Farewell to an old friend

A few thoughts on the passing of a sports cathedral: Yankee Stadium.

The last pre-game ceremony at Yankee Stadium

The last pre-game ceremony at Yankee Stadium

I remember my first trip to Yankee Stadium quite clearly: I was in elementary school, and a friend of mine, Jack, told me his father had an extra ticket and asked me to go.  I certainly wasn’t as big a fan of baseball or the Yankees as my friend was at that time — at age nine, he was playing in two baseball leagues and had collected all the Topps baseball cards series from the past three years — but I was excited to go.  Little did I know how spoiled I was at that time: the seats were in the first row, right next to third base.  I would never see seats like that again in that stadium — not even close! — and I still remember how the warm sun felt as it traversed the sky, how the sound of the bat striking the ball echoed as I’d never heard it before, how the game of baseball seemed just a bit different here as it had anywhere else.  My love for the Yankees grew from there.

And it came at a good time: the Yankees would go on to win the World Series in 1978, their second in a row.  Of course, that also marked the end of an era, as they would plunge into a time of darkness, marred by the death of Thurman Munson, followed by a time of relative mediocrity and obscurity, often called the “Don Mattingly era,” after the greatest Yankee never to experience a championship season.  Those days were tough to bear as a fan spoiled by the success of the franchise, but they were still illuminated by that legacy of success, by Mattingly’s sparkling play, both at bat and in the field, and by the joy of watching and listening to Phil Rizzuto’s play-by-play insanity.  This era, of course, came to a close with the arrival of Joe Torre (whose success owes much to the genius of Buck Showalter and his blueprint for success, which had just begun to take form), Derek Jeter, and the hint of the history that was soon afterward to unfold.

There was a time in my life when I made it a point to attend at least one game a year at Yankee Stadium: that was a simpler time, when tickets didn’t cost $50-150 each and you didn’t have to buy them a year ahead of time.  In fact, the most fun I’ve had at a game came twice when my friends and I walked up to the ticket stand minutes before the game to buy tickets: once in the mezzanine behind home plate, and once in the famed bleachers in right-center field.  The tickets were cheap, and it was a great way to spend a fun evening watching a game.

Of course, things are a bit different these days.  Tickets are nearly impossible to come by, and the difficulty will only increase with the new stadium and the corporate sponsorships that now accompany this mammoth of a franchise.  It’s no secret that, in the era of the Steinbrenners, the Yankees spend money to make money, and there’s more money being spent and made than most of us could imagine.  They’ve had the highest player payroll in the major leagues for many years running, and that is not likely to change as they move across the street to a bigger, pricier, modernized facility.

Still, even knowing how much money the players make, and how much this sport, like all sports these days, are very much about being profitable businesses, I still got chills listening to Jeter’s impromptu speech to the fans, urging them to carry their enthusiasm and legacy over to the new stadium, and I wished I could have been there to see generation after generation of Yankee hero remembered and cherished by position before the game, and the “victory lap” the current generation of players took around the warning track afterward, waving to the fans and tipping their caps.  My kids were all long since asleep at that point, but as I watched the night unfold on television, I couldn’t help wondering how excited they might have been had we been able to attend, to see these guys, past and present, paid to play a game, showing their fans how much they appreciate their support as they walked around that field for the final time.

There are things I won’t miss about this stadium, like the varied smell of urine throughout those aging causeways that just never seemed to go away, or the difficult parking situations (which won’t likely change much).  But there is something lingering in that arena other than smog, shady characters, and unpleasant odor that can’t be touched or seen: call it aura, or mystique, or the ghosts of Yankees past, or maybe just the collective cloud of millions of memories that fans have carried with them, game after game, in and out of the stands.  Who knows whether this mysterious entity will find its way to the new Yankee Stadium.  But the “old” Yankee Stadium will always be part of our memories as fans as one of the greatest components of the success of this team, as much so or more as the many great players who have carried a legacy of tradition through decades and generations.

Perhaps that’s something I won’t need to worry about, even as a fan: perhaps I’ll be completely priced out of ever attending another game at the new stadium, as it’s much more difficut to grab a set of six congruent tickets (for me, my wife, and the kids) as it was for me to jump on a train, alone or with my buddies, and buy walk-up tickets on game day, all those years ago, in a time that seems like yesterday.  The simplicity of those days are gone and will be missed; the joys of those days are gone and will be missed.

This Yankee Stadium will soon be gone, and it will be missed.

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