The Stadium Within

With Yankee Stadium II in its final year, the nostalgia is already getting a bit thick, as everybody and their grandmother pens their ode not only to the House that Ruth Built, but to its shabby cousin in Queens, also in its final season. Luckily, some of the stuff is pretty good. The New York Times has a quartet of pieces from its regular columnists that have apparently been up since March 30, but I’ve only just discovered them. Here’s William Rhoden:

Every morning, I look out my bedroom window at two Yankee Stadiums: the old one to my right, the new one to my left. What an awesome sight: looking across the river at the Yankees’ past, present and future. The new stadium is like that freshly purchased baseball glove that requires years of line drives and ground balls to be sufficiently broken in. The old stadium bursts at the seams with collective experiences.

I love that comparison of a glove, perhaps the ballplayer’s most personal item, with a stadium. Both end up showing their wear over time, and become cherished less for what they are, for their ability to still do the job, than for what they’ve represented in the life of a user. Having retired my ancient ball glove last year, one I’ve had since about 1980 in favor of a new one that I’m still getting comfortable in, I can relate. And it’s not only with Yankee Stadium, a ballpark I’ve visited well over 100 times and have come to love, warts and all. Last weekend, showing my brother-in-law around the dump that is Shea Stadium for the first time, I was reminded of the fact that even the lousiest ballparks have a certain soul to them. Seriously, who even among the most ardent Mets fans doesn’t loathe certain facets of that stadium, the sound of La Guardia’s air traffic overhead, the appallingly poorly considered vista of parking lot (now thankfully blocked by the new stadium), the upper-level seats so removed from the field, hell and gone from any shot at snagging a foul ball and askew at angles ridiculous for watching a game? Fan of the Mets or not, if you’ve ever been to Shea, you’re allowed to commiserate with the millions of others who’ve shared that experience.

Ballparks, even da woist of dem, bring people from all walks of life together to create communities, vast civic and regional networks of like-mined fans, with satellites spread all over the country and even the world. Particularly in an age when we’re becoming more and more fragmented, less able to connect on a mass scale, ballparks are the practically the last arenas to help us to form shared memories, and in doing so, even the diviest of dives manage to transcend their own crapulence. Forget the mystique and aura of Yankee Stadium for a moment and think of the miracles that happened at Shea in 1969 and 1986, the unlikelihood of their occurrence and the way they shocked the baseball world, and tell me there won’t be something lost when that park is gone, memories that people pine for in the same manner they pine for the bygone days of Ebbetts Field and the Polo Grounds.

• • •

From the same Times series, here’s George Vescey:

Somehow or other, my other enduring memory is an empty Yankee Stadium on the day of Martin Luther King’s funeral in 1968, not a soul in the house. My friend Jim Bouton felt the need to throw that day, so he pitched off the mound, and I squatted where Berra and Dickey had squatted, using a mitt borrowed from Coach Jim Hegan’s locker. (Hegan used a falsie to protect his hand, but I told Bouton I didn’t need the extra armor.) We dressed in the main clubhouse and used the players’ sauna. The Stadium was stone silent.

After decades of working at the Stadium, the original or the instantly antiquated rebuilt version, I try to see the awe through other people’s eyes — Tony Gwynn taking videos before the 1998 Series, rookies’ eyes widening, fans on a pilgrimage. I think of it as a hard place, with Steinbrenner meanness squashing the humanity in guards, ushers, executives. But I remember “Good friends we had/good friends we lost/Along the way,” as Bob Marley put it — Steve Hamilton, Bill Robinson, Bob Fishel, Michael Burke, some of the finest people I’ve ever known. I think about Mantle’s shot off Barney Schultz in the 1964 Series. And Bob Sheppard’s dignity. In the last generation, an old Brooklyn fan could feel immense respect for Joe Torre’s team.

How appropriate to mention Burke, the man who got the city to pay for Yankee Stadium II’s refurbishments in exchange for the team not bolting for the Meadowlands à la the football Giants. Every time I see Michael Burke‘s name, I think of Baseball Think Factory’s tireless linkmeister, Darren Viola, a/k/a Repoz, who always seems to work anecdotes about the iconoclastic pre-Steinbrenner Yankees president into his introductions at BTF. And that in turn sends me to Repoz’s blotto account of an early-70s doubleheader at Yankee Stadium, published at The Baseball Analysts a few years back. Repoz’s amalgam of bad booze, obscure musical references and futility infielders is an unforgettable one, to say the least.

• • •

On the subject of futility infielders, you’d be hard-pressed to come up one more futile than Duane Kuiper, a man who hit just one homer in 3754 plate appearances between 1974 and 1985. Kuiper was futile enough to merit mention in this site’s original statement of purpose, but I never in my wildest dreams would have claimed him as a favorite. Joe Posnanski, on the other hand…:

People always seem to think that I love Kuiper ironically, or that I’m somehow being a wise guy about this whole thing, but in the words of that noted philosopher Mike Gundy, that ain’t true. I loved Duane Kuiper when I was 10. And I love him now. He has always represented something important to me, something I did not really understand when I was young. Duane Kuiper was the player who brought the game closer. He was the one who said that you don’t have to be supremely gifted and impossibly strong and touched by God in order to get where you want to go. You can also dive for every ground ball. If there’s one lesson I could pass on to my daughters, it would be that lesson. And also that you should not throw your ice cream cone just because you decided today that you don’t like vanilla.

My first memory of Duane Kuiper is not a memory of him at all; it’s a memory of a Little League game where the coach put me at second base for the first time. I was 9 then, I guess, and up that that point I had always played third base, always. I couldn’t really tell you why I always played third — maybe it was my father’s appreciation of Brooks Robinson — but I had gotten used to the position, and my entire view of the field was a third base view. I WAS a third baseman. I was not prepared to move to second base. It confused me. Then my coach said, “You can be just like Duane Kuiper.” In my memory, this appeased me. Duane Kuiper. I had about 28 of his baseball cards.

…When I got older and found that there was a whole other world outside of Cleveland, I started to appreciate that perhaps Duane wasn’t a good ballplayer. It’s funny … I had never really thought about it. I guess I felt about Duane the way I felt about nearsightedness, male pattern baldness and my Uncle Lonka who played the accordion at weddings and bar mitzvahs — I inherited him. I had never really thought to evaluate him. That almost seemed beside the point. He was the second baseman I wanted to be. He was the player who represented what life could become if you wanted it enough. He was the guy who every game made one diving play to send a little kid home with a memory.

Now, of course, I’m well aware that Duane Kuiper — because he hit only one home run in his career, because he was such an unsuccessful baserunner, because he is a funny, gifted and self-effacing announcer — has become a symbol, sort of a Joe Shlabotnik of the disco era, I appreciate that. But that’s not why I love the guy. Read that quote above one more time. When I was a little kid playing baseball in the backyard with my old friend Michael Fainer, we used to pretend to play World Series between the Cleveland Indians and the Cincinnati Reds. We both wanted to the be the Indians, of course, being true Cleveland kids, but someone had to be the other team, someone had to be Pete Rose and Johnny Bench and Tony Perez and Don Gullett and, especially, Joe Morgan.

Now that I can relate to. Great stuff.

I’ve got another note on the futilitymen of yore, but as it involved an archaeological dig through some storage boxes stacked five deep, it’s going to have to wait until later this week…

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