Catching the Home Run Derby with the infamous Bleacher Creatures
NEW YORK -- I am up to my knees in New York. There's Bald Vinny over there, and the Queen a couple of bodies over. Bad Mouth Larry is around here somewhere, or so I heard. Midget Mike, too. I spotted MTA Joe over there for a second.
I am here for Major League Baseball's Home Run Derby, in Section 39 of Yankee Stadium's right field bleachers. This, right here, may be the most well-known group of fans in American sports, the famed Bleacher Creatures. They're probably the cleverest, too, and the rowdiest, and the most amusingly profane.
Don't bring a cellphone out here. Don't come wearing khakis and a tie. And whatever you do, don't even think about sporting anything with any team logo on it other than that of the Yankees. If you do, you're asking for it, and what you're asking for, you have no idea.
"Bos-ton sucks!" a Creature yells -- granted, that's not all that clever -- at a kid in a Red Sox jersey and a Mets hat. And it is a kid, too. The poor boy can't be more than 12 years old.
"We'll boo the s--- out of him. We don't care. We make 12-year-old kids cry all the time," says Bald Vinny, a.k.a. Vinny Milano, a 32-year-old from Bayside, Queens, who is kind of the unofficial mayor out here. "I guess that part of the rep is true."
This being the Home Run Derby, and not a Yankees game, I'm not even seeing the Creatures at their best. Or worst, I guess. Still, on a steamy night in the Bronx, for what amounts to the most glorified round of batting practice ever held anywhere, the Creatures are holding their own. They are giving this Yankee-less Derby a decidedly Bronx feel, just another step in sending Yankee Stadium -- which gives way next year to a new ballpark across the street -- out in their own, inimitable style.
Josh Hamilton, the Rangers' outfielder and the feel-good story of the first half, is peppering the Creatures with home runs. Hamilton is a drug addict turned good, a man whose deep faith is something he professes every chance he gets.
So when he blasts longball after longball into the stands in right -- truly impressive shots, even if they're lobbed up their by a 71-year-old BP pitcher -- the Creatures do what only the Creatures can do.
"Ho-ly s---, Ho-ly s---," they chant in rowdy unison.
That's how it goes out here, and how it's gone for more than a quarter of a century. Every regular-season game, every postseason game, the All-Star Game on Tuesday night, Monday's night's Derby ... if it's in Yankee Stadium and it concerns baseball, the Creatures will have something to say about it. It's part of the old Stadium's charm.
Or $%*@# charm, as the Creatures might put it.
"Ahh, some are a lot worse than this one. This is fine," says Thomas Hayes -- who answers to the name Knicki, or thereabouts, while he's out here -- a 42-year-old from the Bronx. Hayes brings his son out here all the time, amid the smoky sausage smells and the saucy language. "He hears that at home, too. When the bullpen blows a game."
The Creatures are known for their Roll Call, chanting out the name of each Yankees starter at every game until he acknowledges them. ("Der-ek Jet-er, Der-ek Je-ter," they sung when the Yankees' shortstop, a spectator on Monday night, appeared on the video board.) They rip anything Red Sox. ("Pa-pi sucks, Pa-pi sucks," they cried when Boston slugger David Ortiz, sitting out this Derby, strolled across home plate.)
You get that kind of stuff in a lot of stadiums all over the world. Wrigley Field, with its Bleacher Bums, comes immediately to mind.
But here, under the roar of the No. 4 train and under the gigantic Utz potato chip billboard, the Creatures take it to the laughing limits. It's not G-rated. It's sometimes a little past R-rated. But it's undeniably, unadulterated New York.
When an umpire wouldn't allow a home run from Hamilton that apparently fell short of the fence, the Creatures started in, calling the guy a part of the anatomy that was more than unkind. ESPN censors must have had a conniption reaching for the mute button on that one.
"It's not as bad as it used to be," says the Queen of the Bleacher Creatures, 46-year-old Tina Lewis, who has been reigning out here for 25 years. "We're very creative. But not filthy."
And they can be clever. Early in the first round of the Derby, when some nameless chucker was offering up home run ball after home run ball, one smart aleck yelled out, "What, is that Farnsworth pitching?" That's Kyle Farnsworth, of course, the often-maligned Yankees' reliever.
The smart aleck is Mohamed Walid, who explained his fellow Creatures this way: "The unemployment rate in New York City is 3.5 percent. All of them," he said, waving his hand at the bleachers, "are right here."
It went on like that for much of the night, but by the time the Derby had ended, and the Twins' Justin Morneau had outlasted an exhausted Hamilton, most of the Creatures were ready to quit. This was, after all, just an exhibition.
But they will be back on Tuesday for the All-Star Game, where they will call out the Yankees (but not, probably, anyone else). And they'll be there for every home game in the second half of the season, and for any postseason games, too. Then they'll move across the street to the new Yankee Stadium, where most of them insist they'll still do their thing, spanking new sterile surroundings and all.
The stadium, after all, doesn't make the fans. It's the other way around.
"So many things I've seen in this stadium are priceless. Good things. Bad things," says the Queen, who took over for Ali Ramirez, the unofficial founder of the Creatures, who died in '98 and whose place on the end of a bench -- Row A, Seat 29 -- is memorialized with a plaque. "We're like a big family.
"I have something like 156 numbers in here," adds the Queen, pulling out a well-hidden cellphone, "and maybe 104 of them are Bleacher Creatures."
It is, she says with a smile, a beautiful $%*@# thing.