Warning: This post will be completely, 100% not about television and completely, 100% about baseball -- specifically, a certain love-em-or-hate-em team that wears pinstriped uniforms and plays in the Bronx. If that subject -- and a length that even I admit is self-indulgent given the subject matter -- doesn't interest you, please don't click through to read the full post. That is all.
You might have missed it -- I'm not sure how, exactly -- but Yankee Stadium is closing. Barring a total miracle in which this year's underachieving squad makes the playoffs, tomorrow night's game will be the last ever in The House That Ruth Built, which will make way next season for a bigger, fancier, vastly more expensive joint across the street.
I recognize that the post-renovation Stadium (the only one I've ever known) bears only a geographic resemblance to the one where Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle played, and even then not entirely. (As Tom Verducci points out in his brilliant first-person account of the life of the Stadium, they moved home plate forward 10-20 feet in the renovation, so Reggie and Bernie batted in a different spot than the Babe and the Mick.) I recognize that it's an ugly concrete bowl, that it's cramped and crumbling and for the most part lacking character beyond the history itself. (Also, it had great views even from the cheap seats, something that you can't necessarily say about the new colossus.)
But, again, it's the only version of the Stadium I've ever known, as I was born a few weeks after the team played their last game in the original version. Even if you want to discount all the amazing sports history that went on their pre-renovation (and pre-me), it's an awe-inspiring place. I was lucky enough to go there a lot as a kid, as my dad's company had box seats that he had access to a few times each season, and there are few sights that still fill me with as pure a joy as what I feel when I step out of the ugly gray concourse and get a look at that field.
All the pundits have been sharing their own Stadium memories (the great Bronx Banter has a bunch from fans and pros alike; scroll down the side rail for the "Lasting Yankee Stadium Memories" list o' links), and I'm going to briefly (your definition of "briefly" may vary) share three, in chronological order:
August 24, 1992: I was a few weeks away from leaving for college, and me and my best friend Mike (with whom I had shared plenty of other Stadium memories I won't bore you with here) decided we had to take in one last game together before I was gone. This was the tail end of the bad years, those godawful seasons when Mel Hall and Danny Tartabull were what passed for our power hitters, when Andy Stankiewicz was a legitimate candidate to be our token All-Star, when Gene Michael was still rebuilding the farm system on the sly while Boss George served out one of his "lifetime" suspensions from the game. One of the few alleged rays of light were a pair of pitching prospects named Sam Militello and Bob Wickman who were going to liberate us from the days of staff "aces" like Andy Hawkins and Dave LaPoint.
Militello had already pitched in three games, and Wickman's debut was that night, so Mike and I drove to the Bronx hoping to get a ticket. Again, these were the bad ol' days, when no one but the die-hards actually wanted to pay to see the team, and so when we strolled up a few minutes before game time, a very desperate scalper offered us a pair of field box seats for 20 bucks apiece. We gladly paid, went inside, and discovered they were directly behind home plate, five rows back. Best seats I ever had for a sporting event, and though Wickman wasn't a factor in the end (Yanks won a 9-8 slugfest with a 4-run 8th inning), Mike and I spent the entire time marveling at how easily we could make out the ball coming out of the pitchers' hands, how loud the crack of the bat was, and how close we were to the spot where Lou Gehrig gave the "luckiest man on the face of the Earth" speech. Great night, even though Militello blew his arm out the next season and Wickman became a journeyman reliever, mostly for other teams.
October 26, 1996: Because of when I was born, I barely even remember the Reggie Jackson-led mini-dynasty of the late '70s. My mom was a huge fan, as was one of my sisters -- who got a guest editorial published in the Sunday New York Times sports section during that period, no doubt inspiring me to want to one-up her in the newspaper department -- and they passed that love down to me. But, again, most of my childhood was spent watching mediocre to outright bad Yankee teams that were micro-managed by the Boss.
Now, I recognize that a gap of 18 years between championships must seem like nothing to a fan of the Pirates or the Royals or the Cubs, but the bulk of the Steinbrenner era was so depressing that I was starting to convince myself I would never see a Yankee championship team (that I would remember) in my lifetime. Then came the start of the Joe Torre years, and specifically then came Game 6 of the '96 World Series.
I went with my dad, my mom (who had a knack for befriending people in the ticket office), and one of the nuns at the Catholic women's college where my mom teaches. The nun was from an order that doesn't require an obvious uniform, and so we spent the first few innings listening to four guys behind us cursing a blue streak about how impossible it was going to be for the Yankees to get a hit off of Greg Maddux. Finally, my dad stood up and very politely told the one behind him that they were cursing near a Sister, and they clammed right up.
Maddux was tough that night, but he wasn't unhittable, and when Joe freakin' Girardi hit a triple in the bottom of the third to knock in Paul O'Neill, the Stadium shook. I have never in all my life -- not at the end of this game, when the Yankees had won the title and Wade Boggs was circling the field on horseback, not at the end of the third and final game I'm going to discuss here, not ever -- felt anything like the vibrations in my chest that I felt as the place rocked from all the cheers. It was like 18 years of tension, multiplied by those first two games of the Series when it looked like the Yanks had no business playing with the Braves, were being released all at once. The rest of the game wasn't a formality, but when Joltin' Joe Girardi-O hit that triple, we all knew the drought was over. Everyone was hugging everyone else, and the guys in the row behind us were especially eager to hug the Sister.
That was also the last ballgame I ever saw with my dad.
October 31/November 1, 2001: This one you don't really need me to describe. It was a few weeks after 9/11, the Mr. November game, part of what would have been the most magical Yankee post-season run of all time if Mariano hadn't thrown the ball into the outfield in Game 7. So I'll just tell you a little story from my perspective.
I was there with my mom (resourceful as always with the ticket office) and some of her friends, seated in the Loge section, and after the Diamondbacks scored two runs in the top of the 8th and the Yanks couldn't do anything in the bottom half of the inning against poor, doomed Byung-Hyun Kim, my mom and her friends left so they could watch the last inning in seats much closer to the exit nearest the parking lot. I was taking the train, so I stayed where I was, but when Jeter grounded out trying to bunt his way on to make the first out, I got up and started moving towards the back of my section so I could make a quick getaway when they inevitably lost. I was walking backwards, two rows from the back of the section, when O'Neill got on with a single to left, and I froze, superstitious as hell and not wanting to jinx what seemed like a good spot. Bernie struck out, but I stayed where I was, and then Tino Martinez rewarded my faith by depositing a home run in the right field seats. I swear to you I did not move an inch during the break between innings, during Mariano's scoreless top of the 10th, during Brosius and Soriano's flyouts, or until the ball left Jeter's bat and the place went berserk.
I don't really remember moving my position, or leaving the Stadium at all, but the next thing I knew, I was on a packed D train car heading back into Manhattan. We were all staring at each other, total strangers, not sure what to say or how to react to having been present for one of those nights when the ghosts came out and Curt Schilling's favorite strippers, Mystique and Aura, made their presence felt. Finally, one guy broke the silence and put things about Jeter's accomplishment into perspective:
"It's not fair," he said. "Like that guy doesn't already get laid enough."