Yankee Stadium II defined a New York era (cont.)
There have been some memorable fights on the field -- Graig Nettles breaking Bill Lee's arm in a Red Sox-Yankees brawl in '76, Darryl Strawberry throwing a sucker punch after Armando Benetiz drilled Tino Martinez in '98 -- but they are minor when compared with the daily fights in the stands. Red Sox slugger Jim Rice once climbed into the left-field seats to chase an agitator. Yankees legends were not immune to this treatment either. Everyone from Babe Ruth to Mickey Mantle to Reggie and Dave Winfield, even Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, have been booed (they don't call it a Bronx Cheer for nothing). They've even taken it to the Boss. When Jackson, then with the Angels, homered in his first at-bat against the Yankees after not being re-signed at the end of the '81 season, the crowd chanted "Stein-brenner sucks! Stein-brenner sucks!"
By the end of the decade, enervated by Steinbrenner's ceaselessly paranoid interference, fans began forming groups like SOS (Stamp Out Steinbrenner) and FOUL (Fans Opposed to Useless Leadership). In late August 1989 fans chanted "George Must Go! George Must Go!" Then, on Sept. 15, Steinbrenner held the first-ever "Banner Night." There were more than 150 placards, mostly dissing the Yankees owner ("Pardon US, George, Sell the Yankees"), but just one arrest: a fan dressed as a monk, with a large wooden cross around his neck, and a banner that read, "Forgive Him Lord, He Knows Not What He Does."
The raucous spirit of the Stadium fans is best seen in the bleachers. In the early '80s the bleacher gang was lead by the charismatic MC Melle Mel -- his sidekick was Busy Bee, and Kool Keith was a frequent member as well. Author Mark Lamster still recalls the pain of high-fiving Mel, his hand stinging from Mel's huge gold ring. "His signature was a dead-on imitation of Stevie Wonder singing I Just Called to Say I Love You," recalls Lamster, "which he'd do standing on one of those blue plastic bleacher seats, waving his head back and forth." There was plenty of drinking and smoking in the bleachers until late in the game, during a tense moment, when Melle Mel would silence his corps to attention. "Toe-nail time," as he called it.
Years later the self-anointed Bleacher Creatures started Roll Call, the practice of calling out each Yankees fielder's name in the top of the first inning. Yankees fans began the much-copied practice of clapping with two strikes on a hitter during Ron Guidry's 18-strikeout game in '78.
The Stadium crowd has changed throughout the years -- recently, as attendance has topped 4 million per season, it has become more corporate and suburban than ever. Still, when the Yankees win a big game, the place shakes and makes a kind of noise that is unmatched in any park. When the Yankees are losing, the park can be a drag -- unfriendly, crude and boorish -- but you go because of the possibility of something thrilling happening, with Josh Hamilton's record-breaking performance at the Home Run Derby on Monday night being just the latest example.
Great teams and players make the Stadium. And so do the fans. So has the legendary public address announcer, Bob Sheppard, now 97, reluctantly forced to the sidelines (remember when he carefully pronounced "Shigetoshi Hasegawa"?) The Yankees' bottom line has always been about the bottom line: winning. And the new park will be labeled a curse, no matter how much more comfortable or expensive it will be, until the Yanks win there.
Alex Belth is the founder and co-author of Bronx Banter.