On July 4, 1983, my parents were listening to the radio with their three-month-old son. It was a Monday afternoon, and Dave Righetti was on the mound for the Yanks. For nine innings, he dazzled the Sox, and his final line — 9 innings, no hits — was one for the ages. I don’t remember it, but that’s the day I became a baseball fan.
I started going to games when I was three or four and remember bits and pieces of my early years of baseball fandom. I loved going into Stan’s to get a new team hat. I collected yearbooks and learned how to keep score when I was six. I saw Bo Jackson break his bat and heard the news when George Steinbrenner was suspended. I watched the Yankees finish seventh in the AL East and followed the exploits of Wade Taylor, Scott Kamieniecki and Jeff Johnson as though they were actually good.
At some point in the mid-1990s, baseball stopped being something I enjoyed as a kid and began to be something akin to a religion. I soaked up games, stats, insight into baseball. I lived and died with the Yankees. A victory would brighten my mood until the next day while a loss would be heartbreaking. I still live and die through the Yanks that way.
In 1996, everything started going our way. After the crushing defeat in the 1995 ALDS, the Yankees began a magical run in Joe Torre’s first year at the helm and Derek Jeter’s first year at short. After a hiccup in 1997, the Yankees simply never lost in October. They ran through the Padres, the Braves, the Mets, the Rangers, the A’s, the Mariners, the Indians. Nothing — until Luis Gonzalez hit a perfectly placed ball past a drawn-in infield — could stop them.
As Gonzalez’s ball landed, the spell broke. Mystique and Aura would return for a night in October in 2003 when the Yankees rallied against Pedro Martinez and Aaron Boone became the next unlikely star amidst a series of frustrating postseasons. We know how 2004 turned out, how 2005 ended with a collision in center field, how 2006 was just ugly, how 2007 bugged us and how 2008? Well, last year, there was no October.
This year, though, the team stormed into the postseason with 103 wins, and when I had a chance to buy a ticket for Friday’s game, I leaped. Even though the ticket was a standing-row only spot behind section 229 down the third base line, I took the chance. I hadn’t seen a post-season game in person since Mike Mussina lost to Justin Verlander. It was time to get to the stadium.
The electricity coursed through the crowd on Friday from the start. Reggie received a warm welcome for the first pitch, and by 6:07 p.m., Yankee Stadium was stuffed to the gills. We roared at A.J. Burnett’s first-pitch strike and hung on every pitch. When A.J. threw a strike, the crowd went nuts. When a Yankee batter drew a ball, the crowd went nuts. 50,006 fans — the largest crowd at Yankee Stadium this year — came expecting a win.
For 11 innings, the Yankees made it tough. The Twins had runners on in every inning, and every Yankee reliever gave up a hit or a walk. We kept waiting with nervous anticipation for the Twins to get that big hit, but it never came. Meanwhile, the Yanks mustered nothing against Nick Blackburn.
After the steady Phil Hughes and the great Mariano Rivera faltered a bit in the 8th, the crowd noticeably deflated. Ten minutes later, the energy was back. Mark Teixeira ripped a single, and we wanted A-Rod. Alex delivered with a booming home run, 433 feet into the night. The crowd was bouncing; the stadium was shaking; and I high-fived people I had never seen before.
As the extra innings battle waged, the atmosphere grew tense. The Twins had bases loaded, no body out, and David Robertson, two weeks removed from an injury, was pitching for our lives. I paced back and forth, discovering that standing room certainly had that advantage over the tight seats of the tier. A line drive, and my heart dropped. But Teixeira snared it for an out. A ground ball, but Teixeira came home for an out. A fly ball, but right into the mitt of Brett Gardner. I had never been so nervous at a game, and somehow, the Yanks were alive.
Mark Teixeira made it all better. With one swing of the bat, one twirl of the umpire’s hand, one ball into the left field stands, the tense emotion of watching the game unfold disappeared. I leaped; I took a few deep breathed; and I just stood there to watch. I couldn’t move as the Yanks celebrated at the plate. I didn’t leave until Frank finished two verses, until the highlights played on the big screen and A.J. delivered the customary pie.
After suffering through the heart attack 11th inning, Teixeira brought upon a baseball euphoria that made it all worth it. Tears of joy were streaming down fans’ faces, and I started walking out of the stadium after one of — if not the — best games I had ever seen in person. This was October. This was baseball.