Fans of the Game
By Kevin Baker
I got a chance to feel like a classic, ugly New Yorker this week. I was attending a Yankees game with my close friend, Chris; one in which we succeeded in horrifying an entire family of fans — Mom, Dad and grown daughter — with the sheer lunatic vehemence of our rooting. The fifth inning hadn’t even ended before the father, sitting in the row ahead of us, stood up, turned around and asked in a voice dripping with exasperation, “Have either of you ever played any baseball beyond the Little League level? How can you be so critical?”
Chris and I were left speechless, not least because this had been one of our milder nights at the stadium. We had only been exercising our God-given right as fans to question a trade or two; the occasional move by the redoubtable Yankees’ manager, Joe Torre; and the intestinal fortitude of about half the lineup. We hadn’t even resorted to profanity yet, though Chris, under duress, has been known to string together more obscenities than the entire cast of “Deadwood” on a bad day.
We remained quiescent for the rest of the game, all the fun gone out of the constant, ragging discontent that characterizes the in-game chatter of the real fan. The outraged dad (who, for what it’s worth, bore an uncanny resemblance to Ken Starr) and his clan, sensing they had thrown a wet blanket on our passion, tried to make it up by joking with us in a patronizing manner for the rest of the night, referring to us fondly as “curmudgeons.”
Curmudgeons? We’re fans, I wanted to snarl at the Starr family. And critical? Just what city do you think you wandered into?
How to begin to explain to the uninitiated what it means to be a fan in this town — especially a Yankee fan? How to convey the feeling in the park back in 1977, when during the World Series, network TV cameras broke away to show the Bronx burning down in the not-so-far distance (arson was common in those days). And when, at the end of the last game, fans seated themselves over the edge of the outfield walls, ready for a mad sprint onto the field that turned into a bloody melee with the police? And that was when the Yanks were winning. How to tell of the disappointing seasons of the 1980’s, when chants of “Steinbrenner sucks!” regularly rocked the ballpark, and when Chris — a private-school classics teacher with a Ph.D., and one of the most intelligent people I know — once taught a Boy Scout troop to direct a similar chant at Yankee catcher Rick Cerone, much to the annoyance of the scoutmaster.
Critical? Of course we’re critical, and profane; corrupters of youth, and sweet suburban families. I was there in 2001, just weeks after Sept. 11, when the Seattle Mariners came to town for the American League championship. The Mariners had made all the right noises and gestures; visiting Ground Zero, talking about how courageous New Yorkers were, and how bad they felt for the city. Yankee fans responded with chants of “Overrated!” and “Sayonara!”, directed at Ichiro Suzuki, the Mariners’ great Japanese player, as their team pummeled the upstarts on the field.
We don’t like being patronized, not ever. And we reserve the right to be as critical as we please. We are a city full of demanding people, who like to tell ourselves that we have come here to test ourselves against the best there is. It’s a cliché, the competitiveness of New Yorkers, how the city never sleeps, and how if we can make it here we can make it anywhere, as the tired anthem that blares at the end of every Yankee game attests. But it’s also true, and we like it that way. Being critical is how we measure our success, how we sort out the real goods from mere dreck, in a country that is ever more given to glossing over both mediocrity and contention.
Over the past few years, a great deal has been written about the pressure New York imposes, as one athlete after another has stumbled trying to make his mark on the local sports scene. Most of it has focused of late on Alex Rodriguez, the Yankee third baseman, whose mental and physical struggles this season have become an ongoing soap opera in the sports pages. A-Rod, the commentators scold us, is booed “mercilessly” by his home fans.
Much of this is simply buck-passing by the writers who, in the course of the past couple seasons, have sought to ridicule Rodriguez for having a picnic in Central Park with his family, and even for donating millions of dollars to fund psychiatric counseling for underprivileged kids. But the press-box scribes are also laboring under a serious misconception about the town where they live and work. The athletes in question aren’t playing for the junior varsity, or the glory of dear old State. They are professionals — and very well-compensated ones at that — performing on the biggest stage in the country. We cheer them when they do well and we boo them when they do badly, with the rare exception of individuals like Derek Jeter, or the great Rivera, who through their past exploits have earned our indulgence at all times.
This is the way it has always been in New York. Crowds in the Bowery theaters a 160 years ago growled “Heist dat rag!” when the curtain didn’t rise on time, then bombarded the performers with chicken bones, and half-eaten fruit if they didn’t like what they saw. Favorites were strongly encouraged to interrupt the show and repeat scenes again and again.
A misplaced gentility has now made it nearly impossible for even the most treacly Broadway extravaganza to escape a standing ovation. It’s only at the ballpark that a New York performance is still an interactive experience, and only at Yankee Stadium that it is truly an urban one. The Mets play in their crumbling, Robert Moses amphitheater near the edge of the city — a baseball park built without bleachers, for crying out loud. The Giants and Jets are installed in an even more dismal stadium out in the Jersey swamps. The Knicks and Rangers are in an antiseptic midtown arena with as much character as the current Penn Station that swelters directly below it.
Yankee Stadium itself is no architectural wonder, a plasticized makeover of the original House That Ruth Built. But it is quintessentially a part of the city, with dense neighborhood blocks all around it, stretching up to the Grand Concourse. When the No. 4 train comes out of the tunnel, the white-and-blue colossus is suddenly before you, its playing field visible from the subway car. You descend through a maze of iron trellises to the dappled, pigeon-streaked world beneath the elevated — past a corner newsstand, a row of cheap restaurants and souvenir stands, a bowling alley and vendors hawking pretzels and hot dogs to the fans filing into the park through the early evening light.
Inside, the ramps are even grimier than the streets of the Bronx, littered with paper, beer cups and hot dog rolls. It is a long hike to the upper deck, but when you emerge, the air is ever-so-slightly cooler. I have spent more hours than I care to contemplate there, perched high above the field, watching as the daylight fades and the lights come on, electrifying the play below. At a sunny weekend day game, the feeling is subtly different, the organist pumping out a chorus of “New York on Sunday/ Big city, takin’ a nap …” The sense of stolen leisure is so pleasant and pervasive, you feel as if you might just flap your arms, and go for a float around the park.
This is one of the great remaining open forums in the city, the place where we come to sit in judgment on millionaires, mocking their foibles and cheering their brilliance. It reminds me of a ritual Chris told me about from the Roman republic, where once a year or so every citizen was forced to stand in front of the rest of the city and declare all of his wealth. His fellows would decide whether or not he deserved it.
That custom didn’t last, of course, and the democratic nature of life at the ballpark is likewise fading. Fan accommodations are increasingly stratified, with box-seat holders enjoying waiter service, cushions and other amenities unavailable to those of us in the upper deck. And just last week, the Yankees broke ground on a new stadium, one that George Steinbrenner promises will be for “you people,” but which will include ever-higher prices, and corporate luxury boxes where thousands of upper-deck seats might have been.
No doubt it will be a more genteel place, with so many of us plebes cut out of the picture. The Starr family will love it, provided they have the bucks. But another great, New York performance space — rowdy and dirty, and profane and critical as it was — will be diminished. To gain a sense of what is likely to be lost, I can only refer to the game where Chris and I became friends in the first place.
This was the Yankees’ home opener in 1978. It was also the second season in town for the inimitable Reggie Jackson, one of the few ballplayers to understand just how much the modern athlete is expected to be a performer. Jackson had long said that if he played in New York, someone would name a candy bar after him, and now they had — a basic patty of chocolate, nougat and peanuts sold in a flashy orange-and-blue square package, with REGGIE! emblazoned across a picture of Jackson on the front.
Thousands of these were handed out to the opening-day crowd, and Reggie the ballplayer did his part, driving a Wilbur Wood knuckleball over the right-centerfield fence for a three-run homer in the first inning. The crowd reacted with a spontaneous tribute. As Jackson made his majestic trot around the bases, first one, then a dozen, then thousands of little orange squares — REGGIE! bars — came pouring onto the field, like roses scattered at the feet of a bullfighter. I’ve never seen anything like it in a ballpark before or since. Chris and I flung our bars out on the field, and cheered until we were hoarse.