Fanning out behind enemy lines Orioles: Root, root, root for the wrong team.

September 06, 1997

BRONX, N.Y. -- That fine New York literary tradition of erudition, wit and clever riposte lives on. The two most popular bon mots on T-shirts at Yankee Stadium are: "Baltimore (can't print it)" and "Baltimore (or that either)."

To paraphrase, Baltimore apparently both inhales and exhales. Aw, make The Fan cry, why dontcha.

To be sure, The Fan came here with some trepidation -- she's heard all the horror stories of the tough crowds, the risk of cheering for anyone but the home team, the infamous right field bleachers where sometimes a baseball game breaks in on the fights. "I was warned not to go to the bathroom by myself," says Barry Silver, an O's fan bravely wearing his colors in the sea of blue-and-white.

It turns out, though, there's a way to tame even baseball's most vociferous fans. Our team just had to get beyond striking distance of their team. Simple as that.

"I came to games last year, and it was much different," says Amy Dapot, 22, an expatriate O's fan now living on the Upper East Side whose cheering for the visiting team barely got a rise out of Yankee fans all around her.

"It's because Joe Torre said they can't catch the O's. The fans here hear that ...," Jamal Ayyad, 33, a Yankees fan, explains with a shrug.

On this particular night, the first of what should have been a heated four-game matchup between two pennant contenders, the famed stadium isn't even sold out. The sprinkling of Orioles fans are, in Camden Yards fashion, cheering discretely. Except for one who had a hat thrown out of the right field bleachers, they remain mostly unmolested. By the seventh inning, only down by two, the Yankee faithful are heading for the exits. "With every batter," Ayyad observes, "you lose a thousand fans."

"This is New York," says his friend, Tommy Magoulas, 24. "You don't stick around for something that isn't a sure thing."

With the O's so far ahead of the Yankees for the division title, and the Yanks about as far from their nearest Wild Card rival, this is hardly a pennant race anymore. It's a pennant stroll. Barring a massive collapse by one team combined with a sudden burst of brillance by another, the standings aren't going to change drastically. So everyone's just hanging around, waiting for October.

To work up a good fight, New Yorkers need a sense of proximity. They gotta feel someone's breath on their necks, someone's elbow in their gut. Keep your distance -- say, seven or so games above them -- and they save their energy for the real battles ahead. It has something to do with the way they live here, in near constant compression. Squeeze into what seems like the last available space on a subway car and 10 more people get in after you. Ever seen how much they pack into one of those greengrocers? Some of those places are about the size of the second bedroom in The Fan's rowhouse but somehow they still manage to have a better produce selection than the average Giant.

There's this other thing about New Yorkers: When they can't mix it up with outsiders, they turn on themselves. They eat their own around here. It started, of course, with Torre conceding the futility of catching the O's, followed by shortstop Derek Jeter announcing in the tabloids, "We stink."

Oh, it gets better. Yesterday's entrant in self-flagellation was George Steinbrenner himself. "MAD BOMBER," the Daily News sez. "BOSS TO YANKS: WE DO STINK, MYSELF INCLUDED." (Meanwhile, the New York Post: "FOR THE BIRDS.")

As the Yanks whimper, though, their fans still have a breath in them. This is a crowd that brings in da noise, brings in da funk even without scoreboard prompting. Ever seen a Baltimore crowd rise to their feet in the very first inning when their pitcher has two outs and two strikes on the batter? Even the scoreboard's hat game and the subway race features draw intense and vocal participation. Let's just hope our grounds crew at Camden Yards doesn't have to compete against theirs -- here, even they strut their stuff during a synchronized sweep of the infield to the YMCA song.

"One night, there were two new guys so they didn't do it, and the crowd booed them," Ayyad says.

So it's a tough crowd after all, but tough on itself as well.

"I think Yankee fans are more frustrated with their team right now," says Bill Sadler, 29, spotted on the No. 4 subway after the game sporting the truest markings of a Marylander, an M.R. Ducks T-shirt from Ocean City.

"They were booing their own team tonight. We only got some good-natured insults," agreed his wife, Michele, 26.

The couple -- he's from Lutherville, she's from Carroll County -- are now living in Hoboken, N.J. They're homesick for Baltimore, though, and go back about twice a month. They've already started e-mailing friends about getting postseason tickets.

For all the trials of living in New York, they're saved from Baltimore's current energy-sapping chore: "It's so much easier to get tickets here," Michele says. "People back home are like, 'How do you get tickets there?' Uh, you walk up to the ticket booth and you give them money."

Pub Date: 9/06/97

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