I have always been nervous about peeing at a urinal in a crowded public restroom. It is a leftover anxiety from childhood that I can trace directly back to my experiences at the men's rooms in Yankee Stadium. Not that I can recall any one traumatic incident, but the overall mood of the place--loud, profane, rushed, pressurized--still makes me uneasy, the place filled with cigarette smoke and the smell of urine and beer. So I wait for a stall just like I did when I was a boy.
Last night, I went to my historic first game of the final year of Yankee Stadium. It is the earliest in the season I've ever been to a game. Some cherce seats landed in my lap the day before, and so here I was, in the "rattle your jewelry" section down on the field level, standing in a narrow, grey stall, trying to concentrate on peeing as I listened to a young boy crying hysterically in the stall next to me as his father, impatient and frustrated, tried to get him to stop. The walls felt as if they were closing in on me like the trash compactor scene in Star Wars, and it occurred to me that one of the benefits of the new stadium will be more spacious restrooms.
We know that the new park will have better amenities, wider corridors, bigger and better places to buy food and Yankee gear. It will no doubt be a new and improved mall. I wonder, however, if the customer service will improve any? As it now stands, the almost palpable tension that exists between neighborhood commuters and Yankee fans on the subways extends, to some extent to the relationship between the people who work the concession stands and fans at the park. When I went to order a pretzel in the third inning, I waited on line for five minutes and was then told that the pretzels weren't ready yet.
Ah, the joys of Yankee Stadium, a throwback New York landmark where customer service or quality is unimportant. Maybe we'll miss the discomforts and inherent rudeness and vulgarity of the old place when we are in the mall next door. Then again, maybe I'll be able to take a pee without having flashbacks to an anxious childhood.
While the hype around the final year of the Stadium has already become overbearing, there is something genuine about the heightened sense of loss that will draw people to the park. The term "historic" is being thrown about casually, but for most people, their final trips to the park this year will be part of their own personal history. There is no stopping what is coming, as the new stadium stands across the street, like the not-quite-fully-operational Death Star.
When Jay Jaffe met up with me on the corner of 161 street and River Avenue, where I had been waiting and people-watching for fifteen minutes, I mentioned the Death Star analogy and he said that Derek Jacques had a similar take on Opening Day. Jacques writes:
The new new Yankee Stadium looks a bit like the Death Star, circa Return of the Jedi, enough so that I half-expect it to sprout a laser cannon and vaporize the present stadium sometime after the last pitch of the 2008 season is thrown. Its still-under-construction exterior shell self-consciously recalls the original structure, but the ballpark within will be thoroughly modern and built from scratch-there's no longer any plausible deniability that this isn't a break with history. Talking to fans around the ballpark, the recurring theme was anxiety about the new ballpark. Will they be able to afford tickets? Will they be near the other regular ticket plan holders in their section? Will the new Stadium be the same kind of place the old one was?
The stadium's last year will mark the passing of many things, but perhaps most of all it will mark the end of Yankeeland as a wonderful act of pretense and belief. New Yankee Stadium will be no more and no less than what it actually is: a preposterously expensive representation of a boom time for the city and the Yankees, one that may have passed by the time the place opens its gates. The old park is sustained by the myth that Ruth built it, and the truth that it rose as an expression of the city at a time when it was announcing itself as capital of the world. The new one will be sustained by the myth that it was built by Jeter and a city made rich on sub-prime mortgage profits. One myth isn't necessarily better than the other, but one is certainly more evocative.
Ballparks are places of business that exist to make money. This was true of the stadium that will be abandoned after this year, and it is certainly true of the one due to open next year. The sustaining myth of each is mainly a marketing gimmick, most useful for packing in the people and getting them to part with their cash. So far as the new park will doubtless prove more effective at that, its myth, no matter how drab it seems in contrast to the one that preceded it, is more useful and therefore better. But throughout this season, it won't just be the truest believers who will mourn the old ballpark. Those who see the flaws at the heart of its legend will mourn it as much as anyone else, and perhaps even more so.
On a chilly April night, the Yankees and Jays played another brisk game--this one clocking it at just under three hours--and the Yankees won again by the score of 3-2. Phil Hughes had a decent outing and Joba Chamberlain and Mariano Rivera closed the door in the eighth and ninth. Bobby Abreu's bloop single drove in the game-winner. It was good to be back in the Stadium, despite my complaints (I don't even need to get into moaning about the spoiled fans that were sitting around us in the land of the corporate boxes). Organist Ed Alstrom played the National Anthem. It was brisk and efficient and hey, how can the sound of an organ at a ballpark ever sound bad? As far as I'm concerned if that's the only version of the song I ever heard again, I'd be pleased.
When Kate Smith's recording of "God Bless America" played during the seventh inning, the clock on the scoreboard read "9:11," which reminded me of the 15-inning, tie game between the Yankees and Orioles I attended shortly after the attacks in '01. I remember seeing the snipers next to the lights on the roof of the Stadium, where they would stay throughout the playoffs that year.
Last night, when the game was over, Frank Sinatra's voice flooded the park. People rushed out of the place and to their cars or the subways, faster than I ever remember seeing people leave (it was the cold and the time of year). Now, here's something scary to imagine: What if the last sounds you hear as you leave the Stadium for the historic last time, are that of Liza not Frank? Would that be some kind of cosmic bummer or what? And, by just mentioning it, have I put the whammy on myself?