Flashback to 2004: ‘Yankees Suck’ is a figure of speech

The last time the Yankees came to Dodger Stadium, six flip-floppin’ years ago, I had one child (with another on the way), a job at LACMA, and under two years of baseball blogging under my belt. I had recently joined up with All-Baseball.com, a precursor of sorts to Baseball Toaster, and we picked the final of the three Dodger-Yankee games to do the Rashomon project, in which a bunch of us covered the game from different angles.

Here’s my piece: “‘Yankees Suck’ is a figure of speech”

In 1769, the first European land expedition party through California came upon a river, which they christened “Nuestra Senora de los Angeles de la Porciuncula.” By 1781, a settlement was established there, which was named “El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciuncula” or “The Town of Our Lady the Queen of Angels of the Little Portion.” The official name of the city founded there was shortened to “El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles” and came to be known by its shorthand version, “Los Angeles.” (Source: Los Angeles Almanac)

By sheer happenstance, the second of the two words in this village’s name started with a vowel, which made it ideal, 200 years later, for basketball fans in Boston, baseball fans in San Francisco, and others to initiate and perpetuate a cheer, “Beat L.A.” Conversely, the second initial of the various sporting rivals of El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles is not a vowel, rendering “Beat S.F.” or “Beat N.Y.” insufficiently melodious for effective use.

As a result, fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball club have had to find other ways to confront their opponents. This past weekend, facing the New York Yankees for the first meaningful games in 23 years, some Dodger fans began chanting, “Yankees Suck,” which spread fairly effectively through the stadium at an intermittent rate, though by no means a relentless one, at least on Saturday or Sunday.

What was so interesting at the ballpark Sunday, sitting in the stands, standing in the food lines, walking through the aisles, was how many Yankee fans one could hear responding to this cheer by citing evidence that the Yankees, in fact, do not suck. As if this were an episode of Law & Order, they objected, pointing out, for example, that the Yankees have the best record in baseball, that they have won more World Series titles than any other team and more league championships than any other team. The literalness with which they responded to this chant could only have been exceeded if they had also pointed out that no, in fact, the Yankees do not purse their lips and use their saliva in an inhaling fashion to enjoy a lollypop, nor do they perform oral sex on other men, that in short, they really do not suck.

There’s no denying the obnoxiousness of the “Yankees Suck” cheer, any more than the obnoxiousness of the “Beat L.A.” cheer. In general, I’m from the cheer-for-your-own-team school for a number of reasons – some vague feeling that it’s impolite to jeer or boo, some vague fear that negativity toward the other team will incite its players to do better. But grudging respect is pretty clearly the subtext of these types of cheers, and I found it hard to believe, all annoyance aside, that the Yankee fans didn’t enjoy the “Yankees Suck” cheer deep down – for the very opportunity it provided them to point out how great the Yankees are.

And so, for all of the electricity the night offered, it was also all very civilized. No roughhousing that I could see. Time after time, the “Yankees Suck” cheers would fade, the momentum of the game would shift, and a “Let’s Go, Yankees” chant would rise up among the transplants. Not once did one group try to shout down the other. Yankee and Dodger fans, taking turns. Global politicians, take note.

Make no mistake: Fans of both teams really wanted to win this game. The shared history of the two teams, the fact that Sunday’s attendance was another near-record crowd at Dodger Stadium, capping a record for a three-game series here (more than 165,000 fans), the fact that this was the rubber game of the series, was all part of the zeitgeist – the stakes were defined. Sunday meant one game in the standings for either team, but meant even more in terms of pride, in terms of self-esteem. With division rivals looming on the schedule for the week ahead, the loser of the game was destined to forget about it within a day, but the winner would be welcome to crow about it until October.

For the first few innings, I wondered what they were saying about the game, and in particular the Dodgers, on ESPN. Though the Dodgers perform on national television from time to time, there is an unavoidable reality that in baseball, the Yankees are Broadway, and the Dodgers hadn’t performed on Broadway in 23 years. The Dodgers have an outstanding defense, for example, but no one outside the pueblo would ever notice until Cesar Izturis’ Ozzie-like backhanded stop of a high hopper Friday night – against the Yankees. Dodger fans have been staying to the end of the game, to see Eric Gagne pitch, for about two years now, but as far as Newsday writer Jim Baumbach was concerned, when the Dodger fans remained in their seats until the very last pitch Friday, this was “unheard of in Los Angeles.”

No – it was plenty heard of in Los Angeles, actually. But it was unheard of in New York. Anyway, it’s heard of now. And – no surprise – it happened again Sunday.

After the start-of-game shadows gave pitchers Jose Contreras and Jose Lima a false sense of security, both pitchers were tagged with rough innings in the second and third, respectively, with Lima emerging ahead, 4-2. The Dodgers missed a chance to extend their margin in the bottom of the third inning when Milton Bradley inexplicably did not go from second to third on a groundout to second base by Shawn Green, leaving him one base short when Paul Lo Duca launched a one-out deep fly ball in the next at-bat.

As lively as the first three innings were, the middle three were tame. The biggest cheer from the crowd came during the KissCam segment in between innings, when the Cam focused on a man and a woman, and the woman turned – not to kiss the man to her right, but instead the woman to her left.

The game reignited in the seventh inning – and there was no relief from its intensity at that point until the game ended. The flames were kindled when, after Lima gave up a leadoff single to Jason Giambi, Dodger manager Jim Tracy forced us to go through the motions of Darren Dreifort and Tom Martin, rather than going straight to Guillermo Mota – even though you could sense that Mota would need to bail the team out anyway.

A key play in the inning came when ex-Dodger Gary Sheffield, target of half-hearted boos by some, hit a vicious sinking liner at Dodger left fielder Dave Roberts. Roberts had a chance to make a diving attempt, but in doing so would risk the ball skirting past him for what would probably have been a triple. Instead, Roberts played the ball for a single, holding Giambi at second. Though the tying runs were on base, there was some relief in knowing that Dreifort was past his biggest challenge. And indeed, Jorge Posada hit into a routine double play.

All Dreifort had to do was get past Hideki Matsui. But wait – I forgot – Matsui is left-handed, so of course Martin had to face him and give up an RBI triple that barely missed being a home run. Now, finally, Mota could come into the game and retire pinch-hitter Ruben Sierra on a fly ball.

Then, just minutes after Roberts played a ball conservatively in left field, he came to the plate and lined one to left field himself. Only this time, the left fielder, Matsui, charged the ball even though it was an automatic double. The ball sped under Matsui’s glove, and Roberts, untethered, raced around the bases with time to spare before Matsui could retrieve the ball. The Dodgers led, 5-3, and the crowd danced on air.

(And see, if ever there was a time for the “Yankees Suck” cheer, this was it – as this was a sucky play by Matsui. But it didn’t come. So you can see my point. It’s not meant literally.)

In the top of the eighth, in an event obviously but altogether effectively staged since the stadium cameras were trained on it from the start, Dodger owner Frank McCourt gave Jack Nicholson an LA cap to replace the yellow-Laker-colored NY cap he was wearing. Nicholson promptly disposed of the cap like it was a stinky rag, and everyone laughed – yes, it’s a ballgame here, a rivalry, not a war, and ain’t that how it should be.

In the eighth, the crowd got nothing less than a memory it could keep forever. Eric Gagne vs. Alex Rodriguez. Hey, turns out you don’t need to pay $5,000 for ringside seats to see a heavyweight prize fight – you can just go down to Dodger Stadium.

Inheriting a runner at second base from Mota, Gagne got his first two strikes on Rodriguez with identical 89-mph breaking balls. He then struck out A-Rod on nothing less than a pure challenge pitch, a sandblasting 96-mph 2-2 fastball in the heart of the zone that I can still feel the wind from.

Gagne came right after Giambi leading off the top of the ninth and allowed a home run, cutting the lead to 5-4, and of course, even though the homer could be explained away as Gagne pitching to the score, not messing around with a batter who wasn’t the tying run, it was completely realistic now that the record-setting save streak was about to end. Too bad the Tony Awards just passed, because what a story that would be for Broadway, huh?

If you want to measure the quality of a baseball game by how nervous you get that the team you are rooting for might lose, this was one high-quality baseball game. I don’t know if it came across that way on its various broadcasts, but man, I cared deeply about what was going to happen next.

Sheffield grounded out, hard (is it ever anything less with Sheffield?) to Adrian Beltre. Posada flied out, medium-deep, to Roberts in left center. And up came Matsui, who had the big hits both Saturday and Sunday, yet now, because of his error, found himself in need of redemption. Classic Yankee Bernie Williams was on-deck to pinch-hit in case Matsui got aboard.

Matsui took the count to 3-2, then took a pitch that, from my angle on the second level between home and first, looked high and outside. It seemed that home plate umpire Jeff Kellogg took a moment to think about it – before he rang Matsui up. “Home-team call!” someone exclaimed bitterly. Like that has never, ever happened in the Bronx, I suppose.

Out we walked from our seats, “Yankees Suck” being shouted by a few people here and there. Out we drove from our parking spot, “Yankees Suck” being shouted by a guy smoking from behind the wheel of his pickup truck.

I’ll clarify it for the record. The New York Yankees lost two of three games this weekend. They made some mistakes in this series – Classic Yankee Derek Jeter making more than one with his bunting and baserunning. But the New York Yankees most certainly do not suck.

As it turns out, however, neither do Los Dodgers del Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles.

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