Yankees’ Subway Series title was relief from miserable burden: Sherman

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Editor’s note: The 2000 World Series between the Yankees and Mets began 20 years ago Wednesday. On the anniversary, we look back at the series that captivated the city.

Maybe you remember Timo Perez jogging between first and second or Roger Clemens heaving a shattered bat in the vicinity of Mike Piazza.

Perhaps you recall Derek Jeter going deep on the first pitch of Game 4 or Luis Sojo’s grounder slowly, slowly, slowly rolling through the infield to decide a clinching Game 5.

The Subway World Series offered plenty of forever images. Even 20 years later, I can see the ball off Piazza’s bat and think Game 5 was tied and being shocked how short of the wall it died in Bernie Williams’ glove to end the first New York-New York Fall Classic in 44 years.

But two decades later, you know what sticks with me most?

How miserable the Yankees were that fall. Winning so much had actually become a burden and the worst possible opponent was in front of them — the other New York team. Nothing would besmirch a historic run like losing to an overachieving squad managed by Bobby Valentine. The underdog Mets seemed sent by central casting with their Agbayanis and Paytons and their chatty, biting manager to be a pain in their dynasty.

So the Yankees’ mood throughout was hardly joyous. At the series’ conclusion, there was more exhale than exhilaration. Jeter was notorious for never agreeing to any media narrative — he was more likely to say up was down just to not buy in. Yet, after the Yanks had won their third straight championship and fourth in five years, even Jeter conceded, “I’d be lying if I said this one wasn’t more gratifying.”

Tino Martinez jumps on Mariano Rivera after the Yankees beat the Mets in the 2000 World Series.AP

That was because the Mets wanted to win the 2000 World Series. The Yankees had to win it — or risk besmirching their dynasty and ceding a piece of New York and having to deal with a force of nature named George Steinbrenner.

To understand the Yankees’ mood by 2000, you have to appreciate the previous few years. The 1996 title season was a blessing, a bit of a surprise. The Orioles were favored to win the AL East, the Braves the World Series, Joe Torre was hired as a historic loser. The twists and feel-good turns of that season left the Steinbrenner Yankees, of all things, kind of admired and a touch beloved even outside New York.

The large veer occurred in 1998 when the Yankees were historic, winning 114 games and rampaging to another title. They were lifted from a baseball team to a touring rock show. They became, in many ways, bigger than the game. The amount of media covering them daily didn’t double, it tripled — or more. Ever paranoid and protective, Steinbrenner encased his team in a security never before seen in the game. During the Subway Series, for example, the Yanks had five team-assigned security personnel. The Mets had none. And the Yankees’ security tended to be overbearing, making up rules as it went along for who could be near the team and when, overstepping their boundaries as if stadiums on the road even were their jurisdiction.

The Yanks, if anything, won the 1999 title even easier and were cruising in 2000 before finishing with 15 losses in 18 games, including the last seven. The winning and expectations and history had become a tightening noose. The Yanks turned it on in October because that group had a DNA for playing well in big games. But they did it as joylessly as one can while relaying from one champagne party to the next.

Joe Torre after winning the 2000 World Series.REUTERS

The last thing they wanted in the World Series was to face the Mets. In part that was because of the New York thing. But also it was because on July 8 Clemens had beaned Piazza. That loomed over this series. The Mets called the Yanks chicken for starting Clemens in Game 2 so that he would not have to hit in Shea Stadium in Game 3. The normally unflappable Torre raged publicly about how often Fox and ESPN were showing the July 8 beaning, and the Yanks curtailed assistance to the two networks.

Steinbrenner raged daily about how many reporters were in the clubhouse after each game, especially following a Game 3 loss to the Mets. Such was his fury that when a sewage pipe burst late in Game 4 and sent 2 feet of water into the Yankees’ clubhouse, assuring that no media would be allowed in afterward, the most common conspiracy theory was that Steinbrenner had burst the pipe.

In the end, the Yankees were just better. Jeter was the MVP. Mike Stanton was the hidden MVP, retiring all 13 batters he faced over three games and winning twice. The Mets had Armando Benitez and the Yankees had Mariano Rivera, of whom Valentine said, “They have a lot of great players, but as far as value, he is in another category.”

Still, the Yankees’ four wins were by a total of five runs. So if Perez had run hard or Benitez hadn’t walked Paul O’Neill in the ninth inning of Game 1 or if Sojo’s ball hadn’t trickled through …

It was a close series for one that lasted just five games. The Mets actually ended the Yankees’ 14-game World Series win streak in Game 3.

Afterward there was more champagne. Yet, there also were indicators that the crown had grown heavy. The Yanks as an organization had become not just overdogs, but overprivileged. They won almost by muscle memory. But the results of winning were now part delight, part burden. I had been in the winning clubhouse in 1996, 1998 and 1999. This was different. There was elation, but, like a subway, there was something else rattling underneath:

Relief.

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