I've seen a lot of great players at Yankee Stadium -- Munson and Jackson, Catfish and Guidry, Jeter and A-Rod -- but my most memorable moment came at my first game in the Bronx. The Tigers came to town in 1971, just a few weeks after my family moved to Long Island from Iowa. I was a Mets fan but wanted to see any baseball game. My dad got tickets from his job at Con Ed, one of the team's sponsors. So off we went.
My most enduring memory is how empty the stadium was. About 12,000 went to the game, a quick check of Retrosheet.org tells me. Foul balls did not set off a mad contest of reaching, grasping hands. Foul balls bounced around empty seats while fans raced to retrieve them from other sections. Since it was a blowout -- a 9-1 Yankee victory, which improved their record to 68-71, good for fourth place, 18 1/2 games behind the Baltimore Orioles -- most people who came left early. Those who stayed sat around looking bored. I tried to convince myself I was watching something special. I wasn't. The Yankees had only one superstar, catcher Thurman Munson. Roy White and Bobby Murcer were decent. Not much else.
In the next couple years, I experienced some real Yankees excitement during promotions like Bat Day that filled the stadium. I have always been amazed how great it feels to be in a stadium with 55,000 other people. Even when the team is out of the race, it can still feel like a playoff atmosphere. I also experienced how rowdy things can get during bad games. I never smoked pot, but I inhaled plenty when I went to Yankee games in the 1970s. At every game, fights broke out and fans got high and drunk. Then, in the late 1970s, the Yankees started winning. I guess George decided he could set some standards for fan conduct. Whatever happened, things didn't get so ugly in the stands.
I have a funny kind of nostalgia for those bad old Yankee teams. I went to the stadium because baseball was fun, not because the team was the best. The Yankee dynasty teams of later years were obviously better "products," as the number-crunching GM's say these days. But I miss the bygone days when winning more than you lost was good enough, before failure was defined as not crushing everyone every day. I'd love to get in a way-back machine and watch that 1971 Yanks-Tigers game again. Maybe I missed something.