Winning Yankees give city a lift

BASEBALL: WORLD SERIES

New York City is on air. Not the smoggy stuff that on winter days wafts across the Hudson from New Jersey, but pure oxygen. When the Yankees put away the Atlanta Braves here on Saturday night to secure the 1996 World Series, four games to two, even the skyscrapers might have levitated just a fraction. The Bronx Bombers had done it and their fans were in Heaven and beyond.

The moment that gave the Yankees their first championship in 18 years came just before 11pm. With Yankee Stadium wound up tighter than Big Ben's spring, a ball from relief pitcher John Wetteland was popped into the air by the Braves' Mark Lemke and straight into the glove of third baseman Charlie Hayes. And, with the score at 3-2 at the top of the ninth, it was all over.

In the stadium and across the city, the Braves might as well never have existed. Never mind, that only days before, the Tomahawks from Atlanta had humiliated the Yankees at their Bronx home with smashing wins in the first two games of the best-of-seven series.

The Braves, who in the 1990s had declared themselves the new dynasty in baseball, were subsequently trampled in three midweek games in Atlanta. Now they had been chopped themselves and finally dispatched.

Saturday was no Yankee walkover, however. The three runs had all come, one by one, at the bottom of the third. The Braves fought back first with one run and then, at the top of a seat-squirming ninth, they took Wetteland for another run. Only then, with 56,000 hearts in 56,000 mouths around the stadium, did Wetteland finally deliver the throw that tricked Lemke into lofting the last ball of the Series.

The banners in the Yankee Stadium - unfurled between innings and politely folded up again during play - said it all. "The Braves - Gone with the Win," said one. Another: "Tonight's the Night the Lights Go out in Georgia, Go Yankees".

Others were addressed to Joe Torre, the shoe-sole-faced Yankee manager, whose brother, Frank, had only on Friday been given a new heart after waiting 72 days for a donor in a New York cardiac ward. "Win it for Frank," they declared.

Fairy tales like these belong to New York. There was an uncomfortable metaphor in the long drought suffered by the Bombers and their eclipse by teams like the Braves from America's New South. New York, and the Bronx especially - that is Da Bronx, of course - was a place that was itself in dark and violent decline. Now, the Apple is back - polished, safer and, what is more, a home again to heroes.

"New York, New York... be part of it". The ball was caught and the house that Ruth built erupted. The Yankees made a human pyramid of jubilation over the pitching mound. The fans were swaying and screaming and whipping out their cigars. Battalions of police in riot gear and horses flooded on to the field to repel invading fans. And over the PA system came that wonderful voice of Sinatra.

If you were there - or indeed if you were anywhere in New York - you had to be a part of it. When New Yorkers get this happy, they behave as if everyone is everyone else's brother or sister or lover. Heads were sore from drinking yesterday morning, but so were hands from the the non- stop high-fiving.

I don't normally high-five. I don't even normally follow baseball. But on Saturday night, down in the locker rooms in the bowels of the stadium with the rest of the media, I high-fived with some of the Yankees themselves. Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry - both men who had come to October glory from battles earlier this year with drug addiction - and with pitchers Jimmy Key and David Weathers.

Come to New York this Tuesday and you will be a part of it. That is when the Yankees will be honoured with a tickertape parade down the so-called Canyon of Heroes - a stretch of Broadway from Battery Park to City Hall. Never mind that ticker tape is not made any more or that most of the high- rise windows do not open. Lavatory roll will do fine as will a spot on a lamp-post or the roof of a yellow-cab.

All of the Bronx will be there, if not quite all of New York. "I've been waiting so long for this, for two decades I've been rooting for this team," exclaimed Lou DelCastillo, a hospital administrator from Queens. On the subway ride home from the stadium, he proudly wears a sweatshirt with the thin blue pin-stripes of the Yankee uniform. In one hand is a half- chewed Havana (he does not smoke) and in the other a small camera-film canister. Within it is a special prize - a few grains of dirt from the infield of Yankee Stadium. Dirt from under the shoes of the Yankee heroes on World Series night, 1996.

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