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April 2, 2008

The First Last

Opening Day at Yankee Stadium

by Derek Jacques

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On Monday, what was to be Yankee Stadium's first-ever March game was canceled when the weather forecast didn't promise that the Yankees and Blue Jays could get in the requisite five innings for an official game. While this led to a fair amount of grumbling and booing by the fans who'd trekked out in a cold drizzle to catch the 2008 opener, it couldn't be argued that the 30-hour postponement didn't make for better baseball-playing and -watching conditions. The rains that assailed New York City off and on overnight and throughout the day on Tuesday gave way to perfect spring conditions in the evening: sixty-odd degrees and dry at game time.

The big story of the night was the historic final Opening Day of the House That Ruth Built, one of a litany of lasts that will run at least through September 21 against the Orioles (the Yankees' final scheduled regular season home game) and perhaps be stretched even farther should the Bronx Bombers manage to make it to the playoffs for the 14th straight year. We can look forward to these "historic" markers growing increasingly absurd as the year wears on, with broadcasters encouraging fans to catch the historic final midweek series against the Rays in July, and in August alerting us to Carl Pavano's historic final trip to the Yankee Stadium Trainers' Room. (I can almost hear Suzyn Waldman reverently running down the historic implications of the latter event: "Should Pavano somehow stay with the Yankees next year, and need a cortisone shot, or a rub down, or a precautionary X-Ray, it will be at the new Yankee Stadium.")

Of course, there will be an audience for all the sentimentality that's being unleashed with the Stadium's send-off. In a sport that conscientiously markets itself on its past and its traditions, the Yankees trade most effectively in nostalgia. Possibly the greatest achievement of the Yankees' nostalgia machine is the perceived continuity between the building that Colonel Ruppert built in 1923 to house Babe Ruth's bat and the current Yankee Stadium. The 1976 "renovation" was more of a gut-and-rebuild job than a simple sprucing up of the structure. Just about every significant detail of the building--its dimensions, the playing field, the seats, the scoreboard--was altered, resulting in an arena that doesn't fit in with the great classic ballparks like Wrigley Field or Fenway Park, but doesn't quite have the plastic uniformity of the cookie-cutter parks of the '60s and '70s, either. Although many still admire its timeless look, Yankee Stadium II (as we sometimes like to call the post-1976 structure) shares little with the original other than its address.

Across the street, the new new Yankee Stadium looks a bit like the Death Star, circa Return of the Jedi, enough so that I half-expect it to sprout a laser cannon and vaporize the present stadium sometime after the last pitch of the 2008 season is thrown. Its still-under-construction exterior shell self-consciously recalls the original structure, but the ballpark within will be thoroughly modern and built from scratch-there's no longer any plausible deniability that this isn't a break with history. Talking to fans around the ballpark, the recurring theme was anxiety about the new ballpark. Will they be able to afford tickets? Will they be near the other regular ticket plan holders in their section? Will the new Stadium be the same kind of place the old one was?

Not all of Yankee fans' sense of ennui is induced by the team's marketing department. George Steinbrenner came into his own as the team's owner right around the time that Yankee Stadium II opened, which was coordinated with his return from his first baseball suspension. Over the last few years, as Yankee Stadium's days have become numbered, there's been a rising awareness that Steinbrenner's days are numbered, also. In the fifth inning of the opener, Steinbrenner was called to the stage to make a brief video-screen appearance, pulling a slot machine-style lever that reduced a "Games Left in Yankee Stadium" counter from 81 to 80. The moment was sad, not because we're one game closer to end of the line for the old ballpark, but because of the vacant look in Steinbrenner's eyes as he pulled the lever. The Stadium's mortality has become entwined with the owner's mortality with an apocalyptic edge--the end of either may not be the end of the Yankees, but the end of both will certainly mark the end of an era. Like the ballpark across the street, Steinbrenner's son Hank looks like a reasonable facsimile of an early version of the original. Just as there's uncertainty about the new ballpark, however, there's uncertainty about the new Boss: uncertainty about the future.

Some notes about the game, a 3-2 Yankees win:

  • The teams playing the opener are the two most prominent challengers to the Red Sox in the AL East. The Yankees, who headed the division from 1998 to 2006, bring a collection of veteran power bats as their primary asset. The Blue Jays, who haven't made the playoffs since winning the World Series 15 years ago, are trying to make an argument for contention based on strong starting pitching and a defense that could improve on last year's squad, which finished second in the league in park-adjusted defensive efficiency (PADE). Although J.P. Ricciardi took over the franchise in 2002 with a mandate to lower payroll and build from within, on Opening Day 2008 the Jays' payroll was nearly $100 million, and they had fewer home-grown players than the opposition in their lineup (three to the Yankees' four) and fewer players under 26 (zero to the Pinstripers' two).
  • The night's starting pitchers were two of the most dedicated groundbolistas in the American League, Chien-Ming Wang for New York and Roy Halladay for Toronto. The Yankees infield is sub-optimal for Wang, particularly with Jason Giambi starting at first base rather than at DH. Leading off the second inning, Derek Jeter didn't even get within diving range of an easy ground ball hit by the opposition's slowest runner, Frank Thomas. A second hit came with Alex Rodriguez and Jeter both cheating toward the right side of the infield against Lyle Overbay, who hit a soft grounder near the third-base line. Those two defensive lapses would prove costly as Thomas eventually came around to score the Jays' first run. The Jays' defense, not quite as good as it would be if John MacDonald were starting at short and Scott Rolen was back from the DL, gave back the run in the seventh, muffing two potential double play grounders in the inning and allowing the go-ahead run to score.
  • Both teams come into 2008 looking for more out of their center fielders. Vernon Wells was signed to a seven-year extension after the 2006 season, and was a giant disappointment in 2007. In Wells' previous disappointing seasons, he maintained an isolated power of about .200; in 2007 that figure dipped to .157. His 2008 started out on the rough side, with an 0-for-3 against Wang and Joba Chamberlain after Robinson Cano robbed him of a line drive hit in the first inning. He also misjudged a Johnny Damon liner for a leadoff triple in the bottom of the eighth, although lefty Scott Downs was able to pitch out of the jam. For the Jays to contend, Wells must bounce back.
  • The Yanks' center fielder, Melky Cabrera, doesn't face the middle-of-the-lineup expectations Wells is saddled with, but still needs to improve on his streaky 2007 performance. Cabrera was in the news during the offseason as part of the rumored package for Johan Santana, and those who were in favor of the trade thought the Twins might be overrating a player who was considered to have too little range to play center and not enough bat to hold down an outfield corner. Last season, Cabrera showed that he belonged in center, posting a Rate2 of 112, a conclusion that seems to be confirmed by the zone-based statistics and by the two highlight-reel plays he made in the fourth inning. Cabrera's bat doesn't inspire the same confidence, regardless of his sixth-inning home run. Even batting ninth, Cabrera will need to show improved secondary skills to back his batting average.
  • While we spent the lead-up to the game obsessed with lasts, the hidden story of the game is a first: as in, the first game of the post-Joe Torre era. There's no telling, based on the opener, what Joe Girardi's managerial Chernoff face would look like. The Yankee roster actually doesn't give him many options for his position players. For example, there are times late in a game when you might want to pinch hit for Johnny Damon or Bobby Abreu against a tough lefty...but then you have to consider that the next best outfielder on the roster, Hideki Matsui, is the team's DH, and the next one after that, Shelley Duncan, is pretty much a first baseman.
  • Girardi also didn't bring in a defensive substitute for Jason Giambi in the late innings of a one-run game. In Giambi's defense, he did make a nice grab on a liner and a couple of decent scoops at first; however, his throwing remains as unnatural as Chuck Knoblauch's. Given that this is a contract year for Giambi, he's highly motivated to boost his value in any way possible, including by proving his glovework. It's Girardi's job, however, to keep that exercise in resume-building from hurting the ballclub. With Mariano Rivera nailing down a 3-2 win in Yankee Stadium's final opener, nobody's complaining about Giambi's defense. Yet.

Derek Jacques is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Derek's other articles. You can contact Derek by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Yankee Stadium,  Yankees Fans

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