ARCHIVES: Ladies and gentlemen, your attention, please: This chapter is over

This pre-Franorama World post, about the final game at Yankee Stadium, is from my MySpace blog Sept. 21, 2008, 10:07 p.m. PDT:

Sports means a hell of a lot less to me as I approach middle age and shed the excess testosterone of youth. (Though I did yell like an idiot in January when the Giants upset the Packers, then the Patriots.)

But I’ve found myself watching ESPN much of the day, something I never do. Been glued to the set, watching the coverage of the final game at Yankee Stadium. (That is, unless the miracle of miracles happens — the Yanks win every game between now and next Sunday, and the Evil Empire, which clinched a tie for the wild card today, loses every game between tomorrow and then.) And I find myself feeling swirls of emotions right now, and even choked up at times, wondering just how I should feel.

I know, I know — it’s a fucking ballpark. It’s a decrepit hulk of concrete and steel with a questionable ’70s-style facelift that, like most ’70s architecture, looked a lot better then than it does now. And it’s in a grimy setting in the South Bronx, among the creaking No. 4 train and the bodegas and worn-looking cheap restaurants and souvenir stands. And I covered a couple games there against the White Sox in ’89 when I was still a sportswriter; no great world-class memories — just that the Saturday night game went til 12:30 despite the near-freezing rain because Steinbrenner said so, and the next day, a gorgeous Umbrella Day, was the day the Yanks traded Al Leiter to Toronto for Jesse Barfield. But no, it’s really not just a ballpark — it’s been indeed much more than that.

Background: I was born in Greenpoint, Brooklyn; my mother and her father were Yankee fans, her mother was a Giants fan, so they’d alternate between going to the Stadium and the Polo Grounds on Sundays. (They all hated the Dodgers.) I was born into the end of the dynasty — Mick, Maris, Whitey, Tommy Tresh, Bobby Richardson, Elston Howard, Luis Arroyo, Joe Pepitone. The age of Ballantine Beer and Yogi’s face on Yoo-Hoo bottles. My favorite Yankee in the lost years was Roy White. Then the resurgence in ’72 (Celerino Sanchez at third and Sparky Lyle coming out of the bullpen in the pinstriped Datsun), then the glory years — during which I wrote my first album review for my high school paper: on “NRBQ at Yankee Stadium.” Then, in the midst of the ’81 strike, I walked away from the Yankees because of Steinbrenner and his bullshit. Even rooted for the Indians from about ’85 (when I first covered their class AA team in Waterbury) through the ’94 strike … then came back, though to a lesser degree than childhood, because of Joe Torre and Derek Jeter — and because George publicly apologized to Yogi for screwing him over. I even got used to the pompous John Sterling and his “Yankees win! THEEEEEEEEEE Yankees win!”

I now live in California, a place that has considerably more Yankee-haters than New England. But whatever your religious affiliation, you need to acknowledge that the Stadium is America. The word bandied about most often this past week has been “cathedral” — and it is the high church of the sport and the home sweet home of the team that have best defined our country (the incursion of football notwithstanding). It’s also been the place where the greats of the game became icons and later honored ghosts (Gehrig, Ruth, Mantle, DiMaggio, Munson) … average men became heroes for a day (see Larsen, Don, and Boone, Aaron) … the civil rights movement moved forward one night (how many white people in a racially divided America rooted for a black man before Joe Louis knocked out Max Schmeling?) … a big-eared Italian guy from St. Louis became a folk hero by murdering the ball and the English language in equal measure … three popes consecrated the cathedral with Masses … New York gathered en masse for the first time after 9/11 … and, ironically, the place where football began its march toward replacing baseball as the national pastime, with the Baltimore Colts’ 1958 NFL title win over the Giants.

It was a place made possible by Babe Ruth — who transformed the game by the powers of his humongous personality and the murderous torque of his thin-handled, thick-barreled bat. He, in turn, was transformed into a worldwide icon who became the most famous person in America and took the game global. (Think of the Japanese fans he acquired on barnstorming tours — some of whom might have been become some of the same soldiers shouting “Fuck Babe Ruth!” as they launched their furious, desperate assaults on American troops in the Pacific.) But as Babe’s star set, the Stadium became the top banana — and the backdrop for sports history and Americana, sometimes one and the same.

It wasn’t just Ruth. Think of all the historical shorthand written here — the things we think of that we might recognize in a couple of words or numbers: 60 home runs … “Win one for the Gipper” … 2,130 straight games … “And Schmeling’s down!!!” … “the luckiest man on the face of the earth” … 56 games … “Back, back, back …” … “How about that!” … Casey … 5 straight World Series titles … Yogi … No. 7 … “Holy Cow!” (Rizzuto-style) … Sandy Amoros and Johnny Podres … Don Larsen … The Greatest Game Ever Played … 61* home runs … Bobbobbob Sheppardeppardeppard … Paul VI … George and Billy and Billy and Billy and Billy and Billy … Chris Chambliss … Mr. October … the two-strike clap (started when Guidry struck out 18 Angels) … Thurman … Murcer after the funeral … John Paul II … pine tar … Donnie Baseball … Joe …  125 wins … David Wells … David Cone … “Enter Sandman” … 9/11 … Mr. November … Pedro and Aaron Fucking Boone … the bloody sock … Benedict XVI …

And the word “cathedral” does fit in terms of size. Look — Wrigley is a ballpark, and a beautiful one. So is the place on Yawkey Way and Brookline Avenue, even if it has become a quasi-theme park called Fenwayland. Same goes for Camden Yards, the place that began the modern ballpark architectural movement. Phone-Company-of-the-Month Park at 24 Willie Mays Plaza is the most beautiful place in baseball (especially from the overhang in right field — the panoramic shot of the Bay Bridge behind the Coke bottle in left, McCovey Cove to your right), and its near-clone in Pittsburgh is gorgeous, too.

But this was a stadium, and when I walked in, it made me feel as if I should take my hat off — unless it had the Tiffany-interlocking NY on the front, of course. After watching so many games on small, snowy, black-and-white screens the first 18 years of my life, the first time I entered the place and looked out through the portal onto the field, the first sight I took in was the massive corner of the right-field upper deck, with the giant scoreboard as a backdrop. I just wasn’t prepared for the proportions. I felt like a tourist from Lilliput. This was THE STADIUM. It wasn’t even St. Patrick’s — it was the Vatican of baseball (and, in the early days of Steinbrenner, with seemingly every bit as much backstage drama and political intrigue as the Catholic Church, only less secretive).

So interestingly enough, my first two visits to the stadium turned out to be spiritual in nature. The first was Aug. 3, 1979. My father won tickets and a bus trip from our bank, and all week long, the image running through my head was Munson springing up and throwing out a baserunner. Thursday, the afternoon before, I was working in the deli up the street from me when the radio announcer broke in: “The captain of the New York Yankees, Thurman Munson, was killed in a plane crash this afternoon …” Needless to say, the atmosphere on the bus headed down to the Stadium from Waterbury the next night was muted and as weird as the drizzly atmosphere. The players took the field as we watched from the upper deck on the first base side — except Jerry Narron, suddenly the starting catcher, who hung back and left home plate empty, riderless-horse style. Then Bob Sheppard took the mic, asked for a moment of silence … and then Thurman’s face was beamed on the scoreboard. The place erupted. And none of us would stop. We were up on our feet screaming, yelling, eyes watering. They said the ovation lasted eight minutes; it felt like 20. All the while the players’ backs were turned to us, facing the scoreboard; with all his history with Thurman, I kept wondering what was going through Reggie’s head. Luis Tiant then went out and threw a two-hitter. Unfortunately, one of the hits was a line-drive homer to left-center in the fourth by John Lowenstein. Orioles 1, Yankees 0. I never forgave Lowenstein for that.

Two months minus a day later, I came back to the Stadium for a second visit. This time, the mood was much brighter and much more electric. It was John Paul II’s first big Mass in America. I was still a churchgoing Catholic at the time, a freshman in college, and our chapel was given tickets to the Mass. So we made our way from Long Island to the Stadium, and as loud as the applause was for Thurman on a drizzly night in a half-filled Stadium, it was much longer and louder for the first Polish pontiff on a beautiful night at a packed Stadium. I can’t remember what he said that night — don’t really care to at this point. given the direction in which he steered the Catholic corporation — but I did get to experience, as I did with Munson, just how electric the place could be for the right person. It was a sensation I would vicariously experience through my TV many times during the Torre years, especially in October, when Jeter or Brosius — or Boone — would come up with those incredible home runs.

Anyway, after my first two visits, I never did have any other magical, or even memorable, moments at the Stadium. Saw a couple of Old Timers’ Days there (thanks to Ruth Friedler), saw Reggie get his Monument Park plaque in ’03, but mostly it was a string of losses to the Sox. The last was Aug. 26, while home for vacation. My pal John Carr invited me to come to the game, as his wife couldn’t make it — the first game of the final series at the Stadium with Boston. Wakefield vs. Pettitte. Back of the loge on the third-base side. Pettitte threw about 120 pitches in five innings, Johnny Damon lined two home runs into the right corner, and A-Rod grounded into two double plays and struck out twice, including the game-ender. Sox 7, Yanks 3. But the best part of the game might have been going down to the west edge of Harlem beforehand for dinner at Dinosaur BBQ. Given the outcome, it was well worth missing the first inning.

The BBQ place will probably be there next spring, but the dinosaur at 161st Street and River Avenue won’t be. (That is, unless the Thomas Edison-formulated concrete refuses to yield; that place is gonna be a bitch to pull down, like a massive, healthy wisdom tooth.) Things change; I get it. The place needed replacing, and modern society doesn’t like to hold onto its Colosseums. But things will be fine in the new stadium — after all, London razed its cathedral to the world’s most popular sport, and I haven’t heard a complaint about the new, ultra-modern Wembley. What disturbs me about the new place is that the old Stadium was a monument to grandiosity, expanded over time to accommodate more fans (even if the field size shrank). The new place will seat fewer fans at a time when the team could — should — have expanded. It seems to reflect a time of more luxury suites but diminished expectations.

But that’s for us to yak about more next spring. The closing of the original Yankee Stadium closes the first chapter of my life. Part of the child inside of me gets locked away in the treasure box with my boyhood. The emotion is spent. It’s time to move on to other things …

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2 Responses to “ARCHIVES: Ladies and gentlemen, your attention, please: This chapter is over”

  1. Murad Says:

    God Bless Bob Sheppard. There will never be another one like you! thanks for the memories and all the great moments at the real Yankee Stadium. : http://electricitymonitorblog.com

  2. Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please: A moment of silence (Bob Sheppard, 1910-2010) « Franorama World Says:

    […] by a bronchial infection. He didn’t feel strong enough to return in 2008, and that included the original Stadium finale, Sept. 21, 2008, but he did record the Yankees’ starting lineup to be announced one final […]

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