This is an expanded version of "The Power of Competition," which originally appeared in Liberty (15, no. 1; January 2001: 22).
THE POWER OF COMPETITION
By Chris Matthew Sciabarra
The Mets had clinched their National League title against the St. Louis Cardinals a day before the Yanks sewed up the American League championship over the Seattle Mariners. It was as if the entire city of New York was holding its breath for 24 hours, wondering if this would be the first "Subway Series" in 44 years. Back in the 1940s and 50s, these World Series events among New York teams were an almost annual ritual. The last one took place in 1956 before I was born but my older relatives had told me that these were classic contests of inner-city rivalry. The Dodgers and the Giants were usually fighting it out for the privilege of seeing who would get beat by the Yankees. Dem Bums finally won a series for Brooklyn in 1955, but a year later they fell before the masterly performance of Don Larsen, who'd pitched the only no-hit perfect game in World Series history.
So, here we were in the year 2000, recognizing that if Armageddon had not occurred at the strike of midnight at the beginning of a new Millennium, it surely was going to happen in the week or so of baseball between the Mets and the Yankees. We were being told by commentators across the country that New York was poised for a meltdown--its stadiums would be looted, its neighborhoods would be terrorized.
The closest thing to a meltdown came in Game 2, when five-time Cy Young pitcher Roger Clemens fielded a broken bat off Mets catcher Mike Piazza, throwing it in his general direction as Piazza ran toward first base. Considering that Clemens had hit Piazza in the head during a summer interleague game, this action--later punished by Major League Baseball--led to a near-confrontation on the field between the teams. Cooler heads prevailed, and the game resumed immediately. In the end, with no game won by more than a run or two, with everybody on the verge of a nervous breakdown with each successive pitch, the Yankees took the best-of-seven series, four games to one, celebrating their third straight World Championship at Shea Stadium, a sacrilege if ever there were one. With this being their fourth World Series victory in five years, the Yankees were being heralded justifiably as the Dynasty that they are. And for this lifelong "damn Yankees" fan, all was right with the world.
But something peculiar had happened in the Big Apple. There were no reports of sports-related criminality. In fact, on the day of the first Mets-Yankees game, my whole Brooklyn neighborhood was transformed into a virtual block party: everybody put Yankee or Mets banners in their front yards, on their windows, on their cars. Some were wearing Mets T-shirts or caps, while others wore full Yankee regalia. In some homes, families were split down the middle: "[Yankee shortstop] Derek Jeter a better player than Piazza? Whaddaya kiddin' me?" Or, in some circles: "Piazza cuter than Jeter??? Fuhgeddaboudit!" By the time the first game had begun, two neighbors had dragged out their 32-inch televisions, and a crowd of about 60 people gathered, people cheering on their respective teams. Food and drink were aplenty, even as the game went into extra innings. The other games provoked a similar gathering and response. When the series was over, it was clear that this contest had not led to the kind of civil unrest that some were predicting. This scene was reproduced across the city. And though Yankee fans gained bragging rights for at least another year, Mets fans were unusually resilient: "Wait til next year!!!"
I must confess, however, that with my own brother and sister-in-law cheering on the Mets, the Yankees' victory was a tad bittersweet: I actually felt bad for the losers. And this feeling extended to some of my neighbors as well. While there will always be those of us who enjoy razzing our neighbors, I think that most looked beyond the "us-versus-them" mentality of this fierce sports rivalry. Because we were all talking to one another incessantly for over a week, we'd solidified old friendships and sparked new ones. Out of the internecine competition of two beloved sports franchises, there emerged a host of unintended consequences. The winners showed empathy for the losers; some were actually concerned for the hurt feelings of their neighbors, who remained good-natured and steadfast in their loyalty. We'd laughed. Some of us cried. In the end, we'd shown that even competitors can create a spontaneous order of civility and benevolence.
Yeah. I love New York.