NEW YORK -- It is a story that only a New York baseball fan in October can truly appreciate:
A headphones-wearing teen-ager bops onto the subway on the way to school. Perhaps meditating on a girl, or the history quiz for which he'd failed to study, he doesn't notice that several passengers are staring at him coldly.
It isn't until a middle-aged gentleman taps him on the shoulder that the teen acknowledges something besides the deep bass groove emanating from his personal stereo. The teen yanks off his headphones and snaps, "You gotta problem?" The man matter-of-factly replies, "Yeah, the hat."
"My hat?" the teen says, pulling on the brim of his snug-fitting Atlanta Braves cap. "Yeah," the man repeats, this time aided by a chorus of passengers, "the hat!"
An outraged mother clears up any confusion the teen may have. "You can't wear that here," she says, pointing to a blue-and-white sign that reads: "161st St. Yankee Stadium." "Take [the hat] off," she orders, only half jokingly. Off the hat came.
For the uninformed or sports-challenged, the Yankees are playing the Atlanta Braves in this year's World Series. And even though their team is struggling, New Yorkers have an untreatable case of Yankees fever. It is an ailment that every so often casts an enchanting spell on this most ambivalent of cities, uniting residents -- albeit temporarily and strangely -- in a single cause: to see their beloved Yankees win or beat the stuffing out of another city's team.
Thousands of people spent two cold and rainy days and nights waiting for Yankee Stadium World Series tickets. The city is awash in a sea of blue Yankees jackets and caps, including the one Mayor Rudy Giuliani sports at public appearances. Even the gruffest New Yorker can be heard beginning a conversation with a total stranger by knowingly offering up, "Hey, how about those Yankees?"
The Bronx Bombers, unlike the city's other sports franchises, have always had a way of making Gotham's knees jiggly. They drove this city absolutely wild back in the 1970s and 1980s, when I was a young boy growing up in the Bronx. And the heart-stopping effect the team has had on New Yorkers stretches back through the 1960s, '50s, '40s and '30s, when the likes of Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth were as revered as Michael Jordan, if not more.
Let me tell you, making New York all squishy inside is no easy feat. While some in Chicago or Green Bay break for football, most New Yorkers stop for nothing. No team. No celebrity. No catastrophe. Nada. Gotham is inhabited by a species consumed by their own fast-paced, high-powered, money-making, tension-filled existences. The only thing a New Yorker shares with the person sandwiched next to him on the subway is a bottomless desire to earn more money and a prickly attitude.
Yet, for some reason, New Yorkers have reserved a little sliver of their hearts for the Yankees.
The love runs especially deep in Bronx natives who live in the shadow of the House that Ruth built and whose childhood experiences were shaped by the exploits of men who were like family members, discussed on a first-name basis: Reggie (Jackson), Whitey (Ford) and Mickey (Mantle).
While most boomers can remember where they were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Bomber fans can tell you where they were the night Jackson smacked three home runs in a World Series game. (My parents' living room, hopping around wildly in my pajamas. Hey, it was close to bedtime.)
It is New York's deep affinity for the Yankees that transformed Jeff Maier from ordinary 12-year-old into instant national celebrity. The New Jersey kid was showered with a team's, a mayor's and the city's adulation when he singlehandedly stole victory from the Baltimore Orioles by reaching over the right-field fence in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series and deflecting a fly ball that would have remained in the field of play, but was ruled a home run.
I think what convinced me that New York had gone Yankees mad was a recent conversation with my father, a man who at one point in his life would rather have sat through root canal than through nine torturous innings of a Yankees victory. The man who beamed proudly after a Yankees defeat and frequently likened Yankees owner George Steinbrenner to Bozo the Clown (as do many New Yorkers), wouldn't tell me who he would root for in this World Series.
His coyness brought a small grin to my face.
My father had always resisted the Yankees' mystique, sort of the way Luke Skywalker fought the pull of the Dark Side. Yet this man who once rained down rants about those "damn" Yankees, just shrugged his shoulders. His silence spoke volumes, saying what he could not bear to utter to his Yankees-loving son: The Yankees will once again command the rapt attention of millions of normally preoccupied New Yorkers. This year, even my one-time Yankees-detesting dad is one of them.
New York Yankees vs. Atlanta Braves
Best of seven
(Atlanta leads series 2-1)
Tonight: Yankees' Andy Pettitte (21-8, 3.87) at Braves' John Smoltz (24-8, 2.94), 8: 15
Last night: Yanks at Braves
Game 1: Braves, 12-1
Game 2: Braves, 4-0
Game 3: Yankees, 5-2
Saturday*: at New York, 8: 01
Sunday*: at New York, 7: 35
*- If necessary
4( TV/Radio: Chs. 45, 5/ WBAL (1090 AM)
Pub Date: 10/24/96