The Decline and Fall of Yankee Stadium

The Yankees put on quite a show in the Bronx last night for the final game ever at Yankee Stadium. I wasn’t in attendance, alas, unlike some of my NYC-area cohorts like Alex Belth, Cliff Corcoran, Joe Sheehan and Derek Jacques, and without the anticipation of attending the game, I had a tough time summoning the requisite nostalgia beforehand. Over the weekend I did manage to surmount some of my baggage in time to pen a pending piece for Alex and Cliff’s Bronx Banter series on my favorite moment in Yankee Stadium; in true Jaffe fashion I turned a simple assignment into a five-reel epic, emerging with a top ten countdown of my most memorable moments at the ballpark. Sooner or later, the piece will join the ranks of those by Pete Abraham, Allen Barra, Brian Gunn, Phil Pepe, Dayn Perry, Ken Rosenthal et al, and I hope it will be a worthy addition.

The flip side of those warm memories is today’s piece for Baseball Prospectus in which I come less to praise Yankee Stadium than to bury it. Mainly, it’s a much harsher reckoning with all that the Yankee Stadium experience became in the wake of September 11. Regular readers of this site will be familiar with my litany of complaints, from the arbitrary enforcement of “security” procedures to the controversy surrounding the ritualistic playing of “God Bless America,” all of which served to make a trip to the ballpark a considerably less fun experience than in earlier years:

The Yankee Stadium which emerged in the immediate wake of September 11 was a defiant symbol of national unity in a time of crisis, and I had the honor of attending a few of the games there, including Game Three of the World Series, when President Bush threw out the first pitch of what Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci called “the ceremonial first pitch to America’s recovery” (alas, stadium security was so heavy that night that I couldn’t gain entry until the second inning, after Bush had departed). The problems began when the Yankee organization, from owner George Steinbrenner on down, couldn’t let go of that symbolism. “God Bless America” became a permanent staple of the seventh-inning stretch, devolving from the spectacular pomp of Irish tenor Ronan Tynan’s delivery during home playoff games to the banality of the canned recording of Kate Smith and the U.S. Army Band’s version. More on that in a moment.

Accompanying the regular renditions of “God Bless America” were heightened security procedures that subjected patrons to no small litany of hassles while doing little to make them more secure. Given the cursory frisking procedures and lack of metal detection capabilities, it would have been possible to gain entry with a 9mm handgun jammed down the back of one’s pants and a Bowie knife sheathed in one’s sock, but without those, the organization simply inflicted its increasing paranoia and greed upon paying customers. Backpacks and briefcases were immediately banned from the ballpark after September 11, as though any potential ticketholder might be a terrorist smuggling in a tactical nuclear weapon swiped from the imagination of some z-grade thriller. Not even Shea Stadium — located only two miles from La Guardia Airport — stooped to such extremes. Anyone coming to the park while porting one of the banned bag types — say, from work — was forced to check it for a fee at one of the bars or restaurants across River Avenue. Anyone wishing to schlep a bagful of items into the stadium — say, a scorebook, a jacket, and reading material for the long subway ride home — was forced to place those items in a flimsy, clear plastic grocery-type bag available outside the turnstiles. No other types of bags, such as ones with reinforced handles, were allowed, first for vague “security purposes” and then, once fans began pressing Yankee security to explain these increasingly irrational and seemingly arbitrary requests, “because you’re not allowed to bring bags with logos inside.” As you may have divined, I had many a terse confrontation over this policy.

But wait, there’s more. Umbrellas were banned, subjecting patrons to a true soaking at the stadium’s souvenir stands, where they could shell out $5 for a flimsy poncho. Confiscated umbrellas were consigned to giant heaps near the turnstiles, where aggrieved fans departing a game were granted the opportunity to choose a replacement vastly inferior to the one they’d brought. But perhaps the reductio ad absurdum was the stadium’s ban on sunscreen — yes, really — thus creating another opportunity for profiteering inside the ballpark.

All of those were petty annoyances of a type not unfamiliar to any New Yorker; one basically signs up for a host of such inconveniences upon taking residence here with the hope that they’ll be outweighed by the advantages of city dwelling. Far more ominous were the crowd-related issues that exacerbated over the past few years. To appreciate them, one need understand the trend of rapid attendance growth that occurred during the Joe Torre era…

For me, the final straw came on April 30, 2007, after attending a tense Saturday game against the Red Sox in which the Yankees prevailed. A very bipartisan, alcohol-fueled crowd had been at each other’s throats all game; the cheap seats in Tier Reserved had featured numerous fights and ejections. An irrational security force nonetheless sealed off several of the stadium’s ramps, slowing the exits of legions of emotionally overheated fans. It took 40 minutes to crawl from the upper deck to the subway platform, and while I’m no claustrophobe, all I could think about on my painfully protracted way out was the deadly human crush of English soccer riots. The limiting of the exits apparently became standard operating procedure, and if the consequences didn’t turn tragic the way I kept envisioning, they nonetheless added an unnecessary, dangerous level of discomfort to the experience of attending a game in the Bronx.

Further down in the piece is a summation of the horrors of the new ballpark’s ominously named Relocation Program (if the hot dogs in the new park taste different, you’ll know why) and a recognition of the way so many rank-and-file fans stand to be priced out of the cherished ritual of regular attendance in the coming years. On that topic, Cliff C. had a fantastic piece the other day, titled “The Rich Get Richer: The Ugly Truth About The New Yankee Stadium.”

Raining on a parade isn’t a fun thing to do, and I have to admit, in watching from my seat on the couch last night, I was moved by the pomp and pageantry of the gala affair despite its contrivances. But in the afterglow of the finale, I’m more resolute than ever about the necessity of shedding some light on the dark side of Yankee Stadium’s final days and years. I’m not sure things will ever be the same for me in the Bronx again, and I wonder how many fans will feel similarly in the coming years.

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