Saturday, September 20, 2008

That old ballpark of mine

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."


velvetcannibal said...

First off, you are so much younger than I assumed you must be due to your writing ability and memory of certain tv shows. Wow.

I was a half-assed fan during my childhood/teenage years, and only became die hard in 2001, during my first year of college. I understand what you mean about only knowing a team that loses, as we've had several heartbreakers, beginning with that year.

But there is nothing like walking up that dirty, decrepit ramp and seeing the green field in front of you, the bleacher creatures chanting to the players, the sun setting and roasting the cheap seats. I never feel more at peace than when I'm walking into that stadium, no matter how much of a toilet it has become. I'm sure I'll love the new one, once I'm used to it, but you can't recreate that sense of history, of generations of love and suffering that comes with that place. If I won the lottery, the only luxury item I'd want would be season tickets to the Yankees.

I will miss that palace, and I'm glad I got to go to a final game this year. I'm sure Mets fans over at Shea are feeling the same sense of loss and nostalgia for their ballpark.

velvetcannibal said...

(Though, team that loses is silly to say, since we always made the playoffs. Breaking new ground for me this year.)

Anonymous said...

Fuck the Yankees. That is all.

Toby O'B said...

No class, Andrew. Jeez....

I'm a Sox fan transplanted down here to NY, but never one of those who takes that kind of attitude towards the Yankees. I love going to Yankee games - although that July 4th perfect game was a killer - and I always had such a great time at that stadium.

I'm going to miss it.

For a Sox fan, I loved your memories of it - every baseball fan, no matter their team, can relate to the universal wonder that a ball game can evoke.

Thanks, Alan!

xtina said...

Thanks for sharing your Yankee Stadium memories, Alan. I was never lucky enough to go to any playoff or World Series games, but my favorite memory was going to a game in 2000 with my family and seeing my dad miss a foul ball that landed in his hat and bounced out (it was one of those adjustable ones with a plastic band), only to have Derek Jeter's father - his parents were sitting two rows in front of us - turn around and tell my dad better luck next time, and that he needed a new hat!

My younger sister and I, quite smitten with Jeter at the time (oh, ok, fine, we're still pretty smitten with him), just stared at each other with OH MY GOD looks on our faces. And of course, my dad got a nice fitted hat for his birthday that year.

Nicole said...

I am a Tigers fan and don't really remember 84 and I haven't really liked the Yankees ever, but it is always sad to replace an original stadium with the commercially sponsored new one. I miss Tiger Stadium.

And the Skydome/Rogers Centre in Toronto is even less conducive to watching baseball than Comerica Park.

Anonymous said...

Alan I liked you even more now that I know you are a Yank fan.

Steven Timberman said...

Youch, Andrew.

I agree, have some class.

I grew up having a personal connection to the Anaheim Angels, and when I moved to Boston I felt like I was in a foreign land. Yet as much as I despise Boston's fans and what the Red Sox stand for I will probably shed a tear when Fenway gets torn down.

It's not about the game, even though it's ALL about the game.

Karen said...

Alan, this was a great post, and that Jeter anecdote caps it brilliantly.

I was a bartender at the Grand Hyatt all through the 1980s, which is the hotel where all the teams that play the Mets and Yankees stay. I got to know a lot of players and managers back then, and they would always leave me tickets to games. The seats were always under the net behind home plate, with the players' wives.

I always preferred Yankee Stadium to Shea (although I was a Red Sox fan), if only because you could feel the history, even though, as you note, the stadium wasn't REALLY the historical stadium. It didn't matter. It was in the air. And it was a great place to watch a ballgame.

Anonymous said...

My dad's later career was in the front office for a sports team (early career sports editor for a daily), and so much of my life was spent going to myriad games in various cities at all kinds of venues. I saw my first Yankees home game approximately 15-20 years ago and was struck by all the ghosts in the stadium. Even though I'm not a hardcore sports fan, I am a nostalgic one. I hated seeing Wrigley get stadium lights, and I'm sorry that the Bronx ghosts are going to be disturbed.

Anonymous said...

p.s. Question from a West Coaster, and I hope this isn't incredibly ignorant. Do the folks in NJ tend to be Yanks fans vs. Mets fans, or is there no general rule there?

Alan Sepinwall said...

Question from a West Coaster, and I hope this isn't incredibly ignorant. Do the folks in NJ tend to be Yanks fans vs. Mets fans, or is there no general rule there?

The stereotype is that people from New Jersey and Westchester root for the Yanks and people from the outer boroughs and Long Island root for the Mets, but I've never found much truth in that. I went to school with a lot of Mets fans, which made the '80s not a particularly fun decade for me as a baseball fan.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Alan.

Yeah, I can recall attending many Mets/Dodgers World Series games in the 80s.

Anonymous said...

just finished watching the pre-game ceremony for tonight's game, and all I can think of was the very first time I went to the Stadium....we had moved to NJ in March of 1968, and that summer, I saw my first Yankees game...and got my first autograph....Mel Stottlemyer. To this day my dad still remembers me yelling at the tv screen the next time he pitched "hey Mel, thanks for the autograph" as if somehow he could telepathically hear me.
Spent many of my high school, college, and now "business" years there. I think that to truly appreciate what it was, you have to have been there in the early 70's...when the team stunk, and the surrounding Bronx neighborhood stunk even worse. There really is no place like it in sports.
Thanks for letting me remenise.

Anonymous said...

I've been to Yankee Stadium once, at the infamous game against the Red Sox where a fan took a cap off a downed player's head and the entire Red Sox team ran into the stands after him, followed by the Yankees and then security. We were up in the nosebleeds where it was so steep that I nearly got a case of vertigo. Sorry to hear they're replacing it with a generic model.

Isaac, your bartender said...

Thanks for the column, Alan. I'm a few years older than you and have been going to games at the Stadium since the renovated stadium opened in '76. I was fortunate enough at age 5 to attend the Chambliss game with my dad and grandfather. This summer I took my two boys (ages 2 and 3 months) to see the Yanks beat the Red Sox. A great, final memory of that wonderful place.

One nit, Alan. While Mo's throwing the ball into CF in Game 7 hurt, I am still more troubled by what happened next. Another bunt, and Mo gets the guy at third but for whatever reason Brosius holds the ball. He had plenty of time to turn two, and the Yanks would have been 1 out away with a runner on second for the D'backs. Would Womack still have doubled? Who knows, but the entire series might have been different.