Baseball Toaster Bronx Banter
Lasting Yankee Stadium Memory #44
2008-10-23 08:19
by Alex Belth

By Chris DeRosa

A Goodbye in Eight Games

23 May: Sea 2 @ NY 13

I've only made it to a handful of games in recent years, so with this season being the last chance, I bought a seven-game package and distributed one of each pair of tickets to my family as Christmas presents. My dad and I got a good one to start it off. Andy Pettitte finished off hitters more efficiently than he usually does, and Matsui and Giambi had big games at the plate. Our seats were half-way up in right field, which afforded us a view of the new building. There is some comfort in the fact that it is literally across the street. When you go to new place, you're still making the familiar trip.

The most memorable game that I saw with my dad when it was just the two of us was Old Timers' Day, 1978. This game was a famous one in Yankee political history; they announced Billy Martin would return as manager—bizarrely, a year and a half later—and he got a deafening sustained ovation. We had an old used car at the time, and, getting onto the expressway on the way home, the engine burst into flames and we had to abandon it. There was a group of kids who saw it happen and broke into "Burn, baby, burn—disco inferno!"

19 June: SD 1 @ NY 2

A sunny Thursday afternoon game with my brother Ben, who is a Red Sox fan. As an exercise in nostalgic reverie, having the San Diego Padres as the visiting team is a bit jarring. Do the Tigers or Indians play ever here anymore? The Yankees announce the opposing lineup to the "Imperial March" from Star Wars, which by logic, should obviously be our theme, if you want to embrace the Evil Empire conceit. "It's because they have no sense of humor about themselves," says Ben.

Joba Chamberlain started for the Yanks and held San Diego's minor league lineup in check, striking out nine. In the second, he loaded the bases with no outs, but then he unclogged the inning with a strikeout, a tag out at home from a ball that squirted away from the catcher, and another strikeout. Chamberlain came out for the sixth, struck out the first two guys, and then must have reached 100 pitches, and Girardi took him out. "Why don't you just put him in a bubble?" said Ben.

30 June: Tex 2 @ NY 1

My friend Kevin, who is not a big fan, called me and told me he thought he'd better see Yankee Stadium before they tore it down. I went off the plan and splurged for tickets in Box 628, over third base in the upper deck, because I wanted to show him the sort of seats that will not exist in the new place. He was surprised to learn that Yankee Stadium is freshly painted, made of concrete, and only mildly pungent. He was under the impression that he was going to see some venerable old ballpark with rickety wooden planks and peeling paint.

5 July: Bos 1 @ NY 2

The stakes were higher for Ben and me, with his team in town. The game featured seven hit batsmen, with Manny getting hit three times, but somehow there were no fights and nobody got tossed. Rivera had a 2-0 lead going into the ninth. Drew opened with a single. Rivera hit Manny on an 0-2 pitch, then Lowell drilled a single so score Drew. Then Mo hit a leaping Youkilis in the foot, bases loaded! By now, I was a nervous wreck and in full screamer mode. I didn't feel I had a choice, with all the Sox fans there so psyched up at the prospect of beating Mo. Up to that point, I was taking a detached view of the whole scene in deference to Ben. After all, this was a Christmas present. But in my universe, there are three kinds of games: wins, losses, and Rivera losses, and I can only take the first two.

The two greatest games I ever attended were arguably also the two greatest games of Mariano Rivera's career. In Game 2 of the ALDS in 1995 I saw him blow away the Mariners for three innings in the 15-inning affair ultimately resolved by Jim Leyritz's homer. The other one was his epic nine-out stint in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. The two games form a kind of alpha and omega of the Yankees' late dynasty. 1995: there's nothing to lose except this dubious "wild card" playoff slot, and the skinny kid on the mound is just a delightful surprise. Eight years later: there's everything to lose. When Posada's flare fell in, it was a double jolt of ecstasy: first, simply that he wasn't out, and then, with the two shining "5"s on the scoreboard and Pedro trudging off that mound, that it really was tied. Mariano holding that team in check until Aaron Boone got around to winning the game was the best performance I ever witnessed.

Meanwhile in 2008, as quickly as he had unraveled, Mariano rematerialized. He struck out Crisp on a check swing, popped up Varitek, and struck out Lugo on another check swing. Whew.

30 July: Bal 3 @ NY 13

On the way to the game, my seven-year-old daughter Vivian, let me tell her the blow-by-blow history of the New York Yankees. I only got as far as 1947. As a kid, I loved getting the souvenirs that had something to do with the team history. Old Timers' Day programs were the best; or yearbooks with historical sections. One of the thrills in coming to the Stadium, as a boy, was the prospect of acquiring some kind of off-beat memorabilia. In those days, the offerings on River Ave. were less homogenized. I remember a guy selling old baseball cards right outside the entrance to the bleachers, where only an official team stand is now allowed. This is long before all this stuff was just a few clicks away. Vivian was only looking to acquire some cotton candy, and her biggest concern was to see at least one home run. She got three, as the Yankees just laid into Baltimore pitching. Bobby Abreu poled two of them, plus a double, and Alex Rodriguez hit a rocket that left the yard in a flash. We met family friends in the upper deck and went home with them to soak in their pool. A great day all around.

27 August: Bos 11 @ NY 3

I went to the middle game with my brother Jon. It seemed like a sedate crowd on the train up. It was a weekday, and we were 6.5 behind in the wild card race, so there wasn't as much tension as usual—just a bunch of Harvard kids debating if the current Red Sox squad features nine future Hall of Famers or ten. Once we were in there, though, we were sitting in front of a beefy guy and his slightly less beefy dad. They were completely hammered an hour before the first pitch. The guy steps on my shoulder as he gets out of his seat, and later, when his dad goes to get a beer, the son throws garbage at him over our heads from the vantage point of our seats above the tunnel. In the fifth inning, he goes to get a couple of beers of his own, and when he comes back, the aisle is crammed and he gets impatient to get back to his seats, so he starts piloting the swaying beers over our row, violating my airspace. "No, no," I say, as they're teetering over my head, but sure enough, they slosh on my pants.

"That was lame," I tell him.

"What?? My f--king pants fell down!"

"Well, don't spill beer on me!"

"It was an accident! Dude, my f--king pants fell down!"

I look down, and sure enough, his pants are around his ankles and he's standing there in his underwear. "Wow, you know, OK, I didn't realize your pants had fallen down. Don't worry about it."

"Oh," he said sarcastically, "you're good?"

"Yeah, I'm good, you're good, forget it."

"Yeah, my f--king pants fell down. It's called 'common courtesy.' Practice it!"

A few at bats later, Beef Boy leaned forward out of his seat and collapsed right on Jon. If the railing hadn't been there, he'd have knocked us flying down the aisle. After we got him shoved back in his seat, I decided to reopen the matter of common courtesy. "How about, 'sorry'?"

"Uh, heh heh, now we're even."

Jon: "You need to go home. You're so drunk, you're going to hurt somebody or hurt yourself."

"It was an accident! I got pushed from behind!"

Jon, indicated the petite woman seated in the row behind them. "She pushed you?"

That temporarily stymied him, but after we sat down again, he started calling us "faggots" and remained belligerent for a while before losing interest. I was totally tensed up for an inning, thinking at first he wanted to fight, and then that he might intentionally vomit on us.

The scene took me by surprise, like when some sort of stupidity you thought you left behind in middle school suddenly leaps out at you senior year of high school. I haven't had that kind of encounter at Yankee Stadium in a long time, but stuff like that happened more often than not in the 1980s, when the crowds were still thick but there wasn't as much alcohol policing.

12 September (rained out)

My mom and I went to see the Rays on the 12th, but we got rained out. It actually afforded us a nice chance to walk around the park without the pressure of getting back to the game. We ended up sitting in the uppermost row at the top of the upper deck behind the plate, where we sat in the original stadium at my first-ever game, sometime in the early 70s. I remember the seat backs and looking down at the field, but there no image from my memory of the original stadium in broad view. There's a picture of it in Yankee Stadium: the Official Retrospective by Al Santasiere and Mark Vancil (Pocket, 2008). At fifty bucks, I can't recommend a book about Yankee Stadium that has so much space devoted to players, popes, and boxers rather than to the stadium itself. (There are sidebars that tell you what Dan Quayle and George Bush think of the place, so I guess that's what makes it official.) However, if you see it in a bookstore, open up to page 187, where you will see a rare color photo of the original stadium from behind the plate. The year is 1973 and it is a June game against the Tigers.

If you are like me, then black-and-white photos tend to put you in a black and white world, rather than making you fill in the color. As such, it is sometimes hard to visualize what it was like at Yankee Stadium before the renovation. If you were there in the glory years, the iconic frieze was greening copper, not white. The grandstand's pillars and seats were aquamarine-ish green, not blue. The outfield fence was black.

You can see that stadium in color photos, paintings, and old World Series films, but it is hard to spot the one shown in the 1973 picture. In 1967, they painted the seats blue and the frieze white, approximating the modern color scheme, but in the original building. It is a striking hybrid of the classic grandstand and the familiar colors, and gives you a real jolt. I think I like the look of the 1967-1973 stadium better than any other incarnation.

Well, that park is long gone anyway. What I'm going to miss about Yankee Stadium physically is hard to capture in interior photos. Obviously, on an emotional level, I'm going to miss the continuity from a treasured past, and I'm not talking about Ruth, DiMaggio, and Mantle. I value that legacy greatly, but I mean Reggie Jackson, Rickey Henderson, and Bernie Williams.

Physically, I'm going to miss the graceful curvature of the grandstand. To me, it conjures two long, slender fingers cupping a ballfield. You can see it plainly in exterior photos, but it is harder to capture in interior shots: the way the grandstand hugs the foul lines, then tapers to a point far behind the plate, bringing the upper deck in close over the diamond… there's no unobstructed grandstand like it in the major leagues. The New Yankee Stadium looks like an ever-widening bowl with an excessive dead zone above the game.

What we are losing is made clear by New Yankee Stadium page on the New Yankee Stadium page from the Ballpark Tour site. Scroll down to the "Profile Comparison" diagram. Look at how the lower deck is tucked about 20 rows under the upper one. You never hear about how special that is, because most of the ballpark mavens could never get past complaining about the 1970s remodeling. But the remodeled Yankee Stadium still had an upper deck over the lower decks—now they just build the upper decks behind the lower decks. In the new one, the lower deck juts out like a cash register drawer that just popped open. People keep raving about the "façade" going back on the grandstand. To me, that's meager compensation for being pushed away from the field.

13 September: TB 5 @ NY 6 (make-up game)

Jon and I went to the rescheduled game the next evening (after a daytime 7-1 loss). We watched the whole game from perfect seats in the upper deck boxes behind the plate—good weather, good company—and the Yanks played a nice game, chipping away at the Rays to overcome Ben Zobrist's 4th inning grand slam. If my August 27th experience put me in mind of the 1980s, the make-up game, with the place about half-full of subdued fans, had the feel of a early '90s game. There were a couple of years there where you could stretch out a bit. They'd be playing Steely Dan on the PA, and some guy coming off shoulder surgery would three-hit the Yankees.

18 September: Chicago 2 @ New York 9

After Brett Gardner lets his bat go flying into the stands for the third time in the two games we've seen him play, my brother Jon says, "You know how a pitching coach comes out when you're not pitching well? They should have that for Gardner. The hitting coach should be able to visit the plate and give him some tips." Bobby Abreu had the hitting duties covered, though, delivering his second multi-homer game of my eight-game farewell tour. A few innings in, we joined my friends Murray and Mike in their section and saw out the last game together. The last thing we saw in Yankee Stadium was big rookie Humberto Sanchez, wearing number 77, throw a scoreless inning in relief.

I'm sorry to see it go, but it was a satisfying last communion. If they weren't tearing it down, it probably would have taken me about four years to get to eight games. Things get away from you.

Chris DeRosa is a historian who lives in Oakhurst NJ.

2008-10-23 09:01:50
1.   Cliff Corcoran
Great last line.
2008-10-23 09:32:14
2.   jonnystrongleg
thanks for this great recap. not only of this season's games, but of how each successive visit evoked memories and observations of the stadium and your (our) experiences there and on what we stand to lose w/ its passing.

and thanks for all the tickets - i'll never think of this season as a disappointment since we had so much fun going to so many games.

2008-10-23 10:30:54
3.   Todd Drew
That is a great look back. You packed a lot into eight games and into the pervious 35 or so years, too. I'm sorry you ran into a mean drunk, but at least it wasn't the game when you went with your mother.
2008-10-23 13:29:03
4.   Bob B
Chris, Thanks for taking the time to write such a nice piece. These lasting Yankee Stadium Memories would make a better book than the "Official Retrospective". All you guys who've written have struck a chord with me. Like the man said "Things get away from you." Thanks for bringing them back.

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