“There’s a full moon over Miller Park tonight. Kinda looks like Don Zimmer.”
—Bob Uecker, 2013
September 20, 2001. Yankees at White Sox. My first post-9/11 baseball game. A mere nine days removed from the cataclysmic events of the previous Tuesday, I was attempting to drink away my nerves with about twenty-two thousand other brave souls in a just-over-half-full Comiskey Park. Just prior to opening weekend that year (which now seemed like it happened about half a lifetime ago, in a world inhabited by sparkly unicorns and marshmallow Peeps®) the Milwaukee Journal released a special section previewing the upcoming season (as well as touting the opening of brand-new Miller Park, and the can’t-miss heart of the Brewers order: Geoff Jenkins, Richie Sexson, Jeromy Burnitz and Jeffrey Hammonds. World Series tickIIITTTS!!! Getcha World Series tickets hyah!!!), into which they managed to cram agate listings of the entire schedule of each of Major League Baseball’s thirty teams. I had taken inventory of every single MLB game I’d seen in the past (which, admittedly, wasn’t a huge amount), and, after some fairly intense figgerin’, came to the conclusion that if I made judicious use of a few three-day weekends in order to travel to places like Cincinnati and St. Louis and Cleveland and Detroit and also hit Comiskey Park and the Metrodome a few times (in addition to regular pilgrimages to Miller Park, of course), I could, by season’s end, lay claim to having seen all thirty MLB teams play in my lifetime. The Yankees were—somewhat fittingly, I guess—the last team on the checklist, thus the Yankees-Sox game was to be my crowning achievement—the cherry on the top of a whirlwind, drunken summer—no band to tour, no skirts to chase—just interstate highways, cheap hotels, overpriced beer, and BASEBALL. With the cancellation of the prior week’s games, however, the Yankees slid up into the penultimate spot, team #29 of 30, collect ‘em all, as the Brewers-Marlins game for which I had tickets was one of the games scuttled due to Osama bin Jerkwad’s heinousness. Far from being a celebration of the baseball season (and of my own lunatic charge at a relatively meaningless personal goal), the Yankees-Sox game was, instead, an exercise in white-knuckled tension. They’d just started playing games again that Monday, and, as if the attacks on New York and DC weren’t enough, who knew what the hell else these bastards had up their sleeves? We still felt like we were taking our lives in our hands venturing out into mass gatherings like this. I had phoned my brother to let him know where I was going that night, and left him explicit instructions to NOT tell our father where I was going…unless, you know, something happens. In which case, please tell him that I died happy, having seen twenty-nine out of thirty major league baseball teams, and who’d count missing the Marlins against me, anyway?
There are worse places to be than Comiskey Park if you fear terrorist intrusion. Even the guys who wave your car to your parking spot lack necks and have handguns tucked into the back of the waistbands of their pants. I figure if there are any religious wackos raising hell in the parking lot of the Baptist church where I always park, they’ll probably be terminated with extreme prejudice in short order, or else they’ll fit right in. Yet, as I sit among my fear-faced counterparts twenty rows behind the plate—the atmosphere electric for all the wrong reasons—I am well aware that the guys with guns but no necks aren’t going to keep me safe from an incoming plane or a bomb or anthrax in my Comiskey Meal™ or toxic Joker Jelly spewing forth from the bathroom showers. Still, we gather together this Thursday night, huddled in the uncomfortably comfortable mid-September breeze, because, in some way, shape, or form, deep within our reptilian forebrains, we know we must. Some of us go because we believe it’s our patriotic responsibility. Some of us go because we believe it’s our duty as a fan. Some of us go because we believe that, if we don’t, the terrorists have won (no one is sure what the terrorists might, in fact, win, if lapses in our national recreation habits cede this match to them. However, we are certain they are assholes, and, therefore, MUST NOT EMERGE FROM THIS VICTORIOUS!). Me, I’m just going so I can say I saw the fucking Yankees once in my life and be done with it. In any event, here we all are, righteous Americans at the ball park, scared shitless. Play ball.
After what seems like interminable preparatory fol-de-rol, the singer of our national anthem emerges from whatever bulletproof shed in which she was stored. It’s our time to shine—our time to give throat to our bloodied-but-unbowed collective spirit—our time to beller our national theme song forth, twenty-odd-thousand strong, with a voice so powerful—so indomitable—so resonant and righteous—that Osama bin Numbnuts, half a world away, will surely take note and quail in whatever hole in the ground he’s taken his cowardly refuge. Like Dr. Seuss said, it’s good for dusty, musty throats to let out lusty, musty notes! It’s good for people, frogs and goats to open up and sing! Take that, jerkface!
The national anthem is a shameful flop. The singer sings it like she’s auditioning for American Idol™. The crowd starts out singing in unison, but can’t follow this dipshit’s vocal hotdogging for more than a few bars, and begin to drop out, en masse. By the end of the song, the crowd—fiercely committed to a patriotic sing-a-long just minutes prior—are now mostly silent, mumbling the remaining words arhythmically, like a half-hearted recitation of a prayer known by heart at church when keeping silent would be preferred but known to be unacceptable. Everyone applauds long and loud, of course, and makes a big deal out of things, but, given the circumstances of the past nine days, that’s sort of a foregone conclusion and doesn’t mean a hell of a lot. In point of fact, the crowd now seems even more skittish and despairing: If singing the Star-Spangled Banner together nine days after 9/11 wasn’t our Big Fix, what WILL be? Will anything? Jesus, Mary and Joseph, how fucked are we???
No bombs, planes, or toxic effusions of Joker Jelly interfere with the game before Chuck Knoblauch steps to the plate for the Yankees, facing off against Kip Wells on the mound for the Sox. The Neckless Wonders have done their job: I have officially Seen The Yankees. Kip Wells sends Knoblauch down swinging, and repeats the process on Derek Jeter. The crowd roars its approval at each strikeout, sorta like a World Series game where half the fans were out getting liver transplants or something. Bernie Williams, the number three guy in the Yankees’ order, strides to the plate. The crowd settles in, ever-so-slightly: Wells’ two K’s right off the bat (so to speak) is an interesting enough start that the game has started to grab people’s attention ever-so-slightly, with the hellish events of the past nine days temporarily compartmentalized off to the side. And then, it happens: Without warning, Wells uncorks a fastball that drills Bernie Williams right in the noggin, sending the Yankees’ center fielder down in a heap like a discarded puppet. This wasn’t a mere brushback pitch, nor one that got away, nor a routine plunk on the shoulder meant to square accounts for some other routine plunking that happened two weeks ago Tuesday, this was a fucking kill shot—a laser beam right to the batting helmet. The crowd—having seen all too many images of senseless violence over the course of the last nine days—freezes, open-mouthed. I start thinking about how the pitch that killed Indians’ shortstop Ray Chapman in 1920 rebounded off Chapman’s head with such force that Yankees pitcher Carl Mays, thinking it was a bunt, fielded the ball and threw to first. What Wells was thinking, I have no clue: The Yankees pitchers hadn’t hit any batters during the prior two games of the series, and it seemed like an awfully odd time in our nation’s history for one American to go randomly drilling another American (okay, Bernie Williams was actually Puerto Rican, but still) in the head with a weaponized sports projectile. Williams is still lying in a crumpled heap as the dugouts empty. The White Sox charge in from the third base side! The Yankees charge in from the first base side—and who’s leading the charge? THAT’S RIGHT!!! DON ZIMMER!!! Don Zimmer! DON SON-OF-A-BITCHING ZIMMER!!! Don Zimmer, seventy years old and 300-odd pounds! Don Zimmer, Joe Torre’s right-hand man! Don Zimmer, a septuagenarian baseball lifer who’s sported four metal screws in his head since getting bonked with a pitch in 1953! Don Zimmer: Charlie Brown’s head on Fat Albert’s body!!! Incalculably—improbably—impossibly—Zimmer is indeed leading the Yankees’ charge to the mound, running at full sprint (bearing in mind that “full sprint” for Don Zimmer is actually something akin to a swift waddle), yards ahead of the able-bodied millionaire twenty-somethings that comprise the remainder of the Yankees’ roster. Numerous flecks of spittle are flying out of Zimmer’s mouth as he charges the mound, waving his arms around in a histrionic pantomime similar to that of a pro wrestling referee who knows his words can’t be heard beyond the first few rows of folding chairs, and has to use his body language to convey the story to the saps up in the mezzanine. Zimmer’s comical fury is the catalyst that performs the function the national anthem was supposed to, but didn’t: To a man, the crowd jumps to their feet, screaming wildly. RAAAAAAAAGGHHHHHH!!!! The Sox fans are screaming RAAAAAAAAGGHHHHHH!!! The Yankee fans are screaming RAAAAAGGHHHHH!!! Everyone in the damn stadium is screaming RAAAAAAAAGGHHHHHH!!!, screaming it at the top of their goddamn lungs!!! WE DON’T EVEN KNOW WHY WE’RE SCREAMING RAAAAAAAAGGHHHHHH (after all, sure, Yankee dominance at that time was getting pretty tiresome, but, really, what’d Bernie Williams ever do to us?), BUT DAMMIT, WE’RE SCREAMING RAAAAAAAAGGHHHHHH!!! AND IT FEELS GOOD!!! Somehow, the sight of roly-poly, white-haired, blubbery Don Zimmer hollering and gesticulating and charging pell-mell into the fray sets everything briefly right with the world (although one supposes that last point could be argued by Bernie Williams, who leaves the game and is held out of Friday’s game against the Orioles as well). For a few glorious hours, we are united as one at the Rival Tribal Rebel Revel of sport, catalyzed, in a way on which we can’t quite put our collective finger, not so much by Kip Wells’ unexpected beaning of Bernie Williams, but by Zim’s completely predictable comic reaction towards it. In retrospect, what made the moment so unspeakably awesome—so cathartic—so healing— so frickin’ thanks-I-needed-that—was that, a little after 7 PM Central Time on Thursday, September 20, 2001, Don Zimmer became the first guy in America to forget (albeit briefly) that there was any such thing as 9/11, and, even if he dimly remembered it as he charged the mound, looking to play buck-buck with Kip Wells’ scrawny neck, he couldn’tve given a shit less about it at the time. As such, Don Zimmer takes his place in my heart as one of Earth’s Greatest Americans, ever.
By the time I had completed my quest at the rescheduled Brewers-Marlins game at the end of the season, my jokes to the beer vendors that it took four major terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, but the Brewers were finally playing October baseball again were almost funny.
As frontman of Rev. Norb & The Onions, Norb is currently on his 33rd year of being in insignificant punk bands. He's the author of THE ANNOTATED BORIS: DECONSTRUCTING THE LYRICAL MAJESTY OF BORIS THE SPRINKLER ((AND OTHER TALES AS THE NEED ARISES)), which he really hopes you'll buy someday. His collection of low-grade 1959 Topps baseball cards is 51.9% complete, but his 1976 set is all present and accounted for.