Fall Classics

Life in the Cheap Seats Suddenly Becomes Precious

When I return to Yankee Stadium this week, and walk onto that manicured bluegrass for the first time since, well, everything changed, I won't look out toward Monument Park, toward the flag that was at half-mast. I'll even try to ignore the preoccupied policemen and the bomb-sniffing dogs.

No, I'll peer toward the upper deck, section 1, and call for my own moment of silence.

Those cheap seats, all but empty then, were where Joe and Terry and I whiled away many an hour talking baseball and life, as we ate overpriced hot dogs, drank watered-down Coke from Ron Guidry commemorative cups, and watched the Yankees lose. It was the early '90s, the bad old days. George was gone. Stump was here. And Oscar Azocar swung at everything. And it was good, better even than we knew.

Joe sent me an e-mail the other day telling me that Terry's mother was on Flight 93, the one that took off from Newark and went down in Pennsylvania, headed for the White House or wherever. I didn't know his mom well, barely at all in fact, but I knew this: She lived more history than any person should have to. Her oldest son died in Vietnam, although some file folder in the Pentagon still officially lists him as missing in action. And the week that John Lennon died, Terry, years before I met him, climbed to the top of the Chelsea Hotel and jumped. Maybe it was a miracle, maybe it was quantum physics, but something broke his fall, and not only did he survive, he was, at least by the time I met him, seemingly unscathed. No limp. No scars. And no more emotional baggage than the rest of us.

It wasn't until a dozen years later and after a hundred nights under the lights in the Bronx that the other shoe dropped. Terry went for a routine blood test. He was HIV-positive, from the very blood transfusion that had saved his life. And just as the Yankees threatened to get good again, he died.

I wish I could say that I remembered Terry's mom from his memorial service, being strong and wise, comforting us in her time of unbearable grief. But I don't, really, or at least not as well as I'd like to. What I do remember is one of his friends doing a solo acoustic version of Terry's band's greatest hit: "Did You See Steve Balboni Hit That Ball?"

In the wake of this kind of story, and 6000 more like it—in which the political becomes all too personal—a baseball game doesn't mean very much. And yet it does. In a too complex world, sports is still simple. Pass through the turnstile and you can remember a time when Sandy Alomar taking Mariano deep qualified as a tragedy, hitting a triple off Greg Maddux made Joe Girardi a hero, and a six-run World Series rally still could tax our capacity for disbelief. This morning, I heard a guy on the radio talking about scrambling out of his Battery Park City apartment clutching two things: his Yankee cap and his Jets season tickets. It made sense to me. And at a time when we struggle for answers—when Mike and the Mad Dog morph into MacNeil/Lehrer, interviewing foreign policy wonks and anti-terror experts—we might need sports more than ever. Good guys and bad guys, winners and losers. Go ahead, argue about how those World Series games in November are going to affect El Duque. If you need a Great Satan, better to demonize Mariners than innocent civilians in Afghanistan or the deli on the corner. So when I walk out onto the hallowed turf, I'll try not to dwell on the last moments of a good woman on a doomed plane or a good friend who's gone. No, I'll look toward those vacant seats and remember the days when they stayed that way during the game, and I'll whisper, as if in prayer, "Bob Wickman, you suck."

 
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