Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Ringing in Yankee Stadium

By Tony Mangia


It all felt so familiar but, at the same time, so different. It has been nine years since the New York Yankees last hoisted a World Championship flag. It is banner number 27 for the Yankees but the first for this Yankee Stadium. The new structure can now, almost unarguably, be called "The House that Jeter Built."

The old stadium's partial grandstand lurks to the south. The rubble is a reminder of past glories of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle, as well as, the lean years of Horace Clarke and Jerry Kenney. There are two physical links between the two arenas--the Core Four (Jeter, Petite, Posada and Rivera) and the Bleacher Creatures.

Chicago has the Bleacher Bums. Cleveland lays claim to the "Dawg Pound. The Redskins have the Hog Pit, or whatever it is called, and the Oakland Raiders have the local psych ward. The Yankees Creatures are one of a kind. Think of 'Jersey Shore' with more tattoos and more Yankee blue than spray tan. The real tans start arriving after Belmar beaches open in May. The hair gel ratio is a push.

Starting your day with a Creature means having 11 a.m. beers at Stan's Sports Bar across the street, under the 4 train--that is if you can squeeze in the door. You exit Stan's with a morning buzz and into a sea of Yankee souvenir vendors. Sadly, down-on his luck, ex-Yank, Dwight Gooden was giving autographs for $45 a pop. I'm sure it was true because the hand-drawn signs pointed to paltry line outside another bar. A guy's gotta make bail somehow and Yankee fans are softies when it comes to no-hitters.

It's easy to find the bleachers; just listen for the "Boston sucks" anthem, and follow that crowd. Once in the bleachers, you know you're not in Flushing anymore. No pocket protectors, calculators or score sheets. Its about the party--not the stats. It is loud, rowdy and the nine-dollar beer lines never end. Hopefully, you won't end up in front of a giant, suds-guzzling screamer. The kind of guy who yells the same obnoxious rant over and over. And over. There's nothing you can do. It's part of the bleacher culture.

You can always count on the loudest jeers and cheers coming from the aluminum planks split by Monument Park--which looks more like a bronze graveyard. Celebrities, be wary of that noise amongst the giant video screen in centerfield. The opening day roster of the famous attendees included Paul Simon--accompanied by his hit song "Call Me Al"--who got his closeup and a loud applause. Martha Stewart's mug was blown up to three stories on the giant screen and the bleachers erupted into boos and other expletives. Bleacher Creatures just don't travel in her table arrangement and horse-set crowd--unless that pony is running at Belmont. Matt Lauer just got a lot of "who cares." Fame is but in the eye of the beerholder.

You might get lucky and sit near an extreme sport participant--a Boston Red Sox fan with the cojones to wear a 'Sawx' jersey. A lone red shirt surrounded by pin stripes and blue--think Nancy Pelosi strutting through a Tea Party rally. Of course, one of these dolts showed up to rile the pot. It always goes the same way; playful kidding at the start, friendly jabs in the second act and then...the beer runs out. The 7th inning beer stand cutoff and the creatures are milling around, looking for something...anything to pass the last two innings. Lo and behold, the loud mouth Red Sox fan. You can guess the final act and it usually ends with staff intervention and an police escort out for a couple of guys. That's entertainment and yesterday's game didn't disappoint.


High expectations were in the chilly air. Today was not only about opening day; it was a celebration continuing from last Fall's playoff run. Yankee legends, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford, handed out the Championship rings. There was a tribute to ailing trainer Gene Monahan. I can't remember a game, in my lifetime, where he was not in the dugout--literally. He has been the Yanks caretaker since 1973 and I always thought there was a Gene Monahan II carrying on. Fan favorite, Bernie Williams, tossed out the first ball. The day began had all the trappings of a George Steinbrenner Farewell ceremony. Oh yeah, The Boss--behind sunglasses--was there and got a standing O. The Yankee players all got rousing cheers, culminating with, who else, the Captain, Jeter.

Johnny Damon, now in Detroit, couldn't make it and Jerry Hairston Jr., currently on the Padres, made a twelve hour round trip to the stadium on his day off to get his ring but, the biggest ovation of the day was for a player on the visiting team, Hideki Matsui. He sure looked odd in a red uniform. Every ex-Yankee does. Matsui's introduction couldn't have been more rousing and the smiles and hugs of his ex-teammates showed their admiration. Godzilla's clutch-hitting and professionalism is sure to be missed this year.


Not lost on this jubilant opening day crowd was the value of their seasoned veteran quartet. Andy Petite may have a touch of gray on his face. Jorge Posada runs the bases like a drunk rhino--a drunk 38 year-old rhino--and critics still try and find faults in Jeter's game. Only Mariano Rivera still continues to defy nature. He freakishly still has the body he had ten years ago and the cutter still cuts like no one else's.

Think of it. These three (Posada, Jeter, Rivera) have been teammates for 14 seasons; more than any trio in modern sports history. Any sport! If Petite didn't take a few years off, as an Astro, back home in Houston, it would be all four. Five championship rings each and nine years in-between. It says a lot about them and the organization.

Yesterday's game didn't go against type either. The standard script goes like this: Petite pitches six innings of shutout ball, Jeter homers and makes plays, Posada gets three hits and Rivera comes in and saves the day. It's as conventionable as a 1930's western but it's a formula that didn't hurt Gary Cooper. Hey, isn't he the guy who played Lou Gehrig in that movie?

Only reliever, David Robertson's meltdown and grand slam to Bobby Abreu smudged a perfect day. It only lent to the most spectacular intro in sports--Rivera and Metallica's 'Enter Sandman.'

The Yankees opened the year by winning two of three from both division rivals the Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays. They are off to their best start in seven years. They have a good mix of veterans and youngsters, speed and power, and a smattering of good pitching. The Creatures have another year of bragging rights. Nothing could look better from the bleachers.

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