Tales From Yankee Stadium

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 25 May 2013.

The silver Amtrak train slowly trundled its way along the tracks deep below the streets of Manhattan and eventually came to a halt. I gathered my two cases and patiently waited until it was time to step down onto the platform at New York’s Penn Station. I edged along among the fellow travellers and then took a couple of steps onto the elevator. As I slowly rose, it hit me.

That New York City Subway smell.

It is difficult to define, but once experienced, it is never forgotten. It is a mixture of sickly sweat, of train diesel, of dirt and grime, of car fumes, of urine, of adrenaline, of oil, of body odour, of perfume and aftershave. It is a heady mix. Without any hint of self-censorship, I blurted out –

“I love that smell.”

I was back in New York.

The story of my return to the US at the end of yet another ridiculously entertaining and tumultuous season following Chelsea Football Club is worthy of a separate dissertation all by itself. Here are the bullet points. Like many others, I was at first shocked that Chelsea were returning to the US for two essentially money-making games against Manchester City. After all that the players have been put through, why not let them rest and allow their bodies time to re-charge over the summer? To me and countless others, it seemed illogical and quite pathetic. Personally, I was also surprisingly underwhelmed. Knowing my love of travelling to the US, my ambivalence truly surprised me. In the words of many a football fan, I was clearly not “up” for this crazy addendum to this longest ever season. My initial thought was to boycott it.

In fact, in all honesty, I was happy with a boycott. After almost 12 years of travelling to the US – and elsewhere – every summer following the Yankees or Chelsea, I was looking to try something different during the summer of 2013. I had already ruled out attending the Asia tour, simply because I had only just visited two of the three cities – Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur – as recently as 2011. No, that would be over-egging it. I wanted to spread my wings. I had thoughts about driving down through Italy, maybe seeing Depeche Mode in Milan and Rome. Maybe a relaxing beach holiday – not my scene at all, really, but something different – or maybe swimming with camels in Norway, cycling around the North Pole, learning to plate-spin in Greece, wine-tasting in Glasgow, scuba-diving in Siberia, maybe even something as simple as a week in London, catching up on all the tourist attractions that I never get the chance to witness despite being in London close on thirty days every single year. I just fancied something a little different.

And then Chelsea, as is so often the case, screwed it all up.

The club announced that the match in New York would be in Yankee Stadium.

Oh boy.

I honestly swear that if the venue had been the Red Bulls’ place in Harrison, the new NFL stadium in East Rutherford or the new Mets’ pad in Flushing, I would have said “no.”

But – damn Yankees and damn Chelsea! – I simply couldn’t resist a trip back to the house that George Steinbrenner III built in the Bronx and so I looked at travel options and my mind became infused with New York once again. I saw my first Chelsea game of 2012-2013 at Yankee Stadium and I would see my last Chelsea game of 2012-2013 there too. These twin games would prove to be two incredible bookends for another crazy season. Way back in the early ‘nineties – when I was just starting out on my own personal baseball journey – if someone had mentioned this to me, I think I would have fainted.

Without too much trouble, I soon sorted flights to the US and I was able to include a three-game Yankees series in Baltimore in my plans too. The baseball and footballing Gods were shining down on me once again.

Penn Station plays a small but significant role in my life as a Chelsea supporter. Just as I can remember exactly where I was when I heard that Ruud Gullit and Gianluca Vialli had signed for Chelsea (Westbury, Wiltshire and Gaviota State Park, California), I can well remember where I was when I heard that Frank Lampard had signed for us. I was at Penn Station. I had been in New York for eight days and I ‘phoned my good friend Glenn, who had been keeping an eye on my mother while I was abroad. In a hurried call, he had told me that Claudio Ranieri had bought both Frank Lampard and Emanuel Petit, with others “to follow.” At the time, I was excited that we were splashing the cash, though undecided about Lampard as a player. I needn’t have worried, eh?

A while back, with Frank unsigned for next season, I was worried that my personal Frank Lampard story would start in Penn Station and end in The Bronx, where his last ever game for Chelsea may have taken place. I love my symmetry, but that would have been tough to take.

I made my way up to street level and soon took a cab to Brooklyn. I had lucked out with accommodation for the NYC segment of the trip; my friend Alex had offered me the use of his apartment in Greenpoint while he was away on holiday in Denmark. I was soon hurtling over the Greensboro Bridge, slightly unsure if the cabbie knew where he was going, but just so excited to be back in one of my favourite places on Earth. The view was phenomenal; the East River down below, the Williamsburg Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building and, hauntingly, the now almost completed new tower at the World Trade Centre.

Oh lucky man.

Alex evidently lived in a great neighbourhood. Rather than charging me rent, all he wanted was a flagon of scrumpy, which I had given him in London on his recent visit, and a few packs of football trading cards to give to a young relative. Greenpoint was clearly a great place to base myself for a few days. There was a subway stop a hundred yards from Alex’ pad. I would be fine. There was an eclectic mix of Polish shops and other ethnic cafes, although the place was swarming with “trying too hard” hipsters. However, I was entranced by the mix of different accents as I walked the streets of Greenpoint . It was so typical of New York.

Sergei : “What we do here? I want go home Russia.”

Alexander : “We American now. We leave London, big chance in Big Beetroot.”

Sergei : “Big Apple. It’s Big Apple.”

Alexander : “Apple, Schmapple. Whatever.”

Sergei : “Oh boyski.”

In all honesty, this would not be like other trips to the Big Apple. This was a time for me to relax and to chill out at the end of another taxing season. On the plane over, I calculated that this would be my seventeenth trip to the US and my fifteenth time in NYC. There was little that I needed to see. Over the years, I have visited all of the major attractions, most of the main art galleries and museums, all of the sport stadia, all points north, south, east and west.

In a similar vein, Baltimore had been ultra-relaxing. I had landed at 4pm on the Monday and, by 5pm, I was booked in to my hotel a block from the excellent inner harbour and only five blocks from that jewel of a ballpark Camden Yards. By 6pm, I was back at the “Pratt Street Ale House”, which acted as a base for Chelsea fans ahead of our game with Milan in 2009, chatting away to a Baltimore-native and Liverpool fan called Dean. That first evening in Baltimore was magnificent; a lovely time spent high up in the seats beyond third base, chatting to strangers about Baltimore, the Yankees, Chelsea – inevitably – and my love of visiting The States, interspersed with beer and baseball. That I got to see Mariano Rivera successfully close a game in his farewell season was the cherry on the top of the crab cake. The Yankees won 6-4 and I was floating on air. However, after being awake for most of 26 hours, my walk home from “Pickles” – another bar from 2009 – to my hotel is a massive blur. I remember nothing of it.

Tuesday was another relaxing day, which unfortunately ended with a narrow extra-innings loss to the Orioles. On Wednesday, I got my tourist boots on and visited the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum, just a few blocks away from Camden Yards, indulged in a Baltimorean crab cake fantasy, went on a speedboat into the Baltimore harbour and visited the World Trade Center, with fantastic views over the city. In the evening, my good friend Steve – who had travelled down from Philly – met me and we went on a little pub crawl before attending the final Yankees vs. Orioles game of the series. We lost 6-3, but still enjoyed our time thoroughly. In my stay in Baltimore, I had casually bumped into two other Chelsea fans; this simply would not have happened in days gone by. Back in the ‘eighties, I hardly bumped into many Chelsea fans in Frome, let alone Baltimore.

Just like 2009, Baltimore had been a blast.

However, I soon learned that my beloved Yankees had signed a deal with Manchester City to assist in the formation of a new MLS franchise, to come into fruition in 2015. This was a shocker and dismayed me. My initial reaction was that Chelsea had missed a trick; surely helping to foster links between a club in the US, with its links to new players, and a club in Europe was an excellent idea. I almost felt that the Yankees had been going behind our back. I felt cheated. It was a strange feeling. I then also remembered that way back in around 1998; the Yankees signed a commercial partnership with Manchester United to develop each clubs’ branding opportunities in both markets. I was irate then, too. I even phoned the manager of the Yankee clubhouse store on Fifth Avenue to tell him what I thought of it. So, the thought of my Yankees hopping into bed with both of the Manchester teams over the past fourteen years certainly annoyed me. Who says the course of true love runs smooth?

Thursday in New York was a relatively relaxing affair. Typically, I was lured in to Manhattan by the prospect of seeing our game in St. Louis against City on a TV screen in “Legends”, which was the scene of much debauchery last summer. First, though, I popped next door for a few pints in “Foley’s.” The bar was festooned with thousands of pieces of sporting memorabilia, from shirts draped from the ceiling, to old seats from Busch Stadium and Tiger Stadium, to signed baseballs, signed boxing gloves to photos and trophies. I settled in at the end of the bar, ordered a pint of “Blue Moon” – despite its City links – and began talking to a couple from Brighton. Mac and Jo were keen Brighton fans, and still lamenting their loss to arch rivals Palace in the play-offs, but soon became engaged in a long conversation with me about football. I think this pee’d off their American friend, who was soon off to see the New York Rangers play the Boston Bruins at nearby Madison Square Garden. This guy, by the way, chose to wear a NY Rangers shirt over his normal work shirt, like some sort of FIFA2013-addicted Uber Sports Nerd. Why do these people do this? As the evening progressed, Mac told me a few funny stories about football. This was the best one –

…Mac and Jo have been together for fifteen years and during the first few weeks of their courtship, all was rosy. They then decided to travel to Gillingham to watch a Brighton away game. The two of them were stood in the away end, when all of a sudden – and to Jo’s horror – Mac began pointing and gesticulating towards a policeman nearby. After a while, the gestures became ruder and ruder and Mac’s language descended to profanity and derogatory name-calling. Jo thought to herself; “oh great…I thought this guy was lovely…looks like he’s just a typical football hooligan…bloody hell.” This continued all game. Each time, the policeman ignored Mac’s taunts. He had good reason. It was Mac’s brother.

Mac introduced me to the bar-owner and the drinking continued. It was a great time. I was at ease with myself. That I could start talking to complete strangers was lovely, though I know only too well that football – not beer – acted as the great lubricant in this chat. For me, it wasn’t always like this.

Here’s another story. I always remember reading about Joe DiMaggio, probably my second-favourite Yankee of all time behind Don Mattingly, and his comments about how he regarded himself. Despite Joltin’ Joe’s fame, he always remained a very shy person. I remember reading about him commenting to a reporter – probably in the famous baseball bar in Manhattan called “Toot Shor’s” – as he looked on as the more gregarious members of the Yankee team of the day greeted friends and strangers alike with hugs, backslaps and laughter –

“I wish I could be like them.”

For many years, these words struck a chord with me.

And this from a man who bedded Marilyn Monroe.

Oh to be at ease in your own skin. Even you, Joe D.

Our 4-3 loss to Manchester City was a crazy end to Thursday. Even more crazy was the fact that there were only two other Chelsea fans in “Legends” watching the game.

Maybe this trip to New York was going to be a let-down after all. After leaving “Legends” I navigated my way back to Brooklyn and hoped for better things.

I awoke on Friday morning and all was well. A coffee and a bagel in a café on Nassau Avenue set me up for another fantastic day in New York; perhaps one of the best ever. I had a plan. Way back in 2008, I had visited Coogan’s Bluff, that high promontory in Manhattan which overlooks the East River and Yankee Stadium. Down below was the former site of the old Polo Grounds, that odd, horseshoe-shaped bath tub of a stadium which once housed the New York Giants, the New York Yankees and even the New York Mets at various stages. It was a sight which thrilled me. I knew only too well of the sporting tales which had taken place on that piece of real estate down by the river…the “shot heard around the world”, the Willie Mays catch, Babe Ruth’s first few seasons in NYC, the rivalries with the Yankees and the Dodgers…well…next in my sights was the old Brooklyn Dodgers’ stomping ground Ebbets Field, deep in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn, only some five miles away, but – in my mind – fifty years away…another time, another place.

I hopped on the subway, changed in the heart of Brooklyn and took a second train to Prospect Park. My nerves were tingling. Let me explain. If the Brooklyn Dodgers were still playing ball, I think they would be my team. Just a week before my very first trip to the US in September 1989, I visited that wonderful bookshop “Sportspages” – sadly no more, damn you internet shopping – and bought a book on baseball stadia called “Take Me Out To The Ballpark.” It was to be my first real introduction to a sport that I just knew that I would get to love over the course of my next year in North America. Those black and white photos of Ebbets Field – Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Leo Durocher, Hilda Chester and her bell, the Abe Stark sign, the Dodgers Symphony, the rotunda, the whole nine yards – really struck a chord with me. The Dodgers were the perennial season after season losers, the stadium a rickety treasure, their fans charismatic. At the time, I regarded Chelsea as perennial underachievers. There would have been a “fit” there. There was another dash of synchronicity; the Brooklyn Dodgers’ and Chelsea’s only championship were both in 1955.

Damn you, Walter O’Malley. It could have been a perfect match.

That I chose the Yankees – or they chose me – in the winter of 1989-1990 is of course well known. I loved New York and I loved it that the Yanks were going through a lean spell. I wanted to earn my stripes – or my pinstripes – in support of this fabled team. I didn’t want to be labelled a glory hunter. They were my team. They are my team. I’ve seen the Yankees play some thirty-six times. I have loved reading and writing about the Yankees ever since; visiting The Bronx is always a journey of wonderment for me. Yet, for me to step out of Prospect Park subway station and to walk those same steps that millions of baseball fans took in the glory years of Brooklyn baseball was truly wonderful.

As I approached the intersection of Sullivan Place and McKeever Place, my mind played tricks on me. I easily visualised those famous old photographs of Ebbets Field, the streets busy with cars, hot dog vendors, souvenir stalls, fans of every creed and colour and the famous rotunda behind home plate. In reality, in 2013, I stared at a monumental block of social housing; brown apartments rising twenty stories or more into the Brooklyn sky. I turned and saw a gentleman of around seventy years of age. I felt I had to say something.

“I’m from England. I’m a Yankees fan. But I just love being here.”

“The Dodgers? I saw them play here.”

That was perfect. I slowly walked anti-clockwise around the former site of Ebbets Field…first base, second base, third base and home. It was magical. It stole my heart.

Why do I mention this? Why am I sentimental about a stadium that I never visited and about a team that died in 1958? In 2011, Chelsea Football Club wanted to buy my pitch owner share and initiate a move away from Stamford Bridge forever. In fifty years’ time, I don’t want football fans alighting at Fulham Broadway and making a similar trip to where football was once played.

Later on Friday, I made my way in from Brooklyn to Manhattan once again. I was hoping for a better turn out from the Chelsea Nation than on Thursday ahead of the game in The Bronx on the Saturday. I made my way into Jack Demsey’s bar, again just along from “Foley’s” and “Legends” on West 34th Street. I arrived at about 6.30pm and stayed way into the night. In truth, the night began slowly, with only a few familiar faces making an appearance. Of course, it was great to see Beth, John, Wobbley, Steve from California, Paul from Ontario and Jamie from NYC again. However, I was expecting more faces. Was this a game too far? Compared to previous pre-game parties, this was definitely a quiet start to the night. I got the beers in and hoped for the best.

Meanwhile, in a bar a few miles away, the importance of Saturday’s game at Yankee Stadium was being discussed.

Little Johnny Brambilla : “Hey, you see they’re playing soccer at Yankee Stadium again tomorrow?”

Big Johnny Leotardo : “What tha fcuk! Again? That grass is gonna be messed up. Who they got playin’?”

Little Johnny Brambilla : “Two English teams.”

Big Johnny Leotardo : “Who?”

Little Johnny Brambilla : “Chelsea.”

Big Johnny Leotardo : “Sounds like a girl’s name. Who else?”

Little Johnny Brambilla : “Man City.”

Big Johnny Leotardo : “Sounds like a gay nightclub.”

Little Johnny Brambilla : “Forget about it.”

As the night drew on – and on – more faces appeared and I was able to relax in the company of good friends. Brothers David and Scott arrived from their respective home cities, still dressed in their suits, straight from work; a lovely surprise. Nick and Shawn, the two Boston Blues, made a much heralded appearance at around midnight and it was great to see them. Mike and Fun Time Frankie arrived from St. Louis and more beers were quaffed. James, Pablo, Matt, Samantha, Lynda and Jaymee joined the throng and we had a blast. The beers were going down well. It was lovely. In truth, we didn’t talk too much about the team or the players. We just stood around, taking the piss out of each other.

Proper Chelsea.

Before I knew it, the time was 3.30am. Oh boy. It was time to say “goodnight.” A few of us slithered into Fun Time Frankie’s motor and he drove us home.

Unlike my usual commute of 110 miles to see a Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge, my very last football trip of season 2012-2013 was of just six miles and around forty minutes on a couple of NYC subway trains. On the first of these trains, from Nassau Avenue to Court Street, I spotted two US Bayern Munich fans. It came as a jolt. I had forgotten all about the Champions League Final which was taking place in London in a few hours’ time. Of course, I couldn’t resist saying a few words to them –

“You won’t like me. I was in Munich last year. I’m a Chelsea fan.”

They smiled. I explained that I hoped that Bayern would be successful. Historically, I have never cared too much for them, but the warm welcome given to 40,000 Chelsea last May will not be forgotten. My vote was for Bayern – for Robben, for Schweinsteiger the pigfcuker, for Lahm, for Ribery, for my friend Michaela – though, in truth, I wasn’t bothered.

Eventually I reached “Legend’s” at just before 1pm, a little later than I had hoped. The place was already heaving with bodies. Downstairs, in Jack Keane’s “Football Factory” there was a riot of Chelsea and Adidas royal blue. I had a quick poke around – a “hello” to a few familiar faces – but then came up for air in the top bar, which was full of Bayern, Dortmund and neutrals. Interestingly, there was a precedent to this; in 1996, while in town for a three game Yankees vs. A’s series, I watched my beloved Juventus beat Ajax in Rome in that year’s Champions League Final. On that occasion, I watched in a small bar near Columbus Circle. I think I was the only one watching. How times change.

I spent most of my time with Steve from Philadelphia, who was chatting to Rick, also from Philly. I had met Rick in The Goose a season or so ago. Thankfully, my friend Roma and her youngest daughter Jenny – who I last saw in Los Angeles for the Galaxy game in 2007 – soon arrived. Roma had driven up from her home in Tennessee on the Friday with Jenny, her son Shawn, her mother Mary and their friend Missy, who was in NYC for the first-ever time. Only Roma and Shawn would accompany Steve and I to the game; the other three were left to explore the sights and sounds of Manhattan. I last saw Mary at that Galaxy game in 2007, too. It was smashing to see them all again. Roma, who dotes on Frank Lampard, has been present every Chelsea tour in the US since 2004. This would be her ninth Chelsea game in the US, her tenth lifetime. In July, her other daughter Vanessa, was with Roma and Shawn for the game against PSG.

Shawn seemed to be more interested in spotting Spiderman leaping between skyscrapers as we walked to the subway stop, but I approved of the Chelsea T-shirt – formerly Jenny’s – that he was wearing. We were soon hurtling north, beneath the streets of Harlem, and we soon found ourselves back in The Bronx. I commented to Steve that I hadn’t seen the area around Yankee Stadium so quiet on a match day since my first ever visit back in 1990. Seeing the white, pinstriped Yankee shirts on sale made me double-take. Was this a Chelsea game or a Yankee game? Who cares, get the beers in.

We called in at “Stan’s” for a “Rolling Rock” and it was so good to be back. It is my favourite bar in America, perhaps the world. The owner Lou wasn’t present but a couple of the bartenders, plus the bouncer, recognised me from previous visits. That gave me a real buzz. Bayern scored a goal at Wembley and I was happy with that. We then popped into “The Dugout” where the main Chelsea pre-game party was in full-flow. On the short walk from “Stan’s”, we heard another roar…this was Dortmund’s equaliser. I had never visited “The Dugout” before; it was quite cavernous, and full of Chelsea. There were even a few City fans dotted about. Roma and Shawn departed to take their seats in the stadium, while I chatted to a few other friends who I have made the acquaintance of over the years. It was lovely to see Chopper, Tommy, Steph and Steve from Connecticut again. Steve and I gulped down a last can of Pabst Blue Ribbon – there was no draught beer left – and we hurried to our seats, since there was only ten minutes to go until the game was due to start at 5.30pm.

As we walked through the Great Hall, we stopped to admire the Yankee greats whose photographs adorn every square inch. Although I am no real fan of the new ballpark, the Great Hall is its best feature. In truth though, I’d rather have the claustrophobic tunnels and alleyways of the original House That Ruth Built. The new stadium will grow on me I am sure, but I still think it has a few design faults. There is far too much exposed dull grey steel, the upper deck should be higher, deeper, without a mid-level break, the old stadium was just so dramatic, the new one is tame. The worst feature, though? The words “Yankee Stadium” high on the outfield wall behind the left-field bleachers.

We fcuking know its Yankee Stadium.

Unlike the game in July, our section was in the mid-level mezzanine – section 212. I was happy with the view. I was well aware that the tickets had not been selling well for this game. Despite the tremendous 48,000 sell out in St. Louis, I feared that around 20,000 to 25,000 would attend this one. I knew that a friend had picked up two for $60 out on the street. The gate for the PSG game in July was given as 38,000. I thought that was rather optimistic. On this cold and grey evening in The Bronx – typical English weather – the stadium was sparsely populated. As the teams did their drills out on the pitch, it was clear that there were far more Chelsea than City fans present. The City section away in left field was hardly full; there were even Chelsea shirts in it. I’d suggest that barely 20,000 spectators had bothered to attend the game. The published gate of 39,000 made me chuckle.

The 5.30pm kick-off never materialised. It was nearer 6pm when Fernando Torres led the Chelsea team out onto the Yankee Stadium turf. For many US fans, this would be the first sighting of Torres, plus quite a few others. Despite Chelsea’s team containing Nathan Ake, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Anders Christiansen, the team that Benitez chose did contain quality through its ranks. The Manchester City team, though, looked impressive. This would be our sixth game against them this season; they were our only real nemesis, on a one versus one basis, throughout 2012-2013 and I wondered if we would be able to match them.

As Rafa Benitez walked to the bench in shallow right field, I wondered what was going through his mind. I never really warmed to the bloke since his appointment in November. It was always going to be a tough relationship between him and us. I was present for his first game against City, I was there to usher him out after his last game against City.

In reality, we found this a tough old game. A goal from Gareth Barry, the world’s most boring footballer, on just three minutes gave City the advantage and a second from Samir Nasri on the half-hour gave City a 2-0 lead at the break. In between, we created a few chances, but the finishing was poor. Despite City’s lead, I heard no City songs. Perhaps they weren’t really here after all. Our section was in relatively good voice, with songs being aired at regular intervals. Our section resolutely ignored the “wave” which circled the stadium on a few occasions.

The “Come On Chelsea” chant just sounded odd, to my ears…it sounded flat, with no intent.

At home, it’s “COME ON, Chelsea” with encouragement in the first two syllables.

At Yankee Stadium, it was “Come On Chel-SEA” and sounded monotone and flat.

Just before the break, Paolo Ferreira came on to replace Loftus-Cheek. He received a magnificent reception from the royal blue hordes.

A goal from Ramires soon into the second-half gave us hope, but Milner – the second most boring footballer in the world – struck low past Petr Cech to give them a 3-1 lead. I was pleased that the New York fans were able to see Juan Mata play; he replaced David Luiz on the hour. Another goal from Ramires made it 3-2 and then Nasri scored to make it 4-2. This was now turning into a very cold evening in The Bronx and I felt for Roma, alongside me, wearing sandals. A delightful free-kick from Juan Mata, captured on film, the last of a long season of goal photos, gave us hope at 4-3, only for Dzeko to seal the 5-3 win late on. There was still time for me to let out a rasping “Zigger Zagger” and the fine fellows around me responded magnificently.

At the end, a few moments to reflect upon.

In the row behind me, a US fan was ranting about the poor performance by the team. In truth, he had been moaning all game. I had a go back at him.

“This is the last game in a long season, mate. Give them a break. It means nothing.”

“They’re a disgrace.”

“No, mate – you’re a disgrace.”

Another chap…an expat…never seen him before, was equally scathing about Chelsea’s performance. Tellingly, he chose to refer to Chelsea as “they” all the way through his tirade. Philly Steve was stood alongside me and could tell I was bristling. I had to jump in.

“You mean “WE” not “THEY” don’t you?”

It irritates me still, the use of “they” in talking about Chelsea. Almost as much as the inappropriate use of “Chels.”

“Ah, fcuk him” I thought…I let him rant away…I was too tired for further confrontation. His argument petered out after being met with indifference from myself and Steve.

At the end of the game, old blue eyes himself, Frank Sinatra, sang “New York New York” and I wiped away the tears of joy. I love this town.

“Start spreading the news, I’m leaving today.
I want to be a part of it – New York, New York.
These vagabond shoes, are longing to stray.
Right through the very heart of it – New York, New York.
I wanna wake up in a city that doesn’t sleep.
And find I’m king of the hill – top of the heap.
These little town blues, are melting away.
I’ll make a brand new start of it – in old New York.
If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.
It’s up to you – New York, New York.”

Back in Stan’s, we had met up with Andy Wray and were enjoying more “Rolling Rocks.” The place was full of happy Chelsea fans; who cares we lost? However, it was sadly time to say goodbye to Roma and Shawn and they made their way back to meet Mary, Jenny and Missy. A couple of Belgian Chelsea fans joined us, and we then ventured down into the adjacent subway.

There were already around fifteen Chelsea fans down on the platform, along with a Manchester City couple, and so – after a team photo – we decided to start singing. The acoustics were magnificent and we were in great voice. For ten minutes or more, we sang and sang and sang. Almost every song in the Chelsea songbook was aired – “One Man Went To Mow” managed to get the locals particularly interested – and the singing continued on the subway train south. Throughout all this, the two City fans were looking on, silent and bemused. I bet they were thinking –

“Wow. That’s impressive.”

Andy Wray suggested we sang “We Won In Munich, Munich” and I foolishly joined in. After a long day of singing, that one is a real rasper. Oh boy. I have to say, after the away section in Chester for the All-Star Game, the trips to Turin, Tokyo and Amsterdam, a chat with Roman, the wins at Old Trafford, White Hart Lane and The Emirates, that subway ride was one of the highlights of the season.

Back at “Legends” it was all Chelsea, the Bayern and Dortmund fans having long since disappeared. I chatted to more friends and the beers continued to flow. Steve set off for home at midnight, but the residual few – you know who you are – kept going until 3am. It turned into a crazy night and it turned into a crazy morning.

I didn’t get home until 5.30am.

On the Sunday, I treated myself to a nice meal in a steakhouse in Brooklyn, with Sinatra still singing in the background. Fun Time Frankie picked me up in Greenpoint and took me through Queens and out to Rockaway – a glimpse of the Atlantic, that body of water that bizarrely connects England and America – before dropping me off at JFK. There was talk of The Ramones, of John Gotti, of the Yankees, of the Mets, of football. We stopped for a slice of pizza at a roadside joint in Ozone Park and looked forward to our next meeting. It was the perfect end to a fantastic few days in New York.

Forget about it? Impossible.

And so, season 2012-2103 has finished. Another eventful campaign has passed. It has been – cough – interesting. There are tours in the summer to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and then, crazily, even a return to the US. Not for me. I need a rest.

I’m done.

…signing-off.

Chris, Sunday 2 June 2013.

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Tales From Babe Ruth’s House And Babe Ruth’s Home

Chelsea vs. Milan : 24 July 2009.

So, here we go…let’s get my 2009-2010 season started. Like all my reports, this one is a very personalised account and I hope that any newcomers to the site understand my emphasis on “the background” stuff which goes on in my Chelsea life.

It clearly ain’t just about the football.

However, before my trip report – here are some numbers.

This would be my fourteenth trip to North America – on almost the twentieth anniversary of my first one in September 1989. It would be my fifth trip to the US to see Chelsea play – the games against Milan and Club America would be games eight and nine in The States. My other sport is baseball and so I decided to avoid the West Coast games in order to squeeze in two New York Yankees games. It would be my ninth trip in which I would be seeing the Yankees play. It would be the third visit in which I would be seeing Chelsea AND the Yanks play on the same trip ( how lucky I have been…) and it would encompass my eighth trip to New York. I would be seeing the Yankees for the 24th and 25th time in New York. It would be my fourth visit to Baltimore, but my first ever visit to Dallas / Fort Worth.

I clearly have a long history of travelling to America. I guess it is why I enjoy posting on here so much.

My trip began with me leaving my home in Somerset at 4.30am on Tuesday 21 July. As I set off in my car, I texted a few people with the immortal line –

“Jack Kerouac.”

Soon after, as I headed east towards Salisbury Plain, I heard back from Beth and Teri, who were with The Legends out in Pasadena. A simple text message brought us all together.

I texted my friend Roma in NC that I was on my way and I was stunned to hear back from her.

“I hope to be able to be with you in Baltimore.”

This was a big surprise. I have known Roma for twenty years – we met in Florida in 1989 – but she hadn’t hinted that she would be able to join me. As I headed towards London, I tried not to get too excited as Roma does tend to leave things to the last moment and I did wonder if she would make it.

My mate Russ – Chelsea – dropped me off at Heathrow and I was on my way through passport control at 7am. Right in front of me was a young boy in full Chelsea kit. That had to be a good sign. I caught three hours’ kip on the BA flight…I was day-dreaming of how the trip would pan out…hoping we could build on our good start in Seattle. Before I knew it, I was on the subway from JFK to Times Square – what a buzz to be back in Gotham once again – and I was booked in at my hotel by 2pm. Ironically, it was opposite the hotel I had stayed at in June 2008 when I came over to pay a last, tearful visit to old Yankee Stadium.

The rest of my first day in America was spent travelling up by subway to 161st Street / River Avenue in The Bronx and watching The Yankees. I chatted to a Bronx native on the train and he wished me a happy spell in America. I then spent time in “Stan’s Sports Bar” for a while, nestled under the noisy elevated rails of the 4 line and across from the bleachers of the old stadium, the original House That Ruth Built. I know the owner, but I had just missed him. I had a chat with a couple of the bartenders, though. I drank two Rolling Rocks. Then into the revamped “Billy’s Sports Bar” for a burger and fries, washed down with a couple of Sam Adams…eight bucks each, though. Ouch. I texted a few friends. I felt I had to share my great sense of happiness at being back in one of my favourite locations. Chelsea will always be my life, and I am rather a lapsed baseball fan, compared to the heady years of 1993-2001, but I still love the beauty and tradition of the game. It acts as a great counter to my fanaticism of football.

It’s a different ball game.

I crossed the road and entered the new stadium. I immediately felt like a customer rather than a fan. The old place was cramped but atmospheric and the ghosts of previous players and fans haunted every nook and cranny. The new stadium is grand no doubts – its walkways are wide and open – but my immediate reaction was that it was like a shopping mall. There was a rain delay for thirty minutes – only my second ever in over 40 baseball games – and so I walked around, buying a box of Crackerjacks, taking it all in.

The game began at 7.30pm and my seat was high up on the first base side, thankfully under the cover of the minimal roof. As Sergio Mitre hurled an opening pitch at the Baltimore Orioles, the drizzle was still falling. That first pitch was hit for a double and the Orioles scored one run in the top of the first. However, the Yanks came from 0-1 and 1-2 down to win 6-4.

Although I am 44, I was carded when I bought some beer…I had to laugh. I soon stopped laughing when I heard the price…ten bucks…or £7.50 in real money. I gulped down a hot dog too. I texted a few folk from my seat high up in the stadium – a few were gathering together in Pasadena for the Chelsea vs. Inter game…I was juggling two teams that night. It felt wonderful.

It was a solid Yankee performance…it always takes me a while to get “into” watching live baseball…on any trip, I usually enjoy a few beers during game one, then hone my watching skills as the trip progresses…I only had one more game on this trip, so my attention had to be sharp. I know a lot of people despise the Yanks, but they are my team and I still get a buzz whenever Robinson Cano makes a great defensive play at second or when Mark Texeira reacts quickly to catch a ball at first.

At baseball, I find myself uttering the American “woo” at a great play rather than the English “yes!” when a Chelsea goal is scored. Why is that?

As the game progressed, I took over a hundred photos, from the first pitch to the last out ( a catch by Derek Jeter in shallow centre ). I thought about my life as an English Yankee fan writing about Chelsea for Americans. I pondered the two sports, the two kinds of support, the tribes, the differing senses of belonging. I have long since come to the conclusion that my trips to baseball cathedrals are purely personal…for a few hours, I get lost in pure Americana, I note the ways of the locals and maybe I try to blend in. It is a weird thing that not once have I ever desired to join a UK-based Yankee fan group, nor watch games with a bunch of UK fans. Not my thing. It’s purely personal for me. I note how this differs from most of the CIA fans I have got to meet since 2004. I wondered why that was. I think that football is the ultimate tribal sport. Baseball is just different. It’s more game-focussed…it’s about the players, not the fans. Fans go to baseball in small groups of three and four. I go to Chelsea with ten and fifteen.

The game ended at around 10.20pm – Frank Sinatra sang “New York New York” – and I had to rush to get down to “Nevada Smiths”, the famous watering hole on 3rd and 14th to see the Chelsea game live on TV. I was straight onto the subway. The crowd had started leaving in the eighth – I could never do that…I think it’s the football fan in me. The express train rattled through Manhattan and I stepped into “Nevada Smiths” bang on 11pm.

At the bar were Burger and Julie. Hugs and kisses. Out by the TV screen were Gill and Graeme. More hugs and kisses. I first met Gill – from Kent – in Nevada’s during the Q&A with Kerry in 2005. The story comes full circle. Also in the bar were NY Blues Carrie, Simon and Henry. It was pretty quiet though – I expected more people.

I supped some pints of Paulaner and watched as Drogs and then Frank scored to give us a 2-0 win. At the first goal, I texted Bob in San Francisco

“THTCAUN.”

He replied

“COMLD.”

For newbies to my reports, I apologise!

We watched the second half with diminishing interest. Burger, Julie and myself were now talking about the anticipation of meeting all of our friends again in Baltimore. We sang songs, Burger did a “Zigger Zagger “ ( you need to work on the tempo, mate! ) and we got more merry…OK, we got drunk. A text came through from Mad Mark in Pasadena saying he had JT’s shirt.

Git.

It was a great win. It looked like a massive crowd. Loads of Chelsea blue in The Rose Bowl.

We said our goodbyes. Burger, Julie and myself took a cab to Times Square. It was around 1.30am…apart from three hours’ kip on the plane, I had been awake for 26 hours.

I awoke at 8am with a headache, so – no pressure, I’m on holiday! – I slept on. By the time I showered and crossed the road for a breakfast at 10.15am, I was fine. I bought a copy of the New York Post…to my great pleasure, the picture chosen to illustrate the Yankee win was the last out…the close up of Jeter grasping the ball. It was an exact copy of my shot of the very same play, albeit in extreme close-up.

Unbeknown to me the previous night, my viewing of the Yankee game had seen us go top of the AL East.

Happy days.

A Yankee win, a Chelsea win. Very happy days.

On the Wednesday, I returned to the stadium.

Two funny things happened on the subway. On the first train I took, I noticed that the woman who was sitting next to me was reading a book.

“On The Road” by Jack Kerouac.

In the next train, opposite me, was a young lad wearing a Chelsea shirt. I showed him my Chelsea ring and we smiled.

Serendipity.

I met the former Yankee Mickey Rivers outside and he signed a photo for me. A lovely souvenir to add to my existing collection of Yankee signed photos.

Inside the stadium and – sunny weather now – I happily watched the Yanks again defeat the lacklustre Birds. New York raced into a 4-0 lead in the first and won again with a 6-4 score, behind the pitching of AJ Burnett. In this second game, I was closer to the action, sitting in the $125 seats in the second tier, level with the pitcher. I really enjoyed the view of this. Burnett pitched well, but the play of the game was a catch by Nick Swisher out in right field. My only purchase, apart from Yankee souvenirs, was a glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade.

Very un-Chelsea like.

Burger texted me to say that he was watching the game in a bar near Canal Street.

I again took many photos. Baseball is such a photogenic sport. The wind up and release by the pitcher. The crouch of the short-stop. The “gloves-up” stance of the first-baseman holding a runner. The clean lines of the diamond. The grass. It was fantastic.

I really didn’t want to leave the stadium, but I knew I had to move on. After a 15-8 record at the old place, I was 2-0 at the new home…and long may it continue.

The rest of Wednesday was just wonderful. I walked amidst tourists and shoppers along Fifth Avenue before returning to my hotel for a change of clothes. Then down to Greenwich Village for a lovely meal in a restaurant called “Rare” – and three more Sam Adams. I phoned Roma and – YES! – she was still keen to attend the game in Baltimore. I needed a spare ticket for her and so I contacted Mike ( who had just landed at JFK from the Inter game ). After an hour of texts and phone-calls, we were sorted and I was so pleased.

I then took a cab up to a lovely, local bar to meet Burger and Julie. It was now 9pm and, to my amusement, they hadn’t moved since the texts I had received at 4pm.

Proper Chelsea.

Proper Burger.

I joined them for a pint of “Blue Moon” and we then got another cab up to our respective hotels.

It had been a perfect day in New York.

I was up bright and breezy on the Thursday. I left my hotel room, had a McBreakfast and met Julie and Burgs at Times Square. My good mate Bob ( unagi1 ) from Fremont in CA had flown over on a red-eye and we met him at Penn Station.

The tribes were gathering.

We headed down to Ground Zero as neither Burger, Julie nor Bob had seen this eerie, silent place. We also raided the adjacent “Century 21” discount department store in a memorable hour. I only bought one item – in fact we all bought one item each – but it was a “must buy.” A brown CP Company jacket reduced from $759 to $279. It would have been rude not to. It will be worn at various away games next season, you can be sure of that.

Via an aborted trip to go on the Staten Island Ferry, we enjoyed a couple of beers in a restaurant near the financial district. We had a great discussion about all sorts. We then caught a cab up to Penn Station – it had to be the most tense cab ride ever, as we left it worryingly late.

Our train to Baltimore left at 2.05pm. We arrived at Penn Station at 1.58pm. Phew. I had joked that I wanted top quality chat on the train because we all knew that as soon as we hit Baltimore, the madness would start.

Three more beers, loads of laughs – great times.

We arrived 45 minutes late in Baltimore but soon got a cab to The Sheraton. We dumped our bags and headed for the Ale House, just a few blocks away. We had heard that the practice session was cancelled, but we hoped this was not the case. We bumped into Beth outside and she was engaged on the phone, no doubt trying to solve yet another logistical problem on this trip. Bless her. As we entered the bar, we were met by many familiar faces…too many to mention. But it was certainly great to see John ( mgoblue06 ) once again – we had enjoyed some fun times back at HQ in the spring. It was great to meet Tommy Langley and Steve Finnieston too – heroes of mine from 1974 to 1980. I had last met them at the CPO last November. Handshakes with many, hugs with Wobley, Mad Mark, Tuna and Simon.

This was it. This is what we had waited two years for.

Chelsea on tour in America – Mow That Meadow!

I downed a beer and set off with a few friends for the practice at the Ravens Stadium. However, there were massive lines. After treating the locals to ten minutes of Chelsea songs, we decided to head back to the pub. We heard later that it was a bit of an anti-climax…no practice, just some autograph signings. And Milan didn’t even show up. I had my photo taken by the Johnny Unitas statue and headed back to the boozer.

Let the fun begin.

From about 7pm to 3am, we drank and sang, then sang and drank, meeting many many people who I have got to know over the years. We disappeared upstairs and I pinned VINCI PER NOI up on the wall. The Q and A began, but I was too busy drinking and chatting. I think Jock was getting some stick for his views on JT. I left them to it and headed downstairs, where the hardcore were based. For the rest of the evening, I hung out with John ( who disappeared off to bed way too early! ), San Francisco Bob, Detroit Bob, Cathy, Mo, Mad Mark, Simon, Tuna, Cliff, Burger, Julie, Spy, Tommy and Jock…plus a few more at various stages. My good mate Chris ( who I had first met at the DC game in 2005 ) showed up, but we sadly shared only a few minutes. I hope he realised it was manic – I had warned him.

After a while, we trooped over to Pickles, just as the rain started. The fun continued as we took over the bar. The beers continued and someone bought us some shots. I got chatting to Neil Barnett for a while and I haven’t a clue what I said to him. I think that it may have been about Chelsea ( pause for effect…)

There were a bevy of local girls nearby and they seemed to be attracted to our English accents and bizarre selection of Chelsea songs. I was chatting to one girl, who reached up and dabbed her finger below my eye, picking up a loose eyelash.

“Make a wish” she said, looking me in the eyes.

Well, dear reader, I can assure you it wasn’t a wish for Sheva to score twenty goals next season.

Before we knew it, the time had raced by and we had to leave. Julie and Burger had gone back to the hotel a bit before and so the last few standing ( Cathy – always Cathy – the two Bobs and myself ) made our way back to The Sheraton. I got inside the room, noted John spread over the entire bed and so grabbed my CP coat and fell asleep on the floor. ( Apparently Julie had woken up a few times and looked over to see John but not me…she was wondering where I was, wondering perhaps if my wish had come true! )

It had been a superb night. I just wish I could remember more of it. Can anyone fill in the gaps?

I woke at about 8am and soon grabbed an hour more sleep in the bed. The other three went down for breakfast and I showered and changed into my match day gear. As you all know, I usually forego Chelsea gear for a multitude of reasons, but I had been on a diet in order to squeeze into my original 1983 Le Coq Sportif shirt – an homage to that 83-84 season which I have been detailing the past year. I think it looked great as it happens.

I walked over to join Eddie’s tour of Camden Yards, the pristine baseball stadium of the Orioles. A statue of George Herman Ruth greated me. The Babe was a Baltimore native and was born a few blocks away. His father owned a saloon bar whose location was actually situated within the current outfield. That’s just beautiful. Ruth’s first pro team was the original Orioles – who moved and became the New York Highlanders, who became the Yankees. That I had just been in NYC watching the Yankees and the current manifestation of the Orioles seemed to be just perfect.

I enjoyed the tour and I was amazed to see Cathy and Mo in the group. I had seen a Orioles vs. New York game in 1993, the highlight being a Don Mattingly homer into right. We had a lovely group photo in the home dugout. That finished around 12.45pm. Back to P Street and I was suffering with a slight hangover. I had a plate of bangers and mash ( so-so ) but began the day with three cokes. The beers could wait. A few NYBs showed up – lovely to see yet more faces.

I phoned Roma who was driving up from near Asheville in NC. She was still 200 miles away. I went back to the hotel to charge up my camera batteries, then headed over to Pickles once again. I guess this was at about 4pm.

Bob and John, with Andy Wray, were already at the bar and I joined them for a few $2 Bud Lites.

Here the fun began again. Over the next three hours, we had so many laughs. I took my photo album from last season around to show to a load of people. Of course, this was our pub, but there were a few Milan fans too. It was so friendly. Chopper, Mike, Lawson, Elliot, Curtis, Karen, Dave, Layla, Keith, Steve, Carrie, Alan, Napoli Frank and the New York Blues were in fine form.

Of course, we took a few photos of the three “Scores” girls, with celery down their cleavage.

Oh boy – too much!

The beers flowed. I met Brian ( carolinablue ) from NC for the first time – we have been emailing each other since 2006. I explained “celery” to some confused locals. I asked Toxic Tel to do me a countdown for a “Zigger Zagger” and it was hillarious – it went something like this…

” 10 – 9 – 8 – 7 – 6 – 7 – 6 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 ”

Amidst laughter from all, I did a hearty “Zigger Zagger” and turned purple. I bumped into the two girls from the previous night again and wished I was twenty years younger. The barbecue smoke outside the pub was strong, the music was loud, but the Chelsea songs came thick and fast.

I phoned Roma and she was stuck in traffic…oh dear. Soon the time came around for us to march to the stadium. Off we went, handing out CIA cards to the blue-clad locals. I met up – all too briefly – with my mate Glenn’s uncle Bob from NJ…he is a Southend United fan and I last met him at HQ for the FA Cup game in January.

By the stadium, I handed over some Chelsea flags to a gaggle of American kids in a hospitality tent. I felt, momentarily, like a true ambassador for my club. A lovely feeling.

Massive lines to get in at 7.30pm. Meanwhile, no Roma.

Aaaaarrrrggghhh.

The traffic on I-95 was truly horrendous and I began to wonder if I would get in for the kick-off.

The answer was “no” – I waited and waited, pacing like an expectant father. I noted many people looking for tickets, plus a few scalpers doing business. At 8.07pm, I heard a massive roar and presumed Milan had scored. Eventually, Roma parked up and we met by the Unitas statue at 8.15pm.

A massive sigh of relief. I gave her a big hug.

I last saw her inside the Home Depot Centre after the Galaxy vs. Chelsea game in 2007. And here we were outside the Chelsea vs. Milan game in 2009.

Two years had passed – it seemed like two minutes.

Amidst loads of giggles, we walked around to our seats in the Chelsea section, right in with the NYBs, five rows behind the CIA lot. We got in at 8.20pm – happy with that. And we were 1-0 up. Drogba with a screamer! Almost immediately, I signalled my entrance with another “Zigger Zagger”, then regretted it. I made up for lost time and clicked many photos. I noted the two Chelsea banners on the side balconies – they usually reside at opposite ends of The Bridge on match days. I wonder who brought them over…I presumed they belonged to the CSG. Seedorf equalised, but I missed this one too, my gaze momentarily distracted by some errant celery.

Roma bought me a beer a half-time. I looked around and saw lots of faces, so full of smiles. It was a great feeling to be so far from home, yet so at home.

I really enjoyed this match. Both teams “went for it” and Milan were a tad unlucky really. They hit the bar twice and forced a great reflex save from Petr. My preparations for this trip have been all about the fans, the songs, the friendships. I had overlooked the fact that none other than Ronaldinho, our former nemesis, would be playing for Milan. His shimmy in the second half was stupendous. I was impressed with Zhirkov and it was his calm strike which gave us a 2-1 win. I have to be honest, I found it hard to concentrate on the football. I was forever looking around at the reactions of the locals to our songs and chants.

I see Chelsea every 5 days back home – or at least I did last season – and so my focus in America has always been on the fans, not the team.

I think Roma fell in love with Sheva’s blonde locks. It couldn’t have been his football.

Overall, I think Milan had more fans – maybe more plastics – but we were far more organised. It had been a result on and off the pitch. But still a few niggles remain…

To be blunt, he Chelsea singing was a bit disjointed I felt…yet again, too many fans not singing, clueless…how anyone can go to a footy game and not even join in leaves me befuddled. Three girls took ages to decipher the simple “Super Frank” chant. Is the English accent that strong? I also noted “Carefree” being sung WAY too slow. Still – that apart, it was a hell of an experience and I hope our antics enticed a few more in to The Chelsea Family.

The game ended and I took a deep breath.

In 2004, around 20,000 had seen us play Roma in Pittsburgh. Five years on, a sell out 71,000 had witnessed my team in Baltimore. I could hardly comprehend it. My personal view is that getting to Moscow really took our “brand awareness” up a few notches in America. I also think we are the first club for any sports fans in America who favour “blue” teams ( Chicago Cubs, Michigan, LA Dodgers, NY Giants, etc) and I think this might be a valid reason for our growth in popularity.

We marched slowly back to the centre of town with Burger, Julie and Mark. Unlike the Thursday, this was to be a far more mellow evening. Pickles seemed to be devoid of any “faces” and so we returned to the Ale House amidst a further rain storm.

We sat outside and got stuck into a few more beers. With Roma alongside me, I mused on a few personal things. It had been surreal to see her again ( we were a long-distance “item” from 2001 to 2006 ) and here we were in Baltimore.

What does it all mean?

“Better not contemplate it too much mate, have another beer.”

The residual hard-core ( no Cathy on this occasion ) on that Friday night in Crab Town was San Francisco Bob, Farmer John, Burger, Julie, Detroit Bob, Simon, Cliff, Tuna, myself – and Roma.

The five inhabitants of room 413 – Burger, Julie, John, Roma and myself – slowly meandered back to The Sheraton amidst much merriment. A bearded fellow – “Santa” – walked past and he was serenaded by us all and I thought Julie would pass out with laughter.

Too much fun.

The time reached 3am and Cary invited us up to his room, but the hotel wasn’t prepared for Chelsea On Tour. One guy complained and so we had the quietest ever “Zigger Zagger” which was whispered by Cliff ( aka Alfie Garnett ) and the room was filled with muffled laughter.

After more complaints about “noise”, we eventually called it a day. The sleeping arrangements were sorted out and Farmer John took a spell on the floor.

3.45am – Room 43, The Sheraton, Walton’s Mountain –

“Goodnight Burger.”

“Goodnight Chris.”

“Goodnight Roma.”

“Goodnight Chris.”

“Goodnight Julie.”

“Goodnight Chris.”

“Goodnight Farmer John.”

“Goodnight Chris.”

“MOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

Baltimore had been a blast.

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