"If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere . . . New York, New York."
The blood ran down his arm despite the rag wrapped around his hand. His girlfriend wept hysterically. His friends were almost as close to shock as the young man himself.
How often do you go to a ball game, get in a minor argument with another fan about getting in a taxi and watch as he slams the cab door on your thumb?
"I need a doctor, quick," said the fan to the old policeman with the gold badge at the Yankee Stadium players gate Thursday night. "I don't think I have a thumb left."
"No doctor here," said the cop.
"But the other cop told me this was the place," said the dazed fan.
"Hey, do I look like a doctor, buddy?" said the cop. "Can't help ya."
The four scrubbed and proper out-of-towners wandered off, looking for another taxi or some Samaritan to help them find the nearest hospital.
Hundreds of fans, standing behind police barricades, waiting for Yankees players to emerge, all ignored the bleeding man. Too commonplace. As the New York players appeared, each was greeted with rude demands for autographs or else epithets and sarcasm.
"Man, that's New York, all right," said pitcher Ed Whitson, hearing this week's grisly Bronx story. "It's like you put all these people in a phone booth and there's so much stress and pressure you never know when they're gonna snap. You don't say much to strangers here. You could get hurt."
When Whitson signed a $950,000-a-year free agent contract last winter, then began his first season with the Yankees 0-4, he "hated coming across the George Washington Bridge." Fans cursed him and some even waited and followed his car home, threatening him with beatings.
"You could wait in the players (fenced) parking lot until dawn and they'd still be waiting for you . . . These are gamblers who are so in debt they probably think somebody's going to cut their fingers off if they don't pay up. They want to take it out on you 'cause you lost the game . . .
"If I survived what I went through this year, no pressure in baseball will ever bother me. Pitching in the playoffs and World Series (for San Diego) was hardly any pressure at all, compared to playing here this spring. It was a nightmare.
"I hope," he said, still worried, "they understand how hard I'm trying."
River Avenue at 161st Street is the Parris Island of baseball.
For five months, from April through August, Yankee Stadium is the toughest place in America to play baseball.
In the last dozen years, since George Steinbrenner bought the team, Yankees seasons have followed a familiar pattern. When the team collapses, it happens early. The pressures of New York baseball can destroy.
"I've seen it break men," said Dave Winfield, who says his personality had to change before he could succeed in New York. "Steve Kemp, Toby Harrah (both all-stars at one time) just couldn't play here. Other guys, quality players like Jim Rice, Wade Boggs, Eddie Murray, say they'd never play here. Something's always attacking you."
But, if you make it through the ordeal in one piece, New York's also the best spot come September and October.
The Yankees teams that don't unravel, don't have collective nervous breakdowns, are the toughest customers. They've gotten so case-hardened, grown so many extra layers of skin on their souls, that the very pressures that work against them all year work for them in the final acts.
The 1978 and '80 pennant races are prime examples. The Yankees overcame Boston's 14 1/2-game lead in one case, then beat Baltimore in a marathon battle, 103 victories to 100. The Yankees are 8-3 in postseason series since '76.
"The Toronto Blue Jays are a bunch of real nice guys who play in a real nice town," said Winfield, whose Yankees cut the Blue Jays' American League East lead from 7 1/2 to five games in August. "Has playing here made us tougher (than Toronto)? I don't know . . . Maybe they can win on talent alone."
Might the combined pressures of playing in their first pennant race, plus playing seven September games with the Yankees, unnerve the Blue Jays? "If it works that way, good," said Winfield.
"That's why they got (ex-Yankee) Cliff Johnson (this week). To yell, 'You (expletive deleted) this' and 'You (expletive deleted) that' at us. Yeah, that's the reason. Go on and write it," said Winfield. "Toronto wants a tough guy in the lineup and in that dugout, 'cause they know they've gotta come to New York and they gotta play us."
For a ballplayer, this is the city that tests and torments you, makes or breaks you. This is where the tradition and demands, the pay and pressure, are the highest. Sometimes intolerable.
"The way of living back here is to be hard-nosed," said Reggie Jackson, who should know. "Those that can handle those types of demands become hellacious ballplayers. Our teams in the late '70s were full of players like that . . .
"If you knew what you were getting into before you came here, probably you wouldn't come. But when you look back on it, you know it made you stronger."
After five years of New York agony and adulation, Jackson didn't re-up. It's one thing to do a hitch in the Marines. It's another to be a lifer.
"Winfield's a much tougher player now than he used to be when I pitched against him in the National League," Whitson said. "I think this city did it. You used to be able to knock him down and he didn't even react. Now, you knock him down twice and he'll come to the mound after you."
Once, Manager Billy Martin said of Winfield that he had "the softest bat of anybody 6-foot-7 I ever saw." Now, Winfield minces infielders with slides and "accidentally" lets his black bat fly under pitchers' ankles or even into opposing dugouts on the fly. He says he has a slippery grip.
"It's helped me," said Winfield of his New York years. "But the lessons you learn here are not always good ones. And, you'd hope, not necessary."
Does he mean, perhaps, that you learn New York Lessons and run the risk of mistaking them for Life Lessons?
"Exactly right," said Winfield.
Winfield reached a point where he grew so enraged at Steinbrenner's public gibes and his reluctance to meet payment deadlines to the charitable Winfield Foundation that the $26-million outfielder told a friend, "I'm going to beat him and embarrass him, too. That's just what he doesn't like."
So, Winfield threatened to sue his boss. Perfectly New York.
If you wear a uniform without pin stripes, then the Bronx is the last place on earth you want to go in a pennant race. But if you do, then you feel about Yankee Stadium the way the lions felt about the Colosseum.
It isn't just fans who think you're stealing your salary if you don't play like DiMaggio, it's not just nutsy gamblers and loose-cannon weirdos who make Yankee Stadium feel like Bellevue. Everything makes you think Bad Leroy Brown wants to punch out your lights.
"The tabloids grade you in public and feed every spark of controversy," Whitson said, doing an imitation of an interview: " 'So, how does it feel to screw up another ball game?' You feel like some of these guys are saying, 'I'll crucify you right here.' "
The owner -- The Boss, The Fat Man -- creates headlines when none would exist, even if he has to fire a manager or feud with a star. This year's gratuitous "issue" is mandatory offday workouts. When Rickey Henderson missed a poststrike plane flight, Steinbrenner gave him both barrels and docked his pay.
The manager, at least when his name is Martin, is on your back by day and in your nightmares while you sleep.
Martin can remember a grudge, too. Last time he left, Don Baylor led the cheers. When Yogi Berra was fired this April, Baylor said, "Playing for Yogi was like playing for your father. Playing for Billy is like playing for your father-in-law."
Suddenly, Baylor became a platoon player. "I'm too old. I only play against lefties," he said bitterly. With 78 RBI in 360 at bats, he still is on track for 100 RBI despite missing perhaps 150 plate appearances.
"It's ridiculous. Maybe what I said about Billy has something to do with it. I know I'm not going to go through this next year," said Baylor, in the last year of his contract. "I'm not going to end my career this way."
Oh, to be a Yankee. Curse George. Rip Billy. Play me or I'll skip town. Even Dave Righetti, now a bullpen star, says he doesn't know whether he's going to want to relieve next year. "We'll have to see about that," he said.
In New York, you stand up for your rights or, soon, you don't have any.
Whether all this makes you a better person is moot. That it makes you tougher, more ornery and more immune to pressure is certain. Why do you think the Marines have boot camp?
When the Yankees get to a pennant race intact, they're usually special.
From 1976 to 1981, the Yankees epitomized what mental toughness means in baseball. Gentlemen named Catfish Hunter, Sparky Lyle, Graig Nettles, Jackson, Chris Chambliss, Roy White, Goose Gossage and Thurman Munson were quintessential products of the Yankee Stadium cauldron. The Bronx Zoo produced real athletic animals.
Gradually, they left, replaced by men of comparable talent but less hardy temperament. For the last four years, the Yankees have tried to find or form a new breed like the old breed.
Often, the choices seemed peculiar. Why would Roy Smalley Jr., who spends his spare time working through the St. John's College list of "the 100 Great Books," prosper in a setting where introspection might be a crippling weakness? "Herman Melville said, 'Money may be the root of all evil, but how quickly we all consign ourselves to perdition,' " Smalley once said of signing his huge Yankees contract.
Finally, the Yankees seem to be succeeding once again at matching mentalities to their unique metropolis.
The team's radio broadcasts start with the words, "You're going to learn to fear the Yankees." Looks that way. "New York's Stars in Stripes Are Flyin' Again," say the billboards. With a 69-42 record since Martin returned for his fourth term as manager, and with 23 of their final 35 games at home (where they're 42-16), the Yankees' chances for another historic comeback are realistic.
"This is a real, real good team," said Ron Guidry, the 16-5 heart of the pitching staff. "Man for man, it's as good as the (world champion) '78 team. But that team had more mentally tough players than any club I've seen. We didn't lapse. This team is flat sometimes, then looks like the greatest the next day."
On no other team is temperament so important or mentioned so often. That's what makes Don Mattingly so good, for instance. "I never realized how tough he was until I saw him every day," said coach Gene Michael. "He needed four hits the last day of the season to win the ('84) batting title. So he got 'em."
"See Dwight Gooden one day and you're a Gooden fan," said Mattingly, who leads the league with 105 RBI. "You'd probably have to see me a whole season to appreciate me, to see that whole rounded game. I want my teammates to say, 'You can count on this guy every day.' "
Just like the '70s Yankees, this team conducts internal inventories. The most frequently scrutinized player is Henderson. "For all I heard about Rickey, that he was a hot dog and didn't always want to play," Mattingly said, "he's played hard. He concentrates. He's consistent."
Whitson points out that Henderson, who's hitting .334 with 58 steals, 20 home runs and 107 runs, has always been a lightning-rod player who deliberately attracts attention and pressure to himself. "Base stealers have to be cocky," said Whitson.
Another leading Yankee, however, said, "Rickey's going to have to learn to deal with the media and his public image better. There have been three or four things this year that could have gone sour. But he's having such a great year, it's smoothed everything over."
When the Yankees look around, they know they can count on such battle-hardened veterans as second baseman Willie Randolph, outfielder Ken Griffey and 297-game winner Phil Niekro. They worry a bit about right-hander Joe Cowley (10-5), who gives off world-beater airs that infuriate rivals. "Sometimes, Cowley might be whistling past the graveyard," said Michael. "His confidence gets shaken at times."
Some wonder if Martin, after all his traumas, still is pressure-proof. When a loss Friday pushed the Yankees five games behind, Martin wore a just-lost-the-Series face and answered only a few questions. "We're professionals. We'll come back," he snapped tartly.
If anything should bring out the street fighter, the go-for-the-jugular tactician and the gut-level psychologist in Martin, it would seem to be a chance to test Toronto's underbelly.
"September is the month when the hands tend to get tight around the bat," said outfielder Billy Sample, laughing. "Toronto has made a lot of personnel moves, like getting Johnson and Al Oliver. You bring in that many egos trying to hold on (to the lead), and, if you don't succeed, then what happens? How will they recover if and when we catch them?"
Whitson said, "To be a winning team in New York, the players have to blend together. Otherwise, you'd come apart completely. And we've come together. I've met a lot of wonderful people in New York . . . but the whole atmosphere is so rough that it can ruin a player for life. Sometimes we feel like the only time all those outside factors can't get us is when we're out on the field."
One Yankee in particular is the link with the spit-in-their-eye tradition of '77 and '78. "You can't play scared," said Guidry. "When we were behind the Red Sox in '78, we played like we had a 20-game lead. We went out there with the attitude, 'Come and get us, if you think you're good enough.' "
As salaries in pro sports get higher, as demands for performance rise with them, more and more athletes in all sports may get an increased dose of what the Yankees already see as the New York Treatment. Not everyone, not even every pro athlete, is cut out to be a fiercely focused leatherneck.
Whitson knows the strain as well as any. Above his locker is a letter with the words "This is not hate mail" typed outside. "Even then," he said, "I checked for a tick before I opened it."
Also above his cubicle, Whitson has various talismans sent to him by those fans who appreciate his dilemma: bulbs of garlic, an Eye of India and a lucky horseshoe.
"Just tryin' to keep the evil out of my locker," he said.
He laughs. When you play for the Yankees, that's not always easy.