“I think A-Rod just tried to murder that guy,” I said to my friend Dominic. He laughed, but I was sure he thought I was being a little serious. A line drive off the bat of Alex Rodriguez, the polarizing superstar third baseman for the New York Yankees, had just caromed off the left temple of Cleveland Indians pitcher David Huff, and he wasn’t moving. “No seriously, I think he’s dead,” I followed. Dom looked at me with a wan smile and then turned back to the field, more interested in the fallen pitcher’s well-being than my nervous ramblings. Of course I was joking about A-Rod, that’s how I deal with tragedy: inappropriate humor. But my buddy Dom, a die-hard Yankee fan, just folded his hands and hoped for the best. For the next few minutes, we sat in silence, just waiting, waiting, for that thumbs up from Huff. A-Rod had trotted to a double [Yeah, the ball ricocheted into the outfield and was still live], then ran immediately after the play to the mound to check on the fallen pitcher’s status, and New Yankee Stadium waited with him. The more trainers that came out, the worse it got. Then the paramedics. This wasn’t looking good. But David Huff, maybe out of thanks, maybe out of swagger, but undoubtedly unsure of his own condition, propped up his thumb as the he left the stadium on a stretcher, because he’s a baller. And New York loved him for it.
Like most non-New Yorkers, there’s a part of me that will always hate New York City. The air of superiority that New Yorkers wear like Drakkar Noir pervades every aspect of the culture of The City. [The second best example of a city so in love with itself being San Francisco, who also insist on referring to themselves as “The City” even though they’re surrounded by other major metropolitan and cultural areas like Oakland, San Jose, Berkeley, and Skywalker Ranch.] They constantly remind us that New York is the Culture Capital of America. Sure, Los Angeles has Hollywood, but we all know they’re the New Kids on the Block. Maybe Donnie Wahlberg gets a career out of it, but it’s all for show. [Full disclosure, the address on my birth certificate is 4867 Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, California.] A century of movies doesn’t compare to the print, stage, television, art, magazine, news, music, and culinary history New Yorkers never fail to remind us they were responsible for. As a sports fan, however, the biggest example of New York thumbing its nose at the rest of America is baseball. As a Los Angeles native, it’s hard to argue. I’m sorry we stole your team, Brooklyn, and I’m sure San Francisco is equally apologetic about the Giants. [No, we’re not.] Up until the great 1958 exodus, New York was home to three of the greatest baseball teams in history and a superb selection of its greatest stars. At Ebbets Field, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Dodgers. Four years later, Willie Mays would own the centerfield grass of the Polo Grounds with the Giants. But the beating heart of New York baseball has always been in The House That Ruth Built, the aptly if obviously named Yankee Stadium, the home of the New York Yankees.
I had been living in Brooklyn for six months by the time I first took the train up to the Bronx to see the Pinstripes. I lucked into an apartment that was on Flatbush Avenue in Prospect-Leifferts Garden [The neighborhood moniker “Flatbush” has moved slightly southeast since 1958, but when the Dodgers were in town, Flatbush was bigger than Jesus.] and one of the first things I did was visit the tenement building that is the final resting place of Ebbets Field. Jackie Robinson Middle School was on the way of my short walk around the neighborhood. It’s a beautiful part of town: there’s the Brooklyn Museum, the Botanical Garden, and Prospect Park, the greatest park in NYC. But the Dodgers played there; that’s all I cared about. It’s also where I met Dominic Prince, the biggest Yankee fan I know.
Oh, how I wanted to hate him.
Thankfully, I did not. And recognizing the baseball lover in me, he invited me to a game. Not just a game, but a game against the Cleveland Indians. [He knew I was a fan because I have an Indians jersey and an unhealthy love of Jim Thome and a limited number of stories and too many of them are about baseball games in Cleveland. Hey, just because I’m from California doesn’t mean my summers were wasted on surfing.] As a baseball fan though, it was more important that I was finally getting to see Yankee Stadium. Sure, not the original, but the home of the team with that much history was still pretty exciting. Stadiums are a bigger deal in baseball than any other major sport because the dimensions are different in every locale. Some places are a hitter’s dream (like the “Homerdome” in Minnesota, where the Twins won two World Series in 1987 and 1991) or a pitcher’s best friend (like the cavernous Petco Field in San Diego’s Gaslamp District). Then there are the potentially game-changing landmarks on the field, like The Green Monster at Fenway, the Ivy in Wrigley, and The Short Porch in Yankee Stadium. In 2009, the Yankees unveiled their new stadium, which I like to call The House Next To The House That Ruth Built, a modern recreation of the classic 1923 building that housed so many great championship teams.
To say that I was excited to visit the stadium is not to say I was excited to see the Yankees. For reals, fuck the Yankees. I’m tired of their exorbitant payroll and their winning and Derek Jeter being too good for Lyla Garrity. In fact, fuck Yankee fans, I thought. Watching the Bronx invade other stadiums, as I have so often in my lifetime as a baseball fan, there are few things more obnoxious than Yankee fans in an opposing team’s stadium. I came to New Yankee Stadium ready to reap a parade of boos and insults about my Indians jersey. At least I was there with an ex-Navy Yankee fan, so I wouldn’t get murdered, but I was still a little nervous when Dom told me we were sitting in the right-center field bleachers. The Bleacher Creatures, as the habitual outfield crowd of Yankee Stadium has come to be known, are a notoriously loud and passionate group of die-hards that are relentless in their cheers for their team and even more so in their taunts of the opposition, especially whoever has the misfortune of playing center field. Dom and I agreed to be respectful of each other’s teams, but no one else in section 203 made that pledge [sections 37 and 39 in The House That Ruth Built, 203 in THNTTHTRB].
The second you step off the train, the stadium greets you. It’s not the same, you tell yourself, it’s not the original. But it looks like all the pictures, just one sidewalk over. The local businesses are all still booming. The restaurants and bars that have thrived in the Bronx still have their greatest landmark. That façade is hard to argue with. “Better than moving it to Manhattan,” I heard more than once. For Dom, the best addition in New Yankee Stadium is the improved incorporation of the bleachers into the stadium. Before, it was an island, without access to the rest of the stadium [and also a decided lack of access to beer]. Only the true fans were Bleacher Creatures, the assumption was. But, in New Yankee Stadium, any asshole could come and sit in the bleachers, looking for a cheap seat. I love the cheap seats [and also the Sklar brothers], and what I found in 203 was anything but any asshole who wanted to go to the game. The fans that chose to sit in this section were lifers. These guys knew their shit. And I hated them for it.
I expected grief for being on the other side. As the day played out, I only received one “Indians suck!” from the home town crowd. Instead, I was treated to watching the Creatures in action. When Dom told me about Roll Call [the Creatures chant the name of each fielder in the opening inning until they gracefully acknowledge the crowd, usually with a wave or a point or the occasional Nick Swisher salute], I snickered and made some stupid Will Ferrell/Cheri O’Teri joke. When the Creatures busted out their Roll Call for the Yankees, I saw fans that loved their team in a way I had never seen before. I know big fans in almost every sport, but the devotion of Section 203 is something that I have rarely witnessed. This was admirably unexpected, but didn’t quite throw me off keel just yet. What I was not ready for was the genius madman sitting four benches behind us.
“Number four!” he screamed in the bottom of the first inning. I had looked at the lineup; I knew my favorite Indians player, Grady Sizemore, the centerfielder that would normally be in front of us, was not playing due to injury. [Grady was so big in Cleveland, they started selling jerseys that read “Mrs. Sizemore” on the back. I won’t lie, I almost bought one.] He’d instead be replaced by a bench player. Which one is number four? Oh no, I thought, Trevor Crowe’s gonna get it. At this moment, Trevor and I became kindred spirits. I was sitting in the Lion’s Den and his job was to stand just in front of it. More than the fly balls sent to the deepest part of New Yankee Stadium, Trevor Crowe had to field the torment of the Bleacher Creatures. “Number four, you suck!” the Creature followed. Where he lost points for originality, he gained them in persistence. “Number four, I own you!” This was just Crowe’s first assignment of the night in the Yankee Stadium outfield. He had eight more to go. “You suck!” was yelled again, and again, peppered with the occasional “I own you!” To his credit, Crowe didn’t turn around to look until the third inning, by which time Dom and I must have turned a combined fifty-six times.
In all honesty, the longer it lasted, the funnier it got. Clearly this man owned Trevor Crowe, and I started to relax a bit. I was, it seemed, in no immediate danger, and was able to sit and actually watch the game. The Yankees took an early lead, and I resigned myself to enjoying the experience of Yankee Stadium, since my Indians were obviously useless. In the middle innings, the taunting relaxed, and I started to take in the stadium as a whole. I assume there was a giant Jumbotron scoreboard, but we never needed it. All we had to do was gauge the crowd’s reaction. They didn’t need a hackneyed animation clip to lead their cheers; they knew what was going on. They booed bad calls, they backed their team, and they cheered in pivotal situations, hoping to get that one hit that would put their team over the top.
There’s nothing more satisfying than a well-informed crowd at a sporting event. It’s not unlike a concert where you know that everyone there showed up for the same reasons as you. Here is a brief tale of two Hot Snakes concerts in Southern California: a week after they tore the roof off a concert at an all-ages club to which I was able to take my little brother (who shied away from the pit, but I forgave him, that crowd got rowdie [R-O-W-D-I-E, that’s the way we spell rowdie, rowdie, let’s get rowdie, woo! Oh come on, you saw The Replacements, don’t lie.]), my friends and I went to see them again in Long Beach, where every song was greeted with the crossed arms and head nods of too-cool-for-school douchebags that can’t be bothered to show they enjoy what they’re watching. Exhibit A was so great my teenage brother left almost as terrified as he was exhilarated. Exhibit B was only saved by my buddy Mike C screaming “Hot Fucking Snakes!” at the end of every song, hipsters be damned. The House Next To The House That Ruth Built was full of Mike Cs. They were the best umpires on the field that day, and every pitch meant something. If I took nothing else from this game, I learned beyond a shadow of a doubt that New York loves baseball.
The Indians made the mistake of tying the game in the fourth inning. Trevor Crowe took the brunt of it in the bottom half of the inning, as the Yankees rallied for a huge lead and “Number four!” started echoing behind us again. Trevor Crowe still sucked and was apparently still owned by the gentleman behind us. As we tried not to giggle at the sophomoric humor, Dom and I, keeping to our pact of being respectful of each others’ teams, watched as the Indians staged an improbable comeback in the later innings. I stood up for every hit, every run, looking back over my shoulder to see if I could elicit a reaction whenever Crowe got on base. In the closing innings, Cleveland had improbably taken the lead, and it was up to the Yankees to come up to bat and fight their way back into the game. During the Indians’ at bats in the final innings, our friend from section 203 had been relatively quiet. But in the bottom of the ninth, his team trailing, of course he knew the Yankees needed him. “Number four, you still suck!” he reiterated. Crowe must be used to it by now. He’s not even fazed. And then it happened. After two and a half hours of the same two (admittedly hilarious) lines, the Creature declared, “Number four! You’re going to cry yourself to sleep tonight!”
Dom and I kind of lost it at that moment. The game itself didn’t mean a fucking thing. [The Indians won, by the way.] But the crowd, good lord the crowd won me over. I understood Dom a bit more that day. I don’t have to like the Yankees, I realized, but the real Yankee fan, the kind of kid that suffered through the 80s when Don Mattingly himself suffered on a shitty team in a town where failure is not an option . . . that, I could respect. The modern players threatening to enter the rarified air of the legends that wore the same uniform seemed beautiful to me, though I spent most of my adult life loathing them. I began to understand, not the pride of liking a team with such a great history, but the act of loving your team, even when you hate them. There are no front-runners in the Bronx. They love the Yankees in a way I have loved few things in my life, and I appreciate that. Even if I hate them.
I don’t hate them. Not really. Nor do they hate us. Just ask David Huff.
I’ll never know the original Yankee Stadium. I don’t care. Because everything that place built, the New Yorkers that come to New Yankee Stadium brought with them. They Built The House Next To Ruth.