The following originally appeared at the now-defunct Allbaseball.com.
History. I made a bit of my own on Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium. For the first time since I started attending ballgames at the House That Ruth Built in 1996 (I moved to the city in ‘95), I sat in the infamous bleacher section. What better opportunity than a potentially decisive ALCS game against the Yanks’ most heated rivals, the Red Sox, to join the notoriously raucous fray out in right field?
As a participant in a 26-game plan, I’m part of a group that receives a pair of tickets to the first or second game of any postseason series in which the Yanks partake. We generally divvy our October bounty either by lot or by preference to see who gets to go when, but as this run has continued its course, we’ve grown more selective — though hardly blasé — about the games we choose. For a variety of reasons, I passed up any claim on attending the first two rounds in favor of the slimmest chance to see my potential dream matchup, a Yankees-Dodgers World Series game. That dream ended with the Dodgers’ elimination last week, but when the Yanks took the first two contests of the LCS from the Sox, I figured to still have a shot at the Series.
On Friday morning, with the Yanks up two games to none, my pal Cliff Corcoran (keeper of the fine Clifford’s Big Red Blog) emailed to offer me his extra ticket to Game Six of the LCS, a bleacher seat. “I’m hoping it doesn’t happen,” he prefaced the invitation. His follow-up told me that the tix were printable from home and that he’d email mine. But not until the Sox went up 2-0 in the first inning of Game Five did I give him the go-ahead. “It’s looking like you better email me that ticket. Grrrrr….” I responded pessimistically. “Yeah. I’m pissed we ‘have’ to go to this game,” wrote Cliff in his reply.
But even with the Yanks squandering late-inning leads and failing to close out the Sox in their first two attempts on Sunday and Monday, even having paced around through two exhausting five-hour marathons and thrown a variety of objects across the room, I was still optimistic and excited about the prospect of attending Game Six. Never mind the fact that the Sox had become just the third team in baseball history to force a sixth game after trailing 3-0, that they were striving not just to become the first to reach a seventh game, but to become the first of 26 teams in that position to actually win a series. The Yanks still held the upper hand. Less than an hour before I headed out to the ballpark all bundled up, I finished my blog entry about Monday’s epic with a pep talk aimed as much at myself as anyone:
It’s cold and wet here, the weather may yet prevent the game from being played tonight, but I’ll have to head up to the Stadium — an hour-long trip each way from deep in the East Village — because MLB insists on raping the home-crowd for as much concessions income as they can before the game is called. Given everything that’s happened in the last 48 hours, it’s probably the least enjoyable set circumstances under which to be heading to a postseason game that I’ve ever experienced.But damn it, I’m absolutely not about to look a gift horse in the mouth. I’m headed to a potentially decisive game in the ALCS, one in which the Yanks are up 3-2 and a single win away from a pennant. They’re playing in their own ballpark and not the Boston Bandbox of Horrors. The Sox have a gimp (Curt Schilling) and a dead-ass bullpen going for them. The Yanks have Jon Lieber, who’s given Boston fits in his last two starts (they’ve got a dead-ass bullpen too, but we’ll skip that). There are fans of 28 other teams that would kill to be in this position. I ask no sympathy and offer only good thoughts, positive vibes, warm smiles, and a sunny disposition despite the rainy forecast.
I almost broiled on the subway ride up, my thoughts were so warm. Or maybe it was the extra layers of clothing. Halfway up the 4 train ride, I realized I was shaking and dripping with sweat. In all my excitement I had absolutely forgotten to eat dinner. A great start.
The first thing I did upon entering the stadium was to buy a couple of hot dogs and the biggest soda I could, beer not being an option in the bleachers anymore (and with good cause). I was mid-dog when I finally found Cliff in the swirling mist out in rightfield a half-hour before game time. “It’s a great day to play two,” we agreed.
The bleachers of Yankee Stadium are a much different environment for watching a ballgame than I’m used to. Unlike my usual perch in the upper deck, which offers a prime bird’s eye view of the field, the scoreboard, the Jumbotron, the bullpens, and all but the deepest corners of the playing field, the view from out there is decidedly skewed — in more ways than one. The familiar sights from behind home plate allow a perspective for what’s going on at any given time, but over yonder wall such perspective is hard to come by. Did that ball make the warning track? Who’s warming up? Wild pitch or a passed ball? Who the hell knew? Rumors abound, many of them fueled by the barest scraps of information from the odd fan with a cellphone, a radio, or even a Watchman TV.
The remote environment out there overwhelms the senses. Throngs packed together cheek-to-cheek on metal benches — or more often standing — make for a claustrophobic experience despite the immense green expanse laying directly before us. Constant streams of obscene invectives and insults directed at the opposition are hurled nonstop. Frontier justice is the rule. Anyone brazen enough to show up in Sox regalia is immediately taunted with “Ass-Hole! Ass-Hole!” chants by dozens of Yankee fans and risks even worse confrontation. That’s predictable enough. Meanwhile, ritualized chants take place based on cues I can’t even decipher. I attempted to join in the first-inning around-the-diamond salute to the home nine, but I knew nothing of the cadences beyond “De-Rek! Je-Ter!” and “Shef! Shef! Shef!” I’m as familiar with this team as any fan, but I’m truly an outsider in the bleachers.
The ballgame began on a high note, with Lieber striking out Johnny Damon looking to end a 10-pitch mini-epic. But Lieber’s third pitch to Bill Mueller struck the Sox third baseman. Where? I couldn’t tell you until I saw the replay after the game (thigh). Two batters in, I had ample evidence that the bleachers were no place for a nearsighted bum like myself.
Curt Schilling, injured ankle and all, drew a throaty, obscene roar from the bleachers as he took the mound. “Fuck you, you fat fuck!” was my own throaty offering to a pitcher I absolutely loathe. Hardly the most creative choice of words, I’ll admit. Schilling worked through the first inning unimpeded, thanks in part to Derek Jeter maddeningly swinging at the first pitch he saw, flying out to right. Eleven pitches to work through the side, breaking 90 MPH according to the newly-placed speed readings on those infernal electronic scoreboards. Uh-oh.
Lieber found trouble in the second inning. Singles to Kevin Millar, Jason Varitek (on a perfect bunt) and Orlando Cabrera loaded the bases with one out, but Mark Bellhorn provided the escape hatch by grounding into a 4-6-3 double play. Out in the bleachers, every single Yankee fan seemed to be shouting out, “Double play! Double play!” as if to alert Miguel Cairo to the proper procedure.
The Yankee second brought mystery into our realm. With two outs, Jorge Posada lofted a fly ball that seemed to keep coming towards us. Having proven that I was none too sharp at judging flies in my Little League career, I was clueless as to whether the drive could carry. Sox rightfielder Trot Nixon (affectionately known as “Twat” out in those parts) disappeared behind — or rather in front of — the wall, as did the ball, and when the crowd moaned, we had our answer. Damn.
Schilling was perfect through the first eight Yankee hitters, though he was hardly hitting the peak velocity he showed in the first. Was he throwing off-speed stuff? Was he getting a good push off the mound? A voicemail from my fiancée relayed the message that a camera shot showed blood seeping through Schilling’s sock, but it didn’t seem to make a difference as he cut through the Yankee lineup. Finally, number-nine hitter Cairo drove a ball to deep left-center that bounced over the wall for a ground rule double and a shot at game’s first run. Jeter flied out to end the threat, but at least the ice had been broken.
The crowd in the bleachers remained boisterous until the fourth inning, when with two outs, the Sox put together a rally. Millar smashed a double down the leftfield line. Lieber got ahead of Varitek, who took two strikes, but he got too creative and the third pitch bounced in front of and ultimately away from Posada as Millar advanced. The point became moot as Varitek fouled off several pitches before singling to center to bring home the game’s first run. Perhaps still smarting from having let him off the hook, Lieber yielded a quick single to Cabrera on his next pitch. Would this inning ever end?
Lieber got to two strikes against Bellhorn. The crowd rose to its feet, as is the custom at Yankee Stadium, even with a non-strikeout pitcher who hadn’t K’ed anybody since the opening hitter. After fouling one off, Bellhorn drove a ball into the leftfield corner that looked as though it might be long enough for a home run. Leftfielder Hideki Matsui stopped and looked up, appearing to give up on the ball, but it caromed back into the playing field and Matsui finally retrieved it. While the runners scored, Bellhorn stopped at second base. Sox manager Terry Francona emerged to argue for a home run and the umpires huddled. “Fuck you, blue!” came the cry from the bleachers, especially after an ump held up his hand and gave the familiar counterclockwise signal. A three-run homer, 4-0 Sox.
It looked as though the Yanks would quickly answer back. Alex Rodriguez slapped Schilling’s first pitch of the bottom of the fourth up the middle for a single, and then Gary Sheffield’s slow roller down the third base line struck the bag and popped up into Mueller’s hands for an infield hit. Matsui popped out foul on the next pitch. Bernie Willaims ripped Schilling’s next pitch down the rightfield line, but the ball landed foul by a foot or so before bouncing into the stands near the rain tarp, so close, and yet so far. Williams eventually grounded to first, moving the runners over, but Posada, who’s driven in a mere two runs in October, couldn’t deliver, grounding to first as well. Weak.
The game breezed by, the next 15 hitters retired in succession. As the sixth inning arrived, I scanned through my scorebook and found that Schilling had yet to go to three balls on a single Yankee hitter. As if on cue, he went 3-0 on Jeter, who then took a strike, fouled one off, and promptly grounded out. I wondered aloud about pitch counts and Cliff reminded me that Schilling’s success in avoiding those three-ball counts probably meant he wasn’t leaving anytime soon.
The top of the seventh inning brought mayhem in the bleachers. Earlier in the game I’d seen a fan wearing, of all things, a Bush-Cheney ‘04 long-sleeve t-shirt. I now saw him again with a navy-blue Red Sox t-shirt on top of that. As he strode down the aisle directly next to me, several fans began taunting him, questioning his choice of hairdressers and his sexual proclivities…you know the drill. Said Sox fan turned around and foolishly responded, and one Yankee fan came forward. Words became shoves right in front of me, and my own blood lust flowed as I thought momentarily about grabbing the Republican Sox fan. Quickly, I thought better of it and slipped out of the way; I’m a lover, not a fighter. The two wrestled as the crowd gave way, but a cop was quick on the scene and grabbed both by their shirts and dragged them away. “Soften him up,” somebody yelled, referring to the Sox fan. I imagined a torture chamber in the bowels of Yankee Stadium with car batteries, alligator clamps, and a hose. Too many war movies.
After the pomp and ceremony of the seventh-inning stretch, the crowd, which had been subdued since the fourth, raised its volume. The outs were dwindling — Schilling had retired ten in a row after getting Matsui for the first out, and was still well under 100 pitches — but we had reason to cheer when Bernie socked a 3-1 pitch for a one-out homer into the upper deck in right. No doubt about where this one was ending up, I thought to myself as the ball hung in flight. The Yanks were on the board, finally, on only their fourth hit of the night. Soon after, as I discovered, the Sox had action in their bullpen in the form of Bronson Arroyo.
The 4-1 score held into the eighth. Lieber had cruised since the disastrous fourth, retiring eleven hitters in a row. But he couldn’t finish off Manny Ramirez with two strikes, and when Ramirez drilled a single the Yankee starter’s night was over. Joe Torre summoned Felix Heredia, the sole lefty on the staff and a dubious one at that, with an ERA of 6.28. Cliff noted that in batting lefties David Ortiz and Trot Nixon back-to-back for the first time all series, Sox manager Francona might have been scheming to force the Yanks into exactly that move.
Heredia got two quick strikes on Ortiz, then fiddled until the count was full. Finally, the big man flied out to right. Francona soon showed us that we’d overestimated his acumen, sending up pinch-hitter Gabe Kapler for Nixon. The Yanks countered with Paul Quantrill, who had apparently resumed wearing his knee brace after tweaking his injured right knee during Monday’s contest. So what happened? Kapler slapped one into the hole on the left side on which Jeter could only make a diving stop. Infield single. Quantrill went 3-1 on Millar before getting him to ground out and end the inning.
Arroyo came on in relief of Schilling. Kapler stayed in the game, and Doug Mienkiewicz entered as well. “The hands team,” Cliff called them, referring to the football squad responsible for recovering onside kicks. Arroyo whiffed Tony Clark but then gave up a double down the rightfield line to Cairo, his second of the game. Fifty-six thousand fans rose to their feet in anticipation of a rally, and Jeter instantly obliged with an RBI single. The tying run was at the plate in the form of Alex Rodriguez. I had visions of the Fox broadcast showing A-Rod’s Monster shot off of Arroyo in the Game Three slugfest.
A-Rod sent a dribbler down the first base line. As he and Arroyo, who fielded the ball, raced to the bag, the crowd went wild. “Go! Go! Go!” Miraculously — from our vantage point — the ball somehow popped loose and into foul territory as Jeter came all the way around and A-Rod sped to second. This was all too good to be true, I thought to myself. Seeing the umpires gather, I wasn’t about to mark anything in my scorebook without definitive word that the play had been kosher.
A steady torrent of abuse spewed from the bleachers as the umps conferred. The tension mounted as the minutes pased. When an ump finally pointed at second and signalled an out — A-Rod out by interference, Jeter back to first — the crowd erupted in anger, chanting the familiar “Bull-Shit!” which would mar the broadcast and scar the nation’s children. As PA announcer Bob Sheppard pleaded for the Yankee crowd to comport itself with class, a deluge of balls, drinks, and garbage came out of the stands, most of it from the upper deck down the rightfield line. I wondered aloud if I was about to be party to the Great Yankee Stadium Riot of 2004, furthering an ugly mess that would doubtless already be used as Exhibit A in some anti-New York screed from witless sportswriters nationwide.
In defense of the fans’ collective outburst, it must be said that Yankee Stadium does not run instant replays of controversial plays lest they incite the crowd. Though a few fans tuned into radio and TV broadcasts, most of us had no way of knowing how blatant Rodriguez’s knocking of the ball out of Arroyo’s hand had been; looking at it a few hours later, I muttered at the replay, “That’s the lamest sissy slap I’ve ever seen. Give him some elbow, A-Rod!” It pains me to admit it, but clearly, the umps made the right call.
Clearing the field delayed the game for several minutes, and though the mood remained tense, the reversed play took the wind out of the Yanks’ rally. Sheffield could only pop out to Varitek to end the inning.
The top of the ninth took an already surreal scene over the top. During a pitching change which brought Tanyon Sturtze into the game, a squad of riot-geared cops scurried onto the diamond and crouched in the narrow margin between the foul lines and the tarp in rightfield, the wall in left. I thought back to Game Three of the 2001 World Series, when George W. Bush had thrown out the first pitch and Secret Service sharpshooters had perched on the catwalk atop Yankee Stadium — “Guns on the Roof” by the Clash went through my mind. This time there were guns on the field of play. Holy shit.
When the cops dispersed between halves of the inning, a woman directly to Cliff’s left snapped. This 300-pound zeppelin of a bleacher creature, who had steadily claimed much of the available bench space and forced me to stand in the aisle or else sit literally half-assed, had already proven herself as foulmouthed as the rest of us. After the call against A-Rod she started yammering about goddamn fixes and fucking conspiracies, as if in complete denial of the Yanks’ legacy of dominating the Red Sox. Riiiight. The conspiracy theory took hold among several around us — “Fix! Fix! Fix!” chanted some, and a sign to that point even appeared in the lower righfield stands — until it felt as though we were in some Spin Control zone within Bush campaign headquarters, light years away from the reality-based community.
When the cops disappeared — a benefit to Yankee hitters, one would think — the woman took it as just one more sign of The Great Conspiracy. “This lady needs a tinfoil hat,” I told Cliff. Soon her exasperated husband, who’d been as leather-lunged as anyone around us, told her to give it a rest. She responded by shoving him, and he grabbed her shoulders and shook her. Domestic violence in the bleachers? Fortunately it stopped just short, though she continued her diatribe.
The bottom of the ninth brought Sox closer Keith Foulke out of the bullpen for the third day in a row. Cliff, who’d done some tallying, told me that Foulke had thrown 72 pitches over the preceding two days. I was agog; we had a chance. Every fan in the bleachers was on his or her feet. I hopped up and down with every pitch, trying to find some outlet for my pent-up nervousness, some talisman that would bring us luck. Matsui worked a walk and I noted that keeping my scorebook in my left hand seemed to be working very well, as did offering a steady spew of obscenity on every pitch. As nutso as the rest, I was.
Agonizingly, Bernie Williams struck out with a pathetic swing at a ball well below the strike zone, and Posada popped out as well. Up came Ruben Sierra, who had killed the Yankees all game long with three strikeouts and some of the worst swings in memory. Despite Kenny Lofton’s success early in the series, including a homer in the first game, Joe Torre had apparently believed he was without options. Furthermore, he kept Sierra back-to-back with his high-power, low-OBP doppelganger, Clark. The two of them had combined for five of the six Yankee strikeouts up to that point.
Showing remarkable restraint for his free-swinging ways, Sierra worked Foulke to 3-1, keeping his bat on his shoulder the entire time. He took another pitch for strike two, fouled one off on a good rip, and laid off a pitch juuuuust outside to work a walk of his own. Up came Clark, Torre’s only option since John Olerud bruised his instep during Game Three. Was there ever a moment where a retread first baseman who couldn’t even slug .400 anymore would have been more suited? Olerud’s keen eye and compact swing seemed ideal for the spot, while Clark seemed to require a phone reservation in order to move his bat head through the strike zone.
Clark got ahead 2-0, took one, fouled one, and then laid off of ball three as the Bronx went bonkers. But when the lanky first baseman swung and missed to end the game and knot the series, I was left speechless. I had run out of curse words before the end of the game, perhaps the most shocking outcome of all.
So tonight is Game Seven, merely a few hours away. After last year’s thriller, this is easily the most anticipated ballgame of the year, one that is nearly Super Bowl sized in hype. The Yankees will either conclusively show the Red Sox who their daddy is (the fat guy with the skinny legs who wore number 3), or the Sox will complete the most miraculous comeback in at least a half-century of baseball (I still say the 1951 Dodgers-Giants tops it) if not all of professional sports history while watching their most hated rivals endure the worst choke in the same span. Regardless of the road that brought us to this point, a road whose exact twists and turns nobody could have predicted, it feels exactly right.
But I’m not going back to the bleachers for this one.