The First Game Back at Yankee Stadium After 9/11

Of all the countless things I wrote, and all the nonsense I have spewed, I am most proud of the following piece. I wrote this in September 2001, in a much different place than I am now, and certainly in a different mindset. What a sad, bleak time it appeared. The Bleacher family was relied on heavily to get through the pain of that month, and it’s when the family really came together. I pull this out every 9/11. I hope you read and remember what ended up being a very special night at a very sad time.

September 25, 2001.

Well, I suppose it’s time to return to some degree of normalcy. These last few weeks I have sat perched at my computer between rampant attempts at sketchy levity and consistent checks of porno, trying to find something funny to write, and I couldn’t. Some would argue I never could.

Our world changed on the 11th, even the little part of it that we call being a “Bleacher Creature.” Although my zest for caustic commentary has died a bit, my love for so many of you have grown. And when I remember back to that stupid, horrible day decades from now I will remember so many of you and how this little family of ours pulled together. From the postings on the message board, looking frantically for our own, to crying silently together in a sea of beer cans, to going out for drinks with those we used to only drink to avoid, many things have changed amongst ourselves.

People who have not spoken anything but angry words to one another all season took the time to say, “I love you.” Subsequently the things I will take away from this are not simply the horror of seeing people limp down Broadway, screaming and bawling and covered in dust, but rather standing in Union Square in front of a sea of candles with 41 and Gang Bang Steve, paying silent tribute while holding back tears. Or how, thanks to the benevolence of Lucy and her family, being able to hug the likes of Kwik, Debbie, Phil, “Fat Rak” Scott, Nicole and Jess, Bald Ray, Brooklyn Joe and Midget Mike at the Memorial held inside of Yankee Stadium a couple of sad Sundays back.

That said, I will try and be funny I guess, and take it back to our return two weeks later against Tampa Bay, who I may add is a team that really, really sucks.

Usually, the top of each night’s scorecard is reserved for campy lines such as “Knoblauch was eating a salad in the park” or “Tom is so drunk he asked Tina to sleep with him,” but on that night, after much fiddling, we went with a simple “We pray for the lost, and love those who are still here.”

Before making it inside we saw that our park, the place where we drank and peed, copped feels and passed smokes on the rocks, was now a veritable police precinct with a police van taking up the very space where I used to make sandcastles with neighborhood kids and duck rocks we would throw straight up in the air and try to avoid in a stupid game of chance.

We hankered over to the bodega, where the only drinking going on so far was by Gang Bang Steve, who was waving around a bottle without a bag, loudly pontificating on the month’s events. Bald Vinny and Uptown Mike were crouched on the sidewalk, gleefully mixing birthday drinks for the Bald Baron. One year ago on that very same day I was running around the section in a gorilla costume at Donahuge’s behest, making stupid muscle poses and nabbing hugs from any woman I could find. Bald Vinny ended up hopping on the benches that night, doing a rousing “Rick Rude” routine, peeling off his shirt to a rousing choir of hoots and howls from a playful crowd. How times had changed, even in our silly little section.

Getting in was “evolution slow.” Security was checking to make sure cell phones were really phones, sniffing bottled water, and waving a little magician wand that didn’t seem to really do anything because it didn’t beep at the silly Sheriff’s badge now hidden in my pocket, which I knew set off the same thing the time I went to court to answer that horrid peeing in public charge.

The night obviously began with ceremonies, the same things we had seen as Yankee fans so many times. It was touching, but the crowd was already itching to make the sadness go away, even for a little while. Big Tone Capone was loud and boisterous, as somehow earlier he had managed to kill at least a six-pack under the smothering phalanx of cops around outside. During the opening songs he was busy telling this guy to take off his cap or that girl to stop chewing gum. Finally a few of the testy ones in the crowd told him to shut it, and here we were again, fighting amongst ourselves. It was actually nice to see.

We found out there will be an addition to Monument Park, a memorial to “those who perished in the WTC tragedy.” I had always held a secret hope the next monument would hold my Sheriff’s badge, Ali’s plaque, Milton’s cowbell, Walkman John’s scorebook or a few beers. (Funny how some bleacher fantasies never work out.)

I knew things had come full circle and really changed around the time Old Man Jimmy went down by the rail to take a picture of our flag-adorned and glory-bedecked crew. Our nemesis, Old Man 176 (a cranky guy with No. 176 on his hat, which made him look even less imposing than he actually was) who was the Riddler to our Batman and the Gargamel to our Smurf came over almost angrily. We started to rise in protest, ready to howl, as he angrily stalked towards this genial old man and his camera on the rail. But alas! He arrived, demanded Old Man Jimmy give him the camera, so he could take the picture so Jimmy could rejoin the crew, his bleacher family and be in the picture, as he should.

The finale to the pregame was our old friend, the Eagle, who swoops down on Opening Day to land on the mound in a fervent blaze of glory. Unfortunately, a sad announcement was made that although the Eagle was in attendance he was not signing autographs until after the game. No, that was not the announcement. Actually, they were “grounding him” on the mound, as a tribute to those who fell at WTC. He would do no flying. Too bad none of us heard the announcement because Capone was talking so loud, so at the end of the Anthem everyone was craning their necks towards the Stadium roof waiting for it to fly in, while the Eagle was already doing a little hop around on the mound the whole time.  But the ceremonies were now at an end and as Gang Bang Steve wrote on the scorecard, “No explanation for pre-game events. If you weren’t here, you missed history.” But here I am trying to recount it anyway.

There were further delays as all the uniformed firemen and cops left the field, which caused a few of us who wanted that sense of normalcy to tell Cowbell King Milton to start clanking his tool of tin. Milton hemmed and hawed, but finally acquiesced, and started banging his cowbell and at that very moment the Yankees took the field, and that seemed fitting enough to us. Usually when Milton bangs the bell out of nowhere, a booming “Tom Tom” drum goes off, stealing his thunder, but this time the Yankees took the field to a raucous “Ho!”

When it came time to do the vaunted Roll Call, we hastily added the FDNY, NYPD and Mayor Rudy to it, and it seemed to go over well, including the mayor giving a quick wave from the radio booth. Our own Rudy, the security maven that was a dead ringer for the mayor now up in the booth was greeted with “Great job with the city!” and “Four more years!” every time he walked up to the section to tell people to stop using expletives.

But what proved the Creatures were indeed back were the loud harangues of “Box seats suck! Box seats suck!” immediately following Roll Call. Man, did that feel good. The box seaters, still very emotional from the pregame, were appalled. Hollers of “Mind your business!” and some more racy stuff were hollered up at the nosy upper-deckers and mezzaniners, who stuck their noses in to see what all the hubbub was about in Section 39 and its nearby reaches.

Around this time the joke line of the night made its appearance. Milton, from his comfy perch on the rail, asked aloud, “Does anyone know for sure if Stacker 2 works?” Remembering someone who took the stuff I said, “Ask (insert fat bleacher guy here) … he took it.” Milton took one look at our still portly friend and said, “Forget it. It doesn’t work.”

More lunacy abounded as Jonathan pulled out a portable TV out of nowhere and started setting up shop. First off, this was a night people couldn’t get a tuna fish sandwich, a purse or even an ugly woman in due to heightened security, but he gets in a freakin’ television! Go figure. Anyway, why does he have this TV? To see the tribute we just recanted? To see what else is going on around the league or down at Ground Zero? No, he brought a TV to see the season premiere of JAG. I mean, Lord.

Gang Bang Steve could not let this go, and immediately began giving it to him, which prompted Jonathan’s mom to call him “jealous.” “Yeah,” Gang Bang snapped, “I’m jealous of a guy who brings a TV to a baseball game to watch JAG.”

Roger Clemens started getting whomped early on, prompting Steve to call the proceedings on the field “odorous.” But the emotion stayed high. There were other moments of levity, including an “Osama Is a Horse’s Ass” song, a few “Taliban sucks!” chants and a message on the Fan Marquee that actually said, “Thanks for the Liver Transplant! You Saved a Life!!!” (And yes, it had three exclamation points.) On top of this, and I have no idea what the actual conversation was about at the time, but the buzzing birthday boy Bald Vinny actually used the words “Gazelle” and “Perk” in a 10-second span.

Of course, in the time of mourning “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” was replaced around the league by all sorts of versions of “God Bless America.” On this night here at Yankee Stadium it was a duet, with a deep voiced operatic guy joining an angelic-toned woman. Of course, this could not escape a joke. After the woman sweetly crooned the first bars, the deep male voice kicked in, prompting Midget Mike to feign ignorance by asking aloud, “How did she get her voice to do that?” Water Girl Debbie, who God bless her, spent so many nights volunteering at a crisis center, properly confirmed the event as a simple “change of octaves.”

It wouldn’t be the bleachers without a couple of fights amongst the group, but being I was in a glad-handing mood and extra friendly due to pregame ales, I didn’t partake in any for once. Turns out the night’s undercard featured “Superfan” Handel and Bad Mouth Larry, followed up by a doozie of a main event between Cowbell Milton and Crazy Pat.

But what it was all about for me (besides the fact it was very cold and I needed all the hugs I was able to score from the girls) was near the end, when a man in a Fire Department uniform leaned over the rail of the mezzanine with his young son in his arms. As he gazed out, a man who I knew must have lost a score of people he knew, his little son was removing his hat and putting it back on all askew. Over and over. Knowing this was a scene that should have been repeated by so many men who were lost made me mist up a bit, all over again. And then the chant began. “FDNY! FDNY! FDNY!” Everyone left in the seats at this late stage of the game hopped up, pointed to this man and chanted, touched their hearts, waved their flags, cried. And he smiled, and waved back, and this kid that was oblivious to it all continued to play with the hat.

And that is what I will take away from this night.

Thank you for reading, and God bless you all.