Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Thank you Yankee Stadium

The passing of the old Yankee Stadium feels a little like the loss of an old friend. Living here in Seattle, I did not even have the opportunity to attend the wake, although I am sure that I could not have afforded it anyway. My memories of Yankee Stadium go back a long way. I discovered baseball in 1964, at the age of seven. That year, the Yankees made what was then their annual trip to the World Series. I watched some of the games on our family’s tiny black and white television and was hooked. Sadly, it would be 12 years before they played in October again.

Our neighborhood was typical of the East Bronx. Our building of over 200 families was populated almost entirely with the children and grandchildren of Irish, Italian and Puerto Rican immigrants. People were living the American dream, which of course involved baseball. Our ball field was St. Peter’s playground or among the parked cars on Tratman Avenue. We played stickball and other baseball derivatives called “punch” or “slap” with a small pink rubber ball, known as a “spaldeen.”

In Seattle, one is almost overwhelmed by the lush green. Not so, in the Bronx. It’s not as if we did not have grass on our block. Bible’s Funeral Home had a lovely lawn, where occasionally we would sneak for a game of tackle football. Yet, it is fair to say that grass and trees were not really an everyday part of our lives.

In 1967, my scout leader took our troop to Yankee Stadium. We took the Number 6 train to 125th street in Manhattan and changed for the number 4, Lexington Avenue Express northbound. We got an all too brief glimpse of the Stadium as the train emerged from the tunnel and rushed by the gap between the bleachers and the right field stands. The 161st street subway station was behind the center field bleachers. The main entry to the ballpark was behind home plate. To enter the stadium, you had to walk all the way around the outside. At the time, the exterior was painted a utilitarian white. The features that appear in pictures from the early days were obscured through corporate efficiency that ruled the Yankees in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Our seats that day were in the upper deck on the third base side, which was reached by a series of ramps that smelled damp with a tinge of old peanuts and hot dogs. The ramps led to a small tunnel through which bright light seemed to explode. The tunnel opened onto the greenest place any of us had ever seen. Even now over 40 years later, it seems like yesterday. I can almost smell the stale cigar smoke that seemed to be everywhere in the days long before anyone thought of banning smoking at a ball park. Baseball at Yankee Stadium was pure joy.

As I grew older, I would regularly attend games. A general admission seat was $1.50 and a subway token cost 35 cents. General admission seats were anywhere behind the pillars – before the 1976 renovation, the stadium roof was supported by pillars that gave some interesting views. If you got there early enough you could position yourself between two pillars and get a completely unobstructed view. When I turned 14, I signed on as a vendor and got to see games for free and make a little money at the same time. I was never as happy as when I got to go to a ballgame at Yankee Stadium.

Time passes. Thurman died and even young Murcer, who replaced Mickey, retired and has sadly passed. Lou came here. Over the years, my allegiance shifted. It became harder to love the Yankees from afar, when we had a local team that was fun to watch.

My family regularly attends games at the amazing Safeco Field. My boys are growing watching Jose, Felix and the magical Ichiro. We keep score and talk about the game as fathers and sons should. When my sixteen year old perplexes me, we can always go outside and play catch. Our conversations drift, but mostly involve baseball.

I see a lot of baseball these days. Coaching one son’s team and watching the other’s high school, summer and fall teams, I probably see nearly 100 games a year. When my kids allow, I even get to sit in my Mariner’s seats on occasion. I will miss Yankee Stadium, because it gave me a love that has lasted over 40 years. My family shares this love and it provides us a neutral zone of common ground as we pass through our children’s adolescent years. It may be the house that Ruth built, but to me it was an urban oasis, filled with magic that began a lifelong love.

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