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Damn Yankees

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Most Chicago baseball fans found ways to put last year behind them and revive their spirits for the new season. Some delighted in the destruction of the cursed "Bartman ball," while others found solace in devices that were more personal and private--if not as medieval. I took the nonrefundable airline ticket I'd bought so I could see the Cubs in the World Series in New York--a reservation originally made the afternoon of October 14, before the sixth game of the National League Championship Series (yes, no matter what anyone else might think, it was I who put the whammy on them)--and rescheduled it in order to join the White Sox when they visited the Yankees the first weekend of this season. It wasn't the World Series and it wasn't the Cubs, but it was a Chicago team and it was Yankee Stadium--my first visit to "the house that Ruth built." Somehow it made things whole again for me, and it didn't hurt that the Sox spanked the Yanks twice in a row.

From afar, as seen on television during playoffs and World Series, there is something alluring about the Yankees' tradition, something enhanced, of course, by September 11. In person, however, much of that appeal is lost; it's as if an old Hollywood star has been glimpsed without her makeup. Experienced up close, the cocksure self-absorption of the Yankees and their fans is rather annoying. Yankee Stadium is a decent ballpark. It curls intimately around the field, especially in the treacherous short porches down the left- and right-field lines. The upper deck is undeniably steep but, unlike the one at White Sox park, right on top of the action. Even where I was sitting--down the first-base line just beyond the infield in row V, two rows from the top of the stadium--a fan feels part of the game.

Yet I was surprised to discover that the stadium's signature picket-fence arches atop the grandstand had been done away with in the remodeling of the 70s, retained only in the wedding cake ornamentation in the outfield. The white-brick apartment buildings that stretch off into the distance in the Bronx seemed bland compared with the variety of Wrigleyville. The ramps and concourses were cramped even by Wrigley Field standards, with none of the functional openness of Sox park. And most aggravating of all, neither inside nor outside the park, neither in the stadium stores nor in the street souvenir stands, was there a single piece of White Sox paraphernalia--not a cap, not a bat, not a pencil bearing the Sox logo. As I had planned to proudly wear a 1917 Sox cap but hadn't had time to buy one in the rush out of town, it was irritating; but it also captured the essential egotism of the Yankees and their fans. For them there is only the Yankees; the opponent is merely something to play against, a backdrop.

So I clapped all the louder last Saturday when the Sox scored two runs in the first inning and added three more in the second against New York starter Jorge De Paula. This was after the Sox had humiliated the Yanks the day before, in a game I watched from a midtown brewery restaurant while waiting for my weekend host and old Reader colleague Gary Rivlin--what the late Chicago sportscaster Bob Elson typically called "a good friend and a fine gentleman"--to get off work. The Yankees scored first in that Friday game, on a double by Gary Sheffield and a broken-bat single by Hideki Matsui--both big-budget free agents, of course, brought in from Atlanta and Japan respectively. Chicago starter Jon Garland, with his distinctive pointed-toe delivery, worked out of a jam in the fourth with the help of catcher Miguel Olivo, who snuffed a potential rally by picking Matsui off second base with two on and no outs. Then Garland settled down. The Sox rallied to take the lead in the fifth on a three-run homer by Magglio Ordonez, who waved wildly at a high hanging outside curve on one pitch, only to step in the bucket and yank a low, inside fastball down the left-field line into the seats. Garland, Olivo, and Ordonez, it's worth noting, are all products of the Sox minor-league system. So is Joe Crede, who homered in the sixth, chasing Cuban import Jose Contreras from the mound, and after that the Yankees self-destructed. With runners on second and third, a falling Derek Jeter made a pinpoint throw to the plate on a grounder, but catcher John Flaherty flinched as Timo Perez closed in on him and the ball bounced away, allowing both runners to score. Moments later, New York center fielder Bernie Williams lost a bloop hit by Ordonez in the sun, and two more runs trotted in, putting the Sox up 9-1 on their way to a 9-3 final. The game and the Yankees' abysmal performance attracted little real attention in the bar. Two women sitting right in front of the TV didn't even watch. (As they worked their way through their glasses of wine, one kept telling the other to "shut up!" But that didn't slow her down.)

Truth be told, the fans at Yankee Stadium Saturday were hardly more engaged. They didn't bother to boo the Sox--not during Bob Sheppard's famous introductions, not even after the Sox took a 5-2 lead--though they did boo underperforming Yankees like starter De Paula. And they booed a guy in a Boston Red Sox cap as he climbed to his seat just a few rows below where Gary and I were sitting. "Take away his beer!" Gary urged. If I wasn't actively booing the Yankees--we don't raise no fools here in Chicago--I was at least rooting on the White Sox. Leadoff man Willie Harris reached in the first on yet another New York error, this one by second baseman Miguel Cairo (the one non-all-star in the New York lineup), and Ordonez likewise picked up where he left off the day before by swatting another homer to left. Chicago shortstop Jose Valentin committed a pair of errors in the bottom half of the first, one of them on what would have been an inning-ending double play, as two runs scored. Yet he atoned in the second with a two-run homer, after doubles by Crede and Harris had already put the Sox back in front. From there, starting pitcher Mark Buehrle cruised, working effortlessly through the New York order as if he were facing a farm team and not the new "murderers row" of Jeter, Williams, Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Sheffield, Jorge Posada, and Matsui. Buehrle kept his weight back and the ball hidden and he was lovely to watch, allowing only two more hits through the eighth inning and retiring the last ten men he faced. Reliever Billy Koch allowed a run in the ninth thanks in part to his own error, but the Sox had padded their lead with a pair of runs in the top of the frame, and the final was 7-3.

Almost as entertaining as the game, as far as a Sox fan was concerned, were the four N'Yawk guys who sat right behind us midway through the game. "Central casting or what?" Gary said with the disdain a New Yorker reserves for other New Yorkers. "They remind me of a word I learned in Chicago--jamokes."

They were distressed that this far up in the grandstand their beer-vendor options might be limited. "I'm not drinking any fucking light," said one, "so don't buy me one." Taking him at his word when, indeed, a light-beer vendor was the first to show up, a companion instead bought two beers for himself. The first eventually hoofed it somewhere to get a Beck's, returning to announce, "Jeez, my legs are fucking killing me."

"Yo!" yelled a member of the party to every strike by a New York pitcher.

"Hey, it's the third game-a the season," scolded another. "It ain't the fucking playoffs."

That perfectly expressed the essential egotism of the Yankees fan: The opponents barely exist, and the regular season is a formality to get through before the games that really matter. If anyone thinks these were merely the jamokes talking, consider the New York Times headline, "Baseball's Biggest Stage Suits Vazquez," when newly acquired Javier Vazquez, brought over in a budget-cutting deal by the Montreal Expos, beat the Sox in the Yanks' home opener last Thursday. After Buehrle's masterful performance, the Times led the next day's story with the headline, "Once Again, the Yankees' Mighty Lineup Has Struck Out." It wasn't the other team's success but the Yankees' failure that dictated the outcome.

The Yankees are spending a record $200 million on their payroll this season, but it says here that won't be enough. Having lost Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens to the Houston Astros over the winter, they don't have enough pitching--not up against the Boston Red Sox, who added Curt Schilling to Pedro Martinez--although the Yankees should reach the playoffs as a wild-card team. As for the White Sox, they scored three in the first Sunday as I was returning home, but fifth starter Dan Wright couldn't hold the lead. In a way, the 5-4 loss epitomizes the Sox' prospects this season. Even if Garland gains maturity and consistency, they don't have enough pitching behind Buehrle and Esteban Loaiza. I'll take the Kansas City Royals to win the American League Central, and the resurgent Anaheim Angels to win the West. In the NL, yes, I'll stand by the Cubs to finish ahead of the wild-card Astros, as long as Mark Prior's Achilles tendon remains merely a physical and not a metaphorical concern, with the Florida Marlins unseating the Atlanta Braves in the East and--get this--the Colorado Rockies winning the West. Give me the Cubs beating the Bosox in the Series. Knocking Yankee Stadium off my lifetime to-do list reminds me that I've never been to Boston and Fenway Park either. It seems about time--for many things.

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