Sobering Class Warfare in the Bronx

In yet another blow to the young, the unemployed, slackers with time on their hands and those who relish an orgiastic group experience, the New York Yankees now number and assign bleacher seats. These uncomfortable, cheap seats beyond the outfield have been first-come, first-serve since time immemorial. True fans used to arrive early enough to ensure a seat in the (in)famous right field section, home to the self-styled Bleacher Creatures and one of the last unrepentant, declasse outposts left in what's become Salt Lake City on the Hudson.

But no, this thin slice of Democracy in action exists no more. As the Yankees buy themselves steady championships, attendence is up and even bleacher seats are coveted. In fact, this season, some 1,000 seats are already taken by season-ticket holders. That'll cut down on spontaneous lumpen attendence.

But that's the least of it.

On a recent Friday night, when the hated Boston Red Sox were in town for a three-game series, the Yankee's leadership innagurated a permanent ban on beer in the bleachers -- just the bleachers. Without access to the rest of the stadium, denizens of the bleachers are now condemned to cheer the Yanks, taunt the opposition and roil amongst themselves if not quite sober, than unrefreshed for an eternity of three or four hours. Guilt by geography, it seems, defines the current Yankee policy: join the ranks of cheap seat buyers and forget about a beer. No, not even one. Not even for the guy who wants to treat his friend the Presbyterian minister baking in the sun next to him.

Louts elsewhere in the stadium, though, many at least as malfeasant as any Bleacher Creature, still guzzle as much over-priced hops (Miller Genuine Draft or Coors Light or some such swill) as wallet and stomach can handle.

I showed for game one of this recent evisceration of two allegedly bedrock American principles: equal rights and innocent until proven guilty. I snuck over from my assigned seat in left-center (reserved for tourists, people on blind dates and suits, among those who can't hack it) to the rowdy right field bleachers. Seemingly on cue, sixty guys pointing to the beer-enabled stands above them stood and screamed "Alcoholics!" over and over. Soon a brave fool in a Boston cap walked up the aisle, further testing fate by encouraging the jeers his way. Amidst the flying food, some of it actually hitting its target, the offending hat disappeared. A cop sauntered down, and order was restored. Of the five or six cops present, a couple seemed live and let live, but a couple of schoolmarms-in-blue looked ready for a ruler to smack unruly knuckles.

Insults to the Red Sox center fielder (an ex-Met), and chants of "Boston sucks" broke out regularly, spontaneously, matching the logo on hundreds of tee-shirts. (I foolishly didn't buy the one I saw for sale outside that read, "Boston Suck." Like a misprinted stamp, it'll no doubt soar in value.) But the night's new plea was the most inflamed: "We want beer!" Yankee spokesman, Rick Cerrone, later sneered, "So what. They can chant what they want as long as it's not obscene."

Many in the bleachers, like fans elsewhere, arrived pre-lubricated. Hundreds had jammed the sidewalk outside before the game, pounding 24-ounce cans of beer, and hundreds more packed the bars nearby. A marvelously straight-faced cop thirty yards away stated that anyone seen drinking beer would be asked to move along.

In one bar, a fan objected to the beer ban's mid-season bait and switch. He and his buddies, season tickets holders all, had moved from the upper deck, where they would see 15 games for $200, to the bleachers to see 25 games for the same price. Though it would cost more to move back to avoid the beer ban, they were negotiating to do so. Yankee management known for vindictiveness in matters large and small, he requested anonymity. And this legal beagle wondered why the Yankees didn't just enforce "the dram shop act, where they're not supposed to serve anyone visibly intoxicated."

Citing his accomplished group of friends, he said not everyone in the bleachers is a bum, not everyone out there doesn't know how to hold their beer. The Yankees stated rationale rests on the supposed beer-fueled, rampant fighting. But Tommy, an unexcitable cop who's worked both Harlem and the bleachers for years, told me he's never seen an undue number of fights.

No, the Yankee bleacher beer ban is just another species of gentrification. Make the bleachers more "civilized" and you'll soon able to displace the great unwashed with even more season-ticket holders. Fewer sweaty oafs in tee-shirts, hurling oaths at the opposing right fielder and bringing their own salami sandwiches in, saving their limited bucks for beer. The right to eat your own food, rather than spend forty bucks feeding your kids, will go next, as has happened at at least one major league park.

Off in the distant infield, the Yankees fell behind. Chris Hanly, a 21-year-old from Peekskill acquainted with the route to the bottom of a paper cup, "sorta, kinda already knew" about the no suds policy. He declared, "The suits doing business [in the corporate box seats] should have no alcohol. We're actually fans, since we're not getting paid to come to the game." Hanly added, "It's utterly ridiculous. People are going to act the same way whether there's beer or not."

That includes Don Zimmer -- or a life-sized, cardboard cut-out, anyway, of the Yankee bench coach cradling a huge can of beer -- who was occasionally marched up and down an aisle. Amazingly, Zim wasn't confiscated.

Tom Brown, better known as "Tom the Sherrif" -- with a toy badge to prove it -- is, at just 31, "a living legend," said a comely admirer. A Bleacher Creature honcho, he stopped orchestrating cheers long enough to make his case. Speaking of his fellow Creatures, a hundred strong and given to spontaneous group outbursts, "We're just boisterous. Besides, people who want to drink are going to do it anyway. Half of us don't even drink." Sherrif Brown theorized that the beer ban was a reaction to a recent fight betwenn Los Angeles Dodgers players and fans in the stands at Chicago's Wrigley field.

Anthony Griek, a 21-year-old representing Connecticut chimed in, "If they want a family atmosphere, they've got to ban the whole stadium. But they won't make money. Personally, I can handle alcohol. It's a Friday night -- I'm drunk."

Frank Greene, of Westchester, had the temerity to adorn not just himself but his eight-year-old daughter with Red Sox caps. Not making a big deal of his loyalites (and sitting unmolested in the front row, a cop within spitting distance), he thought the ban "terrific, since by the third or fourth inning, language gets to be a real problem." But Greene, who comes "to cheer for the Yankees to lose," was actually referring to elsewhere in the stadium, since this was his first game in the bleachers.

Indeed, the Yankees won't solve their problems by banning beer for just the folks with no clout. An ossified fan in the upper deck behind home plate had been asserting that the umpire practiced incest with an older relative, along with other nicities, so loudly as to be chided by stadium security. But he wasn't even asked for the ticket he didn't have, the folks sitting behind him told me. Yankee spokesman Cerrone said security can't check all 55,000 fans' tickets.

In delicious irony, and leaving behind what was said to be his empty pint of 151-proof rum, Mr. Obscenity picked the first night of the beer ban to tumble from the upper deck to the netting below, lying there motionless while the half-inning was completed. A couple of sections over, he would have missed the netting and taken out some unfortunate below along with himself. As he hung before falling, said nearby fan Cindy Roberts, "You should have seen the look on his face. He was scared out of his mind. We were all screaming." He came to eventually and clambored apparently unhurt off the netting unto the cops' tender ministrations.

Cerrone declared the beer ban a success. "Previously, playing a three-game series with the Red Sox, you'd expect 75 to 100 ejections from the bleachers. Last weekend there was a total of four. The whole climate in the bleachers has changed," he said.

For some fans, at $5.75 a brew, the issue is moot. Said one, age 28, who goes by the nome de baseball of Kwik, "Every year, the prices go up and the size of the cups goes down. We'd be doing shots of beer out here next." In the best American tradition, boozeries outside Yankee Stadium reportedly raised their pre-game prices as of that Sunday.

Daniel Forbes writes on social policy and the media from New York.

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