If T-shirt sales are any indication, Boston's hatred of New York is waning.
It's a Sunday afternoon after a nail-biting 5-4 loss to the low-budget Oakland A's, and T-shirt vendor "Bald Vinny" Milano is bracing himself for a stampede of grumpy Yankees fans.
As one of the most vociferous "Bleacher Creatures" and founder of the Section 203 pride movement, Milano would prefer that the Bronx Bombers took the AL East title without any suspense. But anger is a wonderful consolation prize, priming the sidewalk hordes for bringing home some of his best-selling designs, most of which express disdain for the Yankees' longtime rival, the Boston Red Sox.
Around the perimeter of the new Yankee Stadium, Milano's "Bleacher Creature" booth is joined by about a dozen other unauthorized T-shirt stands, each piled with mounds of anti-Boston designs regardless of which visiting team is in town. The shirts remain in high demand this season, even though the Sox are now 24 games behind the Yankees in the standings.
"My challenge now is how many different creative ways can you say 'Boston Sucks?' It doesn't matter if the Sox are 20 games out of first place. People hate Boston all the time. In fact, I think there's even more enjoyment now kicking them when they're down," Milano says.
At its peak in 2003-2004, the underground economy of "Yankees Suck" shirts and bumper stickers might have approached the GNP of a developing nation. Two college dropouts even harnessed Boston's collective hate to fund a backpacking trip around the world—a stunt immortalized in the irreverent Iraq War memoir, Babylon By Bus. But outside Fenway Park this season, the trash-talking genre has been an endangered species.
It's tough to be cocky when your team is 69-91.
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Meanwhile in the Bronx, Bald Vinny's reporting a steady demand for "ASSCLOWN," an unflattering caricature of floundering Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine that might sell just as well in Boston. Another brisk seller is a slogan that could headline an academic anti-bullying seminar: "Make The World a Better Place: Punch a Boston Fan in The Face."
Milano plans to cash in on his anti-Boston themes this week, as the hapless Red Sox try to be spoilers at Yankee Stadium for the final three-game homestand of the season.
If seeing a toothless, bruised Red Sox fan get mercilessly pummeled by a thuggish (and unscathed) Babe Ruth isn't your idea of sportsmanship, you'll probably want to do your holiday shopping elsewhere. Milano's top-selling tee: "Bahston Sawks Cack."
It means exactly what you think it does, but the marketing appeal apparently lies in the BoSox font and poking fun at the stereotypical Boston accent. Displaying a slogan like this inside Yankee Stadium would get you instantly thrown out of the park based on the team's anti-obscenity policy.
"I know my customers aren't wearing them to church or the library," Milano says. "This is a very small subset in the market. It's guys age 18 to 35 who want to express themselves on poker night or at their neighborhood sports bar."
"We also get a lot of online orders from New England," he adds. "I think there are a lot of Yankee fans trapped up there who want to make a statement."
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Boston Red Sox fans can hardly take the higher moral ground. The "Yankees Suck!" chant is permanently embedded into the city's cultural fabric, routinely heard at random (and irrelevant) times during Celtics, Bruins and Patriots games and even at rock concerts and political rallies. When U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) was nominated for president at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, street vendors sold "Yankees Suck, Kerry Rules" souvenir buttons.
In one of the most bizarre political scenes of 2012, supporters of U.S. Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) recently tried to drown out challenger Elizabeth Warren's supporters with a "Yankees Suck" chant. Warren has never endorsed Yankee supremacy, nor has she tried too hard to fake an allegiance to the Red Sox (a la John Kerry).
At sports autograph and memorabilia shows, former Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee will humor fans by signing "Yankees Suck Pond H2O" upon request. On eBay, there are multiple photos of his infamous 1976 Graig Nettles fight on which he scrawls, "Nettles You Suck!" Although Lee maintains that the Yankees third baseman was a dirty fighter who took a few cheap shots that almost ended his career, he insists all has been forgiven.
"Not too many people have seen this, but someone took a picture of us with our arms around each other at a baseball banquet in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. Both of us were hammered," he says, adding he is not seeking a copy of the photo for his mantel. "The funny thing is that Yankees fans have always respected me. Because I stood up to them and I'm 12-4 lifetime against them."
Not including The Onion, there unfortunately has been no definitive research pinpointing the exact origins of the "Yankees Suck" mantra. Lee, who pitched for Boston from 1969-1978, says he doesn't recall hearing the phrase until well after George Steinbrenner bought the team in 1973.
"Without rivalries, there is no game," Lee adds. "You have to respect your opponent, but when your opponent is down, you must step on them and never let them get up. You want to make sure the enemy isn't still breathing."
The Lee Doctrine may explain why Yankees fans are now so giddy to gobble up more anti-Boston merchandise when logic would suggest that sympathy and pity would be more appropriate. Since bringing home the 2004 and 2007 World Series trophies, which the club still parades before the fans like a wistful star quarterback at his high school reunion, Red Sox Nation has considered a sub-.500 baseball season to be unimaginable. As the Sox have stumbled, the Yankees have continued to thrive, winning yet another World Series in 2009 and making the playoffs every year since then.
But despite Boston's hard luck in recent years, anti-Yankees fervor seems to be waning. Outside Fenway Park, where you used to trip over three or four "Yankees Suck" bumper sticker vendors for every ticket scalper, guys like Chris Wrenn are a rarity.
Wrenn's company, Sully's Brand, is the last Yankee-hating commercial presence in Kenmore Square. While New York-bashing used to represent 100 percent of sales, he says it now accounts for less than five percent of his business.
Given how ugly some of the language has been on Boston T-shirts (a heinous slogan describing Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez's relationship comes to mind), you could call Sully's Brand's traditional "Yankees Suck" design—a simple white on navy blue font—classy.
"We keep selling the shirt because of our history," says Wrenn. "We keep it because people expect to see it. But 99 out of 100 times people choose to buy one of our other designs."
Online, Sully Brands still sells its "Jeter Drinks Wine Coolers" shirt, which snidely also questions the masculinity of every fan who chooses not to drink beer. But those sales are a trickle compared to newer community pride themes such as "Believe in Boston," "Forever Fenway," "Boston Hooligan," and oddly, "Masshole," which is being spun as a positive term of endearment.
The disappearance of vulgar anti-Yankees shirts on the streets of Boston is a welcome development to diehard Sox fan Paul Francis Sullivan, a TV producer and standup comedian who has been clamoring for the rival fan groups to ignore their petty differences and become friends.
"I've never liked the "Yankees Suck" chant because they don't. It's always smacked of desperation to me," he says. "Now, I have a dirty sense of humor and can't say my jokes are always politically correct, but those ugly homophobic shirts have gotta go. A generation from now, people will look at them and say, 'Oh my God, it's just like watching the Amos 'n' Andy show.'"
"You can't walk around in a shirt like that and tell people, 'Hey, you just need to understand the context!" Sullivan adds.
But not everyone thinks anti-Yankee shirts are gone forever. As the Red Sox continue to struggle, and likely won't be instantly contending for the AL East in 2013, how will fans want to express their angst? Wrenn thinks anti-New York memorabilia is poised for a major comeback.
"There will always be a need for shirts that speak a fan's mind that you can't buy at a pro shop," he says. "The collapse of the Red Sox might actually be good for business. If the anger and resentment come back, maybe sales could go back to what they were in 2004."
But Bill Lee warns that Boston fans should be careful what they wish for.
"Whenever you seek revenge, make sure you dig two graves," he says.
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