NEW YORK -- Brian Cashman was on his way home from a four-game, two-stadium, one-city sweep suffered at the hands of the New York Mets when he fielded a question that summoned a bad memory from the not-too-distant past.
What would George Steinbrenner have said to you tonight?
Cashman paused over the phone as he measured the chilling thought. An inquiring mind thought the call had dropped before the general manager of the second-best team in New York this week finally broke the silence.
"I can't even imagine," he said.
Nobody could've imagined this on Monday evening, when the Mets looked like a hopeless 90-loss cause and the Yankees looked like a tough, resilient team that would surely overcome a series of devastating injuries to make the playoffs for the 18th time in 19 seasons.
But then Daniel Murphy and David Wright got to the Yankees in Game 1, Murphy and Wright and Lucas Duda (of all people) got to Mariano Rivera (of all people) in Game 2, and the Mets carried that momentum over the bridge and into the Bronx for a pummeling in Game 3 and a knockout punch in Game 4 that left the Yanks wondering how their unwashed neighbors entered this Subway Series with an 18-29 record.
"This is what happens when you're not playing good baseball," Cashman said. "I respect what the Mets just did to us. We just lost a four-game series, and you don't want to lose like that to your crosstown rivals."
No, this wasn't exactly the World Series of 2000, when the Yankees were going for a three-peat and a fourth title in five seasons, not to mention a brand-new TV deal. Everything was at stake back then, and Steinbrenner told his GM, "You'd better win, or else."
Cashman felt a loss to the Mets would've all but deleted the three championships in the '90s. Like Joe Torre and everyone else inside the organization, Cashman was terrified of losing that Series, terrified of the wrath of the one and only.
"The Boss thought spring training games against the Mets were must-wins," the GM said late Thursday night.
His clubhouse was practically empty after this 3-1 defeat, with only a precious few Yanks around to face the news media. Derek Jeter, resident Met-killer and MVP of that 2000 World Series, had showed up for a second straight night to play catch and watch some losing baseball, but the injured captain wasn't about to answer for the failures of lesser men.
Standing guard near Jeter's locker was Rob Cucuzza, longtime equipment guy, who sat next to Steinbrenner in the Yanks' Shea Stadium clubhouse while the Boss nervously watched his team close out the 2000 Series in Games 4 and 5. Cucuzza remembered seeing more stress and pressure in Steinbrenner's clenched face than ever before.
So Thursday night the equipment manager was asked the Cashman question: What would George have said tonight?
"I don't know," Cucuzza said, "but it wouldn't have been good at all. He spent that whole World Series in the clubhouse, and I don't remember him ever doing that before. He could not take losing to the Mets."
And losing like this in the regular season? In four consecutive games in which the Yankees' offense combined for a grand total of seven runs?
Never mind the injuries, and Cashman's promise over the phone that Mark Teixeira and Kevin Youkilis would be back for the Red Sox series on Friday night, assuming they don't wake up in sudden pain.
"George hated it when guys were on the DL," Cucuzza said.
He hated it more when their replacements couldn't find ways to take three of four, or at least split, against unworthy challengers the likes of the Mets.
"There's a competitive edge in all those guys in the room," Joe Girardi said of his team. "And it's hard when you lose to your crosstown rivals. You don't want to be part of the team that gets swept by your crosstown rivals. Over time it's going to happen, but you don't want to be the team that it happens to."
No you don't. You don't want to be the team that turns a 2-6 pitcher, Dillon Gee, into Greg Maddux, and you don't want to be the team that lets a manager on shaky footing, Terry Collins, get away with a reckless unforced error.
Collins had warned Gee before the start that his job was in jeopardy. In fact, Collins was running out of slumping Mets to threaten before the Yankees made all of his problems go poof in the night. For now, anyway.
Gee had retired 15 Yanks in a row, and had struck out nine of them, including the last five, when Collins came to get him with one out in the eighth and three lefties -- Ichiro Suzuki, Brett Gardner and Robinson Cano -- lined up to take their cuts. Gee had thrown a mere 88 pitches and had struck out 12, walked none, and allowed no walks. Only one other pitcher had posted a line like that against the Yankees since 1903, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, and his name was Pedro Martinez.
But Collins pulled Gee in favor of Scott Rice, who appears to be to the Mets' manager what poor Scott Proctor once was to Torre. Had the Yanks roughed up Rice, Collins would've been roughed up by the fan base, columnists and talk-show hosts.
Rice easily dismissed Ichiro and Gardner instead.
One inning later, when Bobby Parnell recorded the final out, a strikeout of Travis Hafner -- the 14th strikeout of a Yankees batter -- Mets catcher Anthony Recker threw his arms around the closer as the Stadium speakers played a low-volume version of Sinatra's "New York, New York."
Girardi had said before the series that he'd prefer an odd number of games played between the Yanks and Mets. "That way there's a winner," he said.
Only there was a clear winner in this even-numbered mismatch. Girardi's team couldn't hit Matt Harvey, or Harvey's buddy, Gee. Parnell was a better man than Rivera, greatest of them all, and the Mets left the Bronx as an interesting, watchable team again, more interesting and watchable than even their owner, Jeff Wilpon, suggested they'd be.
Wilpon famously gave up on the idea of a World Series rematch when presenting the retiring Rivera with parting gifts before Game 2. "If that motivated them," Collins said of his players before Game 4, "we'll be blasting them again tonight."
As it turned out, Marlon Byrd's two-run homer off Vidal Nuno in the second was the only blast the Mets needed.
"We picked a bad time to go in an offensive funk," Cashman said as he fled the scene. "I guess I would tell the Boss what I've told him before: 'It's not like we weren't trying.'"
George Steinbrenner was always in the business of doing, not trying, especially when it came to the second-class team in town. The Yankees are lucky he wasn't around this week to make a few threats of his own.