It doesn’t make sense that I’m a fan of the New York Yankees.
Really, it doesn’t. The Yankees are, in baseball, a symbol of corporate excess, a team with a budget whose allowance for sanitary stockings probably dwarfs the entire operating outlay of, say, the Kansas City Royals. They win so consistently, it was once observed that rooting for them was “like rooting for U.S. Steel.”
The Yankees, to the casual observer, represent all that is bloodless and cold in America. They concentrate strictly on the bottom line. They allow no facial hair below the upper lip, no long hair. They play “God Bless America” (the KATE SMITH version, for the love of Dog!) during the seventh inning stretch. They solve all their problems by signing high-priced free agents with money taken from tickets sold to the Little Guy. Their fans are well known for being less than hospitable to visiting players.
All that is not what I am. I generally try to root for the underdog. I believe in the Little Guy (there aren’t that many littler than me). I think money is the root of all arrogance, although I wouldn’t mind the opportunity to try it out for myself. I can’t stand Kate Smith.
So, why am I a Yankee fan?
Well, let’s begin by debunking some of the myths I so cunningly espoused a few paragraphs ago. Yes, the Yankees sport the highest payroll in baseball, by a very large margin, but among other reasons, that is because they run their business intelligently. Yes, they spend (sometimes overspend) on free agent players, but they also sport a current line-up that includes, on most nights, five position players and sometimes a pitcher or three, all of whom are “home grown,” or came from the team’s farm system.
And the fans? Well, we’re tough, but classy. When a former hero like Tino Martinez, Wade Boggs or Andy Pettitte comes back in an opposing uniform, we cheer them warmly. I’ve been in opposing ballparks where chants about the Yankees, in language most parents would prefer to avoid with their children present, were voiced loudly by entire stadium sections. I can’t say I’ve heard that by the crowd–individuals, yes, but not the whole crowd–in the Bronx. The one time I did hear Yankee fans berate someone in an off-color fashion (the whole Stadium, that time), it was directed at the owner of the New York Yankees, who had traded away Reggie Jackson.
Stephen King is a Red Sox fan. Lee Child is a Yankee fan. Boston gets Ben Affleck, the Bombers get Billy Crystal and Spike Lee.
But none of that is why I’m a Yankee fan. Here’s why I’m a Yankee fan:
In 1965, when I was seven years old, my father got tickets with some friends of his to a game at Yankee Stadium. I don’t recall ever exhibiting an interest in baseball before that, and my father, certainly, was not much of a sports fan. He claimed to root for the New York Giants, eight years after they’d moved to San Francisco, and was unable to name one player on the team. You’d have to have known my father to understand, but it made perfect sense from his point of view.
All sports fans–and make no mistake, I am a RABID Yankee fan with sports tunnel vision; I follow absolutely no other athletes, and take my family out to dinner every Super Bowl Sunday–remember their first in-person game. They wax poetic about the color of the grass on the field, the smell of the hot dogs in the stadium, the way the facade across the upper deck lent a bizarre touch of gentility to the building.
For me, it was the sound.
I remember the way the loudspeakers boomed with organ music (this is WAY before the DiamondVision era, and the players of that era wouldn’t have dreamed of pumping in a special song when they came to bat) before the game. I remember the sound of thousands of people–far fewer than the crowds who come to watch a game today–milling around, waiting for something to get started. I remember the hot dog and soda vendors yelling as they walked up the aisle (my favorite was the beer man, who in the seventh inning started to announce, “last call for the alcohol!”). And I especially remember the voice of the classiest guy on the planet, public address announcer Bob Sheppard, who taught speech at Columbia University, for crying out loud, beginning, “good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Yankee Stadium.” The man’s voice belonged on someone who was regularly addressed as “sire.” And while that voice has gotten a little thinner over the years, it is still there today. Then, it truly sounded like the voice of God.
That was pretty cool.
But that’s not why I’m a Yankee fan. Here’s why I’m a Yankee fan:
My father’s friend had two sons, one of whom sat next to me at the game. He was a serious adult, probably about 16 years old at the time, and I took my cue from him. I might have known that it was supposed to be good when a Yankee hit the ball, but that was about it. I knew nothing about the rules, and this teenager took time to help the littler kid, who was so little he could barely see the game over the man sitting in the row in front of him.
It intrigued me that people in the crowd stood up whenever a Yankees player got a base hit. I had figured, I guess, that they would just applaud, and that a standing ovation was withheld until somebody hit a home run. But again, the sound of the crowd was what I found so fascinating.
At one point, while I was paying attention to the game, the crowd noise suddenly swelled. I was confused, because nothing special had happened. Nobody had gotten a hit; in fact, the batter hadn’t even taken his place at home plate. He was just walking toward it, casually, but I could barely see. The man in the next row up had stood again, and nothing was happening. It just didn’t make sense!
Instinctively, I turned to the young man sitting next to me, who had been explaining the game. He nodded, and pointed at the man approaching the plate.
“That’s Mickey Mantle,” he said. “He’s very good.”
And THAT’S why I’m a Yankee fan.
As a footnote, I feel obligated to point out that in 1965, when there were 10 teams in each league, the Yankees came in 10th in the American League. So maybe I started out rooting for the underdog, after all.