Despite the great joy of watching the Yankees break apart like the Hindenburg this year, I’ll miss Yankees Stadium after the team plays its last game there September 21 and the “damn” thing is torn down.
Outside of my home, the office where I work, and my mother’s house, the stadium may be the place I’ve gone to more than any other in my life (St. Teresa’s Church is No. 5). Sadly, I don’t see the Son of Yankee Stadium cracking the Top 10 places I’ll be going to in the future (especially given the prices)—and I think that many other New Yorkers are feeling the same way. Memories is all we gots.
I was 12 when I made my first stadium visit, on October 1, the final day of the 1967 season. Like the last frame in 400 Blows, I froze at the amazing field of green stretched out in front of me. There was so much of it. Our church group sat on beaten-down wooden seats in the near-empty upper deck beyond third base, peering around the vertical steel pillars at the action below. The Kansas City Athletics were in town for the last time (22-year-old Reggie Jackson was primed to stir things up in Oakland the following spring); 6,956 fans paid for their tickets—or so it was announced.
The game was tied 2-2 until Joe Pepitone’s majestic two-run homer in the eighth (off third-year starter Catfish Hunter) sailed high and deep into the upper deck in right field. That was something. I saluted Pepitone, like any 12-year-old boy from the Lower East Side would, by chanting “Pepitone! Pepitone!” as he posed in center field during the last half frame. He finally flipped his glove toward me.
My only disappointment that day was not that the Yankees had won, but that Mickey Mantle had sat out the season finale. I disliked the team (I was rebelling against my old man, and I had a dislike for the punk kids who rooted for the Yanks), but 12-year-olds dig the long ball.
I looked long and hard inside the Yanks’ dugout that gray October Sunday in search of the great Mick. He had suited up the day before with only a walk and a ground out, ending the season with a .245 batting average; he would retire after the 1968 campaign. I didn’t go to any games that year. My folks kept a tight leash on me; times were unsafe and the Bronx was a mine field away.
That was a long time ago, and a few hundred trips to the Bronx since. Of all of them, one stands out the most: Tuesday, August 31, 2004.
I had joined my friend Jesse at his “MVP” stadium seats (upper deck, between first base and right field). The Cleveland Indians were in town; both clubs were headed in opposite directions. Joe Torre’s Yankees, along with first-time Bombers Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield, had the best record (81-49) in the American League. The rebuilding Indians (66-66), on the other hand, had lost 11 of 14, including eight straight inside the stadium. A Tribe fanatic, I was prepared emotionally for a long night.
Yankee starter Javier Vazquez, gunning for his 15th win of the season, told the press afterward he had his “good stuff” going. But the “stuff” was bad. DH-masher Travis Hafner cleared the bases with a triple in the first inning; the Indians added three more in the second. There goes Vazquez; in comes Tanyon Sturtze. The onslaught resumed. Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel, who made a small killing marketing his special hot sauce back in Cleveland, smacked a two-run double, his third hit of the game. It’s 9-0 after three innings. The stadium grows agitated, the booing mounts—and Boston is winning their game against the Angels. The Yanks’ once 10-game lead over the Sox could shrink to two tonight.
I’m not sure why I didn’t like Sturtze, but I didn’t. He gave off a bad vibe. In the fifth, Ben Broussard and Ronnie Belliard hit back-to-back doubles. Then Sturtze retired Jody Gerut, but allowed Coco Crisp’s two-run homer. Omar singled for his fourth hit. Sturtze sat down; C.J. Nitkowski entered. Three more runs crossed home plate. That made it 15-0, Indians. It was at about this point that many of the 51,777 in attendance decided to leave, unable to stomach the ongoing crime scene on the field. My friend Jesse missed an opportunity to remind me that the Yankees had won 26 world championships and 39 league pennants.
In the sixth, Coco Crisp scored Cleveland’s 16th run, courtesy of Vizquel’s fifth hit of the game, a double to left. Indian starter (and former Yankee prospect) Jake Westrook was cruising, throwing strikes as the Yankee millionaires went silent. The stadium was nearly empty now. Tony Clark, pinch-hitting for Sheffield, struck out to end the eighth. I suggested we go home. Sounding like a Vincent “the Chin” Gigante wiretap recording, Jesse protested: “Once you’re a Yankee fan, you’re a Yankee fan forever. We’re staying until the end,” he snapped.
The fourth Yankee reliever, Estaban Loaiza, working his third inning, allowed one-out ninth-inning singles to Josh Phelps and Ronnie Belliard before Jody Gerut crushed a three-run homer to right field. It was 19-0. Coco Crisp walked; Vizquel, eyeing a record seventh hit of the game, grounded out. But Ryan Ludwick kept the inning alive with a single to center field. The Yankee bullpen was quiet. “I wonder if Steinbrenner is here,” I whispered, meaning George, of course. (He was.) Loaiza threw another meatball, this one to Victor Martinez, who deposited it into the upper-deck seats in right for three more runs. It was now 22-0.
And I couldn’t hold it in anymore. I became hysterical. Standing and laughing uncontrollably as Martinez trotted the bases, I was fortunate that the upper-deck bullies in our section had all gone home.
Only one thing was left in doubt: Would the Yankees manage a run of their own in their last at-bat? A soft buzzing circulated the stadium; the few fans left seemed dazed by the score. Tribe reliever Jeremy Guthrie got Alex Rodriguez to ground out for the first out; A-Rod had played the entire game. (Captain Derek Jeter was removed after a pair of at-bats.) He sat down to a chorus of Bronx boos. Bubba Crosby flied to right; John Flaherty popped to first. Just like that, a Yankee hater’s dream was over: the greatest beating in the Bombers’ history, tying the MLB record for the worse shutout defeat since 1900. “Just a compilation of Yankee bad habits,” my friend explained.
I spotted a group of Japanese tourists taking photographs. None of them spoke English; I gestured for them to take one of me, with the scoreboard in the background. One fellow understood and smiled. A week later, I received an e-mail from Japan. Evidence. I’ve never seen a photo of myself so happy. The clock read 10:13; the Armitron-sponsored scoreboard told the rest of the story: 22-0, Cleveland.
I visited the stadium one last time this August. Kansas City was in town—not the Athletics, but the Royals this time, who scored their winning run on a Mariano Rivera wild pitch. After the game, I joined my friends as we sang along with Frank Sinatra, the speakers blaring “New York, New York.” I took a final snapshot of the scoreboard, pleased with the final score. I tried to replay every moment spent here; the green grass still amazed me. Such sweet moments of always rooting for the visiting team will disappear one day. Half of it already has.