Uncomfortable confession time: unlike just about all the big-time sports fans I know, I don’t have any real recollection of the first professional game I attended. I’ve tried everything short of hypnosis to recapture the memory-I’ve done memory exercises, scanned old papers, scoured Retrosheet like a man panning for gold-but every time I think that I have a finger on that first memory, I’ll find a contradiction that makes my recollection out to be a liar. I don’t remember who started, who won, who the opponent was, and I’ve come to doubt anything I speculated about the lineup or the roster.
The one memory that I have, clear and true, is of my very first reaction to the ballpark. I remember walking out of Yankee Stadium’s cavernous concourses, and out into the sunlight, and being absolutely shocked when I saw the playing field. All I could do was gawk at Yankee Stadium’s perfectly manicured turf. I’d seen this very field hundreds of times on television, but nothing had prepared me. I simply did not know that grass could be so green.
So when I heard that they were opening the Stadium early on its last day-1:00 p.m. for an 8:15 evening start-so that fans could visit Monument Park one last time, and walk on the field, it was a no-brainer. The idea of being able to set foot on the grass that had mesmerized me so many years before was irresistible. The only question, really, was whether or not I would be able to resist the temptation to take off my shoes.
Well, that, and would I be able to get in at all, because I arrived around the time that the gates were scheduled to open, and found a reasonably small crowd (by the standards of the 21st century Yankee Stadium) waiting in front of Gate 2, the gate that serves Monument Park. After dawdling a moment with the throng that had gathered around Harlan Chamberlain’s motorized scooter-Joba Chamberlain‘s dad was signing autographs and taking pictures with admirers in the plaza outside the Stadium-my brother and I queued up, behind a crowd of somewhere between 500 and 1,000 people. Once the gate opened, the line moved briskly-until it suddenly ground to a halt just as we reached the front. A woman with a bullhorn assured us that this was just a momentary delay, we’d start moving again shortly. She did this a few times over the course of the next hour, as we stood and waited for the gate to re-open.
As time passed fruitlessly, tempers flared. A man stepped out of line to address the security people and the crowd: “They’re letting people in at the other gates! Why are you lying to us! We deserve the truth!” Once upon a time, this type of rabble-rousing speech would have been enough to start a full-fledged riot at Yankee Stadium, the type where even now the fire department would still be putting out garbage fires and righting overturned cars. But the new breed of Yankee fan is a tamer, more civil animal; there was a grumbling of discontent in response, but not much else. Finally, another woman-this one sans bullhorn-announced that then security team had good news and bad news: “We’re gonna open the gate. But Monument Park is closed! Nunna you is gonna get in!”
Mind you, it had been announced that Monument Park would be open for another four hours, and that the field would be accessible for another two. Even stranger was the look the woman gave the crowd, as if she expected us all to pack up and walk away, and return at game time. At the front of the line, we couldn’t have walked away even if we had wanted to; the queue was now thousands of people strong, running all the way back to the subway station. There was nowhere to go but forward.
Once inside the ballpark we could see that the field access was a grand plan doomed by poor execution. There were a smattering of people on the field and in Monument Park, and they were pretty much milling about. No one seemed to be making an effort to move them along, and the security guys didn’t seem to give much direction, other than making sure everyone stayed on the warning track that wrapped around the field. Further up, there seemed to be two competing lines to enter Monument Park, colliding at an awful bottleneck and each moving at a glacial pace. One line of hopefuls snaked around the Stadium, up ramps where the people were packed in like cattle and around the upper deck concourse, three flights above ground level.
While I envied the fortunate few who got to walk on the Yankee Stadium field, the hours until game time were easy enough to kill. My brother and I roamed around the near-empty Stadium, stopping at all our old haunts, remembering the games we’d caught from those various perches, and taking pictures. Like everyone else-the people on the field, packed into the ramps, or running around the Stadium with cameras, like ourselves-we were trying to build memories of this place, and this moment. Memories so strong that they at least couldn’t be demolished.
On to the bullet points:
- No World Outside These Walls: One could easily have missed it, sitting inside the Stadium, but the Red Sox won in the afternoon, which meant that if the Orioles had won last night’s game, the Yankees‘ final game at the House that Ruth Built also would have eliminated them for the 2008 season. Strangely (and this could be my oversight, not theirs), I didn’t see the out-of-town scores displayed before or during the Sunday night game.
- Highlights: Outside of the game, the crowd’s two best moments were the extended ovation for Bernie Williams, returning to the Stadium for the first time since he and the Yankees parted ways two years ago, and the introduction of Willie Randolph. Randolph, who might’ve cracked a smile twice in his three and a half years as the Mets‘ manager, made a grand entrance by charging onto the field and diving spikes-first into second base. That looked like it was a lot more fun than answering questions about Billy Wagner.
- The Panda Strikes Again: After Jose Molina’s fourth-inning go-ahead home run, the scoreboard blared “The Panda Strikes Again!” It’s remarkable that they had something prepared for the occasion, given that the Panda in question trailed the team in VORP (11 runs below replacement) and was one of the worst players in the league at driving in runs (boasting the lowest OBI percentage of any player with more than 200 PA). It made me wonder: what other bizarre contingencies were the Yankee Stadium scoreboard operators prepared for? Jason Giambi hitting for the cycle? Carl Pavano leading the league in complete games? Kei Igawa tossing a no-hitter?
- You’d Think an Insurance Company Would Know How to Count: Another neat gimmick that fell short in the execution was the Yankee Stadium countdown clock, which I mentioned in my piece on the Yankee Stadium home opener. The idea was that in the fifth inning of each home game, once the game became “official” a special guest would turn a crank, and the number of games left at Yankee Stadium would be reduced by one on a special scoreboard. Throughout the season, people registered disappointment with this because the “special guests” were often not terribly special or particularly associated with Yankee baseball. Often the person turning the crank would be an obscure executive from Met Life, the promotion’s sponsor. In the middle of the fifth inning of Yankee Stadium’s last game, Yankees announcer Michael Kay shows up on the big screen, spouts some doubletalk about how there can be no final game at Yankee Stadium, because Yankee Stadium is forever, then he turns the crank, making the special countdown scoreboard go from one to-I kid you not-“Forever.” Two observations on this come to mind: first, thanks for the season-long voyage toward innumeracy, you’ve managed to make us all dumber; and second, with the Stadium packed with VIPs, at least a half-dozen of them Hall of Famers, Michael frickin’ Kay was the person selected to turn that crank? Really?