Why this Subway Series is so important for Yankees, Mets

We are closing in on a full quarter-century of the Subway Series, starting Friday night at Yankee Stadium, and the temptation — if not the truth — is that we have officially come close to the jump-the-shark portion of our program.

The novelty vanished long ago, probably in 1998, by which time the teams had met three times apiece, in both Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium, the places that used to host Mayor’s Trophy Games and harbor dreams of Mets-Yankees games that counted for real.

The world-is-ending feel to the games probably evaporated in the fourth year of the Subway Series, 2000, when both teams qualified for an old-fashioned, old-timey, old-school Subway Series, one that takes place in October under the marquee of “World Series.” That one lived up to all expectations and all manner of hype.

We have had plenty of unforgettable moments in the regular-season Subway Series — Dave Mlicki’s shutout; Doc Gooden coming back to Shea to beat the Mets in Game 1 of an historic day-night doubleheader in the summer of 2000; Roger Clemens beaning Mike Piazza in the nightcap; Shawn Estes’ odd revenge drama two years later; Luis Castillo’s dropped pop-up (and Mark Teixeira’s heads-up dash from first to home). There are others.

Aaron Boone and Luis Rojas
Aaron Boone and Luis Rojas
Bill Kostroun; AP

But there rarely has been a lot of urgency to these games, certainly not from both dugouts. There rarely has been a whiff of desperation emanating from both clubhouses.

Most years, one team — usually the Yankees — has been doing just fine.

Some years, too many of them, one team — often the Mets — has already begun to feel the weight of gravity pulling them southward in the division standings.

Some years, too few of them, both teams are going great guns and this is merely an opportunity to play a few interesting games before the real matchups of interest resume with Boston or Tampa Bay on one side of town, with Atlanta and Washington on the other.

Not this time. Not this year. This season, both teams will almost certainly look back at whatever happens this weekend as the key stretch in which their year was either salvaged or shredded, sent off to sleep with the fishes or to fly with the eagles. The Mets and Yankees both sit in tenuous places.

The Yankees didn’t even get a chance to erase the memory of the inexplicable 11-8 gag job on Wednesday night and Thursday morning against the Angels, since rain (or at least the threat of rain) postponed the last game of their four-game series Thursday afternoon. They managed to drop another half-game in the standings anyway when the Red Sox obliterated the Royals.

The Mets? Somehow the Mets have been by themselves in first place since May 3, despite the fact that on many of those 60 days, they have posted a lineup card more appropriate for Syracuse — or St. Lucie in March. And while the Dodgers lent a hand by cooling off the Nationals on Thursday night before rain washed away the final four innings in Washington, the Mets followed Wednesday’s 20-2 thrashing by the Braves by losing a gut-wrencher in the ninth in Atlanta on Thursday.

So the Yankees need to right themselves, or face a rare sell-off later in the month.

And the Mets need to right themselves, or face another year in which instead of building on early speed and their division rivals’ refusal to bury them, they’ll encounter another three-month slog which they may or may not be physically able to endure.

The teams will meet again this year, in September, but by then their fates will almost certainly have greater clarity. And by then, the games will have a far different significance, since the middle one will take place on Saturday, Sept. 11, 20 years to the day since the Towers fell (which is when at least one half of this series should be played every year, of course).

So this weekend is about dual, dueling crossroads.

And that’s happened infrequently since 1997. There was the first year, actually, when the Yankees were 37-29 and the Mets were 36-20 and both were already fighting for wild-card positioning (the Yankees made it, the Mets didn’t). There was 2005, when both teams were 22-20, the Yankees digging out of an early 11-19 hole and the Mets rebounding from an 0-5 start (the Yankees did, the Mets didn’t).

There was 2009, when the Mets were trying to hang on after losing two of three to the Phillies and the Yankees were scuffling having been swept at Boston … and then Frankie Rodriguez popped Alex Rodriguez up and … well, you know what happened from there.

Subway Series like these have been few and they’ve been far between. But this time they bring more than nostalgic stories of the 1940s and 1950s and “bragging rights” — which, along with $2.75, will get you a ride on the subway. And it’s about time.

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