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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from New York

Globe and Mail Update
Thursday, Sep. 11, 2003

New York — It's the 8th inning of the key game in a pennant race between perhaps the most storied rivals in all of professional sports. And from the upper decks in right field, my wife Karen, my daughter Elizabeth and I are taking in the game and the banter between Yankee fans and the large contingent of Bostonians present in the (relatively) cheap seats.

The Bronx Bombers are up 2 to nothing — thanks to a seventh inning homer by centre fielder Bernie Williams — and Yankee closer Mariano Rivera is facing Red Sox slugger Manny Ramirez with two outs and runners at second and third.

The crowd in historic Yankee Stadium is on its feet demanding a strike out but Ramirez squibs a single near the right-field line, scoring Bosox leadoff hitter Johnny Damon and taking some air from those fabled New York lungs. Rivera then goes to work on David Ortiz and gets him to hit an easy grounder to the shortstop side of second base, where Derek Jeter picks it up and steps on the bag to snuff out what in this tightly contested game counted as a threatened rally.

New York smugness returns — the universe, at least the baseball universe, is unfolding as it should.

Baseball doesn't get much better than this.

A warm, sunny day and my inaugural visit to 80-year-old Yankee Stadium, a veritable temple of 20th century American culture. Peanuts and a cold beer. A taut pitching duel featuring some outstanding defensive play and then late inning heroics by all-star players. All in the waning days of a pennant race between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox that had become increasingly interesting after Boston had taken the first two games of the three-game set to cut the Yankee lead to a game and a half.

And for a few hours, more than 50,000 fans in the sold-out stadium and countless more watching on TV could forget about a looming 9/11 anniversary, the nagging fear of another terrorist attack and that unsettling "new normal."

Instead, they could content themselves with that old and comfortable normal — their beloved Yankees beating the hapless Red Sox to reassert their dominance.

When I was confirmed in my posting to New York early this summer, I quickly checked the schedule and found what I was looking for: a Yankees home series against American League rival Boston in September. I purchased four tickets on-line at more than $100 (U.S.). (My 18-year-old daughter, Catherine, also moved with us from Ottawa but bailed on the game to explore Manhattan with her cousin, who has just started college on Long Island.) And so, on the first full weekend of our sojourn here, the three of us walked from our Brooklyn apartment to the #4 subway and rode it through Manhattan to the Bronx station that lets out just steps from Yankee Stadium.

The subway was packed. But unlike the weekday ride, when the passengers represent the broad swath of multihued New York, the crowd was almost exclusively white, as baseball crowds now are across America.

On the street outside, we had a peek at the new normal — signs alerting patrons that, for security reasons, knapsacks were not allowed in Yankee Stadium. A bag check, for $5 plus $1 tip, was located behind a hot dog stand in a row of stores across the street from the stadium.

The only other sign of the times was during the seventh inning stretch when the traditional Take Me Out to the Ballgame was preceded by a recording of Kate Smith singing God Bless America.

But the fans were focused on baseball.

Throughout the previous week, as the Yankees stumbled, the New York papers were merciless. Their team had been leading the tough American League East all season, were still ahead, but the talk was of owner George Steinbrenner's wrath at lazy players and soft coaches. Starting pitcher David Wells was a particular target.

He had a personal four-game winless streak going in to the Sunday finale. And he was ridiculed as a crybaby on the front page of the Daily News for suing a much smaller bartender who had assaulted him in a New York restaurant.

The Yankee cockiness — which seems to assume a World Series showing as a birthright — was in doubt.

Before the game, the New Yorkers knew how critical it was to stop the slide and regain momentum. "Everybody knows it's an how important game," Steve Feuerstein conceded in the concourse a few minutes before the first pitch. "If we lose today, the red Sox are only game back. Maybe we'll have to have a playoff game like in '78 — then they'll have to bring Bucky Dent (the Yankee hero of that playoff game) out of retirement."

Our right field section seemed particularly favoured by Red Sox fans, who boisterously promised a series sweep through the early innings and jeered Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter as "over-rated." They prefer their own all-star shortstop, Nomar Garciaparra.

But Wells held the Sox scoreless through six (leading to a standing ovation) and Rivera put out a seventh-inning threat. And then came Williams' two-out, two-run homer in the seventh.

The fans, as they say, went wild.

Then came the taunts. One particularly strong-lunged gentleman behind us favored two: "1918" and "The curse."

Both are references to the fact that the Sox have not won a World Series since 1918, just before they traded legendary slugger Babe Ruth to the Yankees and began "the curse of the Bambino."

At the end of the game, the mouth, Manhattanite Ron Steiman, who was at the game with his brother Gary, from Buffalo, counted himself a satisfied customer.

"All we had to do was win one game — that puts us up 2 ," he said. And, for a brief moment, all was right with the world.

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Why did the magician's inquiry get nowhere? Too much smoke and mirrors. Jerry Kitich, Hamilton, Ont.