CHICAGO

The NLCS has been billed from the start as a matchup of the Mets' talented young pitchers against the Cubs' talented young hitters.

But one of its most entertaining subplots has featured a pair of sexagenarian baseball lifers who have charmed the public and press, and first worked together when many of their current players were around kindergarten age.

It helps, of course, that the Mets' Terry Collins, 66, and the Cubs' Joe Maddon, 61, are in contention for the National League Manager of the Year award -- not to mention the World Series.

Nostalgic stories and colorful quotes tend to be less adorable when the person telling them has a losing record.

But here we are, and it has been fun to watch and listen as Collins, the underdog in this battle of news conferences, has more than held his own against his old pal Maddon, whom he hired as his bench coach with the Angels in 1997.

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Most fans outside New York had not heard much from Collins before this season, while Maddon's "Most Interesting Man in the World" routine and his resume from a stop in Tampa Bay made him well known nationally.

Maddon is so accustomed to this stuff that he played along after Monday's off-day workout with several follow-up questions regarding his decision to blast the theme from "Rocky" in the visiting clubhouse at Citi Field after Game 2.

The average baseball manager -- and any football coach alive -- would have lost patience after question No. 2.

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Before Game 3 Tuesday night he was asked yet another question about the "Rocky" thing. He answered it. In 576 words.

Collins, meanwhile, seems incapable of the evasive answers that are standard in modern coaching and managing, perhaps never more so than when he admitted he had no idea what was going on during the Wilmer Flores crying incident in July.

On Monday, most managers would have talked around the state of Matt Harvey's right triceps after he was struck by a line drive in Game 1 Saturday. Collins admitted it was swollen, then admitted he was surprised by how swollen it was.

My thought at the time, perhaps colored by covering professional hockey and football for several decades: I am surprised you are telling us about this, and even more surprised you are telling us you are surprised.

Then someone asked Collins about "managerial fatigue" and whether his mind is going "24/7" these days.

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"Yes," he said.

Umm . . .

"It is?"

"Yes, sleep's the enemy right now."

Then Collins mentioned his concerns over Harvey's swelling again, and what his pitching alternatives are for Game 5.

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"Those things are always there," he said. "Unfortunately, they stick with you. Like the conversation level with my wife has gone downhill, so there's too many other things that take place right now for me. That's just me."

That is the key. Maddon and Collins are just being themselves in front of reporters, as they are in front of a far more important constituency: their players.

Before Game 2, someone asked Collins whether he has changed as a communicator since his more intense, more uptight earlier stage as a manager.

"I've always thought my whole life that I've had the ability to hold a conversation," he said to laughter, then added, "In recent years I think I spend more time in conversations with my players than I ever have before. When I first came here, one of the things that I absolutely worked on every single day was to talk to every player on the team."

Collins said players have a say in rules, dress codes and other matters that in the past would have been his decision alone.

"I have no ego," he said. "I wasn't a star player. I don't get caught up in headlines. I get caught up in 'go have fun playing.' That's all I ever wanted to do was play the game. So, yeah, I think I've changed. No question about it."

In the interview room, if Collins knows a reporter by name, he makes sure to say that name when giving an answer, an age-old media relations trick that endures because it works. But in this case, he pulls it off in a way that seems more sincere than calculated.

Given the perception of Collins as a tightly wound dinosaur when he was hired in 2010, it is remarkable how all this has evolved. With Rex Ryan gone, he is indisputably No. 1 among current metropolitan-area coaches and managers in his handling of the New York media.

And whoever is second is a distant second.

That is not as important as wins and losses, of course. But it does help make for a better show.