Monday, April 19, 2010

Replacing A Monument

Originally written March 23, 2010.

It’s a dirty not-so-secret of mine that despite my masochistic dedication to the New York Mets, my parents are both Yankees fans. It helps that their early lives took place when only one Major League Baseball team was in New York, but in the case of my mother, it helps even more when you grow up with Archie and Jughead in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. My father grew up in the Westchester town of White Plains, and while his grandfather was an enormous New York Giants fans – a picture of my father as a toddler in a black and orange uniform is reputed to exist somewhere – by my father’s 7th birthday there were no New York baseball Giants. With nowhere else to go, he held fast to the pinstripes, though it should be noted that for years after I was born he continued wearing his White Plains High School Class of ’69 T-Shirt, which prominently featured a pennant of the Miracle Mets.

I grew up in a different world. While my father occasionally humored me by pulling for the Amazins my mother made no such ambivalence over her loyalty. That is not to say she didn’t appreciate my fandom. She and I went to dozens of Mets games together over the years, but she made no illusions. She pulled for the Bombers. That was that.

Considering her love for the Yankees, something seemed appropriate about the New Yankee Stadium opening on her 55th birthday, but when I attempted to buy us a pair of tickets, the prices were so high even I couldn’t justify it. And then a plan was hatched. Rather than take my mother to Opening Day at the Stadium for her birthday for what would have been at least $500 for nosebleeds, it seemed a far better idea to get better seats for far cheaper to the second game for not just her and I, but the entire family, with a dinner in the Stadium’s steakhouse beforehand.

Because apparently new stadiums have those things.

Unfortunately, the best laid plans of Mets and Yankees, as they often do, ran astray. After tickets were purchased for the Friday night game against Cleveland on April 17, 2009, the game time was shifted to a 1 p.m. start, which threw an awfully large wrench with my sister, brother and sister-in-law to be all working 9-to-5. My brother and his girlfriend would only be able to make it for dinner afterwards, while my sister would be late. All of this put the screws on three extra tickets that had to be dealt with.

With the date fast approaching, my mother’s close friend, Emily and her son Harry, who was one of my close companions for most of my childhood, took two of the tickets and the final one I managed to sell online – at a profit no less.

With the anxiety gone and the day here, I gathered myself on the subway to check out my 15th Major League stadium. My sister Stephanie would be meeting us at the stadium while my mother, Emily and Harry would drive in from New Jersey. I arrived early for my requisite picture taking, and as the subway pulls up near the park, it’s pretty hard to miss. Indeed it dwarfs the rest of the area, fulfilling an intended impression of massiveness. The building sits across the street from the Old Yankee Stadium, which, at the time of Opening Day for the new park was still standing, albeit eerily empty.

The pinstripes’ new home and the various plazas around it bustled, however, with many people playing tourist just like myself. The most noticeable external feature of the building is the limestone wall that surrounds it. While most new stadiums opt for the aged friendly feel of brick on the exterior, Yankee Stadium doesn’t want to be friendly. It wants to intimidate. It wants you to know that you are not walking into a baseball stadium. You are walking into a temple.

And for $1.5 billion, it ought to. That was the price tag for the building, at the time the second most expensive stadium ever built after the renovated Wembley Stadium in London. The $1.5 billion nearly went for naught after a construction worker, who was also a Red Sox fan, boasted he had put a hex on the new building by placing a David Ortiz jersey in the concrete while on the job. As I’ve said, with the exception of the Chicago Cubs, curses are silly, but sports bring out a peculiar anxiety in the masses, and fake or not, the threat of constantly playing on top of buried Red Sox paraphernalia was of deep concern not only to Yankee fans, but the club’s front office.

With the prospect of Hank Steinbrenner’s supremely expensive baby forever being tainted, construction was halted, concrete was torn up, and sure enough a ragged Ortiz jersey was found in the foundation. The jersey itself was donated to charity and while the worker claimed he had also buried a program and scorecard from the 2004 ALCS – he wouldn’t say where – anymore attempts at cursing the building were quickly proven to be fruitless as the Yankees won their 27th World Series in their first year at the park.

Of course, at the time I first showed up that was a ways off. Things hadn’t been hunky dory in the Bronx – the Yankees were coming off their first non-playoff season since 1995 – and it was important to open the pinstripes’ new home with a bang. They didn’t get it the day before. Cleveland beat the Yankees in their first regular season game there, 10-2. Not that this was the worst thing for me. Despite not being a Yankee fan, I still appreciate history, and the team’s home opening loss afforded us the chance to see the first win at the new home.

I took several pictures around the stadium’s external façade. Its limestone was inspired by the original pre-renovation Yankee Stadium and it makes the building seem more fit for the National Mall in Washington than it does for the Bronx. It is, indeed a beautiful and impressive exterior. After rendez-vousing with my mother, Emily and Harry, there were more pictures to take before we finally entered.

Interestingly, the limestone walls are less a wall than an outer shell, which might explain why the plot of land the New Yankee Stadium covers is dramatically larger than the old one. Between the limestone walls and the seating areas is a huge, open, naturally lit area known as “The Great Hall”. While it is decorated with banners and signs echoing the club’s rich history, “great” seems like a bit of a dramatic adjective for a building that hadn’t actually had anything great happen in it yet.

But as the family Mets fan, who am I to argue?

Along the inside it seems as if every square inch of wall space has been set aside for some purpose to symbolize Yankee history, and when you reach the seating area, which continues to reinforce the franchise’s richness and importance, the full impression is complete. If the purpose of Citi Field was to provide you with an adorable, care-free family outing at the ballpark, the New Yankee Stadium’s aim was to impress upon you the grandeur of its tenants. And it pulls it off with flying colors, with the icing on the cake, and personally my favorite aspect, being the wonderful white frieze that crowns the upper deck.

The white fencing was a key characteristic of the original building when it opened in 1923, but when George Steinbrenner renovated the building in the mid-70s, select sections of the frieze were moved to the outfield while the rest of the stadium was bereft. In the decades since, the team acknowledged a mistake was made, and the frieze has since become a symbol incorporated into the franchise that is as ubiquitous as the interlocking NY. The frieze featured prominently in the stadium’s inaugural season logo and mini friezes adorn the top of each player’s locker.

The frieze was a reminder. It may be in a different place, but this was still the Yankees’ home. In fact, great lengths were made to ensure that the New Yankee Stadium was less a change for cash than an update necessitated by the wear on the old building. Of course, that cash did flow. In its opening season, seat prices ranged as high as $2,625 per seat for a regular season game. Unfortunately for the front office, the stadium opened in the midst of a recession and the embarrassment of empty seats behind home plate, as well as the bad press that came with such high prices while a segment of the fan base was seeking work, prompted the team to cut the cost of the most expensive seats in half.

Because $1,250 is clearly more affordable.

We were not sitting in those fancy chairs, nor in any of the other upper class clubs around the building. We sat in the northern reaches of the upper deck, but behind home plate. Perhaps what is most remarkable about the building is that when you sit in your seat it doesn’t feel like you’re in a different building. Certainly it feels newer, cleaner and, given the wider seats, roomier, but it still feels like Yankee Stadium. And considering the team went to pained extremes to ensure that, it makes sense.

The field itself has the exact same dimensions with the lone exception being a backstop that is now 20 feet closer. While the players must have felt as though they were at familiar environs, however, the stadium didn’t play like it. Perhaps it was the slightly different angle of the building or the vaguely different construction of the outfield stands, but as the Yankees would find over the next six months, baseballs flew out to right field at a stunning pace. Through 23 games at the stadium, 87 dingers would be clocked out of the yard. Right field itself was considered a major culprit, with heavy criticism levied by the media and the park being decried as a joke by some. Numerous wind studies were commissioned but as of the first year at the stadium no certain reason had been determined.

Tensions eased when the pace of homers slowed over the course of the season, but Yankee Stadium’s reputation as Coors Field East, would be firmly entrenched, and true to form, the Yankees won their first game at the new park that day by way of the long ball. A solo home run by none other than uber Yankee Derek Jeter in the 8th inning provided the margin of victory, with Mariano Rivera appropriately nailing down the save in the 9th. Jeter’s homer was the fifth by a Yankee that day.

Despite being stunned that the urinals were already dirty, and confused as to why the Yankees were showing H&R Block Provided Tax Tips on the jumbotron two days after taxes were due, the rest of the experience couldn’t be argued with. From the frieze, to the sightlines, to the hand-managed scoreboard along the outfield walls, the stadium feels like a cathedral, a place befitting the most decorated franchise in American sports.

And despite my own opinions of the Steinbrenner family, they got it right.

With our dinner reservations at NYY Steak in the right field corner waiting, we stayed in our seats while most of the fans filed out to the blaring Frank Sinatra. All the traditions remained to a T. We headed to the restaurant where Elliott and Danielle arrived for dinner and while I felt my porterhouse was slightly overcooked, the meal was a pleasant coda to my mother’s birthday. The restaurant itself doesn’t look over the field, but it does have a wall with the signatures of nearly every famous Yankee ever. In addition, my dessert, was a ball of ice cream topped with chocolate, toffee and a flaming shot of Bacardi 151 rum. They tell you the alcohol burns off, but that is a complete lie. It was the drunkest I’d ever gotten from dessert.

I was quite smug paying for the dinner with my New York Mets credit card, but given that I was going to be back the next day, that may not have been the wisest move. My stepmother had decided months earlier to buy tickets for herself, my father, my stepbrother Jake and I for a Saturday afternoon game, and while I wasn’t necessarily going to have the time to explore the stadium nearly as much, given that we were seated with the Bleacher Creatures I was sure to be entertained.

Fans who spend their days beyond the right field wall at Yankee Stadium are notorious for their dedication, rowdiness and enforced sobriety. Beginning in 2000, the Yankees had banned beer sales in the bleachers in an attempt to curb the wild behavior of its denizens, but this was tenuously overturned for the new building. While we would be in the right field bleachers, we were fortunate enough not to be in the almost comically ill-placed seats at the edge of the section that are next to a wall and as a result have the view of left field completely blocked. Those seats, did, however, provide a clear view of the most expensive seats behind home plate which were predictably empty while the cheaper sections were filled to capacity.

The Bleacher Creatures are noted for their first inning roll call. After each pitch they begin chanting one of the fielder’s names until he acknowledges them with a wave, which is met with a cheer, and each game they go through every man on the field. In addition to that heartwarming connection, however, they also live up to their reputation in amusing vulgarity. It became very obvious very quickly that I could be dominating the field were I playing a game of swear word bingo.

The group was emboldened by an early Yankee lead. Mark Teixeira hit a two-run homer in the first inning – to right field of course – and with two-time 19-game winner Chien-Ming Wang on the mound, surely it was a victory in the making. As Indians right fielder Shin-Soo Choo approached the plate with two men on, one fan in the rows in front of us yelled out, “You suck, Choo! You fucking suck!” Ever the classy gentleman, the bleacher creature’s comment was met with a three-run jack by Choo, putting the Indians in front.

Surely, an isolated incident.

Well before the inning was out Cleveland would string together 13 hits and 14 runs, the largest inning ever surrendered by the Yankees in their history. The frame created a number of records for the new building, and the eventual 22-4 loss for New York would be the third most runs ever allowed by the franchise. Remarkably, the first, second and fourth most runs allowed by the Yankees were all reaped by the Indians in a bizarre coincidence.

The early collapse created dissension among the bleacher creatures who were extremely displeased when one frustrated fan started chanting, “Jeter sucks!” There are certain lines you do not cross in Yankeeville. That particular fan tip-toed it ever so precariously. With the entire section’s ire raised, massive booing and grumbling commenced. One thing they did agree on, however, was that with a pitching change needed, right fielder Nick Swisher was the man for the job. Indeed, Swisher, was no pitcher. But as teams will sometimes have position players take in a few innings to spare bullpen arms in blowouts, Swisher had recently gotten his chance.

Five days earlier the Yankees were routed by the defending-AL Champion Tampa Bay Rays, and with arms at a premium, manager Joe Girardi put Swisher on the mound, where he responded with a scoreless inning, including a strike out of Gabe Kapler on a blistering 78-mile-per-hour fastball that made even Swisher laugh. With the Indians in the midst of their second-inning onslaught, cheers of “We want Swisher” rang from the crowd, but the right fielder was unlikely to come out again.

As he said after his 22-pitch outing in Tampa Bay, "I'm walking out of my professional career with a 0.00 ERA.”

With the result not in doubt, I seized the opportunity to check out one of the few areas of the park I missed the day before, the Yankees museum. Evidently I wasn’t the only person with this idea. When I left a line stretched hundreds of feet outside the doors. The museum features a heaping amount of impressive memorabilia from Thurman Munson’s locker, to Babe Ruth’s jersey, to Mickey Mantle’s cap, to several of the Yankees’ World Series championship trophies.

The literal centerpiece of the museum is a wall of autographed baseballs by nearly every man to have worn Yankee pinstripes from the legendary (Joe DiMaggio) to the forgotten (Woodie Held). While there is an impressive amount of items on display, the room itself is small, and I got the sense that they could have done more with it. After all, these are the Yankees, the most historic, successful, renowned franchise in the history of American sports. If the building befits their greatness, why doesn’t the museum, the place that is supposed to put all the accomplishments on display?

Perhaps I’m being picky. It is still worth the trip, particularly given that Monument Park closes well before game time each day. As I walked past the long line outside the museum and back to my seats, the game’s momentum, unsurprisingly, was still firmly behind Cleveland. The Indians had tacked on another run in both the third and fourth innings, but evidently it took until a three-run homer by Mark DeRosa in the fifth inning for fans to finally give up hope. After the 19th marker had crossed home plate, the stands slowly began to empty, as if that 19th run was the final one that had clinched it for the visitors and made a comeback impossible.

Surprisingly, perhaps out of a desire to look around the new building, my father and stepmother stuck it out until the end of the game, which I was fine with. It was a beautiful day and I make it a point not to leave early if I can help it. Good thing, too. Had we left, we would have missed the third go round of the “We Want Swisher” chant in the eighth inning.

As we and whatever fans left exited the stadium – and there weren’t many – there was laughter and disappointment. Sure these blowouts happen and most educated fans know you just have to let them go, but it was clear that after three games and one win in their new building, for many people this didn’t yet feel like home. They wouldn’t suffer the same malaise I did after visits to Citi Field, however. While the Mets collapsed brutally, the Yankees brought home their first title in nine years that November. With another trophy in tow, I’m sure the new residence felt plenty comfy.

And maybe that new trophy would spruce up the museum some.

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