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    F I E L D  T R I P S

May 5, 2001

April 4, 2001: Kansas City Royals at New York Yankees, Yankee Stadium
The Return of Cotton-Eyed Joe

It took until the middle of the seventh inning to answer my biggest question about the 2001 Yankees.

It wasn't about their pitching—Andy Pettitte had struck out the first two Royals he faced and remained in control the whole way. It wasn't about their hitting—Chuck Knoblauch had keyed a four run rally in the first, followed by another four runs in the second, courtesy of three walks and a David Justice grand slam. No, the Yanks had thus far throttled the poor Royals. And the Yankee grounds crew had dutifully appeared after the fifth inning to rake the infield and work the crowd to the tune of "Y.M.C.A." This would be business as usual at Yankee Stadium for the three-time defending champions.

No, the only question which remained in my mind as the middle innings passed was whether the traditional "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the Seventh Inning Stretch would be followed by that other classic ballpark ode. I'm referring, of course, to "Cotton-Eyed Joe," a hellish country-techno fusion whose logic I just can't make out. "Deliverance" gone danceflooor? Or maybe it's just George Steinbrenner's idea of the peppy music the youth of today must enjoy. Either way, the worst three minutes of any trip to Yankee Stadium announced themelves once again.

Dubious music aside, the game itself yielded more than its share of fun for a chilly April night blowout. Since it was only the second game of the season, several firsts were on display. Knoblauch, recently converted to left field, chalked up his first assist, nailing Carlos Beltran trying to stretch a single into a double in the fourth inning. He later made his first error, stumbling after cutting off Beltran's drive into the left-field gap in the eighth. The play was a wash, really—any Yankee left-fielder of recent years, with the possible exception of the defensively astute Chad Curtis, would have played it into an unchallenged double. Pettitte's first start was unequivocal. In command of his repertoire and quickly staked to an eight-run lead, he went after hitters, striking out five and walking none, yielding only a long ball to Mark Quinn to mar his shutout. Justice's rifle shot into right offered an encouraging early assessment on his recovery from double-hernia surgery and his generally fragile nature.

Knoblauch's offensive contributions were encouraging. The Yanks have bet the farm on the Lil' Bastard's ability to get on base and key the big inning (the Lil' Bastard nickname is an affectionate one I gave him long ago, entirely unrelated to his defensive struggles, and one which I and my comrades still use with the utmost respect. Over the past three years, any time the Yanks absolutely need a run or seven, Knoblauch always seems to be there to start things off by slowing the game down, setting the team's focus pitch by agonizing pitch, stepping up the level of intensity even as he fiddles with the Velcro on his batting gloves. I christened Knoblauch's repertoire of wearing down pitchers into giving him a ten-pitch walk—or else leaning an elbow into an inside breaking ball—the Lil' Bastard Instant Rally Kit, in honor of Bart Simpson's Lil' Bastard Mischief Kit.). He started both rallies, first with a leadoff single and then with the first of the four walks given up by Royals starter Blake Stein in the second inning. That second trip around the bases was punctuated by steals of both second and third. Knoblauch's aggressive baserunning may be a reaction to his defensive plight, as if to point out that whatever his shortcomings as a ballplayer, he will never be accused of not hustling. Or it may simply be Knoblauch returning to the style of play which has made him such a successful leadoff hitter over the past decade. Not to mention the fact that this late-model Yankee dynasty found its pinnacle of success back in '98, when the team's aggressive baserunning heightened the pressure on their opponents and enabled them to dominate the game on yet another level.

Our seats were excellent, in the second row of the Upper Deck, just behind 3rd base, section 630, for those of you scoring at home. We were surrounded by like-minded, enthusiastic fans. Picture three people, sitting in a row with scorebooks on our laps, juggling pencils and field glasses. That would be me and a mother-daughter team, both of them keeping score and discussing the team—not to mention the history of Duke basketball program ("that Wojo was an ASSHOLE!")—with as much zeal and perspective as any father-son combo in evidence. A beefy blonde couple sat below us; the frequency with which he obscured my view was tempered by his girlfriend's chatty jibes at his tendency to play favorites when criticizing the Yankees ("Come on. Bernie can screw up a dozen times and you make excuses for him, but O'Neill has one bad at-bat and you're like, 'He sucks!'"). The three ladies admired my scorebook, not the usual Yankee scorecard but a genuine C.S. Peterson Scoremaster Simplified Base Ball Score Book, purchased circa 1982 (its companion held box scores from the Milwaukee—St. Louis World Series of that year), unused and rescued from the dank archives of my youth (see Mom, I'm glad I never threw that stuff out!).

Our ad hoc group compared notes on the game's difficult-to-score plays, conferring on the sequence where Justice was tagged out in a rundown between third and home (9-5-2-3?), and marvelling at the daughter's correct diagnosis of a passed ball when an errant Brian Boehringer pitch scurried back to the screen in the eighth. "Where's our spring training?" I wondered aloud, "These are tough plays." The players have spring training to shake off the winter's rust and coalesce as a team; as fans we have much less time to gel. But for this night, as everyone around shared in the banter, and wished each other a good season upon departure, we had clearly rallied to victory ourselves.

Final score: Yanks 8, Royals 2. Three beers, two sausages (one hot, one sweet), one late-arriving companion, and one spiral-bound, legal-sized, two-page model scoreboock which was quite the envy of the ladies of Section 630 one chilly April night. BOX SCORE