It began with Yogi and Paul LaPalme and 13 innings on a beautiful June Saturday afternoon in the Bronx. It was the great green grass of the Stadium and the look of that courthouse looming just outside. It was the guy who sat near us in the left field stands who had the loudest voice I think I still have ever heard virtually talking to the players on the field from hundreds of yards away. It was the frieze hanging down above us in the upper deck even though I had no idea then that it was called a frieze. And it was all of the other sights and sounds and smells of my first game at Yankee Stadium. I was already a Yankee fan, a very, very young Yankee fan but well-focused already on this team and on that guy wearing No. 7 in center field. The Triple Crown year had just passed and we Bronx boys had a hero to root for. The team had beaten the despised Dodgers in the '56 World Series. Don Larsen's perfect game was a regular topic on Bolton Street.
And then we made that first trip by subway to Yankee Stadium. It was June 22, 1957, and the Yankees and the White Sox were dancing back and forth between first and second place. The Sox began the day a half game ahead. It was Ladies Day so my mom took me and my brother Steve and her best friend's son Mark out for all of our first Yankee game.
Mickey Mantle homered in the first, Moose Skowron a few innings later. But somehow, those White Sox scored runs without seeming to get hits, walks or even base runners and we went to extra innings. We begged to stay and we did (thanks, mom) and we were there in the bottom of the 13th, probably the last inning we'd see that day no matter what. Yogi Berra led off against Paul LaPalme, a knuckleballing lefty in what was his final big league season. As if Yogi knew he had to get this game over so the kids in left field could go home happy, he swatted a pitch (memory tells me) off the bill of his cap and lined it about 297 feet down the right field line. The fence was 296 feet, the ball tucked inside the foul pole and we went home, tired, hoarse, stuffed and very, very happy.
And that's why you're reading this now--I'm a Yankee fan, now and forever. That means being a fan during the good times (not all of those ending in a World Series victory) and the bad times (not all of those ending in a loss). And while the football Giants are the team that makes me crazy (tragic, if you will) it's the Yankees that consume. Theirs is the first box score I read, the first game stories I devour, the first spring training day I care about.
How, I hear you asking, can you root for the Yankees? They spend more, they ruin things for the rest of the teams, they have an obnoxious owner, they have players who are often unpleasant, and they treat people (players, managers, ex-players, ex-managers) like crap. Yes, all true.
But still, there was Yogi and there was Paul LaPalme.
And through those early years, the Yanks were the only team in town. The Dodgers and the Giants left that fall. The Mets weren't born until 1962 and then what they played barely resembled baseball. Oh, we went to the Polo Grounds, too, to see the Mets, especially when the Giants were back in town with the magical No. 24 playing center field, or when the Dodgers arrived to give us a team to really hate. But it was the Yankees that we cared about.
We means most (but not nearly all) of my friends. Brother Steve, in fact, rooted for the faraway San Francisco Giants.
We were stunned when Bill Mazeroski's homer went over the Forbes Field wall to win the 1960 World Series for the Pirates, we reveled in Roger Maris and Mantle chasing Babe Ruth's season record in 1961; we loved the tense, rain-delayed seven game World Series victory over the Giants in '62; we were devastated in the Dodgers sweep in '63, and then we were overjoyed just to be there in '64 when the Yanks took the Cardinals to seven games, including that one won by the Mick's homer off Barney Schultz. If you saw that homer, you could never forget it.
And then the team got lousy. Not just bad but really, really lousy. But we stayed true hoping against hope, actually believing that Ralph Houk's return as manager in 1966 could save the team and the season (they finished 10th and last, a game and a half behind the Red Sox, who were merely just another team the Yankees played in those days.)
A few years later I achieved a dream and covered some Yankee baseball as a very, very young reporter for The New York Times. Houk was still the manager and he welcomed all new reporters with a post-game seat in front of him and his spittoon as he talked over the game while spraying your shoes with tobacco juice. I loved it.
That was then. This is now. The next year George Steinbrenner bought the team vowing not to interfere with running it (actual fact). The team changed, their attitudes changed, players came and went and still we rooted for the Yankees. Bad seasons, bad players, good seasons, great players, it all didn't change our minds.
When Reggie Jackson hit those three homers off the Dodgers in the last game of the ‘77 Series, it meant our first championship in 15 years (when you started as a Yankee fan that is a very long time). As soon as the final out was made, my Times colleague and great friend Ray Corio called from his home to mine to share the moment. And when the Yankees ended the next and longer championship drought in 1996, I cried along with Joe Torre as I watched the victory celebration from my daughter's house in Tucson.
The "season" begins this week and the real season in another month. The news from Tampa is filled with players declaring or undeclaring their friendship for each other with tales of sleepovers past, with questions about the ultimate Yankee fate of two of our longtime favorites--Mariano Rivera, who is still a Yankee, and Bernie Williams, whose days seem done. It's all more than we might need to know and there is really no reason to care. But we do need to know and it sure feels good to care.