Sports and superstitious rituals go together like baseball and chicken.
Well, that’s true if you ask Hall of Famer Wade Boggs, who correlated his hitting success to chowing down on pre-game chicken.
And that’s not even the strangest sports ritual.
We can pick apart Wayne Gretzky’s baby powdered hockey stick, Jason Giambi’s golden thong, and Moises Alou’s “pee hands.” But today, we are here to talk about how I single-handily helped the New York Yankees win their 23rd world championship after an 18-year dry spell back in 1996.
OK, OK. I didn’t help the Yanks win alone.
My sister helped.
Tom Petty helped, too.
It started early during the Yankees playoff run.
At some point late in the season, likely during a Saturday FOX game or right before the playoffs started, a producer threw together a Yankees hype reel. But instead of using the typical rock song, they plugged in “Walls.”
Released in the summer of 1996, “Walls” was the first single from the album Songs and Music, the movie soundtrack from “She’s the One.”
Starring Jennifer Aniston and Cameron Diaz, the movie was The Brothers McMullen redux from Edward Burns. But the movie has nothing to do with warming the hearts of millions of Yankees fans and breaking the hearts of millions of Yankee-haters. “Walls” does.
The lyrics cried out to this Yankees fan who spent his entire childhood rooting for a losing team. Crazy, right? The New York Yankees as a bottom-dwelling team, but it was true. There was nothing Don Mattingly’s balky back could have done to shoulder the weight of a fading Rickey Henderson and Dave Winfield, nothing Donnie Baseball could have done to lift up dudes like Wayne Tolleson, Ken Phelps and Dale Berra– this Yankees team just wasn’t going to get it done.
I got used to losing and getting razzed by Mets fans.
So when the Yankees finally turned the corner from the dark 80s and early 90s, I was beyond psyched to experience a “winner.” And I did what any idiot college kid would have done in the 90s: I maxed out the cash advances on my credit cards and went to Yankee Stadium to experience the magic.
And it was worth Every. Single. Penny.
In 1995, my mom and I were lucky enough to attend Game 2 of the ALDS vs. the Seattle Mariners. After feeling Yankee Stadium shake when Don Mattingly hit a go-ahead home run during his final game in the Bronx, I was hooked. It was an intense adrenaline rush that turned me into a live-sports addict. In a game that featured seven lead changes, Jim Leyritz ultimately ended things with a game-winning homer in the 15th inning. Mariano Rivera got the win, and even though the Yankees would drop the series, the torch was passed: the dynasty born.
I was willing to sacrifice anything to be at the Stadium to experience the rush of winning a World Championship.
A week earlier, I sat in the Bronx for Game 1 of the ALCS and watched young Jeffrey Maier send Tony Tarasco into a tizzy when he interfered with a ball that credited Derek Jeter with a home run to tie the game.
Bedlam in the Bronx, as Davey Johnson and the Birds took their protest to the outfield and Stadium fans relished the moment. And then total chaos when Bernie Williams ended the game with a walk-off homer.
So it was World Series or bust. I had to be there!
Once the Orioles were eliminated, I crossed the Throggs Neck Bridge, parked on Sheridan Avenue, and looked back at my little black Honda Civic, wondering if she would be there after my mission was accomplished.
The line stretched down River Avenue and snaked around “The House That Ruth Built.” I arrived woefully unprepared, surviving on McDonald’s hot chocolate and warm street-cart pretzels. I kept feeling the outside of my jeans pocket, making sure the damp wad of cash was still there.
Since Saturday, people had been lining up when the Yankees were still two games away from a trip to the World Series. I arrived shortly after they clinched their berth on Sunday night.
The line was long, and it was mid-October cold outside.
Would I even get tickets? Could I survive the elements?
Rumors were swirling about people cutting the line and that the Yankees were only making a few thousand tickets available. The odds of success were dwindling with every passing hour.
There was a strict ticket limit. Perhaps two tickets per person? Maybe four?
Ticket seekers were herded from barricaded section to barricaded section.
When I finally made it to the ticket window, around 16 hours later, I reached my frozen hand into my pocket and pulled out the damp wad of $20s.
“Hi. Which games are still available?”
“Game 6 and Game 7.”
The Bleachers at Yankee Stadium are world-famous for a reason. When you sit a mile away from home plate, you will need to find ways to stay engaged with the game. There’s a reason The Bleacher Creatures in Sections 37 and 39 at the old Yankee Stadium would drink lots of beer, sing songs, and start the game of with a Roll Call, chanting each player’s name until the team acknowledged the fans.
A fantastic place to sit in the middle of the summer against the lowly White Sox, but the bleachers for a pivotal playoff game? Ugh!
I was happy to get tickets to games 6 and 7…but now I needed to hope the boys in Pinstripes made it that far, AND hope that I could see the action from the bleachers.
But first, the Yankees needed to advance so that I could be there in person.
The rule in the house was that when watching the Yankees on the 20″ tube TV in my room, we would mute the announcers and crank up my Yorx stereo system to listen to the only two voices that mattered: John Sterling and Michael Kay.
Early on, things were looking bleak for the Yankees. The Atlanta Braves were the real deal. In Game 1, Andy Pettite got lit, and Andruw Jones was red hot. In Game 2, Greg Maddux was Pure Maddux, stifling Yankees’ bats through 8 innings.
For the start of Game 3, things needed to shift. Fuck the Fulton County Stadium fans and their ridiculous “chop.” We weren’t just desperately rooting for our favorite team, but we were cheering for the ability to be there in person for one of these historic World Series games.
The Yankees needed a jumpstart.
I slipped Tom Petty’s “Walls” into my stereo, and good things started to happen.
And when the Yankees bats came alive in the 8th inning, we knew whatever bizarre ritual we had created was working.
The games were stressful. Exhausting. We lived and died with every single pitch and every single out. But Tom Petty played, and we did this ridiculous two-step back-and-forth and back-and-forth and back-and-forth. If we stopped, all would be lost.
Game 3 was tight, but ultimately, like so many times throughout the late nineties, Bernie Williams came through. And it was David Cone and Darryl Strawberry, the irony of cheering for two former Mets, that helped get the Yankees on the board, that we celebrated the hardest.
Game 4 started on a sour note, at least for the first five innings of the game. Tom Petty seemed to lose his magical power. The Braves were leading six to nothing, and it seemed like the Yankees were about to lose any momentum they had mustered in the previous game. We debated swapping out Tom Petty but decided that we were all in it together if the ship was going down.
The Yankees had chipped away a bit, and by the 8th inning, they were down 6 to 3. Jim Leyritz had a killer at-bat against Mark Wohlers and eventually deposited a ball over the left-field wall. We were tied, 6 to 6 !
I was jumping up and down and fist-pumping so hard that I couldn’t hear the chords of “Walls” over my cheers, but just knowing that the CD was still spinning worked for me.
The Yanks went on to win the game in the 10th inning. Then Andy Petttie and John Smoltz shaved years off of our collective lives in Game 5 when each pitched their heart out. But the Yankees took the game 1-0 and secured a trip back to the Bronx for Game 6. My sis and I were thrilled! We were going to be there! And while we didn’t have a ticket for Tom Petty, we knew he’d be there in spirit.
We got to the Stadium early. Drank a couple of Coors Lights on the deck of the high-rise parking lot. Despite the light buzz, I’ll never forget the walk from the lot to the Stadium; every fiber of my body told me that this would be a night I would never forget.
The crowd was amped.
We took our seats, well, stood by our seats, and acquainted ourselves with our new best friends for a few hours. The people we would high-five and hug as we had known them our entire lives.
The first two innings had an eerie feel to them, as if everyone’s nerves were jangling in a bizzrro-erratic harmony.
Then Joe Girardi came to the plate and swatted the ball deep to centerfield, perfectly in line with where we were sitting. It was destiny. We lost sight of the ball, but it didn’t matter. As Paul O’Neill crossed home plate and the fleet-of-foot catcher slid into third base, all eyes were on Girardi. Bedlam ensued. The steel and concrete holding up Yankee Stadium was put to the test.
Upstart shortstop, a 21-year-old Derek Jeter, singled home Girardi and the celebration was underway. The game ended up being a close affair, but once Charlie Hayes squeezed the ball behind third base, the Stadium exploded. If you have never experienced an adrenaline surge simultaneously with 56,374 other people in the same location, it’s highly recommended.
We screamed. We cheered. We danced. We drank. We hugged. We smoked cigars.
We were part of history, and it was even more magical than advertised.
But it never happens without Tom Petty, the unsung hero of the World Champion 1996 New York Yankees.