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April 16 2000: Roar of the Crowd

Friday night I was sitting in the upper deck of Yankee Stadium with my friends and family, having an absolutely great time, despite the freezing cold wind that had us bundled in winter coats, gloves and earmuffs. It was not a large crowd for Yankee Stadium–the outfield decks blue and empty, the box seats checkered with gaps as people either huddled in the warm corridors, or watched the game from home instead of sitting in their seats.

But it wasn’t a quiet crowd, and it wasn’t a dull crowd. Jorge Posada has been on a hot streak, hitting well, driving in runs, and gunning down baserunners trying to steal second. The fans responded to his heroics of Thursday by chanting his name when he came into the on deck circle for his first at bat Friday. Posada, incidentally, then slammed a two run homer into the seats, insuring that an entire section near us kept up the “Jor-HEY! Jor-HEY!” every time he came up again. This crowd even sounded good singing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” in the seventh inning stretch.

Maybe it was partly that it was so cold, and cheering was the only way to really keep warm, or maybe it was the contrast to the placid spring training crowds we got used to in March that made everything seem so lively, but I prefer to think it was just one of those times when the crowd comes alive. It doesn’t always happen. Sometimes you’ve got thousands of individuals, and that’s what they stay. I’ve been to some rock concerts like that, and it must be frustrating to the performers not to be able to overcome an audience’s own self-consciousness.

Fortunately, it’s a bit easier with baseball fans, but even still, sometimes the New York crowd can be standoffish and cold. It isn’t that the individual fans don’t care, but the crowd itself is an animal all its own.

It’s a kind of simple animal, when you think about it. Its a stimulus-response organism. Whenever the crowd sees something good, cheers. Something bad, boos. That includes things off the field–a pop foul goes into the stands and a fan snags it out of the air–yeah! But if he drops it? Ya bum! You suck!

And how about the little games they show on the DiamondVision between innings? If you’ve never been to the stadium, you have no idea what I’m talking about. To amuse the fans as the sides change and people at home see tv commercials, they show various animated clips. For example, they have a “subway race,” where they show three cartoon trains racing to the Bronx, and the fans pick which one they think will win. Law of averages says a third of the fans are going to be cheering at the end of that little segment. There’s also the Adidas “sneaker race,” where each section of the stands (bleachers, upper deck, lower deck, and loge) is assigned one of four animated sneakers, which race like drag cars around the bases. And there’s the ever-popular “find the baseball” shell game, played with baseball hats and a ball.

I’m psyched to report that I went 3 for 3 on between-inning scoreboard games on Friday. Yeah! (And the Yanks, won, too.)

I’m sure the players know this about the crowd, and about how the crowd reacts. Yesterday’s game, Ramiro Mendoza pitched a perfect game into the seventh inning. That was a crowd that was united in intensity from the third inning on, cheering on every pitch, and roaring for every out. Everyone likes Mendoza, an incredibly nice, quiet pitcher, who wants to be a starter, but who keeps getting sent back to the bullpen because 1) he’s a great bullpen pitcher, and 2) the Yanks have brought in another starter every time Mendoza gets a chance (one year El Duque and one year Hideki Irabu). So here he is, getting a start because of Ed Yarnall’s failure to rise to the occasion in spring training, and he’s pitching not just well, he’s pitching a perfect game.

In the Yankees Fan Forum a perennial topic is whether the Yankees can do the impossible, and have three perfect games in three years. As announcer Michael Kay commented in the play by play, these fans know the drill. They were right there in the drama by the end of the third inning, with the excitement building with each pitch throughout the fourth, fifth and sixth innings. To hear the crowd roar when Mendoza got the first batter in the seventh to fly out, you would have thought it was the World Series.

Then the twentieth batter (Carlos Febles, who is on a hitting streak) really lined one–Clay Bellinger dove in the air, came completely off his feet and flew–but the ball went out of his glove. It was not an error, it was a near-impossible play, that–as it turned out–was impossible.

But Bellinger was booed the next time he came to bat. He didn’t take it personally. He was as disappointed that the perfect game and the no-hitter were quashed as the fans were. “They wanted to see a no-hitter, a perfect game, and so did I,” he told reporters after the game. “It’s just one of those things.”

I felt bad for Clay, getting booed in Yankee Stadium, especially when he’s playing third because Scott Brosius, a fan favorite, is injured. Bellinger has been nothing but a workhorse for the Yanks, plugging holes in the infield, outfield, and he can catch. He’s never going to be a superstar, but he’s a smart baserunner, does get important hits sometimes, and really doesn’t deserve to be booed. Hey Clay, console yourself with the fact that DiMaggio got booed in Yankee Stadium in 1940 when the Yanks were dropping out of the pennant race, even though DiMag was on track to win the batting title that year!

If I had been sitting there in the crowd yesterday, would I have booed? I really like Clay Bellinger, actually. I think he’s my favorite non-star player. I of course have a soft spot for him because he was so nice signing autographs in spring training. But would I have booed? I have to admit I probably would have made a noise when the ball went off his glove, or maybe shouted “Oh no!” But when the guy came to bat? I probably would have yelled “Come on, Clay! You gotta redeem yourself!” As it was, I was lying in bed, listening to the game, and kept my comments to myself.

But I can’t be sure. Because when you’re part of the crowd, you can forget yourself. Self-consciousness goes out the window, and you just scream, you’re just part of that big animal that is the crowd, the animal that gets restless on two out and scents blood on two strikes…

By the way, redeem himself Clay did, with a hit, crossing the plate later that inning, and making some other good plays. So the crowd was back to cheering him by the next time he appeared.

I’m listening to today’s game as I write this, and Jeff Nelson was just booed off the mound in the seventh. He walked two in a row, then gave up two singles that scored both of those runners, tying the score. He finished the inning, but gave up the lead, so…. ya bum!

But I don’t think Nelly let’s the crowd get him down. He just finished the eighth, and he struck out the side. Whoo-ee!

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