I don't know if this is my warmest memory of Yankee Stadium. Somehow my memories of the ballpark are more vivid than warm. There's not a lot of romance attached to it. Maybe that's because in the games I have attended as a fan, in my pre-professional days, I've seen a disproportionate number of losses. This is true even of the good years. Resultantly, my inventory of memories stretching back to the 1970s mostly shows visitors like Paul Molitor, Kirby Puckett, and George Brett doing mean things to the Yankees, and mediocre starters like Neil Allen and Joe Niekro doing their desultory best not to lose too badly. Even the things that are vivid involve losses. I was at the 1998 playoff game against the Indians where Chuck Knoblauch failed to pursue a ball that was sitting on the ground right next to him because he was arguing with the umpire, while Enrique Wilson tore around the bases with what proved to be the winning run. It was amazing to hear 40,000 people shouting, "Throw the f**king ball!" in near unison.
Some of my most vivid memories involve personal embarrassment or shame. The 1988 Old Timer's Day game is fixed in my mind not only because of the grand slam that the great Jose Cruz pinch hit against the White Sox, the last home run of his career and his only as a Yankee, but because at almost that same moment my car was being stolen. I was 17; it was the first time I had driven to the ballpark. PS: despite the grand slam, the Yankees lost.
Going back still further, I can remember one of my first trips to the Stadium, if not the first, when I was about five years old. On our way into the building, I had seen a little toy horn that one of the vendors was selling. It was nothing more than a blue tube of plastic with a trumpet-shaped bell at the end. I was, in my childish way, very excited to have it, but as we entered the Stadium, a security guard saw the horn and started screaming at me. "What is that thing? You can't bring that in here!" My parents intervened and the guy relented. I was allowed to bring it in, but with a warning: "Don't make ANY noise with that thing!" For the rest of the game I felt scared, as if I was being watched, as if one wrong move would get us thrown out. I remember nothing about the actual contest, just the powerful feelings of mortification that blotted out all else. I imagine the Yankees lost.
Far more recently, during my professional years, I passed out in the Yankees clubhouse (in front of Tanyon Sturtze's locker—he brought me a chair) and had to be carried out on a stretcher after Gene Monahan administered smelling salts. Thus I have experienced Stadium-based mortification both as a very young child and as an adult. It only remains for me to reap some kind of extreme embarrassment in old age; perhaps I'll soil myself while interviewing Derek Jeter, Jr. at Stadium II.
I used to make it a point to attend doubleheaders. I loved free baseball and a whole day at the ballpark. I cherish the Tuesday, August 13, 1991 doubleheader against the Kansas City Royals, which I attended with several close friends and my future wife, but not because of anything that happened on the field. It's more of a gustatory thing. On the way to the game, my pals stopped off at the last rest stop before the GWB and bought a couple of huge buckets of fried chicken. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose—were any 20-year-olds thinking about their cholesterol in 1991?—but it was a long day's journey into night at the Stadium. After noshing on chicken parts throughout the first three innings of game one, my friends placed the buckets beneath our seats seemingly forgot about them—until about the seventh inning of game two. That's when my friends, hungry again, remembered them. The chicken was probably about seven hours old now, and had been marinating in the Bronx air for most of that time. On the ground. My pals fell on them anyway, while Stefanie and I looked on, repulsed and amazed. After the game, we took the long ride down to Chinatown where we stopped for chow fun at a favorite restaurant since closed by the Board of Health for excessive kindness to cockroaches. Oh yeah: the Yankees lost both ends of the double-header. Kevin Appier pitched a three-hit shutout in the first game. Mike Boddicker held them to one run in the nightcap.
All this, though, is prologue to my most lasting memory, a very personal one. I have a close friend, call him Jake, who is like a brother to me. That's a cliché, I know, especially these days, when your every male friend is a "bro," but I mean it—there's a real familial feeling between us that transcends mere friendship. When we were kids, we bonded over our mutual love of the game. His dream was always to work in the Yankees' front office. Mine was to write, though not necessarily about baseball. After many years of hard work and perseverance, he got what he wanted and became a Yankees executive. I got what I wanted too, and in fact I owe the very fact that you're reading about this to him. I was in my 20s, writing pretty much anything I could—the odd short story, movie reviews, screenplays, a novel, the bare bones of what would become a biography of Casey Stengel, internet greeting cards, sitcom pitches for a guy who thought that on-line comedy was the wave of the future (he was roughly 15 years ahead of the times, alas), when Jake took an early version of the Stengel book and put it in front of people in the industry who could help me get more work writing about baseball. There began the long road that led to Forging Genius, the Pinstriped Bible, Baseball Prospectus, and the tiny patch of notoriety that I now enjoy. I owe Jake everything.
I would have loved, would still love, to pay him back in kind, but there was little I could do to help Jake out with the central dilemma of his career, which was that working for the Yankees proved to be a nightmare. He had a dictatorial and unsympathetic boss (George Steinbrenner was just a profane, disembodied voice on the phone from Tampa and not at all a part of the daily life of the team), and a fluctuating job description that really didn't engage him emotionally or intellectually and had little to do with his credentials. He had many experiences there that were patently surreal, reaching a level of absurdity that when people would ask me if the depiction of life with the Yankees on "Seinfeld" was accurate, I'd say, in complete seriousness, "No. Too tame."
Jake spent many days feeling emotionally isolated, both because of the constant abuse from his boss and the constant turnover in almost every department. Though Jake bonded easily with coworkers, he never knew who would be there from one day to the next. With low pay, long hours, a demoralized work force, and a "gotcha" approach on the part of senior management, even upper-level, long term employees were constantly being fired or resigning. And then there was the physical location of his office. You have to imagine Jake, isolated on the Mechanical Level of the Stadium, a desolate, windowless, undecorated place of exposed wiring and dangling insulation, busted seats, and old vending carts. That's where the Yankees have about half their offices in the current Stadium—the old ballpark wasn't built to house the full Yankees operation, but when Steinbrenner bought the club he closed their midtown offices and brought all the executives to the Bronx, whether there was room for them or not. Jake sat there, day after day, often more than 16 hours a day—his boss had decreed that though he had no responsibilities relating to stadium operations, Jake had to be at work both during regular business hours and all home games—miserable. He wanted to leave, desperately wanted to leave, but how do you quit on your dream?
It was towards the end of Jake's time with the Yankees that I made one of many visits, probably to do some research for an article for Yankees Magazine. After I had done my work in the unlit, unventilated room that then held the Yankees media archive, I repaired to Jake's office. Somewhere below us, a ballgame was going on. We could hear it but not see it. He was, as usual at this time, inconsolably depressed. I don't remember what we talked about after he pointed out that I was now covered in sweat, dust, and cobwebs and desperately needed a new shirt, but I'm certain it involved his career prospects. The mood grew darker. He stood up abruptly, a mischievous gleam in his eyes that hadn't been there the moment before. "Come with me. There's something I've been wanting to show you."
I followed him down the long, narrow corridor that makes up the office portion of the Mechanical Level to a locked door. He opened it. We stepped into a cavernous area, dimly lit by widely spaced safety lights. I could not perceive the ceiling—the space extended upwards into dark infinity. There was a wall hard to my right and another wall that began far to my left, then sloped sharply towards us, rising up into the darkness. The floor too had vanished, replaced by a fire-engine red metal catwalk that bounced unnervingly when we walked on it. The Stadium crowd was incredibly loud here, as if we were among them, and it quickly dawned on me that they were both below and above us—we were inside the upper deck.
We moved down the catwalk. I could see that we were just a foot or so above the drop ceiling above the loge boxes. The tiles, weighed down with sandbags, were imperfectly placed, and you could see thin lines of light from below, and even make out the shifting masses of people. A Yankee made a hit. The noise level rose. The catwalk seemed to sway in response to the crowd. I started to get very nervous—if this thing gave way we would be landing in their laps—at best. "Let's go," I urged Jake, but he was still bouncing down the catwalk.
"After that beam fell, they gutted out this whole area and put these things in. I don't think anyone has been back here except the engineers. They're pretty sure it will all hold together."
"Pretty sure?" I gulped. "That makes me feel so much better. Let's go."
"What are you worried about?" At intervals, the pathway sprouted additional catwalks, perpendicular to the main trunk. These extended all the way to the far wall. Now, Jake walked out on one of these. I winced, watching him make what seemed like a tightrope walk out over the crowd.
"It just doesn't seem that stable to me."
Despite being on a catwalk, Jake was no cat, not in agility or weight, and though he had been in a somber mood for months or years at this point, he was suddenly giddy, even manic. "It's fine!" he shouted. "Look!" He began hopping, springing off the catwalk like it was a mattress. "Come on!"
I have since discussed these events with Jake, and he insists that he was completely in his right mind at this moment and that he was simply trying to give me a look at a part of the Stadium that the public never sees. Perhaps, but at the time this is what I thought: "My god, he's finally lost it. He can't bring himself to quit, so he's trying to kill himself… or get fired for breaking the Stadium." Another Yankee made a hit. The catwalk went left and right. Jake, still hopping, went up and down. My stomach was trying to follow them both. I made a decision: time to go. I turned on my heels and made a beeline for the door. "Hey!" Jake shouted, but I could hear him rattling up the catwalk behind me. We made it through the door. Safe. No headlines about fat men falling through the ceilings.
I don't remember much else about that night, don't know if the Yankees lost or won. I just remember a feeling of dread for Jake. I was both right and wrong, right in that it would have been better for him to have left sooner than he did, more than a couple of seasons later, wrong to feel dread; he bounced back just fine, though I know he has some resentments about the experience that can never be unmade.
Since then, in my professional capacity, I've had some great experiences at the Stadium. I've had one-on-one moments with greats of the game in the dugouts and the clubhouses, and I especially cherish those conversations that proved to be last chances, like those with Enos Slaughter, Hank Bauer, Bobby Murcer, and others. In giving me those memories the Stadium has more than made up for the car that got lifted or the numerous losses pitched by Jeff Johnson, Tim Leary, Greg Cadaret, and Bob Shirley that I paid to witness. Yet, for all of that, when I think of the Stadium after it's gone, it will be of my friend, tie flapping as he jumped on a secret catwalk, trying to leap clear of the one thing he had always wanted and had had the misfortune to get.