Stadium Sendoff

Opening Day, er Opening Night, is in the books at the Stadium. The last one in the “House that Ruth Built.”

It’s supposed to be a happy occasion, the birth of a new season, the arrival of spring and the celebration of baseball’s Cathedral. But it’s bittersweet. As they said after the fifth inning when the contest became official, there are only 80 regular-season games left at Yankee Stadium, where Joe Dimaggio, Mickey Mantle and Bernie Williams once roamed. And unless the young pitching staff realizes over-inflated expectations, the Sept. 21st contest against the Baltimore Orioles will mark the end of the line for the "Big Ballpark in the Bronx" (unless you count a proposed NHL game; don’t get me started on that).

If you’ve ever spoken to me, then my voice lets you know. If you haven’t, I’ll tell you: I grew up in the borough, 11 stops away on the 4 train (I always root for it in the subway race game on the Stadium’s matrix board). Yankee Stadium has always been a special and familiar place for me. The memories span decades and various life stages, but the hundreds of a games I’ve attended or worked (yes, I was a vendor from 1978-80 – ‘Beer here, beer’ was my refrain) have burnished many memories:

*On my inaugural visit, my dad and uncle have box seats behind first base for a doubleheader against Detroit. To a five- or six-year-old, it seems that foul balls drop around us all day (more on that later).

*Mickey Mantle Day. My first sports hero circles the perimeter of the field in a convertible. We could almost reach out and touch the retiring Mick.

*Con Ed Kid. Former big-league catcher Earl Battey takes youth groups to the ballpark. The left field bleachers are the utility’s seats of choice.

*Momma told me not to come. A buddy and I decide to take the train for our first unsupervised game (Mom, now you know). Big mistake: Hooligans chase two 10-year-olds around a virtually empty upper deck during a windswept April game against the Indians.

*1977 ALCS Game 1. My friends and I are in the upper deck. The Yanks trail KC 6-0 after its third at-bat. A KC rooter in Royals blue regalia is elated, but not for long. Drunken fans assail him for his colors, showering him with imprecations, beers and finally fists, before he’s “escorted out” for his safety.

* 1978. A friend’s uncle is the Stadium security manager, and a bunch of us are now vendors for Canteen Corp. Egg rolls (the rookie hazing) quickly give way to better items, hots dogs and beer. I remember speeding down on the Major Deegan or darting through the back streets – you had to get there by 5 p.m. That also meant finding parking north of the Stadium (for easier egress). Street parking earned my car a broken window, courtesy of a lot purveyor, who told me a week or so later, that next time he could get me a discount on auto glass. There are some things you just have to pay for in New York.

*BP Bopper. As a vendor, you have to be there hours before first pitch. That affords a full view of Yankees BP. Oscar Gamble was the Sultan of Swat in that setting.

*1978 World Series Game 3. I’m the peanut guy, but Bazzini  Nuts and Canteen certainly don’t get their money’s worth. I’m more interested in watching Greg Nettles impersonate Brooks Robinson in support of Ron Guidry as the Yanks begin their comeback against Tommy Lasorda’s hated LA Dodgers

*1978 World Series Game 5. It’s the last game in the Bronx that year. A bud and I decide it would be far better to watch Jim Beatty hurl, than hawk. Settling into the second row in the upper deck above third base, the seat owners never show. Better still: the look on a fellow vendor’s face as we order a couple of brews. 

*1979. I’m selling beer in the lower deck near the right field foul pole. A fly ball’s hurtling at me. I snatch it, saving it in my change apron. Two innings later, security approaches with choices: keep the ball and go home, or hand it over and keep working. The prospects of a $140 payday prevailed.

*The lean ’80s. Owner George Steinbrenner’s attempts to field the best team money can buy go awry season after season, but that doesn’t stop my 10-15 annual visits. After-work basketball games were followed by quick showers, rapid rides down the Grand Concourse and top-of-the-second arrivals (there was a lot less traffic and fewer fans back then). A couple of years later my girlfriend, now wife Mary and I routinely found a scalper who sold us a pair of main level boxes for $35, $30 if you negotiated just after first pitch.

*Miserable Merrill. The Stump Merrill era is even more of a bust. I recall taking my nephew Dan and young daughter Sammi to games in August and September, when, for a five spot, the right attendants ushered you into a field box up either line.

*1994. The Yanks are finally back and I love the crafty southpaw Jimmy Key. The season and the would-be Yanks-Montreal Expos World Series is aborted by a strike.

*1995.Game 2 ALDS. Mary, Sammi and three-year-old son Alex, former Inside Media colleague Lang Brockinton and I watch Jim Leyritz’s 15th inning home in the rain send the Bombers to Seattle with a 2-0 playoff series lead against the Mariners.

*1996 World Series Game 2. With a bevy of bouncers back to the box, Greg Maddox shuts out the Yanks, 4-0. Coupled with the 12-1 drubbing in the first game, the quiet subway ride north affords plenty of time for reflection about what figures to be a trip to oblivion in Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium. But scorched earth be damned, the team rallies to top the Braves, making their first championship in 18 years seem so sweet.

*1998 ALCS Game 6. My family’s in the right field bleachers. David Cone, Mary’s favorite, is going for the series clincher against the Indians. The Yanks lead 6-0 after three. But it’s misting and the “creatures” are intent on standing the entire game. The backless seats are slippery and my kids can’t see—we’re out of there in the fourth.

*2000 World Series Game 1. We have four seats for the Subway series opener: two upstairs for Mary and Sammi, while Alex and I are in the left field bleachers. After Timo Perez’s base running and Armando Benitez relieving botch it for the Mets, Jose Vizcaino’s base hit wins it in the 12th. Mary says Sammi danced in the aisles with some middle-aged guy. Pure exuberance missed!

*2000 World Series Game 2. Alex and I return. During BP, we’re wandering the lower deck, as a foul ball bangs off the loge facing. After several ricochets, I grab the ball from the scrum. But victory is fleeting. A 300-pounder (or, so I tell) jumps in late, landing butts up on my hand. Error on dad! Later, Rocket Rage is on display as Roger Clemens infamously hurls Mike Piazza’s splintered bat at the Mets’s backstop as he jogs toward first base on a foul ball.

*2002. Sunday Night Baseball pits the Mets vs. Yanks. But lightning cuts short our Little League game and the forecast is even more intimidating. It’s decided: I’ll go down to the Stadium and recoup the money for the four tix. Asking for face value, I’m arrested by undercover cops posing as a couple for selling the ducats within 1,500 feet of the ballpark. Thanks, Rudy. About 20 of us are being detained on a makeshift holding pen on a school bus, when the driver has a seizure. When the stretcher prevents them from navigating him out the front door, the cops are forced to blow out a bus window in order to lower the prone patient to a waiting ambulance. Another half hour later, we’re freed into a cloud burst. The charge was dismissed several weeks later.

*2007 Game 4 ALDS. Perched in box seats just beyond first, Cleveland is putting the finishing touches on the Yanks’ season. Hitting the subway, my thoughts turn to whether it would be the last time Joe Torre, A-Rod, Andy Pettitte and others don the Pinstripes.

After a turbulent off-season involving those three, the last go-round for the 85-year-old ballpark is now in full swing. Following a week of waiting in December, four adjoining, affordable seats finally opened up on Ticketmaster: I purchased a seven-game holiday pack that not only gave us Opening Day, but access to Old-Timers Day to boot.

Not bad, except for that we discovered the sightline for three of the seats is the netting on the right field foul (fair) pole, effectively obscuring the lefty batter’s box. 

Still after Monday’s rainout, it’s a crisply played game. Melky Cabrera’s makes two sensational catches and hits a Stadium homer (315 feet) to tie matters at 2-2. When second sacker Aaron Hill boots Hideki Matsui’s DP ball, A-Rod scores and the Yanks are up. Things are beautiful in The Bronx.

Then the rock star, set-up man Joba Chamberlain enters to the biggest cheers of the night. There are no midges in sight, just an image of Jabba the Hut on the side scoreboard, as Joba takes flight. With the first pitch, the flashes explode as if The Beatles were playing (oops, that was Shea). Chamberlain’s the future, as is the new ballpark rising across the street.

Given its smaller capacity, vastly higher prices and my waning years, I’ll never enter the halls of the new Yankee Stadium nearly as often as its predecessor.

Like the song says, “Time waits for no man, no favorite has he…”

The old place on River Avenue will always be mine.