In recent memory, from a baseball perspective, there have been a few landmark years in the constant battle for the hearts and minds of New York — those times when the attention pivoted from the Bronx to Queens and back again.
If we start with 1986, then go to ’96, we can follow the Mets’ slipping grasp on the city to the point when the Yankees firmly planted their pinstriped flag. On four occasions during the dynastic run, capped by the 2000 Subway Series victory, and again in 2009.
But on the eve of this 2017 spring training, we keep thinking of 2006 and the October window that was left wide open for the Mets to alter the course of a baseball city’s fanaticism.
That autumn, the Yankees were in disarray, bounced from the playoffs in the first round as Shea prepped for the NLCS. New York was there for the taking. And the Mets couldn’t do it.
Despite a lineup stacked with stars — bought and homegrown — Willie Randolph’s crew failed to swipe the city from his former pals. Another ring would have finished the job that season, and who knows how the future might have unfolded from there.
As for 2015, that was a different vibe, with the Mets maybe ahead of schedule in losing the World Series and the Yankees, though teetering, not quite finished yet. The divide between the two teams was not as evident in February 2015.
But right now, as the players start arriving in Port St. Lucie and Tampa, with pitchers and catchers reporting this week, there is a new feel to this Subway rivalry, with a shift in focus.
For the Mets, the motivation is about settling unfinished business. The goal is a World Series ring. There is a legitimate belief they can do it.
Across the state, however, the Yankees have shelved their usual championship mantra for a more pragmatic approach, a process that began in earnest at last year’s trade deadline. Hal Steinbrenner’s youth movement is in full bloom, and here in the midst of the transition, it seems unrealistic to think of 2017 as anything more than another step forward rather than a title march.
The expectations for the Yankees haven’t been this low in decades. Not when they haven’t reached the Division Series since 2012.
“That’s going to happen when you’re not there,” Steinbrenner said earlier this month. “I understand that. Absolutely. The Red Sox are going to have a great team. So we’ll just have to see. I think it’s hard to predict with us because we’ve got so many young players and you’ve got guys like [/DROPCAP][Starlin] Castro who could have an even better year. He hasn’t realized his potential yet and the same with Didi [Gregorius]. It’s going to be exciting, but when you’re not there, I can’t fault anybody for that.”
To hear Steinbrenner single out Castro and Gregorius on the Yankees’ roster says plenty about where the rest of this group is at. It’s still a $195-million team, but with an owner who is counting the days until the last costly pieces of the 2009 championship core — CC Sabathia ($25 million) and Alex Rodriguez ($21M) — are off the books at the end of this season.
Of course, A-Rod currently is the highest-paid camp instructor in the history of the game, but the Yankees could use getting a back page or two out of him. Otherwise, the next six weeks could be unusually quiet at Steinbrenner Field. Even celebrated kids such as Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier can only do so much on the practice fields. Gary Sanchez’s home runs don’t count until April.
Over at Tradition Field, however, the chance to claim the spotlight early comes with its own challenges. There is David Wright’s daily struggle to return to his All-Star form, at age 34, after last year’s serious back surgery. And what to think of Matt Harvey, whose Dark Knight persona must be restored coming off a second major repair — this time for thoracic outlet syndrome — in only three years?
Throw in the overcrowded outfield, and a bullpen that likely will be without Jeurys Familia for the first month of the regular season, and these are all questions in need of answers by Opening Day if the Mets hope to truly throw some shade on their crosstown rivals in the next nine months or so.
Maybe it’s an exaggeration to suggest that the Yankees are stepping aside and conceding the stage to Flushing for a while as they continue to rebuild. But their future is what’s been getting most of the attention lately, and Steinbrenner sounds on board with that.
The Mets were in a similar place a while back, and it was the rapid maturation of their young pitchers that led to this rebirth.
If youth also winds up being served in the Bronx, the Mets won’t hold the edge in this city power struggle for very long. What we see from both clubs in spring training might even affect how we view the current dynamic, and that would make for an intriguing story line in itself.
1. Who’s on first (and second)?
With Major League Baseball looking to shave minutes from games, the latest experiment — planting runners on base for extra innings — wil be tested during next month’s World Baseball Classic. Starting with the 11th, the inning will begin with runners at first and second. If nothing else, it could get more people to watch the WBC to see how the proposed system might work.
2. Fear the Bear?
For the first time since 1909, the Cubs will show up in spring training as the defending world champs. As hard as it may be to comprehend, can they be spoiled by success? The Yankees were the last team to repeat by winning three straight (1998-2000), so it’s been a while.
3. Marlins in mourning
Jose Fernandez, the Marlins’ young ace, died last September in a boating accident, but the franchise surely will feel the lingering wounds when the players show up in Jupiter. The Marlins already announced that the No. 16 will be worn on the front of their jerseys this season.
4. Smooth Sale-ing for Sox?
The Red Sox pulled off this winter’s blockbuster trade by dealing for Chris Sale, only a year after signing David Price to a record $217-million contract. And with Rick Porcello coming off a Cy Young win, who’s the No. 1 here? In a pressure cooker like Boston, this dynamic between these egos will be one to watch.
5. Call to arms
After seeing Andrew Miller dominate as a middle reliever last October, will teams do any re-imagining of their bullpen roles this spring? Are managers ready to step away from traditional use of their closer? Or maybe clubs will think more about employing a six-man rotation, a break from convention they could tinker with before Opening Day. A few ideas that might gain momentum.