NEW YORK – A running theme at the $1.5 billion ballpark in the Bronx is something called The Quest for 27, which refers not to Mariano Rivera's(notes) occasional inability to get the final out or two, but to the New York Yankees' desire to tack on another championship (and, they hope, your desire to pay to come see it).
It's typical Yankees, of course, trading on all those yesterdays to heighten the doings (and revenues) of today. And why wouldn't they? They pimp it because they can, and because they are alone in that, and because they've not once in our lifetimes built themselves with an eye on anything but the coming October. It's worked often enough; they used to win a lot.
The message serves not only to remind fans of The First 26, in case they'd need reminding, sitting as they are in The House That the 20th Century Built. But it also attaches to the season a win-or-die-trying element. It's not a "schedule," schedules are for pansies; it's a "quest," and quests require chain mail suits and heavy swords and – apparently – loud, severe music. Quests are stinkin' heroic.
The point being, you only get away with the "quest" thing if you are the Yankees, because The Quest for, say, 3, sounds ridiculous.
Which brings us to the New York Mets.
They come to Yankee Stadium this weekend. For comparative purposes, their journey from Flushing will be viewed not as a "quest," but as a "bus trip."
In a pinstriped city, they remain the junior varsity, even on a big payroll, even with big stars, even in a beautiful ballpark, even when the Yankees just took an October off.
See, the Yankees define baseball. The Mets just play it.
There's no real humiliation in that. Twenty-eight other teams bob around in the same reality. The thing is with the Mets, only they have to live with the Yankees, and only they just blew an entire decade that could have been theirs, and only they watch from a few miles away as the Yankees (the past few days in Boston notwithstanding) appear to be reestablishing their organizational momentum.
Nine Octobers ago, the Mets were chest to chest with the Yankees for about a week. They lost in five games.
For the Yankees, that was 26, the number they stand on today. They returned to the World Series twice – in 2001 and 2003 – and lost them both. They've won a single playoff series since, and lost their last four postseason series, and fired an iconic manager, and wasted hundreds of millions of dollars. Last fall, they didn't even bother.
For the Mets, the true Subway Series was progress. In the daily play for the hearts and minds and wallets of New Yorkers, it was progress. And look at them now. They've played in 10 postseason games since, all in the same October, all ending with the bat on their shoulder. They've burned through three field managers, they've finished in last (twice) more often than they've finished in first (once), and they've staged two September collapses (one epically), leading to constant questions if they are tough enough, if they are game enough, if they are winners.
The answers, as the Yankees were living for a time beneath their own standards, were no, no and no.
None of this is irreversible, of course. It just looks it.
While most everyone else was watching their savings disappear and their revenue streams go dry, the Yankees were signing two front-end pitchers (CC Sabathia(notes) and A.J. Burnett(notes)) and a corner infielder (Mark Teixeira(notes)) who is among the top handful of the best position players in the game. Only Burnett is older than 30. So, they got better. And they got younger. And an organization that seemed to be rolling in the wrong direction is still scoring runs, and catching the ball, and getting its pitching together.
Asked about the team's momentum and Sabathia's and Burnett's role in it, Derek Jeter(notes) said, "How long you sign them for? Well, we're going to be better for as long as they're here, because we've got pitching now."
If you built one team from the guys who play in New York, Carlos Beltran(notes) would be your center fielder and Johan Santana(notes) your opening day starter. Yankees would be everywhere else. Maybe you platoon Nick Swisher(notes) and Ryan Church(notes) in right.
Yeah, the Mets had their chances and were constructed poorly or played poorly or swooned at the big moments. Now they'll walk into Yankee Stadium without Carlos Delgado(notes) or Jose Reyes or J.J. Putz(notes) and face all that drama. They're a decent team, a pitcher or two from hanging with the Phillies and outrunning their September demons.
But they missed the bigger opportunity, which leaves them on a quest to beat traffic over the Triboro Bridge, but not much more than that.