Bronx Monsters

The Yankee hater in me, sometimes dormant but never dead, stirred last summer inside the Modell’s out by Caesar’s Bay in Bensonhurst. I’d promised my 10-year-old son a new hat, and there on the wall was a veritable riot of sports merchandising. Logos as odd and alien as crop circles embellished snapbacks representing Devil Rays, Sharks, and Hokies. Through the glut, my son’s eyes settled on a far more familiar emblem. There, a beacon amongst the ESPN trash jungle, stood the most famous trademark in all sports, maybe in all the world.

The n and the y, like lovers so entwined, haughty, perfect. It was a fearsome icon, one that had been branded in my soul, stamped like a hot iron on my forehead, seared like a forever damning pair of letters on my back. My son, blood of my blood, DNA of my DNA, was about to purchase a Yankee hat.

This was a problem. For sometimes fashion is not just fashion and symbols are too evocative to be worn casually, by punk-rockers or little boys. Still, I’d promised. I’d get him a hat, any hat he wanted. As I drove home, the sight of this Yankee thing on my son’s lovely, unsullied head struck me as a possibly ominous first salvo in a long-running Oedipal struggle. My son, the Yankee fan. It struck dread into the heart.

“I don’t see what the big deal is,” my son said, feeling the tension as we rolled up the Gowanus. “It’s just a hat.”

Just a hat. How to explain? How to make it clear that in our family tradition, it was not considered proper to cry when Gary Cooper gives that claptrap “luckiest man” speech in The Pride of the Yankees? That one need not feel awe while walking past Mickey Mantle’s restaurant on Central Park South because even with all that violin music about his knees and being the son of a coal miner, Mantle, soul of stolen youth or not, was still a Yankee? Like Serbia, like Hatfields and McCoys, there are ancient hatreds that transcend conventional irrationality. Wherever I am, whatever I’m doing, news of a Yankee loss makes my day.

To make sense of this most visceral of sport abhorrences, one had to resort to the old stories, the primeval bleat of the nostalgiameister. This is no surprise, since we are deep into the good ole days in this great Subway Series city of ours. Windy conjuring of the well-chewed annals of Berra, Larsen, Amoros, and Lavagetto has been brutal of late, a heavy thumb of selectively gilded memory that won’t let up until either the Mets or Yanks say uncle. But what choice is there?

We do, after all, live in Brooklyn. Not counting Romania, Brooklyn is our ancestral home. A tug on the wheel of the ole Camry, a dodge of a few trolley tracks seeping up from beneath the tattered asphalt, and we’d be on Empire Boulevard and Bedford Avenue. Even now, the place remains a power vector, drawing you closer, even though all that remains are projects and the Ebbets Field Donut Shop, corn muffins $1.25. Holy Happy Felton, even now it is like yesterday: how on May 12, 1956, date of my 8th birthday and year of the last Subway Series, I strolled with my grandfather down Franklin Avenue, to the legendary ballpark where Carl Erskine pitched a no-hitter against the Giants. “Some game, no hits,” my father would later say.

It was an experience no 8-year-old forgets, especially as seen with Grandpa, the first generation of Jacobson Yankee haters, who spent his youth hauling overcoats through the Lower East Side and told me, in no uncertain terms, the Yankees were the team of the bankers, every last one of them against meaningful social change and the working man, from Jacob Ruppert on through DiMaggio, that flattop-headed Marine Hank Bauer, and the batboys too.

Since Walter O’Malley might really be the third-worst person of the twentieth century behind Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, it seems unfair to hate the Yanks all the more because the Dodgers left town in 1957. But that’s when it clicked in for me. There they were: the all-powerful inevitable, like the phone company, the only game in town. The Yankees: Take it or leave it.

I just couldn’t do it, couldn’t root for a team that won the pennant fourteen out of my first seventeen years of life. Rooting for the Yankees was like declaring yourself to be a front-running prick, a defender of the status quo. Beyond this there was the fact that they played in the American League, always so Gentile in comparison with the funky National. There was the phrase Yankee co-owners (meaning Dan Topping and Del Webb, forerunners of indicted Nixon/Watergate contributor Steinbrenner). There was the rumored passing-over of first-baseman Vic Power because he caught the ball with one hand, which was so (jive) un-Yankee, not to mention the tacit reluctance to hire black players in general outside of Elston Howard, who couldn’t even run. Beyond this were the pinstripes themselves, which, like Grandpa said, were so much more Wall Street than River Avenue.

Then came the Mets, the anti-Yankees, a team for their times. Instead of lockstep victory, the Mets offered Throneberry failing to touch first and second while hitting a triple, and Everyman Roger Craig throwing down his mitt after picking off a runner on consecutive throw-overs only to have the first-baseman, Ed Bouchee, drop the ball each time. The Mets were cosmic. What Yankee fan could possibly have found himself lying smashed on a kitchen floor in Berkeley, California, in 1969 as Ed Kranepool hit a homer to help beat the Orioles in the World Series, so giddy in the belief that it was all a fabulous hallucination?

This isn’t to say Yankee-hating has been a walk in the park. There have been moments of weakness, instances of doubt, dramas that cannot be denied. The Billy Martin story, from the Copa to the crash on the lonely highway, is an epic. And who can discount Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson swapping wives in the middle of the season? Mostly, though, you’ve got to hate them. You had to hate them. Hate them even if Yogi and Phil ran a bowling alley off Route 3. Hate them even when they sucked and Horace Clarke led them in hitting with a .272 average.

Luckily, now there’s Giuliani. In an era in which most Yanks (outside of Clemens – dig in, Rog, dig in) seem okay, the Yankee hater is thankful for Giuliani in his little shiny jacket, holding inane placards given him by the only adviser he actually trusts, Freddy the Fan. Even in his kinder, gentler mode, he’s just so junior-high. Still the prick hanging by the cyclone fence waiting to prey upon the weaknesses of the more sensitive, the less aggressive, the potential loser: hell’s own perfect Yankee fan.

So that settles it. The Subway Series has finally returned to us after 44 years, and the moral lines are firmly drawn: Mets good, Yankees bad.

Along with everyone else, my son Billy is psyched. Too bad B can’t get his own Carl Erskine no-hit birthday party instead of the three-to-five slot at Funtime USA. But that’s what happens when you’re born on February 4 and mucky old baseball eats Latrell Sprewell’s dust. Still, even if it will never be 1956 again, the current brace of games, waged by millionaires, dispassionate and not, save Timo and Benny, offers a taste. A little shot of posterity. Fodder for tales told too often 20 and 30 years hence. Also, it is an opportunity to do some yeoman Yankee-hating.

For Billy, the breakthrough came early this season. Someone gave us tickets, so I dutifully took him up to the so-called Big Ballpark. Billy couldn’t figure why so many people were rooting for the Red Sox. At the Garden and Shea, no one cheered for the visitors. “They’re not for the Red Sox; they’re against the Yankees. It happens all the time,” I told him, in all accuracy. He found something liberating in that, the idea that you didn’t have to root, root, root for the home team, the subversive notion that you could be against the likely winner. Besides, the Yankees didn’t need him. They always won anyhow. They were the champs, just like back in 1956.

“If you’re going to hate a team, it might as well be the Yankees,” my son sagely told me this morning on the way to school. Just last night, we found ourselves, two generations of Yankee haters, forced into hoping the Bombers won, thereby assuring the grail-like Subway Series. When Justice hit his homer, my son frowned as if he’d swallowed some bad but necessary medicine and went to bed without a word. A hard-core but wholly appropriate reaction.

Now, Mets hat firmly on his head, he was ready to enter the schoolyard. It wasn’t going to be easy the next week or so. There were a lot of fifth-grade Yankee fans in there, annoying, smug, and loud, leaning against the cyclone fence, ready to pounce when their inevitable juggernaut began to roll. Maybe they’ve got the better team, maybe not. But Billy can handle it, secure in his love, secure in his hate.

Bronx Monsters