The Spartan Stadium

The flip side to my aforementioned aversion to Opening Day at Yankee Stadium is my willingness to brave the elements for an early season game, particularly if the company is good. Last year, Jonah Keri and I endured a snow-filled sufferfest amid a horde of Bleacher Creatures, so it was virtually automatic that I’d accept an invite from Alex Belth for field level seats to Thursday night’s tilt between the Blue Jays and the Yanks, particularly with Philip Hughes on the mound for his first start of the year.

After I endured the dauntingly lengthy ride to the stadium from my new outpost in Brooklyn (1 hour, Q from DeKalb Avenue, changing to the 4 at Union Square), I found Alex at our designated meeting spot, a shuttered deli at the corner of 161st Street and River Avenue. It took me a moment to place him; Alex was bundled up, wearing a parka and a winter cap, with his industrial-strength headphones worn over the outside. I hadn’t gone quite so hardcore, opting for my usual overcoat and a Yankees cap — it is wool, after all.

Before we went in, the two of us walked down the avenue to take full measure of the still-under-construction new park, Yankee Stadium III. I invoked Derek Jacques’ Death Star metaphor as we crossed under the subway platfrom and the whole thing seemed even more apt as the new park came into full view. With its exterior shell substantially finished, right down to the gold lettering announcing its intention to keep its maiden name, so to speak, the new stadium looms imposingly over the current one, promising the latter’s demise in a not-too-distant future. Alex compared it to a hospice situation, with the old park on its deathwatch. For all of the hype surrounding the Opening Day articles, there’s no mistaking it once you arrive on the grounds: this is the beginning of the end for The House that Ruth Built.

As we wandered outside the stadium, my thoughts focused less on the new park and more on the current one, and I mused to Alex about the familiar anxieties as they came back to me. How much more oppressive will the Yankee Stadium ballpark experience be this year? My view of the current model was unshakably altered by a Saturday game last year which found the ballpark security closing off exits while hot and bothered Yankee and Red Sox fans taunted each other after a tense game to the point where I had to try hard not to think of soccer riot fatalities. From that moment, my nostalgia for the current park and my own personal stake in it — the hundred-something I’ve attended there over the last 13 years, including the 1999 World Series Clincher and the thousands I’ve watched take place in its yard — was trumped by the desire for a better fan experience. Not that I have faith that the new ballpark will provide it, not with my upper-deck seats some 30 feet further back from the action and my wallet bracing for the kind of abuse that makes prison showers seem church socials by comparison.

Once inside, spared the hefty hike up the familiar ramps to the upper deck in favor of a ground-level entry to our seats, the current ballpark’s familiar pleasures overtook me. Yankee Stadium II contains the famous reminders of its old history — Monument Park, the white frieze, the flagpole in what used to be the center field patrolled by DiMaggio and Mantle, with the park’s original dimensions preserved by the wall behind it, the black batter’s eye where only the chosen few have reached with their towering blasts — and the portents of its own obsolescence, the narrow concourses, spartan amenities, and fatal lack of luxury boxes. As limiting as that latter set is, it’s also been part of the park’s charm, at least to me. If you go to Yankee Stadium, you’re there to see a ballgame, nothing more and nothing less. No fountains, waterfalls, kiddie pools, mascots, slides, or other diversions. Compared to the modern mallparks, the centerfield PA system is much less intrusive, even when the hated “Cotton-Eyed Joe” blares.

Our seats were as good as any I’ve had in over a decade (I was four rows behind home plate for this one back in ’97), just to the first base side of the netting behind home plate. With my current scorebook buried in some unmarked box from my recent move, and Alex empty-handed in that department, I shelled out $7 for a program so we could keep score. Mind you, doing so in the itty-bitty squares of the flimsy Yankees Magazine scorecard is like trying to get romantic in the back of an old Volkswagen Beetle. There was little room to make the usual notes I keep on a game — the location of each hit, notations on complicated plays or memorable moments in the stands — and, given the gift of gab between two friends who hadn’t seen each other all winter and who generally talk like sugared-up six-year-olds when we do get together, I found myself battling to stay in synch with the game.

Which, in the 42 degree weather, was thankfully brisk. Hughes mowed down the Blue Jays, striking out Matt Stairs and Alexis Rios looking in the first inning — the Toronto hitters never did seem to figure out home plate ump Bill Miller’s strike zone, as five of their seven Ks were backwards on my scorecard — and retiring all nine hitters the first time through the order. Hughes found trouble in the fourth, via a David Eckstein double and a Rios single, but the damage could have been much worse. Rios got all the way to third with one out after a Robinson Cano error in fielding a throw from Jose Molina compounded a successful steal, but the kid came back to whiff Vernon Wells and Frank Thomas. The Big Hurt thought he’d just received ball four and jogged to first base excitedly, but when told it wasn’t so, he raised such a ruckus that he was bounced to the delight of the rather sparse crowd (47,785 officially, maybe 30,000 in reality). The Jays added another run in the fifth, via a two-out walk to Marco Scutaro, a double by Greg Zaun, and an infield single by “The Little Gerbil,” (Eckstein, in my friend Nick’s words).

The Yanks, meanwhile, could do little against Toronto’s Dustin McGowan until the bottom of the sixth, when Johnny Damon drove a ball to the base of the wall in deep right field for a double. McGowan then loaded the bases by hitting Derek Jeter with a pitch and then walking Bobby Abreu. The crowd, at least at field level, rose to its feet with Alex Rodriguez coming up and nowhere to put him. The fourth pitch of the at-bat, a ball low and away from A-Rod, skidded away from Zaun towards our general vicinity as Damon scampered home, but Rodriguez followed by striking out. Jason Giambi lofted a fly ball that brought Jeter home, but Abreu made an ill-advised bolt to third base — perhaps as an attempt to protect Jeter by drawing the throw — and was meat.

Against this backdrop, Alex and I buzzed about books we have and haven’t been reading lately. Pat Jordan was a frequent topic of discussion, as I’d just gotten a copy of his Belth-edited book and had devoured the infamous, withering profile of Steve and Cyndy Garvey which had resulted in an $11.2 million lawsuit. As the innings passed, we chewed on Red Smith, Ring Lardner and Ed Linn, author of Nice Guys Finish Last and Veeck as in Wreck, the latter Alex’s second answer to a question he’d posed about classic baseball books we hadn’t read. Boys of Summer was his first answer, and for a moment I wished I had the time to do nothing but read those two old favorites. I offered up Jim Brosnan’s The Long Season, an in-season diary precursor to Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, and Robert Creamer bios of Babe Ruth and Casey Stengel. The conversation shifted to the genre of boxing writing, as Alex told me about Mark Kram chronicling Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, the Thrilla in Manila. A trip to the Strand was an inevitability in the wake of such chatter.

After six innings, the two young starters departed, with the impressive Hughes giving way to a resurrected Billy Traber, a much slimmer and shaggier version of Brian Bruney than we’d known, and then an electrifying Joba Chamberlain; the latter struck Zaun out looking, and worked around a two-out single with little problem. Brian Wolfe came on for McGowan, who’d weighed in with an impressive six-inning effort of his own. Wolfe completed a 1-2-3 seventh, but yielded a leadoff single to Melky Cabrera in the eighth. Lefty Scott Downs came on, and Damon dropped down a bunt, an intended sacrifice which Downs bobbled, with all hands safe. Jeter then bunted as well — I hate it when he does that — this time pushing the runners over, and then Abreu came dunked a blooper into center for what proved to be the deciding run. Mariano Rivera backed it with his usual finesse, surrendering a leadoff single to Wells before mowing down the next three Jays on just eight pitches, freezing Aaron Hill with two strikes to end the ballgame in a tidy 2:45.

As we shuffled out, Alex hit me with a frightening question: what would you do if your last game at the current Yankee Stadium ended to the defeat-laden strains of Liza Minelli’s version of “New York, New York” instead of Sinatra’s? That’s a horror I don’t even want to think about.

For Alex’s take on the game, see his entry at Bronx Banter.

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