It was a Twilight Zone-odd feeling. I was sitting in Yankee Stadium for what surely was the six hundredth and sixty-sixth time... wasn't I? Sure I was. But the backdrop of Da Bronx seemed to have shifted a few degrees as the ever-familiar D Train rumbled by. Sitting in my usual seat, I felt at home, yet every once in awhile, I found a sign askew or couldn't shake the feeling that everything, though the same, was somehow closer together than it should have been. What was happening? Was I subtly shifting back and forth between parallel universes?
My son, David, recognized the off-centered look on my face. "It's amazing, Dad, just how much they recaptured the original Yankee Stadium in the new Yankee Stadium," he purposefully posited to pull me back from my latest in an increasing number of flashbacks linking me to my father who watched Babe Ruth play, to my grandfather who lived his last decades listening to Mel Allen and Red Barber describe the seemingly daily Yankee win, and directly to the ghosts of my childhood heroes, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Elston Howard, and even Marv Throneberry and Elmer Valo (don't ask).
Yes, amid the rich history, the nostalgia, and the family traditions, the past always comes to life for me at the blended Yankee Stadiums like it does at no other place on earth, awakening my sixth sense and allowing me to see over and over again Maris hitting number 61, the blood seeping through Mantle's trousers at the knee, and Don Larsen literally playing catch with Yogi Berra. Here in this baseball temple in Da Bronx, my sixth sense, as powerful as it is, gives way to one of my first five senses -- the sense of hearing -- which seduces my brain, my heart, and my remaining four senses into believing I'm back in the past through the time machine of Yankee Stadium.
It's inescapable and unchallengeable.
David and I arrive at the game this day just in time to hear Robert Merrill (1917-2004) singing "The Star-Spangled Banner." If I keep my eyes on the flag and just listen to the crisp clarity of Merrill's extraordinary voice, I know that he's right there at the home plate microphone, inspiring the crowd with his bombastic rendition of the national anthem. But if I ever actually steal a glance home and find Mr. Merrill singing yet strangely invisible, I will know the truth for certain....
I hear dead people!
David spies the misty-eyed look of nostalgia creeping cross my cranium and tugs on my genuine pin-striped number seven Yankee jersey, politely pulling me back from the abyss of some alternate earth as he asks, "Dad, wasn't Robert Merrill, like, best friends with George Steinbrenner?" His carefully chosen and deliberately operative word, "was," allows me to cross back over to today's Stadium and today's Yankee team just in time to see stepping up to the plate the lead-off batter in the bottom of the first, our favorite player, the captain, Derek Jeter.
The immortal voice of Bob Sheppard (1910-2010) comes resounding over the state-of-the-art p.a. system and his intonation and cadence are unmistakable. "Ladies and gentlemen, now batting for the New York Yankees, number two, Derek Jeter. Number two." His voice is as perfect and pure as if he was personally whispering in my ear. I'm lost listening to his slow, lilting words as, in my mind, they continue introducing to me Johnny Blanchard, Clete Boyer, Tony Kubek, Tom Tresh, Bobby Richardson, Hector Lopez and Moose Skowron. Every game he ever announced, Bob Sheppard was invisible to the fans. Now, I'm doing what I did when I was a kid, using my imagination to picture what Bob Sheppard actually looked like (exactly the same thing Charlton Heston had to do in The Ten Commandments).
David sees my closed eyes and knows I am adrift again. He nudges me gently with a brush of his elbow and suggests that if Yankee Stadium is the sacred temple to Yankee fans as we believe it is, wouldn't it be appropriate to say a prayer for the "late" Bob Sheppard (something he never was in his 60-year announcing career). And that one word reminds me the great one has passed on, hitting me as hard as the bouncer that caught Kubek in the throat with the cold realization that...
I hear dead people!
We're soon in the fifth inning of today's game and there's the usual platoon of baby-boomer fans surrounding our seats and getting louder and louder with their third and fourth beers. When the beer guy tramples down the aisle hawking the next round, the boomer ritual begins anew. One 65-year-old guy asks him for a bottle of Ballantine, the brand of brew that once upon a time was synonymous with Mel Allen and Yankee baseball broadcasts. That old guy then converts the enveloping crowd's chuckles into musical notes, leading everyone whose brain cells were not ravaged in college by the likes of Rheingold, Schaefer, or Schlitz, in a retro chorus of:
"Hey! Get yer cold beer!
Hey! Get yer Ballantine!
Hey! Get yer ice cold beer!
Get yer ice cold Ballantine Beer!"
I thought it would end there, but four baby-boomers soldier on, slurring their words in unison:
"To be crisp, a beer must be icily light (icily light)!
With true lager flavor, precisely light (precisely light)!
Lively golden, crystally clear!
The crisp refresher,
Ballantine. Ballantine Beer!"
As everyone in the stands over the age of sixty applauds, Mel Allen (1913-1996) would be proud! And that's when David abruptly yanks me back to the Yanks game today by handing me a Coors Light.
During the seventh inning stretch, just before we all sing the song my Dad sang with his Dad at Yankee Stadium and that I sang with my Dad at Yankee Stadium and that David sings with me at Yankee Stadium, the classic Jack Norworth (1879-1959) song, "Take Me Out To The Ball Game," we first remove our caps and join Kate Smith (1907-1986) in the singing of "God Bless America." Her voice is just as powerful, resonant and alive as when she first recorded that signature Irving Berlin (1888-1989) tune in 1939. It's said that ninety-two percent of the people in the Stadium and eighty-five percent of all Yankee fans do not know: A. that Kate Smith is not a new recording star who burst onto the music scene on September 11th, 2001; and B. that Kate Smith is dead. Long dead. And so, I slip back to her Columbia Records 45rpm recording of "God Bless America" pressed on the see-through red vinyl that my parents used to play over and over again on their Victrola. Ninety-nine percent of all Yankee fans in the Stadium believe they are listening to Kate singing the entire song. But I know better. We had the record and, sadly, the Yankees only play half of it during their seventh inning honor to service men and women. Today's Yankees are depriving the world of hearing Kate in her prime belt out the piercing, never-ending, closing lyrics comprising her glass-shattering finale with the higher and higher notes, "...my home... sweet... HOME!" I know that if the entire United States of America today experienced Kate Smith hitting her crescendo, it would cauterize our internal wounds and bind the soul of the nation back together again as it did in the dark days of lingering Depression and looming world war.
Alive or dead, Kate Smith is magical. If you don't believe Yankees fans, ask Philadelphia Flyers fans. The Flyers won virtually every game they played at The Spectrum in 1976 provided they first played Kate Smith singing, "God Bless America" instead of anyone singing "The Star-Spangled Banner." It was a Philly phenomenon! And for key play-off games, they actually brought Kate Smith out on to the ice to sing the song in person. This was, just to be clear, when she was alive, and not some cryogenically frozen body rolled out on to the rink like some warped version of "Disney On Ice." I was there at The Spectrum to witness this during the NHL play-offs that year, and while Kate Smith was singing the words to "God Bless America," all I heard in my head at this arena gone wild was:
"God bless the hockey puck,
Puck that I love.
Stand beside it,
And guide it,
Through the net with the light up above."
David's foot taps on the side of my foot. I'm jarred out of the time tunnel that had me back in 1976. He politely and in hushed tones asks me if my Yankee cap was giving me a problem as I was muttering something about a "hat trick." I try to change the subject, but David knows...
I hear dead people!
In just over three hours, the Yankees win and the game is over. Yet before I can even stand up, none other than the Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra (1915-1998), grabs the Yankee Stadium microphone, stirring the fans and rousing the City with his powerful love letter to The Big Apple, "New York, New York." Growing up, I caught most of the biggest acts in concert from Elvis to The Beatles, but I always regretted never having seen Frank Sinatra in concert in person. But now... here he was! His phrasing, his energy, his ultimate coolness proved to me that he was even better listening to live than on his records... until, that is, David, exhausted, took my chin in his two palms, turning my head toward his, forcing me to look directly into his eyes, and said to me, "Dad... he's dead. He's not really here."
I knew that, of course. But sitting in this Twilight Zone Temple, Yankee Stadium, and continuing a tradition from grandfather to father to me to son, I can't help but become transported to a wonderful, magical place where the past seamlessly collides with the present, where tradition holds fast while new traditions take root, where I experience great baseball, and where... I hear dead people!
And that makes me smile.
As David and I edge our way through the traffic and cross over the George Washington Bridge, bidding adieu to Da Bronx this night, our 2013 Volt electric car returns me to a world of tweeting, texting, YouTube, and a thousand million new technologies giving virtually every person in the world a voice. But amid all that chatter, what fun to simply hear the voices of the past that remain so relevant to our hearts and souls today.