SPORT IN AMERICA 1: Braving a trip to the Yankee zoo

Rupert Cornwell looks at the importance of home advantage for baseball's World Series, which begins in New York tonight
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The Independent Online
Technically, its name is Yankee Stadium. Those of a nostalgic bent talk about The House That Ruth Built, in reverence of the greatest star the New York Yankees and baseball have ever produced. Those who know, however, refer to the place simply as the Bronx Zoo, wherein may be found the toughest, brashest crowd in America from what likes to think of itself as the toughest, brashest town in America.

Welcome to New York, where a 12-year-old kid leans into the field to steal an illegal home run for the Yankees at a crucial juncture in the American League Championship Series this month but, instead of being summarily ejected from the stadium, briefly becomes the Big Apple's biggest hero since Babe himself.

Beyond all argument, however, the stadium is baseball's La Scala, stage for the most legend-encrusted franchise in the sport. Between 1921 and 1981, the Yankees appeared 34 times in the World Series, the ultimate showcase of the sport, winning 22 of them. For decades, Yankee baseball in October was a fixture to rank with the changing of the autumn leaves. Now, after an absence of 15 years, the longest in the club's history, the Yankees are back. Shortly after 8pm local time tonight, the first game of the 1996 Series will begin.

Nowhere has seen more post-season heroics, from the strutting home runs of Babe Ruth and Joe Di Maggio to the savage power of Mickey Mantle, and the perfect game thrown by Don Larsen in 1956, the only one ever in the World Series.

Beyond their city's five boroughs, the team may be detested (not for nothing was the film called Damn Yankees) but, over the next week, the entire country will be enthralled, if only at the prospect of them losing.

And lose they very well might. Their opponents in the Series will be the Atlanta Braves, who on Thursday night completed the most crushing comeback victory in National League Championship history. Down three games to one in the best-of-seven series with the St Louis Cardinals, the Braves swept the final three games by a combined 32-1 margin. The 15-0 blow-out which wrapped up matters on Thursday was not just the biggest win ever in the NLCS, but an embarrassment to watch. By any yardstick, the Braves must be counted favourites.

This time the Yankees have no megastars, but a quite characteristic harmony in the dressing-room. Much of that is due to their manager, Joe Torre, one of the most beloved figures in the game, who is contesting a world championship for the first time after no less than 32 years and 4,272 games as player and successively manager for the cross-town Mets, the Braves and Cardinals.

No major leaguer in baseball history has ever waited as long. Just 12 months ago, St Louis sacked him. Since then, Torre has lost one brother, Rocco, to a heart attack and watches as another sibling, Frank, fights for his life in a New York hospital. But amid this family anguish, Joe has at last reached the pinnacle.

Then there is the soap opera of Darryl Strawberry. Four months ago, "Straw" was a washed-up prodigy going through the motions in Minnesota for the St Paul Saints of the nondescript Northern League, seemingly the death throes of a massive talent sacrificed on the all too familiar altar of alcohol, women and cocaine. The Yankees gave him a last chance, and three Strawberry homers in the American League play-offs helped sink Baltimore, beating the Orioles at their own slugging game.

The very presence of the Yankees guarantees high drama, be it Bronx braggadocio in victory, or a tabloid mauling if they lose. But in purely sporting terms, the 1996 Series could be one of the best.

With the mid-season acquisition of Strawberry and the mighty Cecil Fielder, formerly of the Detroit Tigers, the club has acquired power to go with its polished defence. New York has the best pitching in the American League and, in their outfielder Bernie Williams and rookie shortstop Derek Jeter, two of the most exciting young talents in the game. But if any National League club matches the Yankees of yesteryear in money and arrogance, it is the defending world champions, the Braves.

Since 1991, only once have they failed to reach the World Series. The media magnate Ted Turner is the most famous owner in the game. More pertinently, the Braves have the best pitching in baseball, built around the starting trio of John Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, and the 98mph fastballs of closer Mark Wohlers.

To win, the modern heirs of Ruth, Di Maggio and Mantle can afford no mistakes. But they have two points in their favour. One is that they have five days of rest for the tired pitchers to regain their strength (against just one for the Braves). The other is that four of the seven games will be played in front of the frenzied denizens of the Bronx Zoo.