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April 3, 2009
Out at the Ballpark
A Visit to the New Yankee Stadium
The new Yankee Stadium is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean... But I'm getting ahead of myself here.
The Yankees officially open their new $1.3 billion-or-so digs tonight, with the first of a two-game exhibition series against the Cubs (weather permitting), but yesterday 15,000 fans and curious onlookers got a peek inside the gates courtesy of the team, which handed out tickets to an open batting practice via the Bronx's community boards. (This was part of the team's "community benefits" strategy, launched to distract the locals from the fact that they were building their new home on top of a public park.) Since I work part-time in the Bronx and have friends there, I was able to tag along and see what we got for our $1.2 billion public subsidy.
Needless to say, and given what I've written in the past, I was a little apprehensive about seeing the new venue in person. Would it still feel like the place where I've seen close to 500 games? Were the cheap seats as bad as everyone feared? Would "Welcome to the Jungle" be replaced by "Puttin' on the Ritz"?
First of all, let's dispense with the stats- and fantasy-related elements of Yankee Stadium, Mark II. The field has the same dimensions as the old stadium-"old" here referring to the House That Ruth Built in its final incarnation, as the fences that were moved in for Jack Clark in 1988 are now set in concrete-so it should play roughly the same. The grandstand is rotated a bit more toward the north, so center field may be more of the sun field; the new open concourses will probably do away with the swirling winds you used to see at the old place, as the wind will blow through, rather than around, the grandstand; foul territory is dramatically reduced to get those $350-and-up front-row customers closer to Andy Pettitte's sweat glands; the corners jutting out down the lines seem slightly less prominent, possibly leading to fewer cheap doubles; and so on, but none of this should significantly affect gameplay.
Apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, what about the stadium? There have been billions of pixels spilled of late about the "grandeur" of the new place, with its Hard Rock Cafe and sushi concession; so much so, in fact, that I half-expected to find myself in a Vegas version of the old stadium, with staircases of polished marble and ushers wearing cummerbunds. Once inside, though, and past the dramatic Great Hall that serves no apparent purpose other than to prolong the walk to your seats and provide a place to hang banners of Yankee greats (not to mention blast Guns 'n Roses at even louder volumes than outdoors in the seating section), the new Yankee Stadium is, well... a bit drab. "Underwhelming" is the word that my Bronx friend used, though his impression could have been colored by the fact that we were watching a Yankee employee sweep a two-inch-deep puddle of water into a poorly placed drain.
The Yankees actually did a better job than I expected of imitating the feel of the old stadium. There's the same broad sweep of blue, a darker near-navy in the new place, and the new grandstand is the same general shape as the old. Don't look too closely, and you could mistake your surroundings for a radically renovated version of the Yanks' ancestral home. And yet...
A story is in order here. A few years ago, when it still seemed as if the old stadium might live on indefinitely, a friend of mine from Boston came down to see a game, since she'd never been. She walked up the ramp, got her first look around, and stopped. "Oh," she said. "This is nice." She'd been mentally girding herself for the shock of a mammoth edifice compared to Fenway, she explained, but Yankee Stadium felt relatively human-scaled despite its 57,000 seats.
I'm guessing that she would not say that at the New Stadium. The differences may be subtle-a deck lifted skyward a few feet here, pushed back a couple dozen there-but the overall effect is of a more imposing structure, without any of the close-stacked feel that made the old stadium more intimate, despite having nearly 5,000 more seats. Where in the old park it was perfectly reasonable to prefer the front of the upper deck to the back of the lower, no one will make that mistake here; the $70 "Terrace" seats at the front of the new upper deck feel as far away from the action as the $25 reserved seats were across the street, and the new cheap seats at the stadium's top are as bad if not worse than the last row at the old place (sorry, Jay). As at many of the new stadiums, the class segregation here feels both deliberate and complete-only further compounded by the obstructed-view bleacher seats (the TV screens set up as a belated fix, I found yesterday, didn't help much), by the team's decision to exclude cheap-seats denizens from even eating at field-level concessions stands, and by a sunken walkway behind the "Legends" seats at the field's edge that gives the odd impression that the Yankees have surrounded their highest-priced seats with a moat.
While the seating feels only moderately ginormous, the stadium's interior is super-sized in every way. There are food stands everywhere you turn (with similarly grandiose price tags; it will be interesting to see whether $9 beers, $5 slices of pizza, and $12 "souvenir buckets" of popcorn provoke sticker shock in this economy), and broad corridors that, for the first time, have an open view of the stadium interior. (Forget about watching the game from the hot-dog line under real game conditions, though; even with only 10,000 or so fans milling about, it was still impossible to get more than a glimpse of the field.) There's the Great Hall, there are broad ramps for entry and egress, and there are more branded cafes and restaurants than you can shake a stick at: the Yankees Hard Rock Cafe, the Mohegan Sun Sports Bar (in the center-field batters' eye, looming over the relocated Monument Park and blocking those bleacher views), the Audi Yankees Club. The feeling of immensity is only heightened by the fact that it's absolutely impossible to find your way around the place without getting lost in a maze of kettle corn stands and dead-end stairways; I wasn't able to figure out whether this was an intentional "dazed customers make better consumers" department-store trick or mere incompetence, though a sign marked "This stairway to bleachers" when I was already standing in the bleachers mitigates toward the latter.
I realize, by the way, that I've neglected to mention the true star of the show. In dead-center field, dwarfing even the Mohegan Sun Sports Bar, is the new scoreboard. That word, though, doesn't do justice to the awesome might of this video screen: 100 yards long and 10,000 feet high (all measurements approximate), it delivers images in such crystal-clear high-def perfection that I quite literally found it hard to focus my attention on the field when I could watch on the screen. Whether you think that's a good thing or a bad one-come to the ballpark, the view is just as good as in your living room!-is a matter of taste, but suffice to say that, like the sliding roof at Safeco Field, the center of attention at new Yankee Stadium is likely to be a piece of technology, at least until fans grow jaded by the fact that it's only in 2-D.
What's missing in all of this, meanwhile, is even an iota of charm. While most new stadiums have had nods to the retro and the quirky (some more gratuitously than others), the Yankees seem to have missed the memo-any genuinely interesting quirks of the old stadium's architecture have been rounded off, and even the cinderblock-and-painted-aluminum interior is strangely generic considering the sky-high price tag. As much as it felt like Yankee Stadium at times, at others it felt a little like being in US Cellular Field, a little like Comerica Park, and a bit like nowhere at all in particular. One bleacher regular arrived at the new park yesterday and immediately remarked, "I feel like I'm on the road!"
Part of this, no doubt, is lack of history. The renovated stadium probably struck fans the same way in 1976, but a Chris Chambliss homer here and a Wade Boggs horseback ride there can do a lot to make a place feel like home. While the new place bulges with stuff to buy-some of it good stuff, including fresh fruit stands selling bananas and apples (for $1.50 apiece, a mere 500 percent markup from the "green cart" out on 161st Street)-it also feels lacking in character. The broader sweeps of the grandstand not only make the views worse (if less vertiginous), they eliminate what used to be the distinctive two-winged shape that helped the old structure feel more tightly enclosed. And whereas even at the post-renovation old stadium you could still squint and make out the tracks of history-Roger Maris' 61st landed there, though there were pillars then; that wall there in the Yankee bullpen is how deep "Death Valley" was when Mickey Rivers played here, and about the same as when Joe DiMaggio did, too-all of that was left across the street, and now we have only a faint imitation of a ballpark that was already a faint imitation of its 1923 original. Moving the famous stadium frieze back to the roof doesn't help much, as it only makes it more obvious that this is a plasticky replica of the copper original.
The new Yankee Stadium, in short, is a new stadium first, and a Yankees stadium second. And despite sharing a name and a few superficial details, it should not be confused with the Yankee Stadium across the street, which as of yesterday had a demolition fence beginning to go up around it, and two neat holes already punched in its outfield wall. Some of the change is good, some of it is bad, and much will be a matter of taste, but contrary to what Derek Jeter might think, the ghosts stopped here.