Ah, the baseball playoffs at Yankee Stadium: The pomp, the ceremony, the freeloaders. Pre-game, atop the $14 per car parking lot along 161st Street, there’s tailgate picnic smoke rising and salsa booming, making Yankee Stadium feel like it’s actually a part of the Bronx neighborhood where it’s located. Inside, the feeling is a whole lot more corporate. The ballpark aisles are more clogged than usual, not because 56,000 people are filing in to their seats, but because 46,000 of the fans are filing in to their seats while yelling into their cell phones, “Hey, guess where I’m calling from!” Where all season there’s been polyester, tonight there’s pashmina. The most expensive seats, directly behind home plate, are occupied by partners from heavy hitters like Booz, Allen and Revlon, or the clients they most need toimpress.
Just to the left of the Yankees dugout is the mayor’s box, which two hours before game time is occupied by Andrew Giuliani and his bodyguards. The first son is wearing a navy Yankees jacket with ‘Andrew’ stitched on the right breast. The boy hasn’t exactly grown shy since his famous inaugural appearance waving and mugging by his father’s side. As soon as Yogi Berra ambles into the dugout, Andrew’s leaning over the railing, chirping, “Hi Mr. Berra! I don’t want to bother you, but can you sign this ball for me?”
One of the best things about playoff baseball, besides the actual games, is the surprising faces who show up wearing press passes. Tonight, Jim Bouton, who pitched for the Yankees in the mid-sixties and became famous for writing the hilarious, controversial book Ball Four, is reporting for WCBS radio. Bouton has always been an iconoclast, and he looks amazinglybohemian for an ex-jock, his steel-gray hair standing up in a brush cut, a sleek black turtleneck tucked into black jeans.
Bouton’s a terrific storyteller. Standing on the grass behind the batting-practice cage, watching the Texas Rangers hit, sparks a memory. “You don’t realize the violence that goes on in here, these swings, until you’re up close,” Bouton says. “I was pretty close on the mound, and I’m glad only one line drive got me. It was Johnny Brant. He hit a high, outside fastball, right off my chin. See the scar? I was out for about two seconds, I guess, and I wake up and there’s this circle of people staring down at me. Right away I say, ‘I’m all right! I can pitch!’ Johnny Blanchard says, ‘Not with two mouths you’re not, Pete.’ I had a cut that took twelve stitches to close. There’s blood all down my shirt. But Yankees manager Ralph Houk says, ‘Ah, he’s okay. I’ve had worse cuts on my dick.’”
Bouton’s handicapping of the playoffs? “All these guys were the best players in their hometowns, their states; they were the biggest thingaround for miles. Just because you’ve never heard of some guy, he could turn around and beat you. You don’t know what’s going to happen; justbecause some pitcher won twenty during the regular season doesn’t mean he’s going to be good in the playoffs. Look up there, at the scoreboard: The Astros just snuck into the playoffs, and they beat Maddux. Who knows? TheYankees could lose, the Mets could win.”
On his way to the dugout tunnel, Bouton, formerly a Yankees outcast because of Ball Four, gets a welcoming grunt from Berra, who is throwing out tonight’s first ball. “Who does he think he is, throwing out the first ball for a big game?” Bouton jokes. “That’s okay. They’re saving me for the World Series.”
Yet another sign that the baseball season lasts way too long: There’s a hot-soup concession.
But there’s nothing, at any time of year, like the sight of flashbulbs popping all over Yankee Stadium, making it look like a small horseshoe-shaped galaxy, as the first pitch is thrown. Ten thousand blurry photos, and the start of one great American sports contest.
–8:10 p.m., October 4, 1999
A couple of hours later, there’s a reminder of Bouton’s comment about the hidden violence in this supposedly pastoral game, and this time it isn’t funny. Don Zimmer is hit in the head by a foul ball, and spends several scary minutes on the ground. He soon returns to the dugout with cuts, aswollen left ear, and an ice pack. After the Yankees’$2 8-0 win, Zimmer can laugh about it too, delivering a line out of Bogart: “110,000 ears in the joint,” he says, “and it’s gotta hit mine.”
Meanwhile, the Mets are playing in Arizona. And while the Yankees claim to be focused on their own games, word passes quickly, whispered, of every change in score: “The Mets are up 4-1 now? Did you hear that?” Allen Watson asks after he hears the news from a clubhouse boy. Watson pitched for the Mets this year, before being traded and then released, and surfacing as aneffective reliever for the Yankees. He may be back in Queens before he knows it.
–12:30 a.m., October 5, 1999