Monday, September 22, 2008

The End of an Era

It is cliché, I know, but still the most appropriate title for this blog, written on September 21, 2008, soon-to-be-known as the day the last game was played at the original Yankee Stadium. It is a significant day for all New Yorkers, all Bronx-ites, all Yankees fans. It is a day that marks change, as well as the passing of time. It is a day that heralds the future, and holds up the magnificent past.

One of my most vivid, early memories is this: It is August 2, 1979, and I am playing Star War figures on my front porch with my neighbor/playmate, Eric Miller. My mother comes to the front door; talking through the screen, she asks us, “Do you know who Thurman Munson is?”

“Of course; he’s the catcher for the Yanks,” we answer.

“I heard on the radio…his plane just crashed…they’re pretty sure he didn’t make it.”

Eric looks at me. “I guess I should go home now, he says.” I nod.

It goes without saying, I hope, that I am a born and bred Yankees fan. So is my sister. When we were young, my father encouraged us to play whichever sports we wanted, read whatever books we wanted, and choose whatever careers we wanted. But there was no choice for us in regard to baseball teams; there was simply no reason, no rationale, to be a fan of any team but the New York Yankees. Showing up at home with a pierced nose and pink dyed hair would have been more acceptable than a Mets T-shirt. By the time I was ten years old, I was able to articulate (read: argue) the superiority of the Yankees to anyone silly enough to insist there was any comparable team in Major League Baseball. I did like, and respect, other players on other teams; that same childhood pal, Eric, idolized George Brett—I could not help but like Brett as well. I loved Rollie Fingers, a pitcher for the Oakland A's who had the coolest handlebar moustache in the world. I still think of Rollie Fingers on the rare occasion I see a handlebar moustache. I wouldn’t trade a George Brett or Rollie Fingers baseball card, but I wouldn’t trade ANY Yankees baseball card.

Every year, for most of my childhood, we attended Old Timer’s Day, as a family. My father made mysterious marks on the scorecard (it took me years to learn how to fill out the scorecard—too mathematical for me to retain); my mother ate all the candied peanuts from my box of Cracker Jacks and then dozed off; and my sister and I used binoculars to see our favorite Yanks as closely as possible. It was a terrific day, always.

I grew up listening to John Sterling shout “The Yankeeees win! The Yankeeees win!” Every time my family entered the car while the Yanks were playing, we listened to the game. If we were in the car while the Yanks weren’t playing, we listened to Mike & the Mad Dog. During Billy Martin’s tenuous tenure, my father ranted and raved, either to the radio or the television—even if I didn’t understand exactly why Billy Martin was such a “*#%*!,” I hated him anyway. When I played Little League softball, I pulled my socks up and wore black stripes under my eyes, just like Bucky Dent. I tried to steal bases just as the speedy Willie Randolph stole bases. I played third base, just like Graig Nettles. When all the neighborhood kids played Wiffle Ball on the cul-de-sac on which we lived, we took turns pitching; we all pretended to be Goose Gossage, closing yet another game for the Yanks. I was watching the Yankees game with my father and my sister when Reggie Jackson hit three (3!) homeruns in one game of the World Series in 1977. I was watching when Ron Guidry, my favorite pitcher, struck out eighteen (18!) batters in one record-breaking game in 1978. I was watching when the Yankees sadly took the field after Thurman Munson’s tragic death.

From 1995 to 2000, I lived with my sister in Manhattan. With a few exceptions, our TV was permanently tuned to a Yankees game. We watched David Wells’ perfect game together. We watched David Cone’s perfect game together. We stayed up until 2 AM once, hooked to an extra innings game that would not end. We screamed and jumped in celebration throughout the ALCS and the World Series again and again in the late 1990s. When I worked at a talent agency in 1996, I traded a few favors for the opportunity to sit in Michael Kaye’s seats behind home plate. My sister, who works at a law firm, took me and my parents to many home games during the Yankees’ reign in the 1990s; the firm’s seats are located within spitting distance of first base, on the good side of the velvet rope, where waiters deliver food and drinks! I have close-up photos of Derek Jeter, Paul O’Neill, Andy Pettite, Jorge Posada, Chuck Knobloch and Scott Brosius. We were at the first home game pitched by Roger Clemens—the stadium shook with boos. On a blistering August day, my father, my sister and I arrived early and strolled silently through Monument Park—we had not visited since we were all much younger. I took a picture of my sister in front of Thurman Munson’s plaque. It remains one of my favorite photographs.

A friend took me to Game 3 of the 1999 World Series—I had chills the entire night and hugged strangers when the Yanks won. I cried at the beginning of the first game after 9/11, and was so proud of the Yanks for steadying the rest of us. I was devastated when they lost to the Diamondbacks that year (I still despise Randy Johnson). I screamed and jumped in celebration, this time on the phone to my sister (I had moved out of Manhattan) when Aaron Boone hit his clutch home run. Last year, on a beautiful spring day, I took my friend Steven to a Yankees game for his birthday—I wanted to sit in a blue seat one last time, to sip overpriced tap beer one last time, to eat a warm pretzel and a box of Cracker Jacks one last time, to try to catch a foul ball one last time. I can’t remember if the Yanks won or lost that day—it didn’t matter anyway.

As Robert Frost wrote, “Nothing gold can stay.” Yet the inspiration, the sportsmanship and the memories of Yankee Stadium have affected my life in a way few other institutions, and no other sports teams, have. Nothing can change that. The Yankees remain a significant part of my family, though my parents have moved out of New York and my sister now has two daughters to whom she can pass along her affection for the Yankees. In a strange but perfect twist of fate, I now teach at a college within walking distance to Yankee Stadium. The school, the block, and the entire neighborhood stand within the shadow of Yankee Stadium. I cannot see it from my office, but I pretend I can. The House That Ruth Built in the South Bronx has, in many ways, defined the major chapters of my life. I am certain the new stadium will be beautiful, and we’ll still reach it via the 4 train, and when we walk up the ramp toward our seats, I’m sure we will still lose our breath, or gasp, or stand in stunned silence, when the field suddenly appears, green and glorious. It will be a new field, upon which new memories will be made, new miracles will occur, new history will unfold. I only hope the new Yankee Stadium has more stalls in the Ladies Rooms!

Farewell, Yankee Stadium of my youth. And thanks, Dad.