For Absent Friends, In Memories Burning Brightly

In a few hours, the lights will be turned out and the last of the throng will have left.  The clean-up crews will still be there of course, and so will more than a few who managed to stay behind to get a few souvenirs from the old place.  The smell of the grass will still be hanging in the cool air of the last summer eve, and the rumble of the subway will be heard occasionally as it climbs up the El from the tunnel.  Part of me will forever haunt this place; my spirit dwelling in an old wooden seat next to a metal pole that held up the deck above.  I’d be straining my young neck around that girder to see if the ball was fair or foul.  Part of me will be sitting in the upper deck where I took my wife on our second date, and I got sunburn on my knees; a sunburn so bad we went to a local bar to kill the pain with more than a few beers and cold bottles of Miller straight out of the ice directly placed on them.  My teenage spirit will be dwelling in the mezzanine at a few World Series or Championship Series games.  My heart, my soul, the core of my being will forever inhabit this place called Yankee Stadium.

My first visit was when I was 5 years old in 1966.  My Dad had scored some excellent seats on the third base side of the field, and we went with my friend and his Dad.  These were not the Glory Years of the Yankees, in fact they were anything but.  Mickey Mantle was only two years away from his retirement, and arguably the best player on the team was a pitcher named Mel Stottlemeyer.  These were a team of bumblers who couldn’t hit a fly with a swatter let alone a baseball.  Our opponent on that late April day were the California Angels (who had just changed their name from the Los Angeles Angels.  Now they are known as the Los Angeles Angels Of Anaheim California United States Planet Earth or something like that).  The Stadium was (and is) in the middle of a very poor neighborhood in the Bronx, and outside the immediate two blocks surrounding the Stadium was a War Zone.  That is why when you first enter the place, and get your first look at the playing field, it is something to behold.

Billy Crystal (the GOOD guy, not the Neocon) described his first time there perfectly in the movie “When Harry Met Sally”.  It’s amazing: you come down from the El (that’s the elevated Subway); and you are totally surrounded by vendors selling everything imaginable.  Hot Pretzels, Game Programs, Yearbooks, people looking to sell or buy tickets…it’s complete and utter hustle and bustle; the smell of the hot dogs wafting in the air.  The entire block right next to the Stadium is owned by a guy named Stan: Stan’s Bar, Stan’s Souvenirs, Stan’s Bordello…you get the picture.  You get up to the gate, the guy takes your ticket and points you in the right direction.  There were no escalators in the Stadium back then, just ramps.  You go up a few ramps, and then get to the portal that opens out into the Field…and suddenly the world changes.

There is no hustle and bustle; there are no vendors…there is just the pristine green field amidst the chaos of the South Bronx that seems to go on forever.  It’s before the game and somewhat subdued, and it’s almost like being in Church.  (No wonder it’s often called “Baseball’s Cathedral”).  An Usher would check your ticket, and walk you to your seats.  He’d have this big mitt to wipe off your seats (and make sure there were no splinters in them as well).  If your Dad was smart, he’d give the guy a good tip because if there were empty seats later on in the game and he took a shine to you, he’d move you up and closer to the field.

I have a lot of memories of that day, but my favorite player Mickey Mantle (who else?) managed to hit a home run that day.  Even though he was literally on his last legs, the ball went off that bat in a way I have never seen to this day.  It was powerful and graceful simultaneously, and as the ball landed in the right field stands, Mick was already making the slow trot around the bases; not because he wanted to show up the pitcher, but because his aging body wouldn’t allow him to move any faster.  My Dad was teaching me how to keep score that day as well, and I got a big thrill out of drawing a diamond next to old Number 7.  To this day, I still keep score the way they used to when I first learned how to do it properly. (I don’t enter a “W” for walk like you can today, I enter “BB” for Base on Balls”).  The Yanks lost that day (the first of many I would endure for the next decade or so until the resurgence of my beloved Pinstripers in the 70’s) but Mick hit a Homer and so began my love affair with a team and a place I have to this day.

I would make many more pilgrimages there as the years went on.  There were summer days where my Dad would decide at the last minute we should go to the game and get a General Admission or Obstructed View seat.  We’d take the long trip by train, ferry, and subway from Staten Island and gladly watch a game up close in person, in that place…that most special of all places in Professional Sports.  The smell of stale beer and cigar smoke combined with the hot dogs and hot peanuts was pure heaven…and it was even better when the Yanks won.

Yankee Stadium was also home to the NY Football Giants, and I went to at least two games there.  The way the gridiron ran on the field was totally wacky, and it felt amazingly strange to be in Yankee Stadium in the dead of winter on a clear December day.  If you think Alaska is cold, try Yankee Stadium in December with the wind whipping off both the Harlem and Hudson Rivers.  Today, I will say it was they were coldest Giants games I ever attended (OK…there was a NFC Playoff game against the Bears in ’91…that was pure hell…).  Even in the dead of winter though, Yankee Stadium still had a special magic to it.  It was the home of my very much loved NY Giants as well as the Yanks…and it just felt right.  The booming voice of Bob Sheppard who was the Stadium announcer for both the Yanks and Giants saying in those classic sonorous tones, “Ladies and Gen-tle-men…Wel-come to Yan-kee Stadium” soaring through the sunlit Bronx sky.

The last game of the old Stadium took place in September of 1973.  The place was badly in need of repairs and a face-lift.  Gone would be the poles that held up the decks of the Stadium in favor of a completely unobstructed view of the game.  The old wooden seats would be replaced with new plastic ones, the scoreboard would now have a replay screen, and a good deal of the Bleachers would be removed.  Most astonishingly, the classic facade that ran around the top of the Stadium would be removed in favor of more seats.  The Yankees would play the next two years at that hell-hole called Shea Stadium, and the House That Ruth Built would be rebuilt.

My Dad and I went to the last game at the place.  He scored two tickets from a business client and we sat in the Press Box; which at that time literally was an extension of the mezzanine and hung over the lower section.  We sat in very comfortable seats and pretty much had all our food and drink delivered to us.  I sat next to a sportswriter furiously taking notes on a yellow pad and then typing away on an old Underwood upright.  When the game was over, everyone was allowed to walk on the field for one last time.  So while others were stealing seats (which go for amazing amounts of money these days), my Dad and I were taking a long walk on the field that I had come to love for so much of my youth.  We began the slow walk from home plate to left field, his arm around my shoulder.  I will never forget that walk, especially because in coming years, my relationship with him would change dramatically.  I would begin my rebellious teenage years and twenties soon, but for that moment…I truly believe in my heart that that was probably the last moment I felt like a son to him, and perhaps he felt the same way.

I went to the very first game in the new Stadium in April of 1976.  The place had obviously changed, and some of it was for the better, but there was the charm of the old place that was missing.  I didn’t mind the seats though; because the splinters in your butt in the old place were killer!  I’ve been to World Series games, horrible losses where the Yanks were blown out by the 4th inning and I would still (drunkenly, of course) be futilely rallying the crowd to cheer our Bronx Bombers on.  There was the aforementioned sunburn incident that my wife and I still laugh about to this day.  My kneecaps were so red, people in the subway noticed.  (Never sit with your feet on the back of an empty seat in front of you on a clear May Day in the upper deck of a Stadium leaving your knees ripe for roasting.)  Unfortunately, I never got a chance to take my daughters to a game there.  The ticket prices (and good luck getting a ticket), the cost of snacks and souvenirs, and the amount of time it would take us to get there (by car or train) wouldn’t be worth it.  It’s a shame really, because just once I wanted them to have that experience of the old (but rebuilt) Stadium.

The new Yankee Stadium is supposed to reproduce the original (including the facade) in many ways.  It’s almost complete, and they put the last of the letters up on the top of the building this past week.  The new place will be right next door, and eventually the old Stadium will come down.  Tonight is the last game in The House That Ruth Built, but it will remain forever in my heart and soul; in my memories and in my spirit.  They can tear down the building, but the one thing they cannot take away are the spirits of those of us who passed through the front gate and saw that incredible place for the first time.  We will always be there.

And I will always be there…as that 12 year old boy, walking across that field with his Dad.

“I believe when we leave a place, part of it goes with us and part of us remains. Go anywhere in the station, when it is quiet, and just listen. After a while, you will hear the echoes of all our conversations, every thoughts and words we’ve exchanged. Long after we have gone our voices will linger in these walls, for as long as this place remains. But I will admit that the part of me that is going, very much will miss the part of you that is staying” – Citizen G’Kar (Babylon 5/jms)


3 responses to “For Absent Friends, In Memories Burning Brightly

  1. Pingback: Statistics Are An Interesting Thing « Intersections In Real Time

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