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Baseball gets its balls back

By Randy Horick

JULY 13, 1998:  The 755 Club, a chichi, glass-walled penthouse with a panoramic view of Atlanta's Turner Field, takes its name from Henry Aaron's record-setting home run total. Up there the other night, you could almost imagine you were Hammerin' Hank himself, fresh from smacking a World Series-clinching homer with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.

The crowd in the club was excited. To get through the throng, you had to extend your elbows to clear a path. It was hot and it was loud, just like the night Aaron broke Babe Ruth's lifetime record.

"Hey," huffed my friend Dee, after finally negotiating the gauntlet and reaching the bar, "what's with the mob tonight? I've never seen it like this."

The harried bartender regarded him for a full second--maybe the longest break she had taken all evening. "It's not every day," she snorted, "that we play the Yankees."

It wasn't every night, after all, when you could see the best teams from their respective leagues play--in June. And it wasn't every night when you could witness a duel between two pitchers--Denny Neagle of the Braves and David Wells of the Yankees--who, though no better than third on their own staffs, would be the stoppers for many clubs.

All you had to do was look around to appreciate that it's not on very many nights that Braves fans seem outnumbered in their own ballpark. Yankees caps and pinstriped shirts were everywhere.

They abounded on the buses that shuttled fans from a MARTA subway station downtown to The Ted. (That's what Atlantans sardonically call the new stadium that the team's Citizen Kane-y owner christened after himself.) They were ubiquitous on the stadium concourses. They even infiltrated the 755 Club, which requires special passes for admission.

Yankee fans were especially obvious in the stands. They cheered long and loud--longer and louder, in fact, than their Atlanta counterparts. Not once all night did the Braves' unrelenting Tomahawk Chop chant swell to anything approaching an organized effort. Several times, though, the chorus of "Let's go, Yankees!" could be heard swirling through the stadium. Whenever that happened, some of the Braves fans in our section looked around, apparently trying to locate the uppity, carpetbagging offenders.

Until last year, the Braves and the Yankees could have met only during spring training or in the World Series. Then baseball owners sacrificed one of the game's last sacred cows--approving regionally limited interleague play.

One of the results, two weeks ago, was a delicious foretaste of the most logical Series matchup: four straight games--two at Yankee Stadium and two at The Ted.

"Iss naht often we plee the Yinkees," Dee said, mocking the bartender in a sing-song voice as we emerged into the 755 Club's serving room, where we surveyed a $30-per-person buffet that seemed to stretch halfway to Marietta. A longtime Yankee-hater, Dee was in no frame of mind to credit the visitors, especially not after the crowd that swelled to see those visitors had caused him to wait 10 minutes for his chilly beverage.

By the time we reached our seats--eighth row down the right-field line, just beyond the tarp--the illuminating influence of a couple of cool ones had mellowed Dee a little. Tonight, he conceded finally, was different.

To be precise, of course, it's not every day that the National League Braves play anybody. Even Atlanta's most frequent opponents appear on the schedule only about a dozen times a season.

But in 1998, the American League Yankees appear only twice at The Ted. And the Yankees, for those of you scoring at home, are the best team in baseball this year.

In fact, at least through the first half of the regular season, the Yanks appear to be the best baseball team of the 1990s. They're on pace to amass more wins than any other major-league club in 40 years, They may even eclipse the mark set by the vaunted Yankees of 1927.

The balance of fans contributed significantly to the evening's strange atmosphere. It's not every night, half a season removed from the World Series, that a game has a World Series feel.

By the second inning, Dee was warming to the spirit of the emerging rivalry. Enlisting the aid of two beefy college boys in front of us, he attempted to orchestrate jeers toward the closest available target: Yankee outfielder Paul O'Neill.

With a little encouragement, the college boys began keeping count of the times during each inning when O'Neill reached down and adjusted his protective cup. "Nice grab out there, Paulie!" the boys would yell before receiving a scolding "Ya-awl!" from their girlfriends.

But O'Neill, apparently oblivious, continued to pat and spit into his glove, never even looking our way.

In the fifth inning, though, he responded with a two-run triple to right center that broke a scoreless tie. "Ma-an," Dee marveled, "he spanked that one."

Moments later, the Yankees' Chad Curtis cranked a two-run homer and gave New York a commanding five-run lead. Thousands of Yankee fans around The Ted roared their approval. Dee moaned. "Giving up a home run to Chad Curtis ought to mean a mandatory week in the minors," I suggested as Neagle departed the game, hoping to elicit a chuckle from Dee. Instead, he announced he was going to seek the consolation of another beverage.

When baseball's reptilian owners and their visionless Pretending Commissioner, Bud Selig, announced the introduction of interleague play, many baseball traditionalists howled in outrage. "Here they go again," ran the rant, following the same domino-chain logic by which the National Rifle Association links bans on flak-vest-piercing bullets to wholesale gun confiscation. "First the DH, now interleague play. Next thing you know, they'll mandate aluminum bats and orange balls."

But to the surprise of almost everyone (perhaps even the owners), interleague play has proved a whopping success. Across the country, fans appear to be enjoying the novelty of seeing new teams at the old ballpark, as well as the nascent rivalries among neighbors such as the Cubs and the White Sox, the Giants and the A's, the Cardinals and the Royals, the Angels and the Dodgers and, most of all, the Yankees and the Mets.

When those last two teams met a week ago, they drew the largest crowds Shea Stadium had seen in a quarter century. To New Yorkers, it was as if the Subway Series had returned after 40 years.

But what's remarkable about many interleague games is a rejuvenated atmosphere. When the Cubs swept the crosstown White Sox in a series earlier this season, the Wrigley faithful greeted each win as if they had just clinched the pennant. Yankee Stadium crowds, who often remind us that Bronx cheers are so named for a reason, cheered and sang as lustily as British soccer fans when the Braves came to town. Suddenly, it's as if baseball mattered to Americans again.

Even with the Braves being shelled 6-0, Dee began to share the baseball revival spirit. When even David Wells, the Yankee pitcher whose rotundity is Ruthian, almost cranked a home run, we saluted him with a cheering, standing ovation.

As we left, we stopped to talk with the most gonzo Yankee fan in the park. He had painted his shaved head to resemble a baseball, complete with red stitching. An "NY" logo adorned his left lobe; a simulated autograph of Derek Jeter filled the right side.

Later, we ran into Baseball Head again, on our subway car. "Don't stare at it or you'll go blind," I warned several giggling young girls. But mostly we just talked about the game. This, he announced as he clung to the safety strap, was like being back home. This was fun.

I've never seen a game in New York, but I knew what he meant.


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