Today, I received great news and I wanted to share it. I told my boyfriend, Marie, my brother, my mom, my buddy Keith and now you guys (in that order).
I received an email today from my editor about the results of a recent newspaper writing contest that our paper enters every year, the NJPA (New Jersey Press Assocation). I learned that I won first place in the sports writing portfolio category for newspapers that have a circulation of over 60,000. That means amongst all the big newspapers in the state including The Star Ledger and The Record, I won top prize.
Three of my articles were submitted in my portfolio. One was on Cathy Rush, who was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame last year. One was a game story from the Phillies run during the playoffs.
The other was a piece I wrote on the bleacher creatures at Yankee Stadium. I spent a lot of time sitting out there, making friends. Last year, before I went to the final game of Yankee Stadium, wrote this for my paper.
I hope you guys enjoy it.
Editor's note: Susan Lulgjuraj was a season-ticket holder in Section 39 of the bleachers at Yankee Stadium for several years before moving to southern New Jersey. She still visits friends and roots for the Bronx Bombers.
With Yankee Stadium hosting its last baseball game today and a new park being built, Lulgjuraj spoke by phone to friends who have been sitting in the bleachers even longer than her. The Bleacher Creatures are a group of fans in right field from all walks of life who came together simply to root for the Yankees but found so much more.
48 hours to go.
The tears have already started.
It's the last Friday night game at Yankee Stadium, a night that has become a staple for the regulars through the years.
Most "Bleacher Creatures" were there Friday, including those who thought it would be too difficult to show up today for the final game in The Cathedral.
"I've been crying the whole weekend," said Tina Lewis, 46, better known in the bleachers as The Queen. "It's been 30 seasons. I practically grew up there. It's like losing your home."
The Section 39 Bleacher Creatures became famous for more than their raucous behavior. It wasn't for the battery-throwing incidents or the profanities directed at opposing players.
The Creatures started the roll call, when each Yankee starter is called by the crowd in right field, until the players wave back. It's a unique relationship between players and fans, but it's not why anyone started sitting in the bleachers.
It just made it better.
"I was fairly new to the city, and I thought, 'Where can I go? Because I don't have many friends, and I don't want to stand out,' " said "Sheriff" Tom Brown, 40, one of the principals of Section 39. "It probably took two innings to feel part of something. Within a week, I was part of the inner circle."
That was in 1993, and Brown didn't stop going to games regularly until around 2002. Then, he and wife Dana Brown, whom he had met in the bleachers, had their first child and life took priority.
But not enough to keep him away from a smattering of games since, and certainly not for the final game.
"It was part baseball, part beer, part comedy improv," Brown said. "It was like going to a party with a baseball game right in front of you at Yankee Stadium."
Miles Seligman, 38, who started sitting in the bleachers in 1989, attended every game at Yankee Stadium this weekend. But he hasn't paid much attention to the score.
"I've been zoning out the last couple of games," said Seligman, who grew up in New Brunswick. "I'm trying to hold on to this image in my mind's eye. Parts of the upper deck, the way a patch of green infield opens to us, the whole geography of it. I want to have it in my mind for all time."
24 hours to go
The plans are being made: where to meet up, what time, and who's going to the final game.
Sheriff Brown and fellow Long Islander Justin Shibilski will be there in the afternoon. Even if Brown didn't have a ticket, he would have been on River Avenue.
Standing outside the gate, listening to the game on the radio and the cheers from the crowd, was still better than watching from home.
"There was a playoff game in (1995) against Seattle, and I was in Section 57 (the left-field bleachers)," Brown said. "I tried to go to 39, but the security guards wouldn't have it. I remember watching with different people, and it wasn't fun."
Everyone who has been part of the bleachers has a story of how Section 39 became home. Seligman loved the camaraderie. For Lewis, The Queen, it was an escape.
Lewis lived in California but traveled to New York every summer from 1979 to 1990. She spent every summer in the bleachers. She finally decided it would be cost-effective to move to New York, where "the Yankees ruled her life."
Lewis had ran away from home when she was 14. She said her parents had forced her into a marriage with a man who abused her.
At Yankee Stadium, no one judged her. It was a place where people understood her passion for the game.
"I've been through a lot in my life to get here, where I want to be," Lewis said. "It's very sad because it's the end of something. I know the stadium next door is going to be beautiful, but it will never be the same."
Not all the Bleacher Creatures will be in the house today.
"There are some that are upset about it, some people that are angry about it," Brown said.
Many said it's like losing an old friend.
Shibilski, 32, was choked up sitting in the upper deck with his father on Saturday as he watched Mariano Rivera come out in the ninth inning.
Shibilski had two stints as a Bleacher Creature separated by college. He now lives in Chicago. But he came back to celebrate the stadium and the friendships he created in the bleachers this weekend.
"It's a group of people that would not give each other the time of day under normal circumstances and are bound together by something," he said. "That's stronger than a building."
It wasn't until 1998, when I was 18 years old, that I sat in the bleachers regularly.
I grew up in a strict, patriarchal family. Women weren't supposed to like sports. The norm for my culture was going from your parents' house to your husband's. There was no middle ground.
After much pleading, I finally was allowed to attend Yankee games, which were just a 15-minute ride from our Yonkers, N.Y., home.
There was one condition: I had to take my younger brother, Johnny, with me.
The moment we sat down in Section 39, we were home.
Lewis turned out to be The Queen's married name. Her real last name was the same crazy one as mine. I didn't believe her when she said her last name was Lulgjuraj (pronounced La-ju-die) but I forced her to spell it on the spot. We discovered that we are cousins.
She passed the test, and when I mentioned her to my father, his response was: "You know she ran away from home."
But she found a home in the bleachers.
So when Yankee Stadium shuts down for good, a little bit of all us will go with it.