By Will Leitch
(Writer’s Note: I wrote this piece in October 2003, right after Aaron Boone hit his epic home run to briefly stave off the impending Red Sox juggernaut. Five years later, I’m a little embarrassed by it. It betrays a New York newbie’s naivete and dopey slack-jawedness about this strange new city in which he found himself. But I still thought about this story’s Jerry every time I went to Yankee Stadium, and, all told, I still think about him a little every time I ever go to a game anywhere.)
Thanks to the glory of blind Internet luck, I scored tickets to Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, for the blood feud between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. My seats were in the right field bleachers, notoriously the most profane, obnoxious and uproarious section in Yankee Stadium, probably in all of baseball.
Manhattan interlopers like myself, and outsiders who only know what they see on HBO, have a distorted view of what the people of New York City are like. They see glammed up urbanites in high heels and Prada sunglasses, sipping martinis and staying out until 4 a.m. They see artists, they see writers, they see stockbrokers, they see the fast living, non-stop, run run run lifestyle, the one that embodies Manhattan, the one that makes everyone want to come here, and they think that’s what life is like in New York. And for a certain, tiny-but-endlessly-self-promotional section of the population, I suppose it is.
But the real New York can be found in right field of the Yankee Stadium bleachers.
The churning heart of this city are the blue-collar hard laborers, the garbagemen, the construction crews, the longshoremen, the cops, the firemen, the ones who grew up in the most remote sections of the outer boroughs, maybe Astoria, maybe Bay Ridge, maybe Bensonhurst, maybe Staten Island. The ones who never left their neighborhood, the ones who married the girl of the same ethnic background with whom they went to high school, the ones who bust ass all day and clock out at 5, pop a cold one at 5:30, and fall asleep on the couch at 11. The ones who maybe drink too much on Friday nights, the ones who go to the same restaurants they went to when they were kids, the ones who have hung out with the same five guys for 30 years.
They’re the blood of this city. They sit back and laugh as the masses move here from across the country, rattle around for a while, making a lot of noise and accomplishing very little, before those masses ultimately decide that life really was easier in Wisconsin, after all, and return home, their unquenched youth long behind them. (The interlopers who stick it out here, they end up in New Jersey, or maybe Connecticut.) For those who have lived here their entire life, Manhattan is referred to as “The City,” a far away place full of traffic and drinks that are way to expensive. (As in, “I’m not going all the way into The City tonight.”) To them, New York City is not a vast expansive playland, where twentysomethings drink and party and try to make something of their lives. New York City is simply, and wholly, their home.
They are, essentially, just like everyone who grew up in my hometown of Mattoon, Illinois. They stay within their close circle, in the same hangouts, doing the same things. And family and blood are more important than anything else. In college we would call them “townies.” The rest of us just kind of pop in, hop around for a while and drive up the costs of everything. And then we leave, and they’re here, and the next group comes in. They’re the ones making sure the trains run on time, everything remains calm and the foundation for it all remains solid, consistent and secure. This is their land, and it is because of them that New York City is, to quote, The Greatest Fucking City in the World.
And I think every single one of them sits in the right field bleachers at Yankee Stadium.
This was only the second time I’d ever sat in the bleachers. The first time was just a regular-season game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Even then, I was amazed how well-organized and clever the bleachers were. Go to another stadium, even my beloved Busch, and the fans need some sort of external stimuli to fire them. Maybe it’s the organist launching into the “Da-da-da-da-dada … CHARGE!” song, or the public address system blaring “We Will Rock You.” Or even, God help us, the wave. But not at Yankee Stadium. The cheers at Yankee Stadium are communal comedic concertos. Everyone seems to have studied from some sort of crude handbook. When the game starts, they shout out the names of each Yankee on the field until the player waves. Anytime there’s a bad call, everyone, in unison, immediately breaks into “ASS-HOLLLLE. ASS-HOLLLLE!” When the grounds crew comes out to drag the field in the sixth inning, to the tune of the Village People’s “YMCA,” the bleachers make it their own song, finding someone wearing the opponent’s cap and screaming, together, to the chorus: “WHY … ARE … YOU … GAY? HOW … DID … YOU … GET … THAT … WAY?” It’s politically incorrect, awful, wrong and, frankly, all-in-good-fun hilarious.
But Game 6 of the American League Championship Series was no regular season game against the Devil Rays. It was the hated, tormented Boston Red Sox, and pity to any fool in a Sox cap. The highlight was when the despised Nomar Garciaparra came to the plate. Garciaparra bats in front of equally hated Manny Ramirez and is engaged to soccer star Mia Hamm. Without prompting, the entire bleachers erupted into a “MANNY FUCKED MIA” chant.
We were in the next to last row, and the whole Stadium was shaking from the first pitch. (Full disclosure: I was silently rooting for the Red Sox. Not because I’m a Red Sox fan, but because I’m a baseball fan; Game 7’s are always exciting and worth cheering for. After what happened in Game 7 of the ALCS, I’ll assume you agree that I made the right decision.) Everyone was screaming, everyone was chanting, everyone was downright insane.
In particularly, there was Jerry, right behind us. Jerry, probably about 50, was wearing a beaten-up old Yankees jersey with Don Mattingly’s number on the back, wearing a plastic Yankees helmet that had several cracks on each side. He also had the Yankees logo written on his face. Jerry was fired up. He ran up and down the aisles, screaming like a buffoon, carrying a old Babe Ruth jersey with “1918” and “Curse of the Bambino” scribbled on it in magic marker. The man yelled the entire game, so much so that even some of the bleacher creatures looked at him askew. He spent a good five minutes heckling Red Sox right fielder Trot Nixon, calling him a “homo” and asking him if Richard was his father. (“YOUR DAD FUCKED US IN WATERGATE! YOUR DAD FUCKED US IN WATERGATE,YOU HOMO!”) In any other stadium, Jerry would have either been kicked out or disowned by everyone in his section. In Yankee Stadium, he was a peculiar presence everyone tolerated, even cheered along side, when we weren’t busy stifling any notions of taking offense. I tried to imagine what Jerry’s life outside Yankee Stadium was like. Did he have a family? Did he live alone, calling talk radio until midnight? I imagined him still living in his ailing octogenarian mother’s basement, a woman who still thinks he just needs to meet the right girl.
When the Yankees went up 1-0 in the first, with star lefthander Andy Pettitte on the mound, all looked secure and well. I heard a small voice perk up next to Jerry. “Dad, Dad, Jeter’s playing too deep at short.” Stunned, I turned around … and Jerry’s children were there. One was a girl of probably about 16, glossed up in a trashy way that likely shows up in the fantasy of every kid in her algebra class. She was bundled up in a Yankees sweatshirt and a blanket. Next to her were her little brothers, probably 13 and 11, who, like any son at a baseball game, were just trying to show off their baseball knowledge to their dad. “Dad, Dad, I think he’s playing too shallow at second, what do you think, what do you think?” They were like little birds begging for a worm. I couldn’t imagine these seemingly normal kids were raised by the man currently pulling up his shirt, hoping a TV camera would show the “Boston SUX” painted on his beer belly.
He would look over at them, in a voice about 30 octaves below the one screaming about the size of Manny Ramirez’s testicles, pat them on the head and say, “That’s right, kiddo. I think they should make Soriano an outfielder, already, like you said.” He put his arm around his daughter and whispered, “You keeping warm, honey?” He’d then head to the concession area and come back hands full, with four hot dogs and four Cokes, handing them out individually, before continuing his verbal assault.
I saw no embarrassment on his children’s faces, and why should I have? This was their dad, and he’s a Yankees fan. I imagined those kids, in 20 years, when they have kids of their own, heading to the bleachers and screaming the same things. It’s exactly what I used to do with my dad … albeit, quieter.
The game turned bad for the Yankees, and Jerry started jeering his own team, growling about Aaron Boone’s inability to put the ball in play (“Go back to Cincinnati, you jackass!”) and booing Yankees righthander Jose Contreras, who famously defected from Cuba to play for the Bombers (“If you can make it on that boat, you can certainly strike out Jason Fucking Varitek!”).
The Yankees made a comeback attempt that fell short, and a stunned crowd, which had been amped to celebrate a World Series trip, filed out. Jerry and his kids followed behind me. One of the boys was distraught, almost crying, asking his father, “Dad, how could they lose? I can’t believe they lost.”
Jerry pulled the kid’s Yankees hat over his eyes and tapped the boy’s nose lightly. “Oh, now, don’t cry, kid. We’ll get ’em tomorrow. Smile. Did you have fun? You kids have fun? Come on now … it’s just a game, kiddo.”