Wednesday, October 20, 2004

My Trip To Game 6 Of The ALCS

This was my first trip to Yankee Stadium, so I was expecting to arrive at a place steeped in history and a feast for a baseball fan. I was expecting a quintessential baseball experience. Instead, I learned that, to a large extent, Yankee Stadium is an artifact of the 1970's period during which it was refurbished. With a surprisingly cheap exterior facade, it was unrecognizable as a stadium up close on the outside.

Once inside, I was taken aback by the narrowness of the concourses and walkways. With concrete on all sides, it was a very cramped feeling - it reminded me of the narrow hallways of the bowels underneath a grade school rather than one of the modern ballparks with a wide concourse, pleasing sight lines, and cushy amenities.

The cramped feeling was exacerbated by the Yankee fans themselves, who clog together in the concourses in their ubiquitous puffy Yankees jackets and equally ubiquitous wide gaits. Yankee fans don't walk to their seats, they swagger to them.

While I was wearing neutral colors - a 2003 All Star Game White Sox hat - my friend Chad wore a Boston hat proudly. At various choke points in the concourse, Yankee fans would ambush Boston fans like Chad, pointing to them and chanting "Assss hoooole, Assss hoooooole." Throughout the night, this would be a theme - Yankee fan aggressiveness without any real creativity in either their insults or their obscenity.

(Delightfully, however, the woman at the bottom of the escalator to the upper deck greeted us kindly by saying "The Yankees welcome you." Class. The Yankee employees were nothing but kind and courteous - a real credit to the organization.)

As we emerged from the upper deck concourse, me with a fair-to-midland Italian Sausage ($6.75) and a Coke ($4.75) in hand, the blue blazing interior of Yankee Stadium came into view. It seemed, yet again, like a 1970's stadium rendition, complete with a staggeringly steep upper deck. Think the North Face of Everest. Comparable to (and perhaps even steeper than) the upper deck at US Cellular Field. Climbing up to our seats, we were greeted with a view of almost the entire field - except for the left field line and corner. This, of course, would come into play later.

One interesting feature of the pre-game was a montage of the Yankees' feats of the 2004 season. Quite frankly, it was intimidating. The Yankees apparently scored a lot of runs this year, mostly doing so in the 9th inning in games in which they were trailing. That pattern seemed to repeat over and over on the screen, often accompanied by the Yankees' radio announcer, whose tag line is "The Yankees win! Theuhuhuhuhuh Yankees Win!," notable for it odd focus on the article in the phrase rather than the noun or verb. Other than that, there were a lot of banal pre-game things on the video screen - just like every other park in the majors. I was kind of expecting - after 26 championships - the Yankees would be different somehow. Mickey
Mantle, Joe Dimaggio and the Babe don't quite fit with the Alan Parsons Project.

The game itself, however, met and exceeded my wildest expectations. There was an enormous amount of energy from the first pitch of the game; at times just potential, but often kinetic. I noted in my scorebook that "people are standing with 2 strikes in the first inning!" Even the littlest moment was important to Yankees fans, and they seemed to demand satisfaction whenever satisfaction was near. This turned out to be extremely frustrating to them; the Red Sox seemed to string together an inordinate amount of 2-strike hits, and by the 5th inning, they no longer stood with every 2-strike count.

There was, of course, an enormous focus on Curt Schilling. I watched him warm up before the game to get a read on how he was throwing. Of course, from the 10,000 foot level, I couldn't discern a thing. Luckily, the Yankee Stadium radar gun reading provided the first clue in the first inning - his first pitch fastball to Derek Jeter registered 93 miles per hour. I turned to Chad and nodded with approval -Schilling seemed to have his fastball early. A good sign.

In the top of the second, the Red Sox threatened. Chad lamented that Bellhorn, hitting with the bases loaded and one out, was playing badly and likely to strike out. I preminisced that he'd be more likely to hit into a double play in this situation. He obliged, which electrified the Yankee crowd.
In the bottom of the second, Schilling's fastball was gone. He was topping out at 90 mph, and most of his fastballs were at 87. This gave me a feeling of impending doom - that Schilling's first inning was pure adrenaline and that reality was closing in on the Red Sox. Then Posada lifted a high fly to right that I was sure was a home run. The ball jumped off the bat, the arc was right, but it fell just short. Chad told me that he had resigned himself to the fact that it was a home run. So Schilling escaped the second. Oddly, his fastball returned into the low-to-mid nineties in the 3rd and he never slipped back.

Schilling was a warrior. It really was an inspired performance. He often grimaced and limped around the mound after pitches. After taking a throw from Millar on a grounder, he appeared to be in a great deal of pain. Varitek bought him some time with a mound visit, and home plate umpire Joe West was kind enough to let them dawdle. Some of the Yankees fans were advocating bunts after that - not so much to get on base, but to injure Schilling. These are the same type of people who would root for the Cobra Kai in Karate Kid.

The Red Sox's four-run fourth knocked the Yankee faithful back a bit. They scored the runs with two outs, and most of the hits were with two strikes. This was extremely frustrating to them - as noted above, they expect to succeed in every situation. Unfortunately, I could not
see Bellhorn's home run; from my angle I could see his drive travel toward the left field foul pole, but did not see where it landed. After a puzzling minute - I didn't understand why Cabrera would be awarded home if it were a ground rule double - Bellhorn circled the bases for his home run.

After that, there was little notable in the next few innings. Lieber retired 10 or 11 in a row after Bellhorn's home runs. I wrote down that "Lieber getting through the sixth is huge" and then "Lieber getting through the seventh is huge." Schilling was equally impressive. Although he didn't strike out many, he did induce a lot of pop-ups.

Williams' home run in the 7th interrupted this stretch of good pitching and inspired the Yankee faithful - but not as much as you would think. Home runs to right field in Yankee Stadium from my vantage point in the upper deck are truly majestic. Williams' homer seemed to bound into the arms of a welcoming crowd. Since the stadium is so tall, and is higher than any fly ball, it seems like the right field stands just draw in home runs. A really nice sight to see, even if it put the Yankees on the board.

Then came the eighth. The one think I'll remember most from the 8th is how the Yankees fans cheered for Derek Jeter. It was messianic cheering; Jeter was going to save them from the Red Sox. I've never seen anything like it, and I can only imagine that it's due to year after year in which Jeter has come through in the clutch. The Yankees fans truly invested all their hopes in Jeter. And, of course, he singled Arroyo's first pitch into left to make it a 4-2 game.

The next at bat was A-Rod's rather eventful one. From my perspective, I could see A-Rod swipe at Arroyo's glove clearly. I also didn't know this was against the rules, so I was disheartened when I saw the ball fly away. After Jeter raced around to score and A-Rod went to second,
the Stadium was all kinetic energy. The upper deck shook - which is a very unnerving feeling. At that point, it seemed like the Yankees had the game won. An obnoxious Yankee fan approached Chad and made a grotesque sexual movement behind his head. Chad said he was already
picking out a landing area in front of us if they guy tried to come up and do that again.

But, the umpires congregated and called A-Rod out. No doubt the correct call, but I told Chad that if they reversed the call, it would get ugly. And it did, real fast. All manner of things cascaded from the upper deck onto the field. For those in the back of the upper deck, this largely meant that they were throwing things onto the heads of the people at the front of the upper deck. Lots of friendly fire. Bob Sheppard, the Yankees' PA announcer, then asked the Yankee fans to "continue to honor the tradition of good sportsmanship." The first time he made the announcement, he couldn't be heard through the chants of "Bull-shit! Bull-shit." The second time, he was booed. They booed Bob Sheppard! Sheffield popped out to Varitek and the Yankee
fans were fit to be tied. People behind us were hurling unimaginative epithets at the umpires and suggesting that the game was fixed. And those were just the toddlers.

The police came on the field, the top of the 9th passed, and then the police left the field as Keith Foulke entered it. Let me be the first to say this - Keith Foulke should scare the bejeezus out of the fans of whatever team he pitches for. He tends to blow leads in big games, including game 1 of the 2000 ALDS, the game on June 26, 2001 against the Twins, and he blew two leads for Oakland against the Red Sox in the ALDS last year. Keith Foulke is Keith Choulke when it comes to big games. Before the season, I e-mailed all my Boston friends warning them that Foulke would rip their hearts out. True to form, Foulke walked Matsui to start the 9th. He struck out Williams, got Posada on a pop out and then faced Ruben Sierra. Sierra took pitches that appeared to be right down the middle for balls. Foulke was visibly frustrated with the calls, and eventually walked Sierra on a 3-2 pitch, setting up a situation in which Tony Clark could win the game and the ALCS with a home run. Which, of course, is exactly what every Red Sox fan and Yankee fan was expecting him to do. Miraculously, he whiffed and Chad started making plans for Game 7.

It was weird - the Red Sox scored first, held the lead, got all the close calls, and Keith Foulke closed the door - almost like the cosmic roles were reversed for the night.

Another note about the Yankee fans. As a group, their cheering strikes me as violent. They don't want to win games as much as destroy their opponents. They seek out fans of the Red Sox to ridicule them. And, once the Red Sox took the lead, they took to swiping Red Sox caps and throwing them off the upper deck. For the most part, I thought they were boorish. One fan here or there would be kind and engaging, but they were mostly mean. I was disappointed; with 26 championships and 4 in the last 8 years, you would think they would be happier about their team. Instead, they appear to be motivated by anger - upset that the Red Sox would dare disrespect them by trying to win a game in Yankee Stadium - rather than out of love for their own teams. Maybe I came into the game disliking Yankee fans, but they certainly didn't give me any new reasons to like them.

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