Wednesday, September 06, 2006

"Bronx cheer - baseball fans at Yankee Stadium" National Review 05/19/97

Bronx cheer - baseball fans at Yankee Stadium
Rich Lowry in National Review, May 19, 1997

LAST year, I was sitting in the lower deck of Yankee Stadium watching reliever Bob Wickman, an overweight sinker-baller, blow a Yankee lead. A couple of runs were already in and the air had left the game, prompting disappointed fans to head for the exits.

Except one sitting behind me who was abusing Wickman with a vehemence unusual even for Yankee Stadium: "You s - - - , Wickman! You're a fat bum! You s - - - " After some hesitation -- I wanted to be careful about catching the eye of some crazed thug -- I peeked over my shoulder to discover that the assailant was a ten-year-old kid.

This crazed-thug-in-the-making no doubt has many fine days at the Stadium ahead of him. After a fairy-tale 1996 season, the Yankees returned to the South Bronx in April to begin defending their World Series title in one of the most storied and unruly arenas in professional sports. For me, Yankee Stadium has always been a perfect distillation of its surroundings. The Stadium, like its city, has a legendary history. It also happens to be a bastion of ill man- ners edging into violence and criminality.

Then again, the excesses are part of a high-energy atmosphere that can be exhilarating, even magical; the Stadium, like New York, is an endless mix of the idiotic and the sublime.

It wasn't until 1993 -- when I briefly lived in Manhattan -- that I saw a game at the Stadium. The broadcaster Bob Costas tells a story of how when he was a kid his father, after one game, took him out to the monuments in center field commemorating Yankee greats. The boy was overcome by the thought of walking on the same field as Mickey Mantle. Then, as they looked at the monuments, he got the idea that Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and the others were actually buried there, and began to cry; Costas remembers it as one of the few tender moments he was ever able to share with his father.

Yankee Stadium, I confess, has never made me sob. But there is something breathtaking about it, as seen from the upper deck, a huge horseshoe stretching out to the white balustrade high above center field. The grass is a brilliant emerald green, running in huge expanses, especially in left-center field, to the bright blue padding of the outfield walls. It's an outfield that can make fly balls beautiful things, especially when it's the lean Yankee center-fielder Bernie Williams -- a flash of pin-striped white against the green -- chasing them down with his long, loping strides.

But it didn't take many visits to the Stadium to notice its seamier side. Most ballparks have a seventh-inning stretch; Yankee Stadium has improved on the tradition with a brawl every two or three innings which everyone in a given section stands up to watch. Black eyes are served like Cracker Jacks. I've been at games where play on the field has stopped so that the players could watch rows of bare-chested guys (presumably from Jersey) beat on each other.

Last year, I attended a double-header against the Orioles, which meant 18 innings of drinking instead of just 9. By the second game, almost every face around me in the upper deck was young, male, and drunk. It was like being plopped in the middle of a leering ringside crowd in one of George Bellows's prize-fight paintings. A black guy was trying to panhandle beers. At one point, a grizzled white guy, destined for a night in a gutter somewhere, stumbled down the steps, put both feet up on the railing of the upper deck, and flipped off the entire Stadium with both middle fingers. As he weaved there, nearby rows took up a chant: "JUMP! JUMP! JUMP!"

Needless to say, the Stadium is not hospitable territory for fans of visiting teams. A couple of years ago a few friends from Washington, D.C., came with me to watch another Orioles - Yankees game, wearing their black-and-orange Orioles hats and shirts. They got threatened and harassed the whole game; every time something went the Orioles' way someone would say in a stage whisper: "Gee, I could kick an Orioles fan's a -- right now." The funny thing is, one of my friends attended a Yankee game in Baltimore a couple of weeks later and was amazed to find that Yankee fans were bullying Oriole fans even there, outnumbered by a factor of thousands.

In fact, Baltimore's new home is compelling evidence for how a ballpark influences the character of its crowd. The Orioles used to play at the indifferent but rugged Memorial Stadium. The team's new home, Camden Yards, is a much prettier place, but rising ticket prices have pushed out working-class fans. Pricey micro-brews and gourmet food have replaced cans of the low-rent swill National Bohemian. And the crowds, full of lawyers, Washington lob- byists, and homemakers, often cheer as if they were at Wimbledon.

That's never a problem at Yankee Stadium. Which is why -- if you have a strong stomach, and if you don't have small children --there's no place like it to watch a game. Evelyn Waugh once wrote that people mistake the collective neurosis of New York for high energy. But there's really not a distinction -- the madness creates an energy. The unforgettable electricity of a moment like Don Mattingly hitting his first-ever post-season homer in 1995 --celebratory beer cascading down from the upper deck like rain --would be impossible without the nearly insane devotion and intensity of the fans.

Yankee Stadium crowds create the conditions for acts of greatness. Again in 1995, late one play-off game, half of Yankee Stadium taunted Seattle Mariner star Ken Griffey Jr. with the chant: "F --you, Junior." Griffey responded with a clutch homer that silenced the crowd into something like awe. For a Yankee fan, these moments are best, of course, when opponents just don't measure up. After the Yanks scored three early runs in the decisive game of last year's World Series, you could feel the high-powered Atlanta Braves wilting. Braves owner Ted Turner, the smug tycoon who personifies his self-impressed team, left his seat for a breather. The commemorative World Series video captures a New York voice calling out: "Hey Ted, how ya likin' it?"

Turner grimaces: "I'm not."

COPYRIGHT 1997 National Review, Inc.


Post a Comment

<< Home