Welcome back to Prospectus Game of the Week. One of my regrets in writing the column last year was that I didn’t get to cover games live from the ballpark, instead relying on television and Internet broadcasts. Things get off on a different foot in 2007, as I started the season at Yankee Stadium for some Opening Day action against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
Ever since they broke ground on the new Yankee Stadium-which is scheduled to open in April 2009-baseball fans have mentioned their desire to make a trip out to the old cathedral of baseball before its demise in two years. For those people, we’ll start with a few guidelines for enjoying your Yankee Stadium experience.
First and foremost, driving to the Stadium is a losing proposition. Parking is expensive, and traffic’s a night terror, which my friends in the medical business tell me is what you call a dream that’s worse than a nightmare. Locals in the know use the quickest, most cost-effective transport option-the subway. Two separate subway lines will take you to Yankee Stadium’s doorstep; for aesthetic purposes, the preferred route is the IRT #4 line, which becomes an elevated train just as it approaches the Stadium, giving you a preliminary glimpse inside the alabaster-white structure as you roll into the station. While entering the station you also get a good look at the backside of the frieze (what most people call the façade) that the Yankees put atop their outfield wall after the Stadium’s 1976 renovation. Sometimes-when a VIP is going to throw out the first pitch, for example-you can see snipers and spotters set up behind the frieze as you pull into the Yankee Stadium station. Which is creepy, but kind of cool, in a The Last Boy Scout kind of way.
Exiting the station brought to mind the second guideline for going to Yankee Stadium: if it’s a “premium” game-Opening Day, Old Timer’s Day, a weekend game against a contender, or any matchup against the Red Sox or Mets-be very, very early. More than a half-hour before first pitch, the entire area around Yankee Stadium was a sea of humanity. The Yankees drew over four million paying customers in 2006, and apparently, all of them spontaneously decided to hang out on the corner of River Avenue and 161st Street just before Opening Day 2007.
My brother and I waded through the throng to get into position to enter the ballpark. This process involved being shuttled from one fenced-off corral to another, terminating in a choke point where a highly trained member of the Yankees security team ordered us to take off our caps and show them our cell phones. What exactly they could ascertain about a person from their cap and cell phone, we weren’t quite certain, but it was a relief to be allowed into the ballpark, just in time for the announcement of the Yankees’ roster.
Inside, Yankee Stadium was buzzing with the giddy excitement of Opening Day. As the Yankee roster was announced, from Team Massage Therapist straight through to the starting lineup, the loudest cheer wasn’t for MVP runner-up Derek Jeter or closer Mariano Rivera, or even for the Yankees’ revered coaches, Ron Guidry and Don Mattingly-it was for the return of starter Andy Pettitte from a three-year sojourn in the National League. The same nostalgic sentiment could be heard after the right field bleacher fans completed their roll call in the top of the first inning. After they chanted the name of each Yankee on the field, waiting for the fielder to turn and acknowledge them before moving on to the next player-as is their habit during each home game-the bleacher section broke into a chant of “We Want Bernie!” Sadly, Bernie Williams was not in attendance to tip his cap to them-instead, he was still at home, waiting for the Yankees to realize that they can’t live without him. That could be a very long wait.
As for the game itself:
- I half expected Carl Pavano to be wheeled to the mound on a gurney with some sort of protective tent on it-you know, just to make sure he couldn’t get injured somewhere between the bullpen and the mound. As it turned out, Pavano did have an escort walking in from the bullpen, most likely pitching coach Guidry. For all the wrong reasons, it was expected that Pavano would never take to the mound at Yankee Stadium again-at least not to pitch for the home team. Regardless of Pavano’s effectiveness (or lack thereof), just the fact that he pitched on Opening Day was a major upset for some segment of the audience.
- Speaking of upsets, who had 1:16 PM ET in the pool on when Alex Rodriguez would start getting booed? With two outs and Cark Crawford on base in the first inning, Rodriguez had trouble seeing a foul pop-up off of the bat of first baseman Ty Wigginton. Rodriguez got a late break, then overran the ball for an error, and you’d have thought Project A13 never existed. Happy Opening Day, Alex!
- Twelve minutes later, it was Rodriguez at the plate with two men on and one out in the bottom of the first. As the count went full, a fan behind us hissed “If he strikes out looking here, he’s done. For the season, it’s over.” Again, this was inning one of game one. Fortunately for Rodriguez’s season, he struck out swinging rather than looking, flailing away at a low-90s fastball from Scott Kazmir. The runners eventually came around to score on a Jason Giambi single.
- A small contrast came the following half-inning, when Jeter skipped a throw past first baseman Josh Phelps to put Akinori Iwamura at second base, and later, when B.J. Upton snuck a grounder past the diving reigning Gold Glove shortstop. Unlike Rodriguez, Jeter’s errors cost the Yankees a run, but nobody thought to boo him.
- Iwamura was a bit of a surprise to see in person, looking David Eckstein-small and batting with a “running start” swing reminiscent of Ichiro Suzuki. Taking a disclaimer out of the Joe Sheehan manual, I’ll readily admit that I am not a scout, but it’s hard to envision a player with that frame and that swing hitting 35 home runs in any professional league. To his credit, Iwamura did show the goods in the field, playing a very aggressive third base.
- I wonder how many beat writers were writing up the story of Pavano’s inspirational return as the pitcher cruised through the first four innings, only to have to start over when the Rays pounced on him in the fifth. Elijah Dukes, considered by some a long shot to make the team out of Spring Training, started the damage with a line drive homer to center. The Rays would rattle off three more singles to send Pavano to the showers, wrapped around a bizarre play where shortstop Ben Zobrist stepped on home plate while attempting to drag a bunt.
- Even though the Rays rally quieted the Yankee Stadium crowd, the seeds of a comeback had already been sown in the first inning, when the Yankees made Kazmir throw 35 pitches. After five innings, Kazmir was nearing the 100-pitch mark, each pitch drawing the Yankees closer to Tampa Bay’s middle relief corps. With the exception of Robinson Cano, every man in the Yankee lineup is willing to take pitches, and that helps them churn through opposing starters.
- Yankee Rule 5 draftee Josh Phelps had a mixed Opening Day experience. He walked twice against Kazmir, but suffered on defense, making a throwing error during the Rays fifth-inning rally, and showing bad technique on a couple of low throws from Jeter. Still, when Joe Torre pinch-hit for Phelps with Doug Mientkiewicz against righthanded reliever Shawn Camp, with two on and no out in the sixth, Steve Goldman’s anguished cry was audible all the way from New Jersey. The best-case scenario for the Yankees with Phelps and Mienkiewicz is an offense/defense platoon, where Mientkiewicz starts behind the more groundball-prone members of the Yankee pitching staff, like Chien Ming Wang, regardless of what hand the opposing pitcher throws with. If it becomes a conventional lefty/righty platoon, Mientkiewicz would see more playing time than any Yankee fan has the stomach for. Luckily, in this instance Minky was only brought in to sacrifice, which he did successfully.
- In the late innings, after the game was tied, Alex Rodriguez took over, with a single and a stolen base to set up the go-ahead run in the seventh, and a massive two-run homer into the Yankee bullpen in the eighth. Even as Rodriguez took his curtain call for the home run, there were snorts of “Sure, now he hits one out” in my section. The talk around New York has been about how Rodriguez and Jeter need to deal with their issues about each other. Really, the people who need couples’ counseling aren’t Rodriguez and Jeter, but rather Rodriguez and Yankee fans, as a group. With all the off-days in April, someone should use Yankee Stadium as the site for group therapy session between Rodriguez and the fans, where everyone could talk about their feelings, engage in a cathartic group hug, that sort of stuff. You don’t think Dr. Phil would show up for that?
- Despite taking the Opening Day loss, the Rays don’t have much to hang their heads about. They got good hitting performances from B.J. Upton and Dukes, with Upton working to justify the team’s decision to send Jorge Cantu down to the minors, and Dukes making a nifty play in center field, where he helped double Melky Cabrera off of second base. Even without Yankee nemesis Jonny Gomes in the lineup, they scored five runs and sustained a good rally. This was definitely a game for them to build on.