As many of you know, I am a diehard New York Yankees fan, and while I was growing up, I was fortunate enough to go to countless Yankees games with my mom, dad and my sister, Nicole. Every Yankee fan–no, every baseball fan– knows that in the top of the first inning, after the first pitch is thrown, “Bald” Vinny Milano will perform the customary roll call.
For those who have never heard of the roll call, it is a tradition that “Bleacher Creatures” started in the 1990s and is still going strong today. The creatures chant every starting position player’s name on the Yankees, aside from the pitcher and catcher, until they acknowledge the existence of the creatures.
Vinny Milano, 37, is the leader of these ultimate Yankees fans and has successfully turned his diehard fandom into a career. Let’s be serious, what could be better than being famous for supporting your team? Milano’s office is a t-shirt stand outside of Yankee Stadium, next to Billy’s Sports Bar on River Avenue, where he designs and sells his unique brand of Yankees apparel called “Bald Vinny’s House of Tees.”
Anyway, being a Bleacher Creature was atop my family’s newly formed baseball bucket list, which is filled with dreams of seeing a game in each of the thirty Major League ballparks around the country, visiting the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, and for my sister and I, eventually working in baseball (which we are currently pursuing, if you haven’t already noticed).
So one afternoon in the summer of 2008, we all hopped in the family Jeep, drove across northern New Jersey on notorious Interstate 80, crossed the George Washington Bridge, and parked down by the Harlem River. We then made the 15-minute walk over to the stadium, found our seats in Section 39, and waited for the game to begin.
Actually, we were more excited to be a part of our first Yankee Stadium role call than we were about the actual game. About 20 minutes before first pitch, we saw the infamous Bald Vinny take to his seats and prepare his vocal chords for what was about to happen.
The Yankees took the field. The National Anthem was played. The first pitch was thrown. Then, the bleachers went silent, except for one, booming voice.
“YOOO! BER-NIE!!!!” Milano screamed. His voice echoed throughout the stadium.
All of us in section 39 followed suit, chanting “BER-NIE! BER-NIE! BER-NIE!” However, it was a hot summer day, and with the sun beating down on us, it was needless to say that the crowd wasn’t very lively that day.
We managed to follow Milano’s lead to finish out the roll call, and when the last player acknowledged us, we expected that we would all just sit down and go on with the first inning. However, we were in for a speech that we (to this day) have yet to forget.
“What the hell was that? You guys suck!” Milano screamed. “Sit down, the show’s over. This was probably the worst roll call I’ve ever been a part of!”
It was one of the most entertaining (and intimidating) experiences of our lives, and after sitting in the bleachers countless of times since that game, I can completely understand why the bleachers are the best seat in the house.
“I think the bleachers attract more of the common fan than your average grandstand seat in the stadium,” Milano said. “A lot of the different dynamics of the stadium play into it, but I will say bleacher creatures tend to be more of a ‘real’ fan.”
Milano’s rise to fame of the creatures all started the summer of 1997, when he graduated from the University of Hartford in Connecticut. Milano landed a job in advertising, where he was, as he put it, “the low man on the totem poll.”
“I wouldn’t get my work until late in the day, so I worked out this great deal with my boss, who was also a Yankee fan,” Milano explained. “I would go to games, and I’d come back into Midtown, and all of my work would be sitting on my chair. I would finish it when the game was over, and come in late the next day. That’s how it all happened.”
Milano said he had two options: either go home to watch the game, or watch it live. He decided to sit in the bleachers because they were the “cheap tickets.” Little did he know, paying $5 a game to watch his favorite team live would drastically change the direction of his life.
Milano is known universally among Yankee fans as “Bald Vinny,” and he is the first to admit that the story behind is nickname is rather strange. It all boils down to two guys named Ray who sat with Milano in the bleachers: one Ray was bald while the other had hair. The creatures called the man with a shaved head Bald Ray in order to differentiate between the two.
“There was only one Vinny. It was bald Ray, and it was Bald Vinny, because we both had shaved heads and goatees,” Milano explained.
For a typical night game, Milano leaves his house around 2:15 for the stadium, allowing him time to set up his t-shirt stand before the gates open and the craziness endures.
“It’s a lot of wining and dining, meeting and greeting for the first four hours before game time,” Milano said. “My job is selling t-shirts. I get to have fun and go to games and yell and scream and all that, but I’m there to work.”
Milano’s roll call can be heard anywhere you sit in the stadium, and I’m a first-hand witness. I’ve sat ground level, in the bleachers, and way in the upper deck, and you can still hear the man’s voice. So, how does Milano keep his voice in tip-top shape? Aside from quitting smoking cigarettes, which made positive effect on his vocal cords, Milano chugs a can of pineapple juice before each roll call.
“The guy who sits behind me has a son that works on Broadway. He told me it’s a trick that Broadway stars use to prepare their voices,” Milano explained. “It helps soothe your throat muscles, and all that. So far, so good.”
Milano has chanted countless of names during his time sitting with the Bleacher Creatures, but his favorite player of all time to call was former center-fielder Bernie Williams. Although Williams has since retired, Milano’s new favorite player to chant is Ichiro Suzuki because of the simplicity of his name.
“It’s kind of like that Ricola commercial that goes ‘Ri-co-la!’” Milano joked. “‘I-chi-ro! It’s perfect.”
Before Suzuki came to the Yankees, he was one of Milano’s favorite players to heckle. Milano admitted that he and his buddies cleverly printed out swear words in Japanese to yell at Suzuki during the game.
“The only one I remember is ‘Baka Ichiro,’ which means, ‘You suck Ichiro.’”
Although Milano and the creatures had fun heckling Suzuki, their favorite target of all time was Vernon Wells, who is now, ironically, a Yankee. One of their favorite chants was “Your name’s Vernon,” because according to Milano, Vernon is a odd name and was just “something to rip on.”
“For years, that was our call to him. I wanted to do ‘Your name’s Vernon’ in the roll call until he said nice things about us. I couldn’t even do that anymore,” Milano said. “The interaction we’ve gotten with players as Bleacher Creatures is unheard of. That never really happens in professional sports.”
Aside from interacting with players, Milano’s favorite part of being a Bleacher Creature is the game itself: baseball. Milano has seen a lot of baseball during his lifetime, but the most memorable game he had experienced was in the “old” Yankee Stadium in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship series against the Boston Red Sox. Boone’s historic blast sent the Yankees to the World Series, which they ultimately lost to the Florida Marlins. Milano described the game as “euphoric” and noted there were people dancing through the streets of New York. It was indeed one of the craziest games Milano has ever witnessed.
Little did Milano know that ten years later, the stadium that held his favorite memory as a fan would no longer be in existence. The “old” Yankee Stadium was knocked down in 2009 after the opening of the brand new, $1.5 billion ballpark.
“The worst part about it was that I had to watch it,” Milano said.
Milano worked across the street from the stadium at the time, watching cranes remove pieces of the building one at a time, an absolutely heartbreaking thing to witness for a diehard fan with so many good memories in that stadium.
“You bring the old memories you had to the new building. That’s why winning the first year was so important,” Milano said of the current Yankee Stadium, which the Yankees christened in 2009 with a World Series victory over the Philadelphia Phillies.
The “old” Yankee Stadium left Milano with countless memories and priceless experiences. One of the most bizarre things Milano has ever seen at baseball game happened on his 26th birthday. Milano and his friends were all hanging out in the bleachers, when all of a sudden, someone in a gorilla costume wearing a “Happy Birthday” sash began walking toward the stands.
“My immediate thought was ‘Oh, my God!’” Milano laughed. “He started doing all of these wrestling poses, and I immediately knew it was my buddy from the bleachers.”
All of section 39 sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to Milano, who was then handed an entire tray of cupcakes.
“That’s not a normal baseball game occurrence,” he added.
I will finally be meeting the man behind the roll call on April 27th when I get to attend my first game of the season. When I told Milano this, he advised me to stop by his t-shirt stand before the game, because the 27th won’t be a normal day. The game starts at 4 p.m., and Milano’s sister is getting married at 8 p.m. that night. Needless to say, this poses a problem.
“Wedding’s at 8, game starts at 4. I’ll sell t-shirts, do roll call, leave, then go to a hotel and be in the wedding party.”
If that’s not the definition of a diehard Yankee fan, then I don’t know what is.