I have only been to Yankee Stadium three times, but each visit holds a significant spot in my memories. My first visit changed my life. I was born in Detroit, Michigan, and geography told me to root for the Tigers until at the age of seven in the summer of 1977 I convinced my parents to spend one day of our New York City vacation at Yankee Stadium. Catfish Hunter started the game, Chris Chambliss launched a late pinch-hit home run to bring the Yanks from behind, and Sparky Lyle got the win in relief. My strongest memory from that afternoon, though, is of a play that wasn't made. Graig Nettles lunged into the stands in pursuit of a foul pop-up, and I was confused when the crowd cheered for him even though he hadn't been able to make the grab. "They're cheering because he gave it his all," my mother explained. He gave it his all. To this day, whenever I hear that phrase I think of Graig Nettles.
My third visit was bittersweet. Last month my family and I flew across the country to New York from our home in California so that my children could one day say they had been to the original Yankee Stadium, the place where Ruth and Gehrig, Mantle and DiMaggio, Yogi and Whitey, Reggie and Thurman, Jeter and Rivera had all played. A-Rod homered, Jeter picked up four hits, Mike Mussina coasted to his sixteenth win, and everyone went home happy, but a little sad that we'd never visit again.
Neither of those games, as memorable as they were, measures up to the visit I made in August of 1997. A friend's wedding brought me to the east coast, and as fate would have it, Don Mattingly Day was scheduled while I was in the area.
Mattingly, for me, was everything, a bright light in a dark time. The previous generation of Yankee fans had Bobby Murcer to guide them through the wilderness, but Mattingly was better; in my teenage mind, he was legendary. I was fourteen years old when he outlasted Dave Winfield for the American League batting title, and I remember tracking each of his hits in a computer program I'd written. (This was long before the instant gratification of the internet, and I couldn't wait for the stats in the Sunday sports section.) A few years later, just before he was robbed of what should've been his second MVP award, I announced to my mom that I would one day name my son after him. (As it happened, I didn't, but I was wearing a Yankee jersey in the delivery room when my son Henry was born.) Even when I got to college I mirrored Mattingly's batting stance during IM softball games, crouching low and turning my front toe towards home plate.
Once, when I was nineteen or twenty, I stood five feet or so away from him before a game at Anaheim Stadium as he took swing after swing, pounding balls off a tee and into a net behind home plate. I couldn't bring myself to speak to him, but a young kid called out fearlessly: "Hey, Don, are you gonna hit thirty homers this year?" Without looking up from his preparation, he shot a question right back: "What if I drive in a hundred and ten? Wouldn't that be just as good?" Of course it would. Moments later the players started coming off the field as their pre-game workout came to an end. A large older man with a thick New York accent stood up above the dugout and pointed at Mattingly while scolding the rest of the Yankees: "Look at him! He's the the only great Yankee without a ring! You get him a ring! You do what it takes to get him a ring!!" He spoke for all of us. Later in that series, or maybe it was another trip to Anaheim, Mattingly would come off the bench in the ninth inning and hit a pinch home run to win the game and clinch a series sweep of the Angels. What could be better than watching your favorite player do something like that?
When I got to Manhattan on the morning of the game, I casually mentioned to someone that I was headed out to the Stadium that afternoon and wondered if I'd have any trouble getting a ticket. "Oh, fuhgeddaboudit!" (This, of course, was like arriving in Paris and having someone say voilà.) Apparently the game had been sold out for weeks. Undaunted, I hopped on the four train along with hundreds of other fans and headed up to the park. I struck up a conversation with a guy who was taking his family to the game, and at one point he asked me if I knew who Peyton Manning was. Manning was about to begin his senior year at Tennessee, and even though he was still a decade from being the ubiquitous TV pitchman that he is today, he was still the most well-known college football player in America. I knew him. "Look over there. We're taking his little brother with us to the game today. He's a quarterback too." And there stood a fourteen-year-old Eli Manning, looking like any other fourteen-year-old would look long and gangly, distracted and bored. In ten years he'd own the city.
When you take the uptown train to the Stadium, your arrival is dramatic. After rocking along underground the entire length of Manhattan, the train bursts above ground into daylight as if rising to take a much-needed breath. Almost immediately you're upon the Stadium, and if you watch closely you get a quick glimpse of the field through an opening above the bleachers, a sight fans likely won't get when they visit the new Stadium next year. The train was full of people on their way to the game, some of them season ticket holders, others coming for the first time, but we all reacted the same way. With eyes blinking against the sudden light, we bent to look out the subway windows and pointed in unison as if to remind each other of our shared destination. The doors opened abruptly and we were released to join the other fifty thousand souls lucky enough to be there that afternoon.
I bought a ticket from a guy on the corner, walked into the Stadium on the first base side, and was immediately overwhelmed. The frieze encircling the outfield, the short porch in right, the black seats in center, and best of all a crowd filled with Yankee jerseys and hats. I stood for a moment with a lump in my throat, taking everything in. Three thousand miles from where I lived, I felt like I was home.
I eventually made my way to my seat where I watched a ceremony for Mattingly that was everything I hoped it would be. There were gifts from the team, telegrams from legends like DiMaggio and Rizzuto, and to Mattingly's surprise a plaque unveiled in Monument Park. But here's the moment I'll always remember. At some point during the festivities a convertible drove around the warning track with Mattingly perched upon the back seat, circling the stadium for one final ovation. I stood with fifty thousand others, chanting over and over again, "Don-ee Base-Ball!! Don-ee Base-Ball!!" and I arrived at something true. I have never been a religious person, but this was as close to an epiphany as I have ever come. I thought of all the caps I had bought, the baseball cards I had collected, the statistics I'd memorized, and the box scores I'd pored over, and one thing became clear. Throughout the course of my life, as I moved from state to state and school to school, from one group of friends to another, there had really only been one constant aside from my family: the New York Yankees. As the chants echoed back and forth across the Stadium, tears welled in my eyes and I yelled myself hoarse. A game was played later that day, but it almost didn't matter.