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Yankee Stadium: A First and Last Look
2008-07-29 07:00
by Ken Arneson
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.
Perfect grace consists not in exterior ornamentation of the substance, but in the simple fitness of its form.

--I Ching

All forms of great artistic expression are paradoxes at their core. Each work of art must have some sort of underlying unifying principle. To succeed, the elements of that artwork have to both connect with that underlying principle in order for the work to cohere, and at the same defy that principle in order for the work to surprise and delight. Jazz songs, for example, typically start off with a basic melody played straight, off of which the musicians will then improvise for the remainder of the song.

When I visit a new ballpark, I love to start out by finding a place where I can stand and absorb a panorama of the ballpark. What's this park about? What's the melody that holds this thing together? Often, this isn't something you intellectualize--you just get an overall feeling of the place. Once, I've got that sense, I like to go around and photograph all the little elements of the park that surprise and delight me.

Last Sunday, I made my first and only lifetime visit to Yankee Stadium. My usual modus operandi was thrown off from the start, as I was informed by Cliff Corcoran that if I want to see Monument Park, I should go straight there as soon as the gates open, or I won't get in to see it at all. So my first impression of Yankee Stadium was not a panorama, but a crowded throng of humanity being led by ushers with bullhorns up and down and around and through narrow, low-ceiling ramps and barricaded corridors in a 95-degree heat:

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It reminded me a bit of trying to see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. Perhaps it is a great work of art, but it's hard to make much of a connection to the artwork itself when your emotions are all caught up in having to swim through the overwhelming crowds just to get a glimpse at thing. There's no time for contemplation and reflection, you're just being rushed through the checklist. OK, here's your monuments. Lou Gehrig? Check. Babe Ruth? Check. Joe DiMaggio? Check. Ok, next! Keep it moving, folks...

Perhaps, though, this is the appropriate introduction to Yankee Stadium. For whatever assets Yankee Stadium has, it's important to remember that it's the people who lie at the heart of it. Not so much for the people like Ruth and Mantle and Jeter and Rivera (although that's certainly part of it), but the 20 million or so people who jam themselves into this small corner of the earth and who for 85 years have funneled themselves into this building to pass on from one generation to the next a cultural and communal tradition, and to pass on to the Yankees' franchise an economic perpetual motion engine to drive its success.

This history--not of flags, but of families--is what separates the Yankees from my team, the Oakland A's. There were kids at that game whose parents and grandparents and great-grandparents had all come to that same spot as kids to eat hot dogs and peanuts and Cracker Jack, to sit in the same seats and watch the same team playing the same game. It's a continuous, unbroken line to the past.

Meanwhile, the generation before mine in Oakland didn't have a major league team at all, and the team we now have has called three different cities home and is planning to move again. For a century, every time the A's have had success, the players who generated that success have been sold off. Even the signature player of Oakland Athletics history, hometown product Rickey Henderson, left the team and returned four times. The product the A's sell is inferior because the experience lacks the emotional connection created by continuity and loyalty and tradition.

Did I just praise Yankee fans? Why, yes, I did. Like my Fenway Park experience two years ago, I found my Yankee Stadium experience much more wholesome and family-friendly than Red Sox and Yankee games at the Oakland Coliseum. The obnoxious in-your-face bandwagon jumpers who show up at Yankee and Red Sox road games deserve to rot in the lowest circles of hell, as far as I'm concerned. But my encounters with the home town fans in both cities were universally pleasant and welcoming.

The atmosphere of history at Yankee Stadium is discussed so often it has become cliche. But Yankee Stadium isn't just a historical artifact, it's a work of architecture. After I finally extricated myself from long queues through Monument Park, I wanted to to take a breath, look around a bit, to pause and reflect and absorb the nature of the building.

In most of the ballparks I've walked through--Fenway Park, Tiger Stadium, Petco Park, AT&T Park and Dodger Stadium come to mind--I'll find myself turning this corner or that, and finding some interesting angles or structure or views to look at or contemplate or photograph. Yankee Stadium, I quickly found, is curiously lacking in any such interesting nooks and crannies. This photo, I think sums up why that is:

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The architects of Yankee Stadium took the complex problem of arranging so many spectators around the odd shape of a baseball field, and gave the form a very simple solution. The seating bowls along each foul line do not curve at all. They're arranged in two long straight lines, which meet at a very sharp curve behind home plate. It's a surprisingly minimalistic design for a city as busy and complex as New York.

That curve where the two long lines meet give Yankee Stadium it's signature shape, the long area behind home plate which sticks out as distinctively as Jay Leno's chin:

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The "chin" is the best sort of ballpark quirk: something surprising that arises naturally out of the architectural theme. The straight-line seating bowl may not otherwise give many interesting opportunites for amateur photographers (a problem the nearly circular Oakland Coliseum also has), but the unusual backstop area tells us very clearly: this not just a ballpark, it's a Stadium. Our nooks and crannies, our problems and solutions, simply operate on a larger scale.

Perhaps this is part of the reason why Yankee Stadium often rates a "meh" from visitors. The simple elegance of the seating bowl is not the type of thing that surprises you over and over again. You may be struck by and appreciate its beauty the first time you see it, but then you quickly get used to it, and forget about it. The beauty is on a scale larger than the human eye is used to contemplating. And the elements of the ballpark that operate on a human scale, like the concourses, are quite bland and featureless when they're not noisy and crowded.

A bigger problem in my mind, however, is that the minimalistic theme of the main seating bowl is betrayed by the mess that exists beyond the outfield fence. Kansas City has a minimalist seating bowl, too, but they carry the minimalist theme all the way around the outfield. At Yankee Stadium, however, the minimalism stops just beyond the foul poles. The outfield bleachers don't come all the way down to the fences, Monument Park is split into two sections, and interrupted inbetween by bullpens. In fact, when I was in line between the two sections, Greg Smith and Joey Devine wanted to leave the A's bullpen and return to the dugout, and had to cut through our line right in front of us to get back on the field.

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Now this sort of thing might be cute in a park-o'-quirks like Fenway, but in an otherwise minimalist structure like Yankee Stadium, it's just incoherent. How many different building materials can you spot in this picture? There's concrete, wood panels, a glass window, a chain link fence covered with some sort of evergreen plant, whatever the heck the facade of that beige building made out of--stucco?--plus some sort of iron grilles and tinted plexiglass windows. Not visible in the photo are the clear plexiglass of the outfield wall and a rope netting to the left, and red bricks ahead to the right. There's no rhyme or reason why the outfield fences or anything behind them are where they are and made of what they're made of. There's no form that these structures fit into, nothing neatly arranged as simply as possible. It's just a hodgepodge of stuff, stuffed behind a fence, like a pile of toys you threw into your closet when your mom told you to clean your room.

The good news is that New Yankee Stadium will fix the outfield, so that the pieces will all fit together in a much more orderly fashion. The bad news is that they didn't keep much of the old minimalist structure in the main seating bowl. The new upper decks bend around the field instead of forging straight ahead down the foul lines, and without the straight line structure, the sharp curve that forms the signature backstop area also disappears. They're removing both the best and worst features of the old Yankee Stadium. The new Stadium will be just like the old Stadium, only smoothed out--more luxurious, but less elegant.

Here, it's important to remember our original theme, that Yankee Stadium is about people. Whether the new park works better than the old one will be decided by the people who go there. Will families be able to afford the new luxurious seats, to pass on the traditions to further generations? Or will Yankee Stadium become the exclusive realm of corporate fatcats yapping on cellphones? Will the fans still buzz at every mention of Derek Jeter's name?

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The fans will make or break the new park, just as they made the old one. Despite my disdain for the architecture of the bullpen area, and despite the fact that I was rooting for the visiting team, I have to admit I got a thrill out of the growing buzz in the crowd as Mariano Rivera walked out of the bullpen and jogged across the outfield toward the pitcher's mound to close out the game. At that moment, there's no building in anyone's mind, there's no architecture--just a great player stepping onto a big green baseball field, and 50,000 people expressing their love.

Comments
2008-07-29 07:29:56
1.   Alex Belth
Ken, terrific piece. It's always interesting to get a fresh take on a place that is so familiar to many of us here at the Banter. I'm honored to run this post. Thanks so much.
2008-07-29 07:35:26
2.   RIYank
That made me feel dumb.
But thanks, Ken!
2008-07-29 07:45:33
3.   JL25and3
Fantastic writeup, Ken. After the many hundreds of times I've been to the Stadium over my lifetime, this was a revelation. Thanks.
2008-07-29 07:55:01
4.   Cliff Corcoran
Add my voice to this chorus. Thanks for this, Ken.
2008-07-29 08:03:56
5.   Dimelo
I'm confused, is www.bigtimebats.com and the picture that I'm looking at some pic that Ken took last Sunday or has the banter been turned into NASCAR Banter?
2008-07-29 08:04:46
6.   Raf
The renovation may have had something to do with the "minimalist" look. Also, since the renovations, the fences have been moved in a bit which would possibly explain the hodgepodge feel to the bullpen/Monument Park area. It seems to have always been a work in progress, the Monument Park we know today wasn't the same as I remember it in the 80's.

FWIW, the bullpens aren't in their original locations.

As for the iron grills, stucco & plexiglass, those are recent additions; I am unsure why the Yanks enclosed those areas. Maybe to discourage smoking/smokers? But that "building," is actually escalators to other levels in the stadium.

All in all, nice writeup, I am glad you had a good time @ the game.

2008-07-29 08:15:49
7.   williamnyy23
Very interesting perspective, but I have to admit that too much focus on architecture detracts from what I have always felt is the current Yankee Stadium's greatest attribute: the drama.

Quite frankly, when it's empty, the Stadium is not that impressive. Also, as you mentioned, the infrastructure is seriously lacking. However, when it fills up, the place seems to take on a feeling of impending significance. Because the third level hangs close to the field and the bleachers nearly circle the outfield, the enormity of the crowd seems to be enhanced. Also, the busyness of the outfield also adds its own drama, even if it is a hodgepodge. Instead of city skylines, rivers, bays or water fountains, the view looking out of Yankee Stadium at night is dark, with only unlit monster-like buildings looming over the Stadium. Whether it be the River Avenue apartments, the austere Bronx County Court House or the old Grand Concourse, Yankee Stadium at night has a very isolated feel (the only color amid a lot of gray). More than anything I think, I am going to miss that view from the upper deck. I know you attended a day game, so that wasn't something you experienced (day crowds can also be less "exuberant").

One other YS experience that I enjoy is how the Stadium appears suddenly as the 4 train emerges from the underground. I've seen it hundreds of times (literally), but it never gets old.

2008-07-29 08:26:20
8.   joe in boston
Wow, Ken - what a great writeup.

Good timing too - we're heading down for tomorrow's game - bringing my 3 1/2 and 5 1/2 year old boys. I wanted to make sure they can tell their friends (years from now) - that they were at the "old" Yankee stadium. Can't wait !

2008-07-29 08:34:36
9.   JL25and3
7 I completely agree about the upper deck. Not only does it hang close, but there's that ridiculously steep slope. It seems to go up from the field more than back; the effect is that everyone, even in the back rows, seems piled right on top of the field.

The plexiglass in the left-field wall is a relatively recent addition. When Sterling reads his copy about Yankee Stadium being "one of the most handicapped-accessible stadiums" in the NY area, that's mostly what he's referring to. Apparently they've sought a lot of input and worked very hard to provide first-rate handicapped seating in the new Stadium, for which I give them a ton of credit. But they really shouldn't be bragging about what they've got now.

2008-07-29 08:39:01
10.   Chyll Will
5 Take a look at Ken's Fairpole posting; he explains that he's experimenting with a new layout. I think the experiment should be over, though; I'm not widdit. As Ken was endorsing the minimalist layout of the Stadium, I think Toaster's minimalist layout should remain as-was.

Going inside the stadium really is like stepping on a soundstage; the familiar set from your favorite show or movie is really nothing more than props and materials seen from various camera angles and arranged for the convenience of the cast and crew. And that's part of the magic, really. I don't know how many millions of kids throughout the ages have imagined themselves playing at the Stadium someday; as a kid you feel like if you touch the field, you're automatically transported to a different dimension. As an adult, you feel like at any point you could grab a bat and start hitting a few over the short porch in right. I feel kinda left out when I see footage of people running on the field in celebration after winning the WS; you'd get locked up for even falling out of your seat now. But the thrill is still there, and the electricity in the seats has made more fans out of nonbelievers than any marketing schemes I've come across.

One day, I'll be able to afford a nice seat in the new stadium, and if I have kids I'll take them there and let them decide about the whole thing, like my brother did for me. As it is, even my roommate is sorta hooked on the ol' joint. That's magic, believe me, and a magic that no nominal or grandeur de architecture can replace, it can only hope to contain it.

Great post, Ken, and thanks for dropping by Da Bronx >;)

2008-07-29 08:52:11
11.   The Mick 536
You needed more time there. Liked your POV. I have a favorite spot: the Bob Uecker seat in the upper deck in rignt field that overlooks the tracks and the bullpen.
2008-07-29 08:52:28
12.   joe in boston
9 I used to be terrified about the steepnesss of that upper deck when I went as a kid - probably still scared of it.
2008-07-29 08:59:01
13.   williamnyy23
10 If one hasn't done so already, I heartily recommend the Stadium tour on dates when the Yankees are out of town. They not only allow you into the clubhouse, but you get to sit in the dugout before walking on the warning track toward Monument Park, where you are permitted all the contemplation Ken talked about above. Even though you aren't allowed on the grass, I managed to have about a quarter of an inch of it pass underneath one step. My guide also permitted me to scoop up a small vile of warning track dirt, which was really more like gravel.

Also, one interesting tid bit I learned from the tour was that the Yankees are in the processing of restoring all of their original World Series banners with the intention of having all 26 flying around the Stadium on Opening Day.

2008-07-29 09:01:44
14.   ibleedbloo
Ken,
I'm getting my "First and Last Look" at Yankee Stadium on August 27. Any advice for a first timer? Anything you wish you would have done or something you did that was a waste of time?

I appreciate your write up, its pumping me up a little for my trip.

2008-07-29 09:10:34
15.   Chyll Will
13 Certainly deserving of some serious consideration. Thank you very much, namesake >;)
2008-07-29 09:12:20
16.   Chyll Will
13 (btw, was the warning track really that vile? No wonder Abreu won't go near it! >;)
2008-07-29 09:27:35
17.   Ken Arneson
14 Advice: first, talk to your local weatherperson and try to get the temperature below 95 degrees.

Aside from Monument Park, there isn't all that much to do and see inside Yankee Stadium beyond the ballgame. There's Monument Park, but if you arrive late and miss it, I wouldn't feel too bad about it, particularly if you're not a Yankee fan. The thing I enjoyed most was walking the walkway around the lower deck and soaking in the ballpark.

The one thing I didn't do that I would have liked to do if I hadn't been dragging three kids with me in 95 degrees heat would be to explore some of the stores and vendors on the streets outside the stadium.

10 I'm extending the experiment a few days.

2008-07-29 09:33:56
18.   Bama Yankee
13 I also highly recommend the Stadium tour (I enjoyed it more than the actual game). You also get to sit in the press box while the tour guide gives you a brief history of the Stadium (we were told that Bernie Williams hit a ball over the old bullpen and out of the Stadium during BP).

Yeah, I scooped up some of that warning track "dirt" also. Even though you can buy the same stuff in a 50 lb bag called "Diamond Dirt" from any athletic field supplier, at least my small sample size of dirt came from somewhere down the left field line of Yankee Stadium...

2008-07-29 09:44:04
19.   Chyll Will
18 I have a cassette album of experimental music cut-ups called "Dirt for Sale" I made in high school that you might be interested in... >;)
(Aha! Thanks for the inspiration for a new post at my blog, my good friend!)
2008-07-29 10:29:13
20.   Sliced Bread
Thanks for that, Ken. Very much enjoyed seeing the Stadium through your eyes.

Your astute first, and last impressions of the old place confirm my feelings that we don't need a new Yankee Stadium.

Sure, the current stadium is aesthetically, and functionally flawed, but not to the extent that it need be destroyed.

I'm not sure if the Yankees are inadvertently taking the wrecking ball to the club's relationship with the fans, foresaking a longstanding friendship. That's probably taking my sentimental fear and loathing of the new joint too far.

But my first impression of the chisled and gilded new Stadium is that it does not invite, but stands tall and aloof. It strikes me as a heap of classic fascist architecture, mocking the little man, pretending to be bigger and grander than what it needs to be -- exactly what the old place is -- just a place to watch baseball.

2008-07-29 10:29:55
21.   JL25and3
17 Even as a Yankee fan, I don't find Monument Park particularly interesting. They have monuments and plaques for familiar people, with familiar facts and bad likenesses.

The stores and vendors around the Stadium are also probably less interesting than you'd hope. Yankee souvenirs and memorabilia, beer, bowling alley. I think the woman who serves kabobs down on River Ave is still there - not bad for street food. But, really, not much of interest.

2008-07-29 10:30:35
22.   williamnyy23
16 It was...unless it was a temporary coating used in March, it didn't look very comfortable to land on.
2008-07-29 10:37:03
23.   JL25and3
20 They've famously recreated the old brownish outer facade in the new Stadium, which is great - the white paint job sucks and always has. But this time around, that facade isn't actually the outer wall of the Stadium. It's just a big stone outer wall with a stadium plunked down inside it and a wide concourse in between. To me, that makes it look more monumental and less inviting, just the sort of cold grandiose artifact you're talking about.
2008-07-29 10:39:25
24.   williamnyy23
20 I think you might be stretching sentimentality a little too far. While the Yankees do not need a new place, I have to admit that the old one is somewhat uncomfortable. The concourses are jam packed, the seats are too small, the rows too narrow, etc. Also, the infrastructure is very old. If you take the tour, you'll get a feel for that. The underground tunnels look like some subways, and there are telephone wires running everywhere.

If not for the history of the place, I would have no second thoughts about moving to a new building.

21 Yankee Stadium has really never been about amenities. It's been about history, atmosphere and the quality of the team. While monument park isn't breathtaking, it is a reminder of the great players who have walked on the grounds.

I also agree that there is nothing worth seeing on the outside. Just a few blocks of delis, souvenir stands and bars.

2008-07-29 10:40:53
25.   williamnyy23
23 I think that's the intention though. The Yankees aren't trying to build a warm, cozy ballpark, but an austere, intimidating monument to the franchise's greatness.
2008-07-29 10:45:00
26.   Sliced Bread
To me the coolest thing about Monument Park is that it exists. I like the idea of a small park within the park where you're almost forced to think about great players from the past. It's certainly a place to put one's crush on Melky Cabrera in proper perspective.
Cracks me up how solemn some people get out there, removing their hats, respectfully lowering their voices, like these cats are buried at their feet.
2008-07-29 11:41:12
27.   FreddySez
Ken: Nice job.

When you see the jumble of structures beyond the LF wall, what you're seeing is the old limits of play -- the Yankee Stadium that used to be. (Remember that the 1970s renovation lowered the playing field, and it will fall into place.) You're seeing the archeology of the old stadium in the daily life of the new one -- the way the playing field has receded, like a tide.

To ibleedbloo: I agree with Ken that you should make Monument Park a priority. But since this is your one and only visit, try to arrive even earlier than that. Walk around the neighborhood -- hear the train, smell the smells, feel the pulse. In fact, if you can manage it, arrive by train. Purists may argue about our 'hood vs. Fenway vs. Wrigley etc., but in the broad view, this ain't no parking lot in Chavez Ravine (or Flushing). It's a place to know and savor.

Ken's right that the River Ave scene isn't earth-shattering, but do browse along Stan the Man's memorabilia display cases, get a beer, get a sausage.

Once you're inside and done with Monument Park, shell for a scorecard (unless you've brought your own). Unless something has changed, the pencils are still free.

Forget the food court near Section 26. It's like eating at the DMV. The regular concession stands vary; find one that sells the "stadium foot long." Doesn't matter how hungry you are; it's a different kind of hot dog, of higher quality. But get there right away -- for all the majesty of the stadium, the service personnel are awful, and if you wait until the game starts that hot dog might cost you two innings.

When the game's over, try to leave by the most logical exit. Don't get me wrong; they won't let you -- but trying and getting denied by a rude security guy, then having to exit the stadium 180 degrees away from where you want to go, are all part of the authentic experience. These days all stadium "patrons" are funneled back toward the home plate side. You'll hear vague mumblings about security, but the real point is to herd you all through the new gift shop. (Snark aside: when everyone's trying to file out the crowded upper or lower concourses, head to the loge level for easy cruising.)

If you can manage it at some point during the game, head to the tier box area right on the centerline. Pause in the aisle as long as you can without the staff taking a cattle prod to your thighs -- and just take it in. This is the classic, all-encompassing view, from the courthouse all the way down to the concrete at your feet.

Enjoy!

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