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Black October

The playoffs are here, but cringing Yankee fans may be too scared to watch.

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Not even Tube Sock Day was enough to draw much of a crowd out in the hot, drizzling rain last week as the Yankees wound down their greatest regular season ever. But those fans who did brave the elements were searching for signs of hope. Frank, a contractor from central Jersey, sat in his own row near the foul pole, trying to keep dry under a garbage-bag poncho. "The way this team's been playing, it makes me queasy," he said. "Forget about the greatest of all time. For 30 games now, they've been a normal team. A less than normal team." Suddenly, the waterlogged crowd perked up as Bernie Williams drilled a fastball off the right-field wall. Frank lurched to his feet in time to see the Indians' outfielder smartly play the ricochet, fire into the second-baseman, and hold Williams to a long single. "Good God," Frank said, collapsing back into his seat. "In June, that would've been a home-run ball, gone, good-bye. Queasy, man, it's making me queasy."

All summer, the Yankees didn't just win ball game after ball game. They were the one sure thing in a city consumed by real and imagined threats. Will the president be impeached, will the Dow melt down to 1000, will Bin Laden bring his jihad to the subways? Who knows and who cares? The Yankees were making history.

Then, just like that, the Yankees started to lose -- two of three here, another couple there. Soon, people were scouring the daily coverage for answers. Joe Torre's loopy statements about his team's greatness were parsed and dissected -- did they demonstrate complacency? What about David Cone's arm -- was it shot? How come shrimpy Chuck Knoblauch was swinging for the fences every time up?

In the midst of all this was the McGwire-Sosa home-run spectacle, which may have saved baseball, but which didn't help the Yankees much. Even in the Bronx, the Bombers had trouble holding center stage. At a recent game against the Red Sox, a large group of Dominican fans started several chants of "Sosa, Sosa." A stocky, balding man in a Derek Jeter jersey turned to face them: "I don't know if you know this, but Sammy doesn't fucking play here. Root for someone on our team or shut up."

Most fans don't want to contemplate the possibility of the Yankees not winning -- or even reaching -- the World Series. They don't want to be nitpickers or naysayers. Most of all, they don't want to jinx their team. "Whaddya writing about, that the Yankees suck?" one fan yelled at a reporter, from several rows away. "Is that your story? Well, that's a typical media way to look at things. The Yankees don't suck. You suck." He refused to speculate on the Yankees' chances, however. "Like I'd tell you word one."

Meanwhile, the teams' postseason rivals were stronger than ever. "They should've gotten Randy Johnson, because it would've kept him away from someone else," said Bill, a Long Island hardware-store manager. "Johnson was dogging it all year in Seattle, but when he got to Houston, suddenly he's a happy guy who's killing everybody." Lowering his voice, Bill added: "He could kill the Yanks, too."

Last week's three-game sweep of the Indians made everyone feel a bit better, but would it supply the needed momentum? Two kids shooting hoops outside Yankee Stadium thought not. "I don't see no Michael Jordan on the Yankees, some money dude who's going to drop dead before he lets his team lose," said one.

"The real heartbreak," said a fan on the 161st Street subway platform, "would've been if we'd played out of our minds the whole season, won 125 games, then blown it right at crunch time. Least this way, it's like we've been prepared."


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