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Baseball fever grips Gotham

NEW YORK - The bellman said the New York Mets aren't dead yet. "They'll come back, baby," he said. "They've done it before." The newsstand dealer said, "This town is baseball crazy. People can't enough enough of it." The cab driver said, "I don't care. You owe me $40." Baseball is the New York state of mind. Last night the Yankees played the Boston Red Sox in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, while across town in Queens the Mets and the Atlanta Braves held workouts at Shea Stadium for Game 3 of the National League Championship Series tonight. A new generation of New Yorkers is getting a taste of what it must have been like in the 1940s and '50s, when the city was the center of the baseball universe with the Yankees playing the Brooklyn Dodgers in all their legendary Subway Series. The Yankees and Mets aren't there yet. The Mets aren't holding up their end, being down 0-2 to the Braves in their best-of-7 series. But that hasn't stopped the city from getting caught up in something they've never seen before: the Yankees playing a postseason game at home one day, the Mets playing one at home the next day. "Bernie!" was the bold front-page headline of the Daily News, trumpeting the Yankees' 4-3 triumph over the Red Sox on Wednesday night, when Bernie Williams blasted a game-winning, 10th-inning homer. "Bobby Blew It!" blared the back page headline of the New York Post, putting Mets manager Bobby Valentine on the spot for failing to take pitcher Kenny Rogers out before Eddie Perez hit the game-winning home run in the sixth inning in Atlanta's 4-3 victory the same day. "Senate Kills Test Ban Treaty in Crushing Loss for Clinton; Evokes Versailles Pact Defeat," the front page of the New York Times declared. The Times doesn't seem to get it. Mets fans get it, and their players are counting on it to help them rebound and win Game 3. There is no more unfriendly territory to play in than New York, and the players are doing all they can to make sure their fans hold up their reputation. "I expect it to be crazy and fanatical out there," said Al Leiter, who will start tonight against Atlanta's Tom Glavine. "A crazy crowd can somewhat distract and help us sometimes." Reliever John Franco, who grew up in Brooklyn as a Mets fan, also is looking forward to seeing their fans in action. "They stand on their feet from the first inning on, rooting for a strikeout from our pitcher or for us to get a hit," he said. "I think it can be intimidating to the opposing team and pump up the home team." This sounds like a desperate team - putting its hopes on the people who are paying $50 to watch the game when you have players like Mike Piazza and Robin Ventura, both of whom were hitless in the first two games. After all, the Braves don't need the crowds to win, which is a good thing because they couldn't sell out their house for either of the first two games. Those Braves fans that did come to Turner Field got pumped up with a pep rally in the outfield pavilion led by people dressed in Magilla Gorilla, Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear costumes. That's intimidation. Atlanta fans got a little testy about the criticism they've received for not filling Turner Field. One fan carried a sign that said, "We do to like baseball in Atlanta." That's what happens when you replace English grammar in the school system with Legends of NASCAR racing. If the Mets sound desperate, that's because they are, having lost 11 out of 14 to Atlanta this year. If they can get their fans to unnerve the Braves just enough, it may open a window of opportunity for the Mets. "New Yorkers can get a little crazy, maybe a little bit," Leiter said, scoring 99 on the understatement meter. "All it takes is a little distraction of some sort, whether it bothers the pitcher or a batter for a pitch or two." Leiter needn't worry. Atlanta closer John Rocker gave Mets fans all they need to be ready tonight when he ripped them after the Braves' Game 2 win. He called them "stupid" and said, "To hell with New York. They're a tired act." Rocker may have to warm up under armed guard tonight at Shea.

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