Sports Nut

Yankees Fan to A-Rod: Drop Dead

A dispatch from Game 1 of the World Series.

Alex Rodriguez. Click image to expand.
The Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez 

NEW YORK CITY—In the ninth inning of the first game of the 2009 World Series, Alex Rodriguez comes to bat with the Yankees trailing by five runs. After a postseason full of late-inning, game-changing home runs, A-Rod has finally lived down to pre-October expectations of A-Fraudulence. In his first three at-bats against Phillies ace Cliff Lee, the New York third baseman flailed away pitifully, striking out swinging in his first two at-bats and grounding out weakly his third time up. This time, with the count 1-2 and the first World Series game at the new Yankee Stadium all but over, a frustrated fan just to my left speaks up. “C’mon, you son of a bitch!” he heckles wearily. Rodriguez swings and misses at the next pitch, and the Yankees lose to the Phillies 6-1.

Yankees fans have high standards and long memories. As the video presentations on the humongous centerfield scoreboard remind us all night, the team has won 26 championships. Lou Gehrig, Thurman Munson, Bernie Williams, and the rest of those champs all played in the old Yankee Stadium, which on Wednesday was lit only by the glow of the new building across the street. Like Alex Rodriguez, the $1.5 billion stadium is the best that money can buy. It has the veneer and polish of a winner and generates home runs in droves but doesn’t appear to have a soul. The constant evocations of past champions—the banners and the monuments and the most-legendary stadium in American sports history looming just outside the gates—serve as a reminder that the new place must prove that it’s a true Yankee Stadium.

It’s not a perfect night to play host to your first World Series game. With the sky spitting a heavy mist, the pricey seats downstairs aren’t close to full. Yankee Stadium’s high rollers have access to swanky indoor clubs, and the prospect of getting wet has apparently driven some of them indoors. Higher up, fans crowd three deep on the concourses that rim the first and second levels, abandoning their seats for sheltered spots under the overhang.

The relative quiet tonight, however, has less to do with the weather than with Lee, the Phillies’ unhittable starter. While A-Rod is the whipping boy, every Yankee save Derek Jeter—whose three hits equaled the combined output of his teammates—is perplexed by the lefty’s fastballs, change-ups, and looping curves. Striking out 10, walking none, and tossing a complete game that’s sullied by a single unearned run in the ninth, Lee toys with the home team. In the sixth inning, Yankees left-fielder Johnny Damon bloops a low-flying pop-up back to the mound. Rather than wave his arms above his head to tell the Phillies’ infield the ball is his, Lee stands still as it arcs down to his right hip. * He doesn’t move his glove as the ball drops into the webbing. In the eighth, he snags a grounder by jabbing his glove behind his back. In his next start, look for Lee to bounce the ball off his nose.

On this night, the slim Phillie’s casual brilliance outshines the grunting effort of his hefty ex-Indians teammate CC Sabathia. Despite a recurrent inability to find the strike zone, the Yankees starter kept every Phillie off the scoreboard excepting the lefty-hitting second baseman Chase Utley. Down to his last strike in each of his first three plate appearances, Utley coaxed a walk and yanked two solo home runs. Utley’s first shot comes with his left hand off the bat, a looping parabola that drops over Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch. The second, which extends the Phillies’ lead to 2-0, gets half as high off the ground and travels seemingly twice as far to deep right-center, leaving grunts and gasps in its wake.

Once Lee sets aside the guys in pinstripes for the final time, the Yankees hats bob quietly through the concourses. On the street outside the stadium, a car-service rep advertises his wares: “Limousine … get your limo here … stretch limousine.” A woman begs for used tickets, and the lanyards piling up around her neck reveal that, for most, tonight’s stub isn’t a precious keepsake. Just like at the track, the only tickets worth keeping around here are the winners.

Correction, Oct. 29, 2009: This article incorrectly referred to Phillies pitcher Cliff Lee’s mitt. Catchers and first basemen wear mitts, which don’t have separated fingers. Pitchers and other fielders wear gloves. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)