Commentary

Toughest fan you'll ever meet

Updated: August 24, 2010, 11:53 AM ET
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

Jane LangGeorge Lenker/ESPN Jane Lang, who is blind, is one of the New York Yankees' biggest fans. During Hope Week, manager Joe Girardi (left) and pitchers David Robertson, Chad Gaudin and Joba Chamberlain escorted her on her two-hour trip to the park.

Ask yourself whether you'd do this: Leave home. Walk 20 minutes to the train station. Take a 70-minute train ride to Penn Station in New York City. Weave for 10 minutes over to the subway station. Take a half-hour D train ride to Yankee Stadium. Navigate the vendors and chaos to get to your seat.

Now ask yourself: Would you do all that blind?

Jane Lang does it, accompanied at most games by only her Seeing Eye golden retriever, Clipper. Thirty times a year. At 67 years old.

Which is why she was so gobsmacked Tuesday when she set out from her home in Morris Plains, N.J., only to find Yankees manager Joe Girardi and four current and former Yankees waiting on her doorstep.

They didn't have a limo. They didn't have a fleet of Suburbans. They had only sneakers. They were going to make the journey with her.

"Oh my God!" Jane said.

"We think you're amazing," Girardi said.

"Follow me," Clipper seemed to say.

You have to understand what a two-hour, one-way journey to a baseball game takes for somebody like Jane. She's been blind since birth, and these trips have not always turned out well. Once, some kids decided it would be fun to spin her around a few dozen times. Another time, she fell onto the subway tracks and was nearly killed. But ever since she got a guide dog, she's been intrepid.

The whole bizarre troupe: Jane, Clipper, the Yankees, their security guys, the PR men and the media -- paraded past the florist, Tony's pizza parlor and the little barbershop where one of the customers came out to wave and holler at Jane with the apron still around his neck.

It's mind-melting to watch Jane and Clipper make their way down the clogged streets of Manhattan -- Clipper, taking cues from Jane, weaving her through a maze of street vendors, suits, iPhone zombies, boxes, bums, secretaries and scaffolding.

Jane and Clipper walk at we-just-robbed-a-bank speed, which caused current Yankees pitching star Joba Chamberlain to holler, "Hey! Slow down!"

Soon Yankees fans figured out what was going on and joined in, along with nearly everybody in town. By the time they reached the train station, it looked as though Clipper was leading a marching band.

They crammed aboard the train, whereupon ex-Yankees star Tino Martinez slumped into his seat. "I can't imagine doing this," he'd say. Girardi, who was sitting next to Jane, said, "She's amazing. We should've done this blindfolded to give us an even better idea of what it's like."

Pah! You think this is hard? Wait 'til they'd see the next leg -- Penn Station and the streets of Manhattan.

[+] EnlargeJane, Mantle
George Lenker/ESPN In Monument Park with Paul O'Neill, Lang touches the Mickey Mantle plaque.
It's mind-melting to watch Jane and Clipper make their way down the clogged streets of Manhattan -- Clipper, taking cues from Jane, weaving her through a maze of street vendors, suits, iPhone zombies, boxes, bums, secretaries and scaffolding.

"And we complain about a little traffic on the Deegan [Expressway]," Girardi mused, shaking his head.

Usually, when Jane finally gets to the D train and takes her seat, she feels for eight pieces of candy in her right pocket. Every time the train stops, she transfers one piece into the opposite pocket. When there's one piece of candy left, she knows the next stop is Yankee Stadium. No need this time. The very people she was traveling to see were telling her it was time to get off.

Once Jane and Clipper reached Gate 6 -- two-and-a-half hours from start to finish -- Girardi and the players took over. They introduced her to former Yankees star Paul O'Neill, who let her feel his face. She touched it the way a sculptor would. They let her hold Babe Ruth's bat, Joe DiMaggio's hat, the 2000 World Series trophy. She felt the monuments. When she got to Mickey Mantle's face, she said, "He looks tired."

You don't know the half of it, lady.

They introduced her to Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter, who let her feel his famous mug. And once, when there was finally nobody talking to her, she crouched down and felt the infield grass as though it were finely spun silk.

Imagine. She had learned the game as a girl, when her father had set up a checkerboard like a baseball field and guided her hands over it. She's been in love with baseball ever since. Now she was getting a guided, one-woman tour of the very heart of it.

[+] EnlargeJane Lang
George Lenker/ESPN In a rare moment alone, Lang bends down to touch the field at Yankee Stadium.
"I'm the luckiest person in the world," she purred. "I always have known there were three different things I always wanted: a house with a roof that didn't leak, someone to love me and kids. And now I got this. It's the utmost frosting, you know what I mean? I'll never get sick of this frosting!"

Tuesday was just one day of the Yankees' Hope Week, a genius idea dreamed up by their public relations extraordinaire, Jason Zillo, who seems to have an addiction to helping people in ways nobody has thought of before. The Yankees gave $10,000 in Jane's honor to The Seeing Eye Inc., a place in Morristown, N.J., that trains guide dogs.

Still, the day was Jane's, and strong, young millionaires kept coming up to her, praising her guts, skills and moxie. To which Jane would only shrug and say, "This is just my way of being free and living in the world the way it is."

And as she stood there relishing the moment, it made a person think that the world the way it is can be awfully sweet.

Special reporting by George Lenker.


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