Welcome to Flashback Friday: Take Me Out to 34 Ballparks, a celebration, critique and countdown of every major league ballpark one baseball fan has been fortunate enough to visit in a lifetime of going to ballgames.
BALLPARK: Yankee Stadium (New)
HOME TEAM: New York Yankees
VISITED: June 30, 2009
CHRONOLOGY: 34th of 34
RANKING: 19th of 34
But it’s all right
’Cause we all need a place to call home
It’s all right
Yes, we all need a room of our own
They build it, I go. That’s the deal I have with MLB. I can’t always make it right away, but as Michael Jackson promised long ago, I’ll be there. It’s been the case since I looked longingly north to SkyDome, it was the case through the baseball construction boom of the ’90s and ’00s and it brought me all the way home to Citi Field in April 2009.
So yes, you build a ballpark, I’ll make an effort to stop by. There are some that have been out there a while now that I haven’t gotten around to, but that’s what the rest of life is for — for Safeco, for Comerica, for the one that’s gone up in Minneapolis and for whatever they get in Miami. I’m content to wait until someday to collect them all.
That was my thinking for the third iteration of Yankee Stadium, though I had a someday in mind: 2010. I had a streak of seeing at least one ballpark I hadn’t seen before per year, new or otherwise, dating back to a corporate junket to Busch Stadium in 1992. As you may have heard, a player on a streak has to respect the streak. The streak reached 18 consecutive years with the emergence of Citi Field as my recurring destination. In the era of the fiscally virtuous staycation, Yankee Stadium lurked as an ideal fit for this year.
Then Yankee Stadium jumped the line as one might expect Yankee Stadium would do.
Through professional channels, four tickets landed in the laps of my Mets fan friends Sharon and Kevin Chapman, pretty thorough ballpark chasers themselves. They make a point of seeing every stadium, field, park, yard, what have you usually almost immediately, and this one was inevitably next on their dance card. The tickets — spectacular, cushy, field level, behind home plate seats just behind those notorious “moat” seats you’ve seen empty and heard so much about — carried a face value of insane. The cost to them and their son Ross was mostly enduring the heebie-jeebies attached to going to a Yankees home game…plus parking and tolls, presumably.
The fourth ticket, they graciously posited, could be mine. It would mean limbo for my 2010 plans. It would mean, barring an unforeseen burst of travel, that the annual ballpark streak would end with 2009. It would mean obvious heebie-jeebies. But when was such an offer going to come my way again? From bona fide Mets fans, no less? You don’t get many seats priced like body parts just handed to you, and you don’t find too many friends quite like Sharon and Kevin.
So I said yes. The ticket for June 30 was in my hands in late April. Now and again over the next two months, I would take it out of its envelope and contemplate it. I’m going to Yankee Stadium. I said that half out of anticipation for the new ballpark experience and half out of dread for who plays there, who goes there and who knew what it would feel like to be so decisively out of my element?
My city was gone. That’s all I could think as I rode the D from 34th Street up to new Yankee Stadium. It might be 2009 above ground, but in my mind, down here, it’s somewhere between 1958 and 1961. There are no Giants. There are no Dodgers. There are not yet Mets. There are only Yankees. If I want to see a baseball game in New York, this is it. This is my option, singular.
To the left of me, Yankees fans. To the right of me, Yankees fans. All around me, save for a couple of stray Seattleites and one brave soul wearing a subtly stylized Mets cap, Yankees fans. And it’s not just that they’re all wearing Yankees stuff. It’s that they’re being Yankees fans. It’s palpable.
I want to see a baseball game in New York tonight, but not this badly.
My most comforting thought on this endless ride uptown is that it is not, in fact, 1958 to 1961. It is 2009. There are Mets. They’re not very good, but they exist, and for that I am moved— particularly by having recently read a wonderful book called Bottom of the Ninth by Michael Shapiro — to want to kiss Bill Shea.
Even though he is dead at the present time, I’m thinking, I want to thank him all over again. Bill Shea is the best friend I’ll ever have. Bill Shea is my sweetheart of sweethearts. Bill Shea did more to ensure my long-term happiness (even in 2009) than any individual I will ever personally know.
Bill Shea, I reminded myself on the D, kept me from having to do, as a matter of course, what I did one year ago. He kept me from going to Yankee Stadium on all but the most random, investigatory occasions.
If you’re a Mets fan who prays, keep the spirit Bill Shea in your prayers. Think the best thoughts possible for Bill Shea’s family. Go kiss the five parking lot markers that serve as evidence that Bill Shea did you the biggest favor of your life. Go inside Citi Field and kiss Shea Bridge. Kiss Citi Field while you’re at it — and the housing project that stands where the Polo Grounds sat and Ebbets Field Apartments, for that matter.
Kiss the National League logo. Kiss a National League All-Star next time you see one…I don’t care if he’s not a Met. I don’t care if he’s wrapped in a shirt that says Phillies or Braves or Marlins. Just be glad teams like those have a place in New York to wear their road grays on a regular basis. Kiss and thank your lucky stars that you have a place to boo them versus a home team to call your own. Kiss and thank your lucky stars that trips to Yankee Stadium never became your only option for baseball in New York.
When they built the new version of Yankee Stadium, I planned exactly one trip there: to see it, consider it and then get the hell away from it. Thanks to Sharon and Kevin, the trip came sooner than expected.
Now I don’t ever have to do it again, praise Bill Shea.
There was a time when Shea Stadium was the undisputed best ballpark in New York. That time was before Shea Stadium was built, before it was known as Shea Stadium. Shea Stadium, or whatever it was going to be called, was going to blow Yankee Stadium out of the water.
The Yankees knew it and the Yankees feared it. The Yankees did what they could to stop it.
In Bottom of the Ninth, Shapiro’s compelling account of Branch Rickey’s machinations to launch the Continental League, we meet the stadium in Flushing Meadows in all its paper glory. This facility looms as the linchpin of the next phase in baseball history. Mr. Rickey, with considerable assistance from Mr. Shea, is going to change the game with a third league. It’s going to put down stakes in seven cities that, as of 1958, are going unserviced by the majors and one — New York — that it can’t possibly thrive without.
New York in the Continental League means Queens…Flushing Meadows. That’s where the action will be come the 1960s and beyond. Ebbets Field is dead. The Polo Grounds is dying. Yankee Stadium is next on the obsolescence block. With the Dodgers and Giants gone, the Yankees have the city to themselves. They don’t want to give up exclusivity, not to a new league and certainly not to a new stadium that all agree will transcend any of the relics it is essentially replacing.
Nobody wanted another Yankee Stadium then. Nobody wanted the current Yankee Stadium then — certainly nobody who wasn’t already going to Yankee Stadium by 1957 was rushing to get there in 1958.
In one of the most oft-cited statistics of the second half of the twentieth century, Yankee home attendance dipped in the first year there was no competition for the baseball dollar in New York. When the Giants and Dodgers were still here, in ’57, the Yankees drew 1,497,134. When the two National League clubs were all gone, in ’58, the Yankees drew 1,428,438. They were coming off a third consecutive pennant, eight in the previous nine seasons and were headed for their seventh world title in ten years, yet the Yankees — the nation’s largest market to themselves for the first time — attracted 4.6% fewer guests for their product than they had the year before.
No wonder the Yankees feared competition in the city in a way they almost never had to in the standings. There wasn’t much built-in advantage to being the only show in town, not this town. Phillie attendance, according to Baseball Reference, jumped the year after the A’s moved to Kansas City. Cardinal attendance jumped the year after the St. Louis Browns became the Baltimore Orioles. Red Sox attendance sagged when the Braves bolted Boston for Milwaukee, though by 1952, the last season of the Boston Braves, it could be argued there weren’t many Brave souls to be harvested in Beantown (attendance: 281,278). Every market carries with it its own distinctions and New York’s was that it was objectively considered a National League town, with two distinct fan bases having supported two distinct National League franchises simultaneously for close to 70 years.
If New York couldn’t be a National League town, it could very well be a Continental League town. The American League team did not care for that possibility even though it’s not as if the Yankees were unpopular among their kind. They led the American League in attendance every year from 1949 through 1959. And, oft-cited statistic notwithstanding, they did reverse the dip from 1958 and increase their gate each of the next three seasons, culminating in 1,747,725 attending Yankee Stadium in 1961, the year of the great Maris and Mantle chase of the single-season home run record. The net Yankee attendance gain from 1957 — the last year in which there were three baseball teams in New York — to 1961 — the last year in which there was one baseball team in New York, was 250,591 attendees…or a shade less than 15% of the attendance the Giants and Dodgers totaled in 1957.
There’s no knowing how many former Giants and Dodger patrons accounted for the quarter-million people who went to Yankee Stadium in 1961 who weren’t there in 1957. But we can deduce that more than 85% of those who attended baseball games at the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field in their final Giant and Dodger seasons were never lured to Yankee Stadium across the four years when there was no other live major league baseball available in the City of New York. The Yankees would win a World Series in 1958, an American League championship in 1960 and another world title in 1961, yet potential new business stayed away in droves.
The last thing the Yankees wanted was somewhere else for those people to go.
Emerging from the D at 161st Street in the Bronx, a couple of blocks east of my destination, brought relief and rain. It was good to be out from under the streets, carried along with nothing but Yankees fans for company. It wasn’t so great that it was raining, but at least there were people up here who weren’t going to the Yankees game. People who lived here, people who worked here, people who sprang from heavy air to sell unmarked ponchos for far less than they’d cost inside the stadium. It somehow gave me some hope to which to cling vis-à-vis humanity. There would still be a world out here after the game.
The game would take a while to start given the rain, but that was all right. I wanted to see up close the exterior of this edifice, this Yankee Stadium that was supposed to out-Yankee Stadium the team’s previous renovated residence, recalling in full what it was like to see it circa 1923. My blog partner Jason had taken one look at the pictures of the soaring columns, the imperious stone and the two eagles flanking the gold letters spelling out the name of the place and immediately dubbed it Leni Riefenstahl Stadium.
Funny, but a little off in real life. Even as Yankee Stadium III attempted to restore the glory of Yankee Stadium I, it felt smaller than I imagined. It felt something close to human scale (albeit for humans with a pretty puffed up opinion of themselves). I didn’t feel I wandered into 1930s Germany or 1940s Bronx. It paid homage, but it was its own creation. It was too well done to be anything but new.
Following the surprisingly light security patdown — with no bags allowed, I stripped myself to my absolute essentials, which included a small radio so I could keep tabs on the Mets in Milwaukee — I saw the scale explode.
I encountered the Great Hall, a wide walkway whose purpose is just to be. It is filled with oversized tributes to great Yankees, plus retail. There’ll be more of both the further in you delve.
More is not hard to come by. If I admire anything immediately in this new Yankee Stadium it’s the “all in” ethos with which they’ve imbued it. In the summer of 2009, with the first half of the first season at Citi Field wrapped in a plain, brown wrapper, it’s appealing to see somebody step up and be who they are. Before beginning to cop to their identity crisis in August, the Mets’ new home could have been called Generica Park. Contrast that with new Yankee Stadium, the Yankee historical cues and the pervading sense of Yankeeness.
Oh, it gave me hives, but that’s what you’re supposed to feel at Yankee Stadium when the Yankees, per Austin Powers, aren’t your bag, baby.
Which you can’t carry inside either way. A bag, I mean. Good thing my hives were figurative, since Lanacane is one of the things I have stashed in my bag for emergencies.
The Yankees didn’t require an army of bloggers to remind them to restore their trademark facade. The Yankees didn’t have to take heat over not building a team museum at the same time they built their stadium. The Yankees didn’t forget to be obvious or even whimsical. One of my favorite pieces was the way the gigantic food court — a mess hall, really — was adorned by oversized pictures Yankee legends (aren’t they all Yankee legends — and isn’t everything there oversized?) digging in at the plate, so to speak. Yogi and his spaghetti; Reggie and his candy bar; the Mick and his chicken. Holy cow, as the Scooter might have said over a burger, that was clever.
Food was everywhere at Yankee Stadium. Because of the rain delay, the mess hall was jammed and the concessions were doing gangbusters business. I started with a deli sandwich from the Great Hall because it was the first thing I saw that didn’t have a line. I later tried a Japanese noodle bowl which wasn’t much more exotic than lo mein, but it was different for a ballpark. Even after a generation of ballparks that offer lots more than so-called traditional fare, Yankee Stadium broke all kinds of records for menus. It was like wandering the oversized Oceanside Nathan’s of my youth, back when they had all kinds of delicacies, including frog’s legs and chow mein on a bun. Those might have been the only two things you couldn’t eat at Yankee Stadium.
Plentiful (and pricey) food choices. Plentiful (and pricey) retail options. There was a store dedicated to selling fine art work bearing the Peter Max imprint. There was just so much to buy. Maybe it wasn’t Nathan’s in 1970. Maybe it was Roosevelt Field, the mall of my youth. After a while I began to wonder why they even bothered with a ballgame.
Oh yes, the game. The rain eventually let up and I eventually found Sharon, Kevin and Ross. Like I said, these were very special seats, the kind Yankees fans would have really enjoyed. We got a perverse thrill occupying them — plus we seemed to be in a row occupied mainly by visiting Mariners fans. Only problem was our wonderful seats were wet, but Kevin, ingenious sort he is, realized the Yankees had the foresight to help us out on that count.
“Will ya look at these rags they gave us to clean our seats?” he asked theatrically as he produced the giveaway Inaugural Season Yankee Stadium t-shirt (with a classy Supercuts logo printed on the back) we each received for being among the first 18,000 fans to enter the park. I wondered what I was going to do with mine. Kevin showed off the answer, gleefully wiping down our four seats with something he wouldn’t be caught dead wearing.
Y’know what he was wearing? A Seattle Pilots cap. He’s a native of Washington state who knows exactly how to dress for a Mariners game.
I’m not usually in the habit of offering hints and tips on what to do at a given ballpark. You can make your own discoveries and have your own experiences. But here’s one pointer I’ll gladly share:
You won’t be sorry if you go with Kevin Chapman.
Before the delayed game got underway, the Yankees had Mariano Rivera throw out the first pitch, the inverse of what he usually did (get it?). Rivera was being recognized for having earned his 500th save a couple of nights earlier at Citi Field. The crowd didn’t seem particularly uplifted that the Mets were his most recent victim. If we ever had anybody set a record during a Subway Series game, we’d petition the Mets to name a staircase for him. But Interleague was behind us now and we had ceased to exist in Yankees fans’ minds.
Just like 1958.
One more pregame ceremony involved some high school softball team from Connecticut that had apparently been screwed by league officials out of a playoff tournament. Brian Cashman, Fairfield County resident, had read of their plight and decided to make up for their disappointment by letting them stand next to Yankee players during the national anthem (standing next to Yankee players considered a prize, somehow). I’ve since read up on the girls’ case and there were indeed blown calls up and down the line, yet there was something loathsome about watching them rewarded for griping. Complain enough and you’ll be consoled handsomely, courtesy of the Yankees front office.
(And now, a year later, I wonder what Nelson Figueroa would have had to say to those “softball girls”.)
Once the game started, the consensus was this place was OK for ballgame watching, but it didn’t set any new standard for excellence. If you peered hard enough, beyond facades and pictures of championship teams in the concourses (and they’ve had a few) and the massive video board above the left field bleachers, there was something Natsy about Yankee Stadium — it wasn’t a whole lot different from Nationals Park. I had that sense at Citi Field in April and now I got it here. You could sell a lot of stuff and you could put up a lot of pictures, but when you got right down to it, there was a throbbing adequacy to Yankee Stadium. It was new, it was clean, it had ATMs…after a fashion, no matter how much pride and pinstripes one franchise can claim, all these new places — Nationals Park in 2008, the two New York parks in 2009 — seem to have their core come out of a kit.
I had no interest in what the Yankees and Mariners were doing on the field, so I took out my radio and listened to the Mets and Brewers (direct descendants of the Pilots, come to think of it). Best thing about Yankee Stadium: excellent WFAN reception. I excused myself for a few minutes to tour a bit more. Rode an escalator up a level to check out the museum. It was more impressive than the one the Mets had in 2009 because the Mets had none in 2009. Not as open and airy as the one the Mets would build in 2010. I did notice that within the Yankees Are Great timeline, the eras were described by player: The Babe Ruth, the Joe DiMaggio…and the most recent of them named for Derek Jeter. That was quite an admission, I thought. When his contract comes up, how can they possibly tell him he’s dispensable?
Though I had the swell field level view downstairs, I took a look at whatever tier was directly above. It was all right, kind of Mezzanine-ish in Shea terms but bigger and more modern and, of course, with more concessions. I lingered at a kiosk devoted to selling old Yankee junk — magazines, cards, whatever. It was leased to some outside dealer. Nice touch. I couldn’t imagine the Mets doing something similar and was disappointed to realize the Mets could give the Yankees a run for their paranoid money.
By 1964, Branch Rickey’s dream of a third league was long dead. Shapiro’s book makes the case it was a big mistake for baseball to let it die. Expansion made four markets happy quickly, but the Colt .45s, the Angels and the second edition of the Senators would have their novelty wear off and their competitive aspirations dulled before long. What Rickey wanted to do with the Continental League, the author argues, is exactly what the owners of the new American Football League accomplished. They started their own circuit, they nurtured champions among their new franchises and they attained parity with the old guard NFL within a decade of their founding, resulting in the merged powerhouse National Football League we know today. In the 1960s, with baseball losing its longstanding grip as “national pastime,” professional football’s ascension couldn’t be seen as anything but bad news for the summer game.
Nevertheless, things looked great in Queens once the third-year Mets moved into their permanent home. Sports Illustrated covered its debut approvingly.
Shea Stadium has 55,000 seats, and each one of them has an unobstructed view of the field, in sharp contrast to Yankee Stadium, with its broad girders and peculiar angles that in some places eliminate from sight wide areas of the playing field. The five levels of the new stadium are colored green, blue, orange, yellow and white. Tickets and escalators — yes, escalators — will be colored to correspond with the proper levels, so that no fan should lose his way.
Like most new stadiums, Shea has a special club for season box holders, equipped with a pair of fancy bars and a restaurant. There is also an extra-special hangout called the Combo Room with its own bar and escalator. But of more interest to the average Met fan will be the series of attractive concession stands serving decent food instead of the tired fare that New York sports crowds have been held captive by for so long.
Big, expensive scoreboards are nothing new these days, but Shea Stadium’s is something else again. On top of it is an 18-by-24-foot screen that could show movies when rain delays a game. It could also replay on video tape the home run that was hit just seconds before, plus a closeup view of the man who hit it.
Shea Stadium, as it came to be called, blew Yankee Stadium out of the water, aesthetically and popularly. The last pennant of the grand Yankee dynasty — their 29th in 44 years — was captured in 1964. Paid attendance at the original House That Ruth Built: 1,305,648. Paid attendance for the American League champions at state-of-the-art Shea Stadium for the 109-loss team that finished last in the National League: 1,732,597.
The Shea Stadium Mets of the National League would outdraw the Yankee Stadium Yankees of the American League every year from 1964 through 1973. Then the Mets would outdraw the Yankees during the two years they shared Shea. It would take a substantially reconfigured Yankee Stadium, a return to perennial contender status by the Yankees and a complete collapse by the Mets to reverse that trend from 1976 to 1983. Then the Mets got good and outdrew the Yankees annually from 1984 through 1992. The Mets have had their downs and ups since then while the Yankees have had an uninterrupted string of ups. They outdrew the Mets every single year from 1993 to 2008 when both played in comparably sized stadia. Now that the Yankees play in a stadium with a seating capacity approximately 10,000 greater than the Mets do, it will take utter Yankee failure combined with spectacular Met success to give the Mets an attendance edge.
But never forget, should you find yourself riding the uptown D on an exploratory mission, that:
1) Utter Met failure and spectacular Yankee success didn’t keep the Mets from outdrawing the Yankees by nearly 427,000 as soon as the Mets had their own ballpark.
2) Shea Stadium represented, by contemporary consensus, an immense improvement over the status quo that was Yankee Stadium.
3) Two National League teams could leave New York, but New Yorkers, given ample opportunity to choose differently, never left the National League.
None of us was going to stay in our great, shirt-dried seats for the full nine innings. The rain delay had made this a late evening and my friends had an early day the next day. I knew I preferred a relatively uncrowded subway ride downtown. Thus, after six or so innings, I thanked Sharon, Kevin and Ross for their hospitality, parted ways and clung to my radio en route to the 161st Street station. The Mets and Brewers played blissfully in my ears (if less so in real life), drowning out whatever I was leaving behind.
The Yankees would score their usual surfeit of runs after we exited and execute yet another successful comeback victory. It wasn’t all that loud in there during the early innings, though I’m sure it picked up later. The same could be said, I assume, as the Yankees got rolling toward October and November and their eventual 27th world championship. By the time they vanquished the Phillies in the World Series every Mets fan was just dying to see, perhaps the new place felt more like the old place. I wasn’t nostalgic for the renovated Yankee Stadium of 1976 to 2008. I felt isolated there in sellout crowds, but I figured I was supposed to. It wasn’t there for my enjoyment, definitely not once Bill Shea went to work.
Great Halls and mess halls and built-in propaganda and spectators-in-residence notwithstanding, the new Yankee Stadium didn’t feel totally offputting to me — not really, not the way its predecessor had, not the way the uptown D train did. Because I could be marginally psychically comfortable there for even six innings, I have to believe it wasn’t doing its job properly as of mid-season 2009. I imagine it’s gotten the hang of being Yankee Stadium somewhat more since then, so I’m very glad I got the opportunity to sample it while it was still finding its footing…even it means I don’t necessarily have a new ballpark to visit in 2010.
Oh well, I can always take always another trip to Citi Field — and thank Bill Shea that I can.