On Monday and Tuesday, I sat in Section 39 of the right field bleachers for the first two games of the Yankees-Rangers series. For the past 6 years or so, my attendance of Yankees games has almost exclusively been in the bleachers. My reasons for this has varied over time. When I was in high school, it was the sheer love of zaniness at the ridiculous and sophomoric chants of the Bleacher Creatures (most involving calling someone gay). Early in my years in college, it was sheer economics. After A-Rod signed with the Yankees, the bleachers were the only place I could afford on a college student’s summer budget. For the last few years, however, I have had other reasons: It’s the only place I can fully take in the opinion of the vicious, October-minded New York sports fan where I’m far too physically intimidated to want to punch that person.
This is the kind of fan who prefers Paul O’Neill and Bernie Williams to Alex Rodriguez and a good year version of Jason Giambi. The kind who opposes the new Yankee Stadium because they still believe the current Yankee stadium is the best place, and possibly cleanest place to watch the game (I mean, it is cleaner than Shea). Two summers ago, I was in the bleachers at the lowpoint of A-Rod’s status with Yankees fans, when he was in his worst slump as a Yankee and the bleachers were giving it to him in full force. After striking out a few times and failing to get a hit in a loss, the image that stuck in my mind was of a single fan walking to the 4 train after the game, not saying a word, but with one hand holding up a sign saying “Trade A-Rod.”
You’d think that after carrying the team last season the fans opinions of A-Rod would change, but they haven’t. There were the usual complaints in 2008, not hitting with runners in scoring position, piling on his stats in non-pressure situations, and how nothing matters until October. But there were some new ones this time around. Surprisingly, the major talk was not about the Madonna rumors (though there were some insults directed towards Cynthia), but his decision not to appear in the home run derby. Many bleacher creatures saw this as a disrespect to Yankee Stadium, and by extension, the Yankees, and all the history that goes with it. A symbolic but completely meaningless event, one that may have negative implications on games that actually mean something, is where the Bleacher Creatures direct their fury if they can’t find a reason to knock what looks to be another 40 home run season.
What’s so frustrating is the way the A-Rod ridiculousness mixes with some actually keen baseball insights. Discussion of Posada’s ability to block the plate, how nervous they get thinking about how it will look when Mariano Rivera begins to decline, and Torre’s tendency to burn bullpen arms were all suprisingly honest and insightful. Fans were divided about Brett Gardner’s first impression, as well as whether Melky Cabrera should still be in the everday lineup. It seems that once one of the two qualifications for New York sports fandom are met— championship with the team or homegrown product—fans are allowed to talk reasonably about a player. If you’re a highly touted trade acquisition or free agent signing, especially one who makes a significant amount of money, irrationality trumps all.
It was a bad two games to attend, however, with the Yankees failing to make clutch hits off the worst pitching staff in baseball. Overall, though, it’s still an excellent place to enjoy the game. As someone with an unhealthy love of particularly cruel humor, I appreciated jokes about Josh Hamilton snorting the foul line. The right field bleachers also shut down the Wave on two consecutive nights, with the second night’s Wave being the most egregious: coming in a tie ball game with a runner on in the 7th inning.
The main moment that always makes me nervous, however, is the seventh inning stretch. Yankee Stadium is the only place where “God Bless America” is still played, and it’s here that the dark side of the Yankees fanbase comes out. Brandishing American flags is one thing, as the mostly ethnic white or Hispanic bleacher creatures usually have a friend or family member in the military service. It’s another thing when fans who so much as utter a word during the song, or god forbid, don’t sing along, are branded terrorists, communists, or unpatriotic, in a way that would even make a first term Bush Republican blush.
This is not a place to make an argument for freedom of speech or expression. I don’t even want to delve deeper into the politics of the bleacher creatures, a group that prides itself on trading ethnic slurs with each other. I don’t usually like to think about the fascist complex inherent in sports fanhood. In this ceremony, however, it’s in full force like few other phenomenon in the particularly blue sections of America. It certainly didn’t help that one nearby fan who didn’t take his hat off was wearing a Mets hat. The first game around, I went to the bathroom for the seventh inning stretch, only to find it was locked during “God Bless America.” I’m sure the Steinbrenners, a family that once made illegal contributions to the Nixon campaign, is happy to know that its fans are honoring their country by crapping their pants.
I wouldn’t be true to myself if I rooted for a team other than the Yankees, despite the problems with the team, the fans, and the culture. Whenever I doubt myself, I always think of a moment a few years ago when I sat next to a man from Dallas at the U.S. Open. We started talking about A-Rod and Alfonso Soriano, and I suggested he should see a Yankees game. He hadn’t thought about it, and starting to consider it more, wanting to see what a “real team” looked like. By “real team,” he meant one with proven track record, one that actually focused on success over profit. What I will say, however, if that if the new Yankee Stadium cleans up the experience of going to a Yankees game in all aspects of the term clean, it can’t come soon enough.