Yanks, Mets up for wild subway ride; New York: The Mets were a couple of wins away from meeting the Yankees in the first Subway Series last season. Chances are pretty good this season that the Big Apple could have its big matchup this fall.; BASEBALL 2000

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was so close.

So tantalizingly close.

The New York Mets slipped into the playoffs on a wild-card pass and upset the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Division Series to set up a National League Championship Series showdown with the rival Atlanta Braves. A couple more friendly bounces and New York baseball fans might have realized their fondest dream.

A Subway World Series.

The Yankees rolled through the postseason and dispatched the Braves in four straight to win their third world title in four years, but once again, they won the Battle of New York without firing a shot.

Maybe this year will be different.

The Mets have added pitching ace Mike Hampton, presumably narrowing the talent gap with the Braves in the National League East. The Yankees, despite a slow start this spring, remain the odds-on favorite to represent the American League again in the Fall Classic.

"Obviously, last year, we came within a game or so of it," said Mets catcher Mike Piazza. "It's something we like to think about, but then we don't like to think about. We know how difficult this league is. The Braves have set the standard. In many people's minds, they should have one or two more world championships, but that doesn't tarnish anything. They are the team that you have to get through to get to the World Series."

The Braves remain the class of the division, but there is reason to believe that they might be vulnerable in 2000. Cy Young Award winner John Smoltz is out for the season with an elbow injury, leaving a big hole in the game's best starting rotation. They get back slugging first baseman Andres Galarraga after a year of cancer treatment and catcher Javy Lopez from a knee injury, but there have been enough changes in the batting order to create some uncertainty about the club's new offensive chemistry.

If if looks like the Braves have left an opening, however, Mets general manager Steve Phillips isn't about to make any brash predictions. They have been so dominant since they arrived in the NL East that it would be ill-advised to underestimate them.

"Last year, the Braves lost Galarraga, Lopez and [Kerry] Ligtenburg and they still won 103 games," Phillips said. "It's hard to imagine them not overcoming the adversity they are facing. There's not much you can do to match their starting rotation, even without Smoltz."

And taking Atlanta is only half the battle.

The Yankees are the great white whale in this mythic struggle. They have reclaimed their historic domination of baseball's most dynamic market, building a new Yankees dynasty and leaving the Mets to stage an uphill fight for their share of the headlines.

"You want to win the battle of the back pages," said Mets public relations director Jay Horowitz. "You're always aware that they're there. They have had great success three of the last four years, but [longtime baseball executive] Frank Cashen once told me, 'If you win, the city is big enough for two teams.'

"But you're definitely aware. You're fighting the Braves in the standings and Yankees in the media."

Not that the battle for the back page of the New York tabloids holds any tangible reward for either team. It isn't as if Mets fans look at the paper in the morning and decide whether they are going to start wearing pinstripes, or vice versa.

"You may be vying for the publicity," said Yankees manager Joe Torre said, "but you have Mets fans and Yankees fans. You can't win their fans. If you beat them, their fans just hate you more. I don't think you draw more people because you beat the Mets."

So much for the notion -- propounded last year by Atlanta Braves star Chipper Jones -- that fickle New York fans simply adopt whichever team is winning.

The intensity of the rivalry is illustrated every time the Yankees and Mets meet for an interleague series. The city lights up. The fans go nuts. To hear members of both teams tell it, there is no baseball rivalry quite like it.

"It's a madhouse when we play those two series against them," Torre said. "The only time it could live up to what it's supposed to be is if we met in the postseason."

Perhaps its no coincidence that two of the rivalries that come closest in comparison also have their roots in New York. The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants have carried on an intense -- and unfriendly -- rivalry since they were crosstown combatants in New York. The most intense American League rivalry has to be between the Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

"Each rivalry has its own distinct differences," said Piazza. "I don't think any rivalry compares to these interleague subway series games. It's so exciting for the city."

Both clubs, however, figure to tangle with strong divisional rivals to get in position for a postseason Subway Series. The Mets have to outdistance the Braves the NL East or in the playoffs (or both) and the Yankees expect to get another strong challenge from the Red Sox, who met them in the AL Championship Series last year.

"I think they [the Red Sox] are better than last year," Torre said. "I didn't think they were going to be a contender last year, after losing Mo Vaughn, but Pedro [Martinez] made everybody else on their pitching staff better.

"I gave up on them twice. I thought that Toronto was going to go past them during that period when they had some guys hurt and Pedro was out, but they held on and that scared me. They swept us at home last year. That can only make them stronger and give them more confidence."

Torre isn't overlooking the Blue Jays, either. They have enough good young arms to create some real upside potential.

"Toronto also scares me," Torre added, "because of their youth. You never know when those young arms are going to come on. They're also a little more balanced now. I know they lost a great player in Shawn Green, but I think [outfielder Raul Mondesi] gives them better balance."

The Mets probably don't have to worry about anyone who finished behind them last year, though the Philadelphia Phillies should be able to slice a few games off the 19 1/2 games they finished out of second place last year.

"We're excited about our prospects," said Phillips. "We like our team and hope we go out and play as a team. We certainly think we have the talent to be in the hunt in October and to win a championship."

They might, but they did have to give up promising starter Octavio Dotel to acquire Hampton, and they lost veteran first baseman John Olerud to free agency. Much will have to go right, but they are positioned well to return to the playoffs.

"They are a good team," Torre said. "They were a good team last year. I put them in the same category with Boston, as a team that just won't go away. They were good last year, and with [Mike] Hampton, they can only be better."

If they are good enough to get to the World Series this year and the Yankees are waiting, it will make a lot of fans and a lot of television network executives very happy, but you might be surprised to learn that not everyone in uniform would be thrilled with the idea.

Last year, when someone asked Torre -- a native New Yorker -- if he was hoping for a Subway Series, he said no, explaining that it would be a logistical nightmare for the participants. He answered the same question last week with a qualified yes.

"I said 'no' last year, but if it's the only way for the Yankees to get into the World Series this year, then yes," said Torre. "I'm sure Bobby Valentine feels the same way.

"I think it would be great for the fans. It would be a great experience, but I think you might hate it while it's happening, only because of all the demands that would be on you. When it's over with, I think you'd realize that it may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and then you'd appreciate it."

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