As part of their “please don’t notice that you no longer have public parks” campaign, the Yankees opened the gates of their new stadium to Bronx residents today, distributing 15,000 tickets via community boards to watch the team take batting practice, and get a sneak preview of the borough’s first $2 billion attraction.
Of course, this being the age of StubHub and Craigslist, and community boards being what they are, the actual crowd that turned out today was only partly Boogie Down in flavor: a mix of local grade-school classes and decked-out Yankee fans who looked like they wouldn’t walk down Fordham Road on a dare. Also on hand: Joyce Hogi, the longtime Grand Concourse resident who as one of the founders of Save Our Parks was one of the primary opponents of the Yanks’ new digs. (Despite serving as a volunteer on Community Board 4’s parks committee, Hogi couldn’t get a ticket from her board, which former Bronx borough president Adolfo Carrion memorably purged of stadium critics; she ended up attending at the invitation of a Bronxite from another neighborhood.) Though not much of a baseball fan — “I watch when it’s the World Series,” she said — she wanted to see what had come of the Yanks’ successful battle to build a new home atop what was Macombs Dam Park.
The first thing she saw was standing water, and lots of it: The Yankees, apparently, had hosed down their new bauble before opening the gates, and puddles were everywhere on the newly poured concrete floors. In the two rows of “porch seats” that sit atop the glassed-in restaurant that occupies the center-field batters’ eye, Hogi watched bemusedly as a team employee with a broom struggled to clear several inches of standing water into a tiny drain.
It may have been an unfair image to start the day with, but it was somewhat fitting for a stadium that, after all the hype about its “grandeur,” comes off in person as neither groundbreaking nor awful. In its broad strokes, being at the new Yankee Stadium feels like being at the old one, but with the details all wrong: It’s a bit like visiting a Grand Theft Auto version of the old ballpark, where reality has been twisted to make it easier to render on a computer. (All that was missing was a sign reading “Pinstripe Cathedral” or “Bomber Field.”) Yanks execs’ claims to the contrary, the new stadium feels less like the 1923 original than like the 1976 rehabbed model, right down to its cinderblock-and-painted-aluminum-panel aesthetic — or rather, like another, more dramatic rehab further along, a faded copy of a faded copy.
Parts of the new design are, undeniably, improvements. Cross-aisles have been eliminated, meaning no more worries about missing a key play because a family of four from Teaneck is struggling to find their seats while balancing a tray of Cokes. The one exception is in the seats closest to the field: To ensure that premium ticket-holders don’t have to rub shoulders with the mere $300-a-ticket patrons behind them, they’ve been provided with a private entrance that emerges into a sort of open cut where they can find their seats without blocking anyone’s view — a feature that gives the priciest section the odd look of being surrounded by a moat.
The concessions areas, meanwhile, dwarf anything that was available at the old stadium. The Yankees at last have their own souvenir stands that can compete with Stan’s Sports World, with team stores offering every variety of pennant, shirt, jersey, and jacket imaginable — as well as, bizarrely, officially licensed “team gnomes” at a mere $35 a pop. Fans in the lower deck can now enjoy their pick of food stands serving such specialities as sushi, garlic fries, and Cuban sandwiches (as well as possibly the worst idea ever at a ballpark: a gallery selling artworks by Peter Max). Those who are denied entry into the fine dining class will still find improved food options — though with bottled beers going for $9 apiece and “Popcorn Indiana gourmet kettlecorn” starting at $6, it’s unlikely anyone up in steerage will be able to afford to sample more than a tasting at any one game.
Speaking of steerage, the upper deck is one place that diverges dramatically from the old stadium: Shrunken and set back farther from the field, it’s no longer as steep as at the old park, but also no longer on top of the action. Though the new stadium seats 5,000 fewer people, its worst seats are easily as distant as the back row at the old ballpark across the street, if not quite as vertiginous; think Shea Stadium upper deck, and you’re on the right track. (Not that this will matter much, as most fans will no doubt spend most of their time watching the real star of the show: the Yankees’ high-def centerfield video screen, which is the one item at the new stadium that looks worthy of the stratospheric price tag. It’s probably only a matter of time before the Yanks start advertising a night at the ballpark as “just as good as watching it on your own computer!”)
As for those obstructed-view seats in the bleachers, meanwhile, they’re every bit as bad as the computer renderings showed; in fact, even the back rows of adjacent bleacher sections will miss out on some home runs to the opposite field thanks to the Mohegan Sun sports bar that now juts out of the “black” in dead center. The Yanks’ solution — a trio of HDTV screens on either side of the restaurant, so fans can follow the action on TV — look like they’ll only be useful for night games, as their images were all but invisible in today’s bright afternoon glare.
The bleachers have undergone other changes as well: Bleacher Creatures can now travel to the rest of the stadium (though not the field level, of course — that’d be socialism), but like their upper-deck counterparts, they’re farther from the field as well, with several rows of box seats set between them and the Yankee outfielders. To forestall what you’d think would be the obvious consequence — especially with bleacherites now able to purchase beer, though they won’t be allowed to bring them to their seats — the stadium’s designers have buffered the two sections with, of all things, concrete planters, filled with young plantings that aren’t likely to last too long unless they can evolve quickly to become alcohol-succulent.
Out in Section 203, the newly designated Creature hangout now that Section 39 is set for the wrecking ball, there were a few cries of “Box seats suck!” directed at their new neighbors, but no projectiles, at least not on this day, which was mostly for getting one’s bearings. When Milton, the young protege who inherited the late Ali Ramirez’ “Cowbell Guy” mantle back in 1996, arrived, he seemed baffled to find himself not just across the street, but in another world. “Holy shit!” he greeted his comrades. “I feel like I’m on the road here.”
The new Yankee Stadium in many ways doesn’t feel like home, in part because it flaunts what New York has always lacked: space. Walk the pleasant pedestrian plaza that now fronts 161st Street, or the utterly pointless (but impressively grandiose) Great Hall that lies just inside the stadium gates, and you can feel the Yankees’ architects luxuriating in the room to spread out beyond the confines of a 1920s-era structure. Of course, it’s a luxury that came at a price: For every 50 feet of plaza or 100 feet of Great Hall, that’s space that had to be trimmed from Bronx parks as a result of the stadium’s mammoth footprint. It also moved the stadium’s bulk closer to the apartments along Jerome Avenue that once looked out on a park, and now face the third-base grandstand; outside the stadium, Hogi had run into Mary Blassingame, the former chair of the CB4 land use committee, who was aghast to see that a Yankees loading dock now emptied onto that residential street.
In another two years, the city promises, there will be new parks, some taking the place of the old stadium, with others dispersed to the Harlem River waterfront. All the subsidies and lost years of park use and other inconveniences aside, Hogi was asked, could the Bronx at least end up with nicer facilities in the end, even if not quite the ones they’d grown to love? “We’re hoping what we get is much nicer than what we had, because they were not maintaining what we had,” she said. “Their presentations to us were beautiful. If they build what they say they will build, things will be much further away — especially the tennis courts — but it’ll be lovely. If they do what they say they’re going to do.”