Well, the Yankees are in the playoffs again. Welcome to every year. I was lucky enough to roll through the 90s from my bleacher bench in the much-missed Section 39, where I saw most of the playoff glories from that point unfold in front of me. As I watch these current affairs from my couch with my family and not my bleacher family, it’s easy to justify not being out at the Stadium with the old, “Let someone else have a chance to see this.” The Yankees and the playoffs have become attached at the hip and I was lucky enough to ride along for most of it, but when I started my first forays into Yankee Stadium, you would never have been able to convince me it would be so. Well, unless it was happy hour and you were buying.
In my wee days I was a drib and drabber – a Yankee game here, a Yankee game there. I have vague memories of attending an Easter Sunday doubleheader with my mom, as inexplicable as that seems to sound. I remember being outside the Stadium one time in 1983 and hearing Bert Campaneris’ name as he came up to lead off for the Yankees and proudly telling anyone who would listen that he threw a bat at Lerrin Legrow during a World Series game “back in the old days.” I was at Deion Sanders’ first game in Yankee Stadium and whooped accordingly. I was at the game where hurler Rick Rhoden was the Yankees DH! I was at the game after the infamous Yankees-White Sox trade that bought the Yankees the joys of Joel Skinner, Ron Kittle and Wayne Tolleson. I was in the stands the night George Steinbrenner’s banishment from baseball was announced and the crowd burst out in spontaneous and hearty applause. That story sure had a different ending than the one in the seats that night would have written.
Well, one constant with me in attendance for those early affairs on my ledger seemed to be the Yankees losing. The first year I got my driver’s license and could get myself to and from the Stadium in my fancy-dan, lime-green Camaro was 1986 – the year I left high school with much aplomb and a “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out!” – I decided making games was my mission. While I was not keeping regular score then (and my old scorecards from this era disappeared from the basement like a heap of my old pro wrestling magazines and all my porno magazines), but I would often wax poetic at the Yankees’ ineptitude with me on hand. I went to 18 games in 1986 and saw three wins. Take that in. Three wins in 18 games for a sterling 3-15 mark. The Yankees were 41-39 at home that year, which meant when I stayed my silly self home they happened to go 38-14. This is astounding and grounds to banish me from the grounds. But when you take time to consider what was to come for this boisterous fan, especially being in house for the epic runs to come, I get a pass.
After this run of mine in 1986 I slowed it down somewhat, as everything from car troubles to girls to the Yankees always losing when I went to games to college to girls to beer to girl troubles got in the way, and I was a “here and there guy” for a few years. I remember going to a heap of the Mayor’s Trophy affairs with friends against the crosstown Mutts, usually in late March, bundled in coats and gloves in the stands while whooping it up in the frosty exhibition air. On one of these occasions my brother Dave meandered down by the dugout and asked then-mayor David Dinkins to toss him a ball, as the Mayor was set to toss out the first pitch. Mayor Dinkins told him with a wink, “I’ll be right back” and went out and did his thing to a cascade of boos. My brother called for the ball again as the Mayor headed back, be the mayor simply waved, causing my brother to holler, “Hey Mayor! You suck!”
My vaunted run in the bleachers started in 1993. I’ve gone into more detail elsewhere and I will get back to it again at another time, but mainly I was new to the city and looking for a place to hang out by myself where I would not stick out like an open fly. This leads me to address something here: the Orioles fans are taking a lot of crap for creeping out of the woodwork like roly polies under an overturned piece of rotting tree bark in the yard, but hey, we did this too. Well, not me. I was there in 1993, so leave me out of this. But man, did we have the place to ourselves just a couple of years before another world title for the mighty Yankees was plastered in the book. One interesting thing that came out of my Scorecard Memories, as I painstakingly worked through the minutia, was the putrid attendances I was dealing with. I was, to my astonishment, seeing numbers like 18,320, 20,259 and if the Yankees had a cool giveaway like a WABC transistor radio, 29,023. I surely remembered the bleachers having space not only for our beers and bags, but to lay down if we had too many or we simply wanted to strike a pose. I have a famous picture tucked away somewhere of a bunch of us posing on the last day of the season in 1993, on the bleacher benches, with about 25 empty rows behind us. Someone who saw the shot once asked, “What, did you guys sneak in after the game to take this picture in the empty Stadium?” and I responded, “Eh, no … that was actually during the game.”
So yeah, we had the run of the place. And this continued well up into ‘95 when the Yankees made a jaunty dance into the playoffs, and then it was on! There went the empty seat for my bag next to me, and the Yankee fans showed up kind of like the Oriole fans are this week. It happens.
Here’s how far things came along, for the team back then and the fans following. There is a legendary figure from early bleacher days, the infamous Captain Bob. With his burly nature, booming voice and epic beard he was one of the early foundations. His resemblance to Thurman Munson immediately made him a lovable figure. If you look like Thurman Munson you can steal an old lady’s handbag and that crew of Creatures back then would cover for you. Well, Captain was the focal point of another legendary photo I have tucked away somewhere – what passed for Yankee glee and grandeur in the barren years. There was Captain outside the bleacher gate, holding up the back page of a local newspaper, showing Jim Abbott in action with the bold heading “HEY ABBOTT, WE’RE IN FIRST!” So yeah, the newspaper was trumpeting the fact that Yankees had a share of first place. I believe now (without researching because who has the time?) that the Yankees had simply moved into a tie with Toronto on this occasion. I also believe they were out of first by the time the next edition hit the stands. It was probably July or so, but it may have even been May. Jim Abbott was on the team, so you know not much came out of it. But that is not the crux of the matter.
The crux of the matter is that Captain Bob took this newspaper, held it aloft and shouted with glee. A grand “Whoo-hooo!!!” or something to that effect. This was clicked for posterity on whatever camera I had at the time and had not lost yet. I have since seen pictures of the Bleacher Creature crew after the Yankees won the World Series time and again a couple of years later. Hell, I’ve seen pictures of people after we won World War II and they are not as overjoyed as this jolly Yankee fan over the Yankees simply being tied for first place early in the season. So yeah, times have changed. And with them, so did the crowds and the expectations toward the team.
I’m not sure which bar I was in when the Yankees clinched that first wild card on the last day of the season in 1995 since they all blend together at times like that. That initial euphoria was so new and fresh, and we thought so elusive. Who knew in 1995 that the Yankees were just starting a run for the ages? And this one started with a wild-card berth, something that some fans still look upon with derision. Hey, in the interest of full disclosure I was one of those purists that pooped on the whole parade of the idea, even though I was among the first to feed on that fruit as a fan of a team who used it to their advantage. I railed long and hard against the thing and still hold a grudge, but it is what it is.
In coming years I was out there in the bleacher seats when the Yankees clinched playoff berths and the joy and euphoria is something that every baseball fan (well, except for Red Sox and Mets fans) should experience firsthand at least once in their lives. The fact that we Yankee fans have enjoyed such euphoria dozens of times is a blessing and a boon. I remember one year after the Yankees took care of their business and slotted themselves in for hot playoff action I marched out the bleacher gate right after the clincher, parked myself by the entrance down to the subway by the old cigar shop that used to be there and started slapping the high-fives. I saw this news item earlier this year about some doof who was out to break the record for “most high-fives” given in a certain timespan. He was in some park or with much hoopla and was wearing gloves because I guess he was either too good to touch others or afraid a fervent high-five would hurt his precious pinkie. Well, screw that guy, as I’m sure on this night I gave that chucklehead a run for his money. I was out there going on an hour, slapping five with every person going down to the trains, coming back up from the trains or loitering on the streets. I was not the only one. Hundreds, if not thousands, were packing River Avenue and hugging, kissing and falling down. Milton the Cowbell King was out there with his tin, clanking the happy hits and everyone was adding a voice to the mix. People were shimmying up posts and stagediving to the crowd below. Typing about this now almost brings wistful tears to my eyes. I’m not saying we have become jaded, but wow, winning all the damn time really made it almost “business as usual” as the years rolled by. I hate to say this, but in further years I think some reverted to happy handshakes and congratulatory pats for this honor of seeing the team we loved move onward through the playoff field. Though I attribute some of that to age and our backs being bad!
So yeah, I miss a lot of that initial glee. I loved winning it all in 1996 when the Yankees payroll was not more than that of the rest of the league combined. In time I hope to write a lot more about playoff experiences, up to and including World Series parade experiences. Life as a Yankee fan has been a fun one.
This new playoff format bites the bone. A couple of weeks ago co-workers would line up at my desk as they always do, as they like to see me get riled up. In one form or another I would be queried, “So what do you think of the Yankees’ chances in the playoffs?” I would then usher them out of there with a “Get back to me when I know who they are playing, and why.” There was so much mystery involved in most of these matchups I was waiting for the networks to call in Miss Marple to figure it out. Look, everyone likes baseball drama. What we don’t like is invented baseball drama. As much as I was against the initial wild card, I’m even more so against the added wild card and the wonders of a one-game playoff. Will I adjust? Sure, what’s my choice? Stop watching baseball? If the Yankees end up sneaking in one year due to all this tomfoolery I will take it as a fan and use it against others because you are simply working within the parameters in place. That said, the parameters are dumb and once I’m done with this blog I will work on a letter to the commissioner. While he will never see it, someone will have to read it and maybe if it ruins their day cause they have something better to do at the time, so be it.
So yeah, from the wonkiness of the wild card to the pulling out game times only a couple of days before the game like a magician pulling a rabbit out of the hat hoping for applause, its all a big mess. But I will persevere and drink my beer because not only does that sound like a cool motto, it’s how I choose to live. Thankfully I will be doing so once again as I watch the Yankees in the playoffs.
Enjoy the ride, folks. We are Yankee fans and we have it better than everyone.