Strung out on pinstripes

Two days into New York's baseball orgy, the city is cranked up and wild-eyed, but the gunslingers of the Yankees and Mets have only just begun to stare each other down.

Topics: Baseball,

Strung out on pinstripes

I’m toast. I’m burnt. I’m strung out on a little white leather ball. Been on a two-day run. My name is Eric and I’m a Yankees junkie. And on Saturday and Sunday nights, Yankee Stadium was my crack pipe. I almost overdosed. I took in that drug till my head felt like it was gonna explode. And it was good. And I’ll be back for more.

I was there Saturday night. (No, I did not pay the 5,000 bucks for my seat that some did. My buddy Jilly invited me.) Took the subway up, took the subway back. Longest game in World Series history. Came draggin’ home around 2:30 in the morning feeling like somebody who’s been screwing nonstop for five hours and then finally comes and it feels so good. In case you didn’t hear, the Yankees won.

How good was it? As we arrived, brilliant light drenched a mob scene in center field. The night air was a summertime sultry. Cameras bobbed, cops and security guys squinted and the Mets, dressed in their away black jerseys, lobbed practice balls into the stands. The place was jumpin’ like a convention of speed freaks. Everyone watchin’ everyone else while the field guys raked and fluffed the trippy green grass and unsealed the pitcher’s mound.

I spied hunky Mike Piazza graciously talking to a phalanx of reporters while Spike Lee zipped around the group, snagging them with a digital video cam. I saw Nelson Doubleday, owner of the Mets, surrounded by grim-faced security guys, little coils of electronic communication in their ears. Maybe Uzis under their jackets? And then there was Rudy and Puffy and Calista and Jack and Billy and over 50,000 other frothing madmen come to worship in the House That Ruth Built.

Then what seemed like miles away in the outfield some high school bands blurped some nonsensical marching music, then a bald eagle was released and recaptured, then Billy Joel sang the anthem. The guy behind me said, “He’s not singing. He’s lip-syncing.” Obviously a newcomer to the stadium who didn’t understand this vault is so enormous that you can watch the singer’s lips move before you hear the amplified voice over the sound system. Nothing recorded here, dude. This is live and happening right before your eyes. That’s the point.

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Andy Pettitte took the mound and hundreds of flashes fried the already electric air. It was time. Time to watch titans clash. One team established as the team of all time, indomitable, rich, tough and tight-lipped, against a team that has been aching for this, aching for the chance to put all its intensity on the line, to show the fat cats what it means to really want it. Look, the Yanks are good. That’s all there is to it. Consistent, quiet and good. But the Mets are dramatic, strong bats mixed with superb pitching, always full of surprises and passion.

The chords of “Welcome to the Jungle” greeted the visiting team, even though it was only visiting from two miles away. This is the Yankees’ theme song, a chilly anthem implying a scary dimension never experienced before. Then the roar got louder. And louder. And we’re off. For the rest of the night the sound is a tapestry of clapping, roaring, even screaming, interwoven with antiquated Eddie Layton pipe organ tunes, woven into oddball songs like “Cotton-Eyed Joe” and “Day-O.” And behind it all “Let’s Go YANKEES.”

All kind of playful and fun. Except if you remember the Yankee Stadium of the ’70s, when New York City wasn’t considered the coolest tourist spot in the world but a place to be avoided. The ’70s, when guys roamed the stadium halls with baseball bats and you could drink till the end of the game. If you remember all that, then you know that the Yankee war cries come with real menace. Anything can happen in this place. That’s why there’s cops every 2 feet. That’s why as soon as the game is over, mounted police take over the stadium grounds.

Anyway, from then on, it’s baseball. You don’t need me to tell you about the game itself. If you care about it, you know the score. If you don’t, it’s too late. Watch the next game. The teams locked horns and somehow we all knew we were in for a long night. At times everything got kind of silent, and then people would stir themselves into chants and shouts. Later, when the game got hot, when every at-bat was pivotal, people didn’t just clap and shout, they screamed. Like babies, like teenage girls at the first Beatles concerts at — oh yeah, Shea Stadium!

Inside, roaming the halls, instead of garrulous drunks, everyone seemed to be on a mission to grab as many souvenirs as possible. The shirts sold out, the pennants sold out. Everyone has to wear something with insignia on it. It’s funny: On the way to the game, wearing my “Wild Card” hat from the ’97 playoffs (Yankees lost series — kind of a reverse good luck charm), I feel kind of idiotic. In the stadium, I am naked without it.

Then more music. More sound. Eminem barks his paranoia as Chuck Knoblauch enters the batter’s box; later Frank Sinatra will croon when the game is over (“New York, New York,” which rang slightly hollow after the wins Saturday and Sunday, since the Mets are also from New York. Duh). The old disco anthem “YMCA” by the Village People plays after the fifth inning of every game when the grounds crew drags the infield. (I’m not sure what the point of that one is. Maybe it’s supposed to be evocative of some fantasy involving studly jocks showering in a locker room.) And the ever-present tap-tap-tap of the late-’70s synthesizer machine clacking over the loudspeakers.

Isn’t it ironic that all this sound-making occurs in the heart of the Bronx, the home of hip-hop? But Yankee Stadium is not a hip-hop kind of place. It’s a George Steinbrenner kind of place. A white turtleneck, blue blazer kind of place. And Yankee Stadium is hard rock. When the best closer in baseball, Mariano Rivera, strolls slowly to the mound in the late innings, “Enter Sandman” ices the air. It’s spooky because he’s spooky, like a jack-o’-lantern out to kill your ass.

For me, baseball is about gunslingers staring each other down. That was true big time in Game 2. The last time they had met, Roger Clemens had beaned Mike Piazza, hospitalizing him. On other occasions, Piazza has smacked homers off the future Hall of Famer. So now what happens? This is what makes baseball badass. See, if you think the hardest throwing muhfuh in baseball might mush your brains, it affects your concentration. So how tough is Mike Piazza? How intimidating is Roger Clemens? It’s not politically correct? But baseball is the game of Ty Cobb, a guy who used to sharpen his cleats before he tried to ram ‘em down your throat.

Speaking of lunatics, my favorite Yankee team was the team of a couple of years back, the team that is still the heart of these Yanks: Paulie, Tino, Derek, Bernie, Scottie and Chuck. Driven and slightly imperfect. In those days there was also Daryl Strawberry with his problems. And David Wells, tattooed and overweight. And Chad Curtis leading the “God squad.” A “Dirty Dozen” kind of team. I always thought of cocky Derek Jeter in the smirky John Cassavetes role. And of course, Joe Torre as Lee Marvin, the only guy strong enough, tough enough, to pull this bunch of badly behaved lunatics together to win the prize.

All that’s in my head. But that’s what it’s all about, the theater. Fifty thousand people, millions more watching on TV, projecting themselves onto their favorite players. What makes a player your favorite? Well, he’s the guy you’d be if you could be everything you wish you could be. Who has the traits you want? Badass Clemens? Happy-go-lucky and easy Luis Sojo? Steady and silent Tino Martinez? That’s the guy you root for.

I guess Paul O’Neill’s my guy. Angry. Really angry. And big. He reminds me of the guys I hung out with in high school. We’d drag a case of beer into the woods, spend all night talking about girls and mortal sin. Then when everybody was good and drunk, we’d roll down to the corner and get in fights. Is that Paul O’Neill? Who knows? Probably not. But he’s my avatar.

By the way, I like the Mets too. How can you dislike a Benny Agbayani, a home run hitter who looks about as menacing as a smile button? Or Piazza, who I’d be if I couldn’t be Paul O’Neill. Rich, handsome and tough. Or their newest star, Timo Perez. He’s been playing for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp in Japan for the last few years. He speaks Spanish, not much English, so he chats with Bobby Valentine, his manager, in Japanese. I’d love to see that.

Looking at both teams, it’s hard to imagine any of these guys with the drinking and drugging habits of the “Ball Four” ’70s party animals. They’re too smart for that. They’re making too much money. I used to have an image of ballplayers chewing tobacco and riding home in pickup trucks after the game, maybe goin’ huntin’ with their dogs. And maybe they do all that. But they’re millionaires doin’ that. And they’re millionaires playing ball, and these days if they’re stupid enough to mess with that good thing, they’ve got managers and agents who wise them up fast.

The only dope anyone in baseball is doing now is steroidal. But you know what? That isn’t the Yankees or Mets culture either. These guys are not the meaty types, no lumbering, scowling Mark McGwires or Mo Vaughns or Jim Thomes. These are not big home run teams. These are team teams, featuring pitching and defense.

Of course, when you get down to it, Valentine is the star of the Mets. He’s a tactician, a National League manager, with lots of room for strategy. He’s also slightly uncentered, frenetic, making remarks about his players with no concern for their feelings, wearing disguises when he gets thrown out of games and ready to argue at the drop of a hat. He’s fun, but I’d never want to be him.

On the second night, I watched the game on Fox while listening to the radio personalities of the local Mets and Yankees stations. I could hear the grinding wheels of the city against itself. A telling moment was when Scott Brosius hit a home run. On the Yankees station, Michael Kay and John Sterling were verbally high-fiving. On the Mets station, the hit was compared to a foul pop by a Met in the previous inning. Nothing special. Nothing to get excited about. Nah. Just a home run.

It wasn’t the same as the first night, but it was still sweet. Very sweet. In a way, I had never left. The night before, when it was over, while Frank sang, we let ourselves get carried by the tide of blue out into the night. Outside the stadium, crowds milled, still cranked up from the long, dragged-out battle. Hot dog wrappers and police horseshit littered the ground. People kept screaming and chanting. I’d high-fived so many strangers my palms hurt. I didn’t realize how much shouting I’d been doing until I tried to swallow and couldn’t because my throat was totally swollen and inflamed. We passed cars mired in the human mud. Inside, drivers smiled to themselves while the passengers who thought they were getting a quick ride home fretted. Hey baby, this is a Subway Series. You gotta take the subway.

Eric Bogosian's new book is "Operation Nemesis: The Assassination Plot that Avenged the Armenian Genocide" (Little Brown). He is best known as a playwright, novelist and actor. He wrote and starred in the play, "Talk Radio" (NYSF - 1987; on Broadway starring Liev Schreiber- 2007), for which he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and the Tony award. For his film adaptation of the play, Bogosian received the Berlin Film Festival "Silver Bear." His six solo performances Off-Broadway between 1980 and 2000, (including "Drinking in America", "Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll" and "Wake Up and Smell the Coffee") received three Obie awards. In addition to "Talk Radio", Bogosian has written a number of full-length plays including "subUrbia" (LCT, Second Stage, also adapted to film), "Griller" (Goodman), "Red Angel" (Williamstown Theater Festival), "Humpty Dumpty" (The McCarter), 1+1 (New York Stage and Film). He is also the author of three novels, "Mall", "Wasted Beauty" and "Perforated Heart" and a novella, "Notes from Underground." He is a Guggenheim fellow.

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