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Stand-Off at the Stadium

Trip's Corner

The Colonial meat-packing company proved over the weekend to be the only group of people who can play both sides of the Yankee-Red Sox blood feud. Effervescent kids on New York's channel 11, largely black and Hispanic, touted Yankee Franks as "the taste that takes you out to the ballgame," while a similar, but whiter, group of urchins acted out the same theme between innings for Fenway Franks.

Little else about the four-game split in Yankee Stadium brought people together. After the seventh inning brawl in the Thursday opener, there were few objective observers in the ballpark, and probably fewer still in the bars of the two cities. Excluding, maybe, the police who had to break up the numerous and sometimes bloody fights in the stands that followed the main event on the field.

Bill Lee, the Boston starter, had staggered off the field a victim of the brawl, looking dazed and crippled even from the oxygen-mask territory of the upper deck. About a third of the Stadium crowd, far more than had earlier expressed Beantown loyalty, cheered Rick Burleson's ensuing two-run homer that began what ended as an 8-2 Bosox rout.

Even the Bronx native and lifetime New Yorker sitting next to me started rooting for the Olde Towne Team after the grounded Spaceman exited. New Yorkers, are like that, I guess, possessed with an urge to hero worship, but without the patience to develop tested team loyalty. (Another companion at the game, also a Big Apple native, confessed that his childhood adulation of the Detroit TIgers had ended completely when A1 Kaline retired.)

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The loud, and inarticulate, Yankee partisans sitting behind me seemed able to get really excited only when they could combine a Red Sox nickname with an epithet, like "Pudge, you stiff." With the possible exceptions of Catfish Hunter, Thurman Munson, and for unfathomable reasons, Lou Piniella, the Yankee players (who seem by and large to lack nicknames) have not caught the fancy of the city. Like Jimmy Carter, the Yankees' support is a mile wide but maybe only an inch deep.

The new Yankees are built on speed, and run they did on Carlton Fisk's suddenly questionable arm. Leading the way was highly-accoladed rookie second baseman Willie Randolph, who already looks like Joe Morgan and has the same sense of control and presence on the field.

But the scrappy, hustling game that the Yankees now play seems out of tune in the new Yankee Stadium, which still seems magisterial and, somehow, important. But, for my two cents' worth, the renovated version doesn't merit its $100 million price tag. A $5 ticket in the new, "unobstructed view" stadium still did not afford a glimpse of half of right field.

The steeply-tiered upper deck, which rises at least to the level of a Triple-A pop-up, puts one far above the action, an appropriate distance in a shrine, perhaps, but one that allows even Yankee partisans to concentrate exclusively on the fights in the stands and not on their team batting below. But one can't help feeling that they would have watched Ruth or Dimaggio or Mantle take their swings in the circumstances.

After Thursday, the series assumed an eerie calm. No one on either team seemed interested in renewing the aggressions of the opener's fisticuffs. Graig Nettles, one of the protagonists in the assault on Lee, was hit by a pitch on Saturday night. But it was in the bottom of the tenth, and the pitch was so obviously an errant curve ball that Nettles didn't even glare back at the pitcher, Tom House. It was like that through the Yankee victory on Friday and the Bosox's recovery Sunday. Both teams clawed at each other like cats with manners, scoring in dribs and drabs and putting together scratch singles and errors most of the time, with the tension but not the screeching of Thursday. Saturday was a little different; the Catfish lived up to his price tag, scattering three hits in 11 innings before the Yankees finally broke through the sturdy pitching of Dick Pole and Tom House for a run.

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But it would be stretching a point to say that the Yankees yet have much class. Their convicted-felon owner, George Steinbrenner, told Yankee broadcaster Frank Messer that he wanted Lee suspended from baseball for telling a New Jersey paper that he was looking forward to returning to action and "drilling" Nettles and Mickey Rivers, the two members of the Yankees who almost ended the Space Cowboy's career--a natural feeling on Lee's part, it seems to me.

Steinbrenner doesn't like fights, though. He refused to let the Stadium, a public facility, be used for a Frazier-Foreman fight this summer because it would allegedly tear up the infield grass too much. The fight promoter then told the press that Steinbrenner wore a toupee. So the Yankee owner, concerned by this assault on his image, told the broadcaster on Sunday to pull his hair to "see if it is a purple wig." The Yankee-paid Messer dutifully announced that it "feels real to me," as the camera focused on the Yankee team taking the field.

Just for the record, Yankee Franks cost 65 cents in the Stadium, while Fenway Franks go for 55 cents.

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