Nelson, Creatures step up for cystic fibrosis

07/10/2012 1:04 PM ET
By Jon Lane

Jeff Nelson takes in his first game in Section 203 with lead Bleacher Creature Vinny Milano.(Jon Lane)
Jeff Nelson remembered the night like it was a second ago. On September 25, 1996, Nelson was on the mound at the old Yankee Stadium for a rare experience. Joe Torre handed the ball to the Yankees’ valuable middle reliever, trusting him to get the final three outs to clinch the Yankees’ first AL East title in 18 years.

The Yankees were routing the Brewers, 19-2, but to Nelson it was the honor of earning the final three outs and the subsequent celebration of a division title on the mound. Various images on television, in print or experienced in person are so vivid it’s embedded in one’s memory bank for good. For Nelson, it was his ear-to-ear grin and jumping up and down as Fernando Vina’s fly ball descended into the waiting glove of center field Bernie Williams.

 “It’s funny, you can’t remember people’s names but you remember times way back then,” Nelson said. “It was all about Mariano [Rivera] and [John] Wetteland, and we helped out quite a bit. Even though the score was maybe out of hand, it was still the last three outs of the game and still a lot of fun.”

Nelson’s influence during a 15-year career that saw him go 23-19 with a 3.47 ERA and nine saves in two separate stints working in the Yankees bullpen extended beyond the many holds he preserved to set up Wetteland and eventually Rivera. Also a reliable reliever twice pitching for the Mariners, Nelson helped arrange a poker tournament in Seattle to benefit Cystic Fibrosis, a disease that affects the lungs, digestive system, sweat glands, and male fertility.

Thanks to the efforts of the Bleacher Creatures who reside in Section 203 of the new Yankee Stadium, Nelson signed his name to an e-bay auction for the winning fan to take part in the famous “roll call,” with proceeds going to the Greater New York chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

“Seattle was a huge, charitable organization as far as giving back, and now it’s great to see the Yankees doing it, to get in the community and give back a little bit,” Nelson told, which with the former Yankees and Mariners reliever participated in roll call at the start of the Yankees’ game against the White Sox on June 28.

Prior participants include Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, YES Network analysts Jack Curry and David Cone, and actress/Mrs. Nick Swisher Joanna Garcia. Nelson recalled the days gone by when the creatures congregated in Section 39 of the old park and is impressed with how the following has become larger, stronger and more loyal.

“It’s amazing with the economy and whatever that they keep coming out all the time,” Nelson said. “I remember the old days back at Yankee Stadium when they were by themselves and separated from everybody else. I think for awhile there was a no-beer section out there. I remember sitting in the bullpen watching the two sides say, ‘We have beer!’ It’s great. I never sat out here before. It’s a huge following all over.”

Longtime creature Fred Weiland was coached by Nelson at the Yankees’ annual Fantasy Camp in Tampa, Fla. Weiland also has a sister who as an Ohio-based nurse treats Cystic Fibrosis patients. When Nelson made his debut appearance sitting in the bleachers, it just happened to be during HOPE Week and the night the Yankees honored GlamourGals. While negotiating with Nelson to arrange the e-bay bidding, Weiland also contacted head creature “Bald” Vinny Milano in January. Milano considered not attending Yankee Stadium for the 2012 season due to financial considerations, but Weiland coined him a Yankee Stadium institution and convinced him to take part in raising awareness.

"Bald" Vinny Milano is the conductor of the Bleacher Creatures' famous "roll" call. (Jon Lane)
A Bleacher Creature since 2000, Milano has missed only eight Yankees games since 2004. The organization has involved Milano and friends in its prior HOPE Week events. Last month, Milano joined Yankees players and alumni for a visit to the New York Botanical Gardens to surprise the Children’s Alopecia Project with face and head painting, lunch and games.

“It feels good to be considered part of the Yankee family,” Milano said. “We’re fans and we love the team, and put as much passion into the team as the players do. We’re happy we’re able to contribute and thrilled to be considered part of the family. We love helping.”

Milano’s experience in the first YES’ Ultimate Road Trip in 2005 helped him understand the loyalty of Yankees fans. He recalled meeting people while traveling in middle America who drove nine hours on their only three days off that summer to watch a Yankees game.

“We just want to convey passion,” Milano said. ”There’s a certain breed of Yankee fan that’s a little more hardcore, a little more passionate. That’s what we attract. You don’t get this in Kansas City. Roll call for us, you connect. You get the interaction from us. Everybody feels that connection.”

Through Milano’s, Weiland’s and Nelson’s efforts, the Jeff Nelson Fantasy Experience gained good traction before ending the week of June 18, with plans to launch it again next spring. The winning person’s bid was $1,000, and as Weiland confessed, it was his own.

“It was too good of a cause for me to pass up,” Weiland said.

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