Ken Hoffman gets a front-row seat of New York Yankees fans trashing the Houston Astros

Intriguing foreign travel is pretty difficult during this Age of Pandemic, but last week I visited a place that was like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

New York City. And I’ve been there a thousand times.

I went to P.S. 125 and lived across the street from Grant’s Tomb. So I’m accustomed to the place.

Not now. Where was the traffic, the gridlock of yellow taxis blowing their horns, the packed sidewalks of Times Square, the line of customers waiting for their slice at Joe’s Pizza on Broadway?

Big Apple … or big ghost town?

By New York standards, the city was a ghost town. You could jaywalk anywhere along Seventh Avenue without dodging cars like George Costanza playing Frogger. Many stores and small restaurants were closed, some temporarily, some for good.

Radio City Music Hall is dark, the next scheduled event is Alicia Keys on August 12-13. Broadway shows are set to return in September. There were plenty of empty seats on the usually jostling, sweaty armpit to armpit D train from Grand Central to Yankee Stadium.

New Yorkers charmingly welcome your Houston Astros

I was up in New York for the Astros’ three-game set against the Yankees. I wanted to hear just how loud New Yorkers could boo our guys. It was their first chance to vent in person since the Astros cheating scandal broke in 2019. Those fans waited a long time for this and they didn’t hold back.

All three games, screams of “F-Altuve” rocked the stadium. I spoke to a friend back in Houston who was listening to the Yankee radio feed on satellite. He said you could hear “Correa sucks” and “Bregman cheats” loud and clear.

You never heard 10,850 fans sound like a sold-out stadium like this. The language on these people. It all came back to me.

The fans’ bloodlust focused on Jose Altuve, who was named 2017 Most Valuable Player over Yankees slugger Aaron Judge. That was the year the Astros eliminated the Yankees 4-3 in the American League Championship Series, with all four Astros’ wins coming at Minute Maid Park. That explains those signs with Altuve’s head sticking out of a garbage can like Oscar the Grouch.

The trash (can) talking got so rough that the Astros filed a formal complaint with MLB, and several Yankees fans were ejected for getting, let’s say, a little too personal. Carlos Correa was particularly upset at the taunts hurled Altuve’s way. Fans ignored the New York City playground rule – “don’t say nothing about my mother.”

Staying safe in the Big Apple

Before and after baseball games, the biggest culture shock for Texans visiting New York now and anytime soon is mask-wearing. People in New York wear them. Inside stores, outside on the street, at Yankee Stadium, in Central Park, on public transportation, just hanging in Times Square.

To enter Yankee Stadium I had to show my vaccination card and driver’s license. A negative COVID test within the past 72 hours would have been accepted, too. And they checked to make sure the names and addresses match. Inside the ballpark, you sat where your ticket said. The Yankees were allowed to draw 20 percent of capacity, and most of the seats were locked in their full and upright position to keep fans from creeping down to the best seats on the field level.

Security guards patrolled the stadium pointing to fans not wearing masks or wearing them incorrectly. “Cover your nose and mouth,” they instructed.

Starting May 19, the Yankees will sell two types of tickets — to fans who are fully vaccinated and fans who aren’t vaccinated. Vaccinated fans will be allowed to sit in designated sections without social distancing. Non-vaccinated fans will be restricted to sections with 33-percent capacity and most seats locked to ensure social distancing.

All fans still will be required to wear masks at all times, except when actively eating and drinking.

That may seem heavy-handed and philosophically unnecessary, certainly bothersome, to Astros fans who’ve been packing Minute Maid Park, where only catchers and home plate umpires wear a mask. New Yorkers are all in on face coverings.

Unmasking fear

One day when I left Joe’s Pizza and forgot to put my mask on. Habit. You should have seen pedestrians hugging buildings and curbs to avoid being close to me. That night in my hotel lobby, the concierge explained, “In New York, we wear masks.”

I’m not going to get into vaccine or no vaccine, mask vs. no mask, Houston vs. New York debates, but there’s one thing about a baseball game at Yankee Stadium that is unrivaled: Nathan’s Famous French fries. They’re the best, and there’ll be no backtalk. I got a footlong and large fries. The fries are beyond, you’ll lick the paper tray for leftover salt and crumbs.

And if you’re visiting New York, or really anywhere, nobody’s playing games at the airport or on the plane. Wear your mask and don’t squawk about it. A passenger eating a Twizzler recently was booted from a Southwest plane because he didn’t pull up his mask between bites. They made the “between bites” warning on my United flight, too.

While wearing a mask may feel strange for an entire flight, even if you’re snoozing, just do it. You don’t want to end up on youtube being booed by fellow passengers like Altuve at Yankee Stadium.

One thing about air travel that didn’t change. I swear it happens every time — almost.

My gate will be the farthest from the ticket counter. Going home, gate 126 at Newark Airport, a new personal record.

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