This silent September finds the New York Yankees out of the playoff chase for the first time in 15 years. The sideshow that's distracting fans from the countdown to elimination is the countdown to the final game at Yankee Stadium, which takes place this Sunday.
Before I start my trip down memory lane, let's put to rest the fallacy that the soon-to-be-demolished edifice currently known as Yankee Stadium is the famed "House That Ruth Built," or that it's been around for 85 years. The only things the original Stadium have in common with the current one is that they both stand on the same spot, and baseball has been played in both of them.
Seeing pictures of the original 1923 Stadium next to the '70s-era remodel, both outside and in, puts lie to the myth that they're the same ballpark. Even the dimensions of the field are vastly different; the short right field porch has been lengthened by almost 20 feet, while the legendary left-center wasteland known as "Death Valley" has been moved in by over 70 feet. For crying out loud, the plaques in Monument Park used to be on the field! Don't tell me this is the same stadium.
That said, the current incarnation of The House That Steinbrenner Built is now in its 33rd and final season. Having attended Yankees games for 32 of those 33 years, I've built up quite a storehouse of memories. Lest we get too sentimental, it's fair to admit that the place has been getting to be kind of a dump. Disgusting bathrooms, dingy walkways, peeling paint, leaky pipes ... the ol' gal is definitely showing her age.
But I always felt like it was my ballpark. It's still a magical moment for me when the 4 train comes out of the tunnel approaching 161st St. and River Ave. and I see The Stadium in all its glory and the adrenalin starts to pump. Walking through the fluorescent-lit interior and then entering that gorgeous vista of blue sky and red dirt and impossibly green grass is like when The Wizard Of Oz transforms from black-and-white to color. And hell, run down as Yankee Stadium is, it's still a lot nicer than Shea.
My dad took me to my first Yankees game when I was not quite eight years old. I looked it up online and found out that it was May 28, 1977, a warm, drizzly Sunday. The Yankees, with a young Ron Guidry on the mound, got smoked, 9-4. The pitcher for the visiting Chicago White Sox that day, Francisco Barrios, would be dead five years later in a drug-related killing.
It was Jacket Day at the Stadium, and I got a cool navy blue Yankees rain jacket. It was way too big for me, so I put it in my closet and waited to grow into it. Of course, I totally forgot about it, and when I next tried it on, I was 14 and it was too small for me. There's definitely a metaphor in there someplace.
Since then, I must have seen about 150 games at the Stadium -- almost two full seasons of home games. I wasn't there when Reggie Jackson jacked three homers against the Dodgers in the World Series, but I've seen him launch a few shots in person -- as well as homers by Dave Winfield, Alex Rodriguez, Paul O'Neill and Don Mattingly, along with all-but-forgotten personal faves like Steve Balboni and Roberto Kelly.
I didn't see David Wells' or David Cone's perfect games, but I did see Cleveland's Bartolo Colon toss a one-hitter in a pitching duel with Roger Clemens that Colon won, 2-0.
I was there the night second baseman Chuck Knoblauch made three errors in a game before he was taken out of the game by Joe Torre. I later read that Knoblauch nearly quit baseball that night.
I was there when Mike Cameron drove in 8 runs for Seattle against the Bombers -- and he did it while drunk. Mickey Mantle would be proud.
I was there for Tommy John's first game as a Yankee, which he won. I was there when Dave Kingman, during his brief tenure as a Bronx Bomber, hit a ball that, I swear, went completely out of the Stadium -- only it was a foul ball that went backwards. I was there for Catfish Hunter Day in '79. I was there for perhaps the most boring World Series game ever played, Game 1 in 2003, when the Yanks were still coming down from the thrill of beating the Red Sox for the pennant two days earlier.
I've seen the greatest Yankees team ever assembled -- the '98 juggernaut that won 125 games. And I've seen the worst Yankees team in history, the 1990 crew that went 67-95.
Mickey Rivers shuffling out to center field. Derek Jeter slapping an opposite-field hit. Willie Randolph patrolling second base for all those years. Luis Sojo looking like he should be playing slo-pitch softball and then coming off the bench to deliver a crucial pinch-hit. Getting vertigo and damn near passing out while hiking up to the upper deck "tier box" seats. The right field Bleacher Creatures serenading Cleveland's Kenny Lofton with "Lawf-tin takes it up dee ass, doo-dah, doo-dah!" Memories.
My dad stopped going to games with me in the mid '80s. The Yanks were in the midst of their long fallow period, and he simply lost interest in baseball, so I started going with my friends. But I convinced him to come back for one last game a few weeks ago, to complete the circle, as it were.
We were in the upper deck, not in the main section over the visiting dugout, which was our regular spot back when tickets could be had for less than the price of a used car. And of course the names and faces had changed. The place was a lot louder than he remembered it, with rock music blaring throughout and the DiamondVision screen airing commercials between innings. But the game itself was a dandy. The Yanks eked out a 2-1 victory, with the ageless Mariano Rivera coming in for the save.
I'm looking forward to seeing the new Yankee Stadium, which promises the feel of the original, 1920s-era House That Ruth Built with 21st century amenities -- not to mention ticket prices that will bankrupt even the Wall Street fat-cats who don't lose their jobs between now and Opening Day. But I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for "my" Yankee Stadium. And I still can't believe that, after September 21, we'll all have seen the place for the last time.