runs of good luck. But mystique? Aura? These things are forged in the fire of fearlessness, my friends. See, it ain't just that the Yankees win so much; it's that they are so bloody cool about it. A lot of teams do the fist thing after wins; but with a lot of teams, it feels like it's nothing, or maybe nothing but a pose. When the Yanks do it, it feels the way the understated, muffled trumpet of Miles Davis felt, man. It feels like something that knows so much that it only has to say a very soft, very stern little something to drown out every other whisper and shout around it.
Oh, they also say, you may have a one-game edge but make no mistake, we'll kick your skinny fish butts from here to the murky bottom of the deep blue sea and back again, thank you very much. They say we wouldn't be caught dead in teal, because teal's a color for bridesmaids' dresses and Kia's and we wear Wise-Guy suits and drive Caddies around here. We put the bad in bad-ass, is what they say. They say, we are the four horsemen of the apocalypse and you, you ain't nothing but a sorry, skinny bunch of sinners hoping against hope for the rapture.
And at the last, what they're talking about is tradition, the steady-handed confidence that comes from years and years of winning. You look at those fists and you see the bare, dusty knuckles of Lou and the Babe. You see the bash and bravado of Mantle, and the wicked, spitfire grips of Guidry and Gossage, too.
And most of all, they say, "We are the Yankees, who are you?"
Should New York win twice in the Bronx this weekend and take another title, you can think of it as a big "Amen" for all this that the postgame knuckle bump signifies. You can think of it as a vote for traditional values, a "steady as she goes" from the captains of the ship of the baseball state, as the gods saying, "yes sir, we like what we hear in those fists, we could listen to it all night, let's hear it again."
Now on the other hand, what's in the kiss?
The kiss is new school. Ever seen anything like it before in the annals of professional baseball? Ever seen anything like it in a World Series TV broadcast? No sir, no you haven't. The kiss hums a few bars of "The Times They Are a Changin'."
Pudge and Ugie smooch after another victory over the Yankees.
The kiss is old school, too. Old Latin America. Old world. The kiss predates the fist by forever. The kiss knows of tradition and history.
The kiss don't give a damn. It knows this sort of soft stuff ain't supposed to play in the manly-man world of professional sports and it says, "Get off me, go back to worrying about Magic and Isiah smooching before tip-off, go back to the dark ages."
It brings the love. It's one thing to be teammates, it's one thing to be comrades in arms. It's another thing altogether to be family. Family is the long haul, the thick and thin, and the blood.
It's for luck.
It's a little Klimt, a little Prince, and a little Gene Simmons.
And there's a private element to it, too. A little bit of Pudge and Ugie against the world, a little bit of the Marlins blocking out all distractions. No one thought Florida could win this thing. No one wanted them to be here. They've got no allies but each other in this thing. The kiss is like fingers in the ears, like a kid shouting "I can't hear you! I'm not listening! La-la-la!" It's its own little world, its own special language and secret handshake. It's Club Marlin and you are not allowed.
And when it's from Pudge, who is no small man, the kiss knows a thing or two about tough. Tough ain't a brush-back pitch, it ain't a mound rush, a muscle flex or a homeplate collision. Tough is kissing a man right there on the mound, in front of the crowd and the TV cameras, in front of the gods and everybody, and saying, out loud and to all of 'em, "What? You got a problem with that?"
At its core, the kiss is just plain enthusiastic. Unabashed, is what it is. This is a game played with heart. The Yankees can have their composure for all the kiss cares. The kiss wants reckless abandon, the zeal of the young, the inexperienced, and the thrilled to be a part of this thing.
And in the end, what it does more than anything is turn to the Yanks, the way Ralph turned to Alice and say, "We're the Marlins, and one of these days, Alice, pow, right on the kisser."
So, if Florida closes this thing out over the weekend, it'll be, you know, because they scored more runs than the Yankees, blah, blah, blah, but beyond that, it'll be because they did the little things, and beyond that, it'll be because the littlest little thing they do found favor with the baseball gods.
And if it breaks that way, and if Pudge and Ugie stare into the locker room camera shouting like Ali about how they "shook up the world," they won't just mean that they upset the mighty New York Yankees. They'll also mean that their crazy rebel kiss KO'd the fist and let loose its revolutionary energy on every mound, streetcorner, and living room in the baseball universe.
Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.