The two kids on Hyperspeed bikes pause to peer through a delivery gate and into the shuttered stadium. They're looking for seat 7, section 22, where, as everyone knows by now, a car-battery--sized slab of steel and concrete recently wiggled loose and fell and gave local boobirds something to gas about for a couple of days.
"Eso," says the boy named Esai, pointing to an upper tier. In fact, riggers have already repaired the broken beam and are at this very moment dangling from scaffolds outside the 75-year-old stadium, in a very public attempt to patch all the obscure cracks in the walls and thereby combat the larger cracks in our image of a Bronx institution. "Thassit," says Esai to his friend, Horacio, waving in the general direction of the formerly fallen concrete. "You know, my dad told me Steinbrenner threw that shit himself. No, really. He's been trying to move the Yankees over to Jersey for the longest."
Is Bob Herbert correct? Are the Yankees' days numbered in the Bronx? Whether or not George Steinbrenner did arrange for part of the stadium to fall down--conveniently just after the season opener and while the stands were empty--as Esai's father and a lot of other conspiracists have been speculating, there remains a general sense that the stadium is "about to go the way of the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field," to use Herbert's doomful words.
This is bad for baseball, of course, and terrible for the city. Never mind the nightmares of parking, traffic, and immigrant suburbanites heading to a new stadium on Manhattan's cappuccino-infested West Side. Never mind the imaginary stadium's potential $1.06 billion cost. There's the issue of what such a move would do to a borough whose image problem even Steinbrenner's famous flack Howard Rubinstein would be helpless to spin.
True, there are those who still recognize that--even without the Bronx Bombers--the Bronx would still be da bomb. But they're a dwindling minority. Why? The borough that nourished Edgar Allan Poe, Babe Ruth, and Afrika Bambaata is still widely seen as the back of beyond--Catherine Street, Fort Apache, crackheads, and rubbled lots. A great deal of the Reagan-era devastation has been erased from this particular landscape, although not from popular imagination.
Two million--plus people attended games last year at Yankee Stadium. Fully 65 per cent came in by car from the suburbs. Yet a certain number arrived on public transportation. And those who came up from Manhattan were privileged to enjoy one of the great remaining urban experiences: the matchless moment when the No. 4 train emerges from its underground tunnel and onto the elevated tracks. To the west, as the train rises up from the darkness, stands the fortresslike stadium wall, vertically pierced so that, as the train pulls into the 161st Street station, riders catch a brief tantalizing flash of triple-decker blue seating and emerald field. Even if you have no investment in the club's history (23 world championships, never a single confirmed homer hit out of the park), it's a thrilling sight. The feeling's just not the same pulling into a parking space at Shea.
Esai and Horacio are too young to know much Yankees history. A pathetic brick berm on 161st Street with Babe Ruth's name picked out in white can't mean a lot to them. For years Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer has kept on life support a fantasia of Yankee Stadium as a hub for urban renewal--apparently oblivious to the more salient truths about sports marketing, where the real audience and the big money isn't in bleacher ticket sales but in luxury boxes and on TV. Ferrer's notion of a themed neighborhood called Yankee Village tends to founder on the knowledge that the stadium's demise is fated by the well-known fact that George Steinbrenner has a special contempt for the Bronx.
The Bronx hates him back and not merely because he's neglected to keep up stadium maintenance for two decades (despite the generous rent credit the city allows him for doing so). The Bronx hates Steinbrenner for the larger contempt he shows for ordinary aspiration and sense of place. Last week, television crews marked the 75th anniversary of Yankee Stadium in surreal fashion by taking pictures of a baseball diamond with no team on it. Civic functionaries scurried around a big blue Office of Emergency Management bus parked by the players' entrance. Police herded a small handful of reporters behind barricades, as though there were anything revealing to be learned from watching riggers spray paint circles around cracks in a wall.
And across the street from the stadium some real ball was played by two largely Latino local teams in Macombs Dam Park. "We need to play hard, play tough, play aggressive, swing the bat," the coach for Cardinal Hayes High School exhorted his players, as John F. Kennedy High School took to the field. Half the players crossed themselves, the other half touched their cups for luck. The Hayes players all shouted "aight," and then a young guy with the shape of a small appliance picked up an Easton bat and slammed a triple off the first pitch.
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