Monday, September 22, 2008

So Long Yankee Stadium

I enjoyed watching the Bronx bombers in Yankee Stadium battle the Orioles from 1987 through 1997. The atmosphere there reminded me of the old Memorial Stadium. Fans knew the game. I remember a Yankee fan yelling at Gerald William after a fly ball landed in front of him on a cloudy day, "Take your ----ing sunglasses off!" I was impressed and a little frightened. Fans came to watch a baseball game, not like the French tourists in Camden Yards sampling the dessert tray and leaving after the third inning.

The most amazing thing about Yankee Stadium to me was the sense of history it evoked. Though it had been renovated, the vantage point remained the same as it had been for Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio. The sight lines provided an exceptional view of the whole field--no planes with their sonic boom overhead like Shea--and the stoic Bronx skyline loomed beyond the centerfield bleachers.

The bleachers--a barbarian planet unto itself or a kind of Alcatraz--thundered like Bellevue during a fire alarm and the hatred for the Red Sox so fervent out there that almost nothing else mattered. I saw the Yankees clinch the pennant in 2004, sitting near a Japanese group of Matsui faithful, who put up their umbrellas after a Godzilla home run. Leaving the stadium that night, the bleacher crazies cheered "1918!, 1918!" under the subway tracks. They were taunting the curse. It came back to haunt them a few weeks later.

The maid of honor from my first marriage worked at Nomura securities and would always secure four tickets for me to see the Orioles play the Yankees just to the left of home plate.

I was there for game two of the play-offs in 1996, the day after Jeffrey Maier reached over and snared the Jeter home run in his glove. I'll never forget the intensity of the crowd and the swat team on the roof. Somehow, the Orioles won that game. I didn't cheer or draw attention to myself as an Orioles fan. I enjoyed those victories in silence with humility.

There were not many over the years. I saw a 16-4 thrashing with Steve Finley and Parsippany Joe Orsulak hitting home runs. A Ben McDonald victory included the beaning of Matt Nokes in retaliation for Tim Leary breaking the wrist of Chris Hoiles a few month before. The ninety-five mile an hour fastball hit the helmet just under the bill and sent it skyward like a foul ball behind the plate. Nokes left the game and McDonald struck out nine of the twelve batters he faced. The losses outweighed the wins--and what struck me was the way the Yankees could win games with regularity in the bottom of the eighth and then shut teams down in the top of the ninth.

I've never seen a pitcher throw harder than a young Troy Perceval against Darryl Strawberry in the late innings of one game in 1996. I walked down close to the backstop as the fans poured out with the Yankees behind and Troy just blew away the power bats of the Yankees with ninety-eight mph heat up in the wheelhouse.

Bearing a resemblance in both humor and appearance to Yogi Berra, my grandfather Dino, like many Italians, followed the Yankees as he played in the Pennsylvania Minor Leagues. His favorite player was Joe Dimaggio and he emulated him and his approach. His son Bernie, my uncle, was a Mickey Mantle fan. Retired Oriole manager Earl Weaver, many years later in Florida, introduced my Uncle to the Mick and I have an autograph, scrawled with an unsteady hand, on a restaurant claim check.

Dino and Bernie both embraced the Orioles and the city of Baltimore but my mother held out, and remained loyal to the Yankees.

Yankee Stadium was a big, brawling and bruising monument to the city of New York. It's existence and the outcomes decided within the confines of its grandstands as important and crucial to the psyche of New Yorkers as fluctuations on the stock market. I remember the first World Series victory after a long dry spell in 1996. I'd attended a management course in the Trade Center and watched as confetti and computer paper rained onto the streets below. Talking a walk outside, I saw the statue of Alexander Hamilton with reams of computer paper criss-crossing his chest like Pancho Villa.

I watched dozens of games on television and listened to Phil Rizzuto, Tony Kubek and Bobby Murcer call the games. I was in the locker room once to interview Alvaro Espinosa and Don Mattingly with a reporter from Inside Sports. It had something to do with Donnie Baseball being a basketball star in high school. During that time, the distinctive Bob Shepherd would announce "Al-VA-Ro Es-pin-OSA" with his booming voice and the seventh inning stretch featured a scratchy version of God Bless America sung by Kate Smith.

I've never seen baseball like the 2001 World Series. The Yankees were fighting for the very life of the city, for the people who had been lost in the towers, and they made sure, with deaf-defying feats of power that there season did not end there among the smoking crater of the Twin Towers. They faced defeat on three successive occasions and came back to win games in dramatic fashion. They were running on fumes, feeding off millions of fans who wanted to see them do it one more time--and they nearly pulled it off. They had bo business being there in the first place.

I watched those games sitting in the dark and biting my nails--pulling for the Yanks.

It will be different in a new park. The memories and the intensity will have to be reestablished from scratch. It will take time before the intimidation factor reappears. Opposing teams will still need to bus their way to the park from midtown--but the sense of being fed to the lions in a hostile environment will take time. The mystique needs some work--the lustre has begun to fade.

The Yanks have fallen on hard times. Their $209 million payroll in 2008 seems insignificant to the trillion dollar debacle going on ten miles south. They are on the verge of being eliminated from the playoffs as I write this. In a city where there is no margin for error, somehow the fans will have to do what the majority of us in towns with marginal and bad teams--wait until next year.

So its fitting that the Baltimore Orioles lost the last game at Yankee Stadium. The city that gave New York Babe Ruth could certainly capitulate one more time.


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