Monday, July 28, 2003

Yankees 7, Indians 4

It was Oldtimers' Day a couple of Saturdays back, which meant that even the top of the upper deck at Yankee Stadium was packed with fans. We sat in the stadium's third-to-last row, down in the left-field corner, and space was at a premium.

For better or worse, the Stadium is entirely reflective of the city itself. It is loud, damned proud of itself, and, for all its history and tradition, a little rough around the edges. For every glimpse of Monument Park, you recall the half-hour it took to navigate through impossibly crowded and too narrow concourses and find your way to your seat. The more genteel lower deck is filled with moneyed fans from the Connecticut and New Jersey suburbs, while the upper deck is the domain of the true New Yorkers -- clad in Yankee caps and Jeter jerseys, passionate, fiercely loyal, and hanging on every pitch.

Indeed, in nearly 30 years of going to major league games, in about a dozen ballparks across the country, I've never, ever encountered a crowd that appreciates the subtleties and importance of each pitch as does that at Yankee Stadium. From the first pitch to the final out, more than 50,000 people are locked in on the action in front of them. The various distractions -- the annoying between-innings music; the asinine, Harry Belafonte "Day-Oh!" that echoes through the stands from the public address system; the weird guy named Phil who stands about every other inning and somehow, in the third-to-last row of the upper deck, where adequate leg room is more dream than reality and the slope is Everest-like in steepness, manages to execute a 360-degree turn while slamming his palms together slowly and glaring at everyone with whom he makes eye contact in a silent demand to join in his deliberate applause -- do not matter. They don't care that it's just the top of the third. When David Wells has a guy at no balls and two strikes, with runners at the corners, well, goddamn it, they're going to rise and cheer until Boomer gets the whiff. Runs count equally in the third as they do in the ninth, you know.

To be around true baseball fans in a true baseball town, even if they're pulling for a team I no longer find charming and worth my trouble, is incredible and special. I envy those people. I hope they realize what they have there. When the next Yankees downturn comes -- and it will, at some point, even if only for a season or two -- will they still pack the Stadium? Will those dark blue hats be as visible as they are today? Will the 13-year-olds squeal for whoever that team's heartthrob is?

Anyway, just in case you forget that it's New York, the 4 train, visible through a small space in the right-field facade, rumbles through periodically. And if you really forget, after every win the P.A. system blares Frank Sinatra roaring through "New York, New York" -- not once, not twice, but until the Stadium empties.

As a ballpark, Yankee Stadium is okay -- not great and not awful, but serviceable. What makes the place unique is the team's legacy. You look toward right field and laugh as Raul Mondesi has the temerity to wait under a fly ball on the very grass where Babe Ruth shook off hangovers and awaited his next at-bat. You glance at first base, where Todd Zeile -- Todd effing Zeile! -- swishes his foot across the dirt, the same soil out of which Lou Gehrig picked errant throws. And so on and so on. The history of Yankee Stadium is the history of baseball, and if you're any kind of fan at all, that means a hell of a lot.

The game itself was a fairly predictable affair. The Yanks took an early lead off C.C. Sabathia before a couple of Indian no-names took David Wells yard in back-to-back at-bats while I was waiting in line for a dog and a $6.75 beer. (No, really.) New York then went to work, eventually retaking the lead on a Jason Giambi single that plated three teammates, including Derek Jeter, hustling and scoring from first on the play. Newly acquired Armando Benitez displayed some of his old Met tendencies, marching in and promptly walking the first batter he faced. Joe Torre, perhaps sensing the spectacular failure that Benitez is destined to be in the Bronx, couldn't get out of the dugout fast enough to retrieve the ball from Benitez's hand and wave in Mariano Rivera from the bullpen. Rivera shut the door -- leading to first the traditional "Yankees win! Thuuuuuuuuuuuhhhhhhh Yankees win!" and then the inevitable Chairman standard (over and over and over) -- and we traipsed out of the Stadium and up the stairs to catch the 4 back to Manhattan.


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