The Subway Series, Shortstops, and Superheroes

The Subway Series, now a springtime tradition in New York City, beings tonight. And guess what – I hate it. I make a mental note to stay away from the stadiums these weekends. (Also because, for whatever reasons, the crowds are seemingly far more interested in competitive yelling than baseball.) The Subway Series has long been played out – the Mets and Yankees have now played 83 games together over the past fourteen years – and is now devoid of whatever made it compelling in the first place. It’s become an event in the way a sanitation strike is an event. It’s well-attended and hyper-marketable, reappearing every year and sinking me into a temporary depression about the direction of Western civilization. It’s basically the Transformers of the baseball season.

(Not to mention that from a purely competitive standpoint, the Subway Series forces the Mets to play six games a year against what is almost always a very good team, putting them at a unique disadvantage in the National League. This season, the Phillies, Braves, Nationals, and Marlins all play a series against the Seattle Mariners, while the Mets get to play the Yankees six times. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather play the team that lets Miguel Olivo bat cleanup.)

In some ways, all this is a shame. Because the Subway Series could be fun if it wasn’t being jammed down our collective throats twice a year, every year. It’s gotten to the point that Red Sox-Mets is the more exciting matchup. The teams has a proximity that would lead to a rivalry (three hours on I-95), a shared history (the 1986 Series, Pedro Martinez, throw in Omir Santos if you want), and the relative rarity of their meeting that gives it an event feeling. If the MLB schedule-making powers took a more conservative approach to Yankees-Mets (and really all the “rivalry series”), letting the teams play every three years for a single set – like the NFL does with Jets-Giants – the Subway Series could return to the event it should be.

Think of how interesting this year’s series could be if anyone actually cared. Both team’s universes have been revolving around the opposing paths being taken by their near opposite shortstops. For the Mets, 27 year old Jose Reyes is having the best season of his career, leading the National League in hits, triples, and stolen bases. For the Yankees, 36 year old Derek Jeter is having his worst. After being re-signed to a three year, $51 million dollar deal in the offseason, Jeter currently has career lows in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. For both teams, the question of the moment is what to do with their beloved shortstops — and it’s particularly interesting because the two players involved couldn’t be any different.

On one hand, there’s Derek Jeter. The Captain, Mr. Wheaties, the guy who never misses a day of work, the five time champion whose legend never does or says anything wrong. And all sorts of other things that make me gag. He’s Superman, the ideal for a baseball hero. Then there’s Jose Reyes. Dreadlocked and oft injured, the ignitor of teams that will be remembered mostly for their notable flameouts. Reyes is supremely talented and endlessly fun, but always haunted by whispers of underachievement. A hero, but a sloppier one, a Batman. In some ways, a career comparison of the two seems almost too easily turned into a sportswriter’s morality tale about the value of hard work and intangibles.

Only that’s a simplistic, vaguely racist, and easily subverted narrative. After all, one of the pair is a notable bachelor residing in a Florida mansion, while the other lives with his wife and children on Long Island – which one of those is our romantic ideal? And while Jeter has the rings and the more impressive career, he’s also had the better teammates: those late 90s Yankees — with Roger Clemens, Mariano Rivera, David Cone, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, ect. — are probably the best baseball teams ever assembled. Jose Reyes has had David Wright, Carlos Beltran, and Johan Santana . . . but also Brian Schneider and Luis Castillo. Lesser jewels, if you will.

And if you take Superman as the ultimate American myth – an extremely gifted immigrant whose talents are only cultivated by freedom and wide-open green spaces – than Jose Reyes represents that archetype better than the Captain. Jeter is probably a lot more like Batman than anything else: a millionaire playboy, isolated and vaguely misanthropic, though hardworking and ultimately admirable. Again, which one of those is our ideal? (Real question. I don’t know.) It’s not as clear cut as it might seem.

Still, there is something to be said about the distinction between Jose Reyes and Derek Jeter, and the manifestation of talent and development of skills in each. Because there is a real difference between the two, and it’s particularly visible in the way each fields his position.

Derek Jeter is a case in overcoming relatively limited physical gifts at shortstop. Jeter has never had a particularly strong arm, and because of this, he plays a little shallow and cheats in different directions. This in turn makes his range is famously limited. Still, he has learned to limit his mistakes and play with an efficiency of motion to compensate as much as he can – his trademark jump-throw is more about getting rid of the ball as quickly as possible than grace or style. Jeter doesn’t win Gold Gloves because he’s the most effective shortstop – I can’t imagine any unbiased person still thinks this – but because he plays shortstop the way you’d teach someone to play shortstop regardless of their physical ability. He has maximized his limited tangible talents (which is, of course, a sort of talent in itself).

Jose Reyes, on the other hand, plays shortstop as if he is almost limited by his tremendous physical gifts. Despite being one of the fastest players in baseball, his range isn’t excessive. He takes choppy steps as he gathers up the ball, and takes the time to set his feet to take advantage of his tremendous arm. Reyes plays like someone who has learned a unique kind of patience from having an arm good enough to rocket the ball across the infield almost instantaneously. It sometimes makes you wonder if Reyes would be a rangier fielder if his arm wasn’t quite as impressive – which is not to say he’s a bad fielder, because he isn’t. Reyes is a good fielding shortstop, and an empirically better one than Jeter. But it’s less impressive in a way. He’s so talented that it’s hard not to be left wanting more.

Maybe superheroes terms is still the best way to put it. Reyes plays shortstop like Superman might: He has superhuman abilities, but there’s a vaguely alien aura. It’s hard to imagine being as talented as Reyes, or teaching a normal human to play like him, because he’s so unique. Jeter, on the other hand, is still Batman: There’s nothing superhuman about him; it just seems like he practices a lot. There’s a sense that with enough work anyone could play shortstop by imitating Derek Jeter, just like anyone could theoretically become Batman with enough free time.

But I think it’s a mistake to assume that one is more talented or one works harder than the other: Reyes may have the more obvious physical gifts, but recognizing one’s limitations and compensating for them is also a talent, one Jeter possesses in spades. They’re both extremely talented, and they both worked extremely hard to develop their skills. It’s simply that their abilities have manifested in different ways, creating the two conflicting styles.

Both their teams are trying to figure out what to do with these talented players. Jeter is representative of the Yankees’ issues: He’s old, declining, but meaningful in a way that goes beyond on-field ability. Reyes represents the big question facing the Mets this season: how much do they want to rebuild, and when? For the Yankees, it’s how long to you let an old Batman run around Gotham? And for the Mets, it’s how much is the spectacle of a Superman worth to our Metropolis? Their performances this weekend will, in a small way, help dictate those answers; they’ll probably be the most interesting players on the field. Then there’s also that all important question: Superman or Batman? Obvious ability or the ability of self-recognition? That’s one of the many subtext for this Subway Series.

Or, at least, it would be if anyone cared about the Subway Series. This is the 30-something-th time these two shortstops have faced off in a game, so we’ve seen it all before. It could have been Batman facing off against Superman, some kind of rare crossover event; instead we’re getting Transformers 3. And then we’ll get it again in July. And twice next summer. I hate the Subway Series.

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3 Comments

Filed under Columns, Mets, Words

3 responses to “The Subway Series, Shortstops, and Superheroes

  1. Well I look forward to re-reading this and cringing once Reyes ends up on the Yanks this fall.

  2. I agree 100% with how played out this subway series thing is. Playing twice a year just makes it meaningless. The Mets play the Yankees as much as they play teams from the NL West, in thier own league. In the begining it was fun, but the juice is just gone. Even the media doesnt even bother to hype it. Look at all the major papers this morning, looking online there is maybe one boring article in each about the series, thats it.

    If like you said it was them playing every 3 years, it would be alot more fun. But these games ar guaranteed sellouts, poeple buy ticket packs just for these games, and as long as that happens, we are stuck with this crap.

  3. And yet, we play the Braves and Phillies six series each year, and I’m not aware of any burnout over those numbers. Do Yankee fans lament the monotony of having to make three trips to Fenway each season? Sorry, I’m not seeing it.

    The only part of it I don’t like is the repetitive losing.

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