Mets-Yankees rivalry hotter than ever

January 16th, 2021

The Mets made the biggest deal of the baseball offseason, at least so far, when they traded for Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco. Then the Yankees brought back free agent DJ LeMahieu on a new, long-term deal, and signed Corey Kluber to be their No. 2 starter behind Gerrit Cole -- both deals according to sources. But all that jazz isn’t just about the National League East or the American League East. Nope. This is about the New York division of baseball.

This is about the rivalry between the Mets and Yankees being very much on again.

You won't find the two-team New York division listed in the official standings of Major League Baseball. Winning it doesn’t put you on a fast track to the World Series. But it still exists, the way it did when the Dodgers played at Ebbets Field and Willie Mays was running down balls for the Giants in an outfield at the Polo Grounds so big it was like a borough of New York City all by itself.

You always hear from both teams that they aren’t competing against each other. Here is something the new Mets owner, Steve Cohen, said when he bought the team:

“I’m not competing against the Yankees, this is the Mets. We’re going to create our own excitement. I’m competing against 29 other clubs in MLB.”

It has been awhile since Cohen’s team has felt as if it were in the same league with the Yankees, even if the Mets have been to a World Series more recently than the Yanks have. But things feel different now, with Cohen as the deep-pockets Mets owner and Sandy Alderson, the executive who put the Mets into the 2015 Series, once again calling the shots at Citi Field.

Suddenly it feels as if Mets vs. Yankees is a fair fight again, as they get set to battle for the mythical city championship. Maybe the next time they are on the field together for one of their regular-season Subway Series games, we will get to hear what this rivalry sounds like.

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But you can feel it right now, a long way from Spring Training, in the middle of January. It had been a quiet offseason for the Yankees until this week, when general manager Brian Cashman put LeMahieu back in pinstripes for the next six years, and got Kluber for 2021. I’d asked Cashman the other day if he was surprised that things had been moving as slowly as they had, with both free agents and trades, the splashiest exceptions being with the Mets and Padres.

“Not surprised,” Cashman said. “The COVID pandemic has made life harder.”

According to Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner, there is no team in the sport that endured more revenue losses during the shortened COVID-19 season of 2020 than the Yankees did. But as long as the Yankees have been in the Steinbrenner family, the team has never lost a player it wanted over money. And it has never lost its best player over money. So the Yankees hold on to LeMahieu now. They sign Kluber for $11 million, even though his last victory came on April 20, 2019.

As always with the Yankees, they somehow manage to find money under the bed when there is a player they need. So it was this week. It was only two moves, but the Yankees are back to the business of being the Yankees. The Mets made their big move for Lindor, the Yankees responded. Now we wait to see what the Mets do next.

The Mets could still use a center fielder, and George Springer, a former World Series MVP Award winner, is still out there as a free agent. And if Springer goes to Toronto or someplace other than Flushing, Jackie Bradley Jr., one of the greatest defensive center fielders you will ever see, is also available. Go ask Red Sox fans how many runs Bradley has saved them over the years. Ask them about the big swings that he made when Boston was putting away Springer and the Astros during the 2018 AL Championship Series.

On Thursday I once again asked Alderson if he has at least one more move in him.

“I hope so,” was his response.

Mets fans feel the same way. There have been few times since the Yankees became the Yankees again under Joe Torre, in the mid-1990s, when the Mets have felt like anything other than the "Other Team" in New York. They did make the 2015 Series, and they were a pitch away from the Series in ’06, when Carlos Beltrán took a called third strike to end Game 7 of the NLCS against the Cardinals, after the Yankees had lost an AL Division Series to the Tigers.

But the last time the Mets owned New York in baseball, truly, was all the way back in 1986, when they were as big for that one season as any Yankee team had ever been.

Things changed as soon as Cohen, the richest owner in American professional sports, bought the Mets. He says he’s not competing against the Yankees. He is, whether he wants to or not. Mets vs. Yankees. The rivalry is so on again. Even if you’re out of town, you have to know it’s a good thing.