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Reflecting on some of my favorite traditions in sports

Several years ago, while researching a book about the original Yankee Stadium, I ventured out to the right-field bleachers to interview Vinny Milano. The man known as “Bald Vinny” first sat in Section 39 at the big ballpark in the Bronx as a 20-year-old college student in the summer of 1995. It took him less than an inning to decide he had the best seat in the house.

Never mind he and his fellow Bleacher Creatures were nearly 400 feet from home plate and that you could barely tell the difference between Big Papi and the bat boy from that distance. Never mind that he and his bleacher mates were sitting on hard, backless benches and that beer was overpriced and occasionally as flat as the pitching rubber. The atmosphere in the cheap seats was more charged than a lightning bolt, and Milano couldn’t help but fall in love with the creative, occasionally obnoxious cast of characters who populated baseball’s version of the Bronx Zoo.

Over time, Bald Vinny became the ringleader of this circus. The Bleacher Creatures became particularly adept at intimidating visiting right fielders, but their best creation was a cheer, not a jeer. In the top of the first inning of each game, they conduct a roll call, in which they chant the names of the Yankees starting lineup. It is one of the few interactive cheers in professional sports, with each of the players acknowledging the chants by doffing a cap or waving.

“It’s just our way to say hello and make them feel like we’ve got their backs,’’ Milano said.

The roll call, which has carried over into the new Yankee Stadium, is one of my favorite sports traditions. And it got me to thinking about how such rituals add to our enjoyment of the games. With that in mind, here’s a look at some other sports traditions that resonate with me.

Dotting the ‘i’ at Ohio State football games. I’m not a Buckeye fan, but I do love how the school’s marching band forms the word “Ohio” in script and tops it off by having a senior tuba player or prominent alum assume the dot in the formation. The tradition began during the 1936 season and was the brainchild of late band director Eugene Weigel. Astronaut John Glenn, golf legend Jack Nicklaus and Olympic champion Jesse Owens are among the celebrities who have served as “dots.”

A day with Lord Stanley’s Cup. Each player and coach from the team that wins the National Hockey League championship is allowed to possess the famous trophy for 24 hours during the ensuing offseason. This has led to some interesting stories. Some have had their babies baptized in hockey’s Holy Grail. Others have taken it to bars so patrons can drink from it, just like the winning players get to do immediately following the decisive game of the finals. Some, like Greece’s Brian Gionta, brought it to a mall, so that thousands of fans could share in the joy and have their pictures taken with it.

Seventh-inning stretches. My two favorites are at America’s most beloved ballparks—Chicago’s Wrigley Field and Boston’s Fenway Park. At Wrigley, they continue a tradition started by late announcer Harry Caray, a Falstaffian character who would serenade fans with his boozy rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Famous Chicagoans, such as comedian Bill Murray, Mike Ditka and former Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy, have been brought in to belt out the song. At Fenway, I love it when the crowd sings Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.”

Green jackets at the Masters. Trophies are nice, but you can’t wear them. Back in 1949, Augusta National Golf Club officials began the tradition of giving the Masters champion a green sport coat and making him a lifetime member of the prestigious club. Sam Snead was the first recipient. Nicklaus is the Augusta wardrobe king with six titles. Interestingly, reigning champions are allowed to wear the jacket off premises for up to a year after their victory. After that, they must return the jacket to Augusta, where members don them at the tournament’s annual champions’ dinner.

Cutting down the nets. It’s unclear when this NCAA basketball tournament tradition began, but it’s pretty cool to be able to climb up a ladder and snip a piece of the nylon after winning the championship.

Mascot races. Few have been more entertaining than the sausage races before the bottom of the sixth inning of Milwaukee Brewers home games at Miller Park. Frankie Furter, Stosh the Polish sausage and Brett Wurst are among the five participants. The sausage race success spawned other mascot competitions, including the presidential races between George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt at Washington Nationals games and warning track races between mascots depicting Cal Ripken, Luke Easter and Joe Altobelli at Rochester Red Wings games.

The Lambeau Leap. It began with Leroy Butler’s spontaneous leap into the stands after the Green Bay safety scored a touchdown during a 1993 game, and Packer fans have embraced the tradition ever since.

Olympic cauldron lightings. I have witnessed five of these and they never disappoint. I remember the ski jumper in Norway in 1994 soaring through the air and nailing his landing perfectly while balancing the torch in his right hand. He then skied to the base of the cauldron to light it. Interestingly, he fell several times during his practice runs the day before the opening ceremonies. For sheer suspense and emotion, it’s difficult to top Muhammad Ali lighting the 1996 Olympic cauldron in Atlanta or members of the “Miracle On Ice” U.S. hockey team igniting it in Salt Lake City in 2002.

Ceremonial first pitches. This tradition dates back to William Howard Taft in 1910 and has been carried on by every president since. Many celebrities, as well as normal, everyday people like moi, have followed suit, occasionally embarrassing themselves with errant tosses. It’s not as easy as it looks.

Luck of the Irish. Notre Dame football is steeped in tradition, and one of my favorites is when players tap a sign reading, “Play like a champion today,” as they head onto the field at home games. I also like how, win or lose, the players join the marching band afterward to sing the school’s alma mater and salute the crowd by raising their gold helmets.

Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal’s sports columnist.


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