Thursday, September 6, 2012

Yankee Stadium Doesn’t Exist Anymore

by G. Jack Urso



Yankee Stadium doesn’t exist anymore. Yes, I know, there is a building where a baseball team called “the Yankees” play, but there was only one Yankee Stadium and it is a quickly fading memory that resides only in the minds of those who have been there. It is a reality only for those of us who have sat in the narrow seats and felt the sticky beer and soda-stained floor under our feet. We purchased this right after countless innings riding waves of emotion from the depths of boredom and despair to the very heights of human possibility.

It is a world known only to those of us who have walked on the grass of the outfield or kicked the dirt of the infield off our shoes. No matter what ESPN, the Steinbrenner family, or the facts will tell you, Yankee Stadium exists only as a phantasm in the collective memory of a rapidly diminishing number of humans.

1977

I visited the “House that Ruth Built” only twice in my life. The first time came during the 1977 season when I was a boy scout with Troop 2 in Albany, NY. The scoutmaster, Mr. Conklin, organized a trip to Yankee Stadium to see the Bronx Bombers play the Orioles. This was the one and only professional baseball game I ever saw in my life. A couple of us won a spot in Conk’s groovin’ 70’s-era Camaro. The smell of puke from the Pelton twins who got carsick the summer before never quite went away (they did everything together, including barfing), but that was of little concern to us. Surprisingly, 12 and 13 year old boys have an amazingly high tolerance for vomit.

We were young, in a sports car, and on our way to see the Yankees play the Orioles. The wallets we made at summer camp were filled with money saved up from paper routes, lawn mowing, and allowances. It was 1977 and I don’t think I was ever as young in my life as I was that day.

I have no memory of the trip down or of New York City itself. What I do remember, however, is arriving at the stadium and seeing more people packed in one place then I had ever seen before. We were seated behind the right outfield. For some reason, which I still don’t quite understand, Reggie Jackson, who played right outfield, seemed to be completely reviled by most of the fans. Being young and caught up in the excitement, we therefore hated Reggie Jackson too. Over the course of several innings, the right field section poured a cascade of paper cups, ballpark food, and just about anything that wasn’t nailed down at him.

After a couple innings of such abuse, Jackson came out to play right field wearing his batting helmet, not his cap. Vindicated in making a great athlete bow to our mass temper tantrum, we eventually gave up, got tired, or ran out of ammunition.
A ticket to a 1977 Yankees-Orioles game at Yankee Stadium.
Source: www.ticketstubcollection.com.
I forget who won the game, but I remember that my friends and I bought souvenir Orioles baseball helmets because we liked the colors better than the Yankees’. Such is the fickle nature of fandom for 12 year olds.

1987

Ten years later, in the summer of 1987, I was an intern at a PBS station in Albany, New York. I was assigned to a production crew for a state-wide political show, Inside Albany, which was exactly as exciting it sounds. I spent the summer hoisting a sound boom within inches of then-Governor Mario Cuomo’s big nose, jostling with other interns and grizzled old reporters for a few seconds of good film to justify our existence and student loan debt.

Not without surprise, there often was not very much going on in Albany, so the crew and I would be lent out for other production duties. One such task was a series of public service announcements that we were to film in Yankee Stadium, featuring some Yankee ballplayers themselves.

In the ten years previous, I had since lost whatever juvenile interest in sports I once had. It wasn’t that I outgrew baseball, I just was never really into any sports at all. I collected baseball cards for the gum. I played on baseball teams because I wanted the t-shirt and hat and my parents would give me money to buy a hamburger and freeze pops at every game.

Needless to say, my commitment to baseball was of an ephemeral nature.

Gary, Inside Albany’s director, asked me to join him for trip down to the stadium. Any other intern would have leaped at the chance, but I hedged. We had to leave about four in the morning and there are few things in the world I want to get up that early for, then or now. Plus, there was the prospect of spending all day with Gary’s cameraman Mike, who had a propensity to torture interns with over-technical explanations of even the simplest tasks, such as wrapping a cord (“No! No! Do it THIS way!”).

Still, a chance to get out of the production studio for the day was tempting. Also, as Gary pointed out, I could have something else to write about in my internship report other than “spent another day sitting on my ass.”

It Was Only Yesterday

We arrived in New York City early in the morning, June or July 1987. I saw the newly restored Statue of Liberty with its golden torch. A gaggle of prostitutes loitered outside an abandoned building even though it was still not quite eight o'clock.

“Early bird gets the worm,” I mused aloud.

“They’ve probably been there all night,” Gary said, chuckling as we checked them out.

A tall blond in a black mini-skirt and white halter top eyed us as we waited at the light. Three public television video geeks in a sensible, economy-sized car, there was no point in her even chatting us up. Commercial TV…now those guys have cash.

We pulled into the stadium parking lot. After unloading several large black equipment boxes, we met a public relations man waiting for us out front. There was no game scheduled that day, so the place looked empty.

“This time of day there’s almost no one around,” the PR guy said.

He led us through a series of dimly lit corridors deeper into the bowels of the stadium until we emerged behind and to the right of home plate. We walked onto the field and over towards the Yankees’ dugout along the first base line.

Entering Yankee Stadium was like walking into a verdant pocket dimension in the middle of a concrete universe. The high walls acted like a sound-break, damping down the chaos outside from leaking in. I remembered my first visit in 1977 and how loud the crowd sounded. It is impossible to imagine Yankee Stadium quiet unless you actually experienced it yourself.

Mike and I set up the equipment along the first base line while the PR guy told Gary what he should shoot and to keep it quick since the “guys” were here on their day off. The “guys” were Yankees Don Mattingly, Bobby Meacham, and Mike Easler.

My 1987 internship report,
prepared on a typewriter.
I had no idea who they were and the only reason why I recall them now is that I kept my internship report from 25 years ago. I understand Don Mattingly did quite well for himself, but the main thing I remember is Mike Easler’s arms – they were frickin’ huge, particularly his forearms, which seemed almost as large as one of my legs.

Once the equipment was set up, Gary, Mike, and the PR guy disappeared into the dugout and down the corridor leading to the locker room to meet the players. Gary said it would speed things up if they could discuss the spots with the players while they were suiting up. I suspect Gary just wanted to be able to say he was inside the Yankees’ locker room, but in the interest of getting the players in and out as quickly as possible, the PR guy agreed.

Any hope I may have had of entering the Yankee man-cave was quickly dashed. Mike told me to make myself useful and keep an eye on the equipment. I looked around at a virtually empty stadium. The first base line in a nearly deserted Yankee Stadium at this hour of the morning was probably the safest place in New York City.

Nearly deserted the thought lingered in my mind as I silently fumed over being stuck as a watchdog for the lights and camera. Then, as I turned around and scanned the field and seats it occurred to me that Yankee Stadium was not just nearly deserted, it was completely deserted. No janitors cleaning the seats, no groundskeepers grooming the field, no technicians setting up equipment in the booths. I was completely and totally alone inside Yankee Stadium.

It. Was. Awesome.

As I stood alongside the first base line near the dugout, I realized Babe Ruth must have stood here. Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle warmed up here, right here where I was standing. I looked out onto the field were a dying Lou Gehrig told the world he was “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Presidents, pop stars, actors, astronauts, and war heroes came here. Lovers met, proposed marriage, brought their children, and grandchildren here.

I looked over to the seats behind the right outfield where I sat ten years before. I imagined that somewhere in space and time it was still 1977, I was still at the game, and Reggie Jackson was still getting hit with food.

I resisted the temptation to run around the bases; my large feet would leave prints the size of a juvenile Sasquatch in the neatly groomed infield. I did go and stand behind home base and walk along the grass into the right outfield, trying to put myself in Reggie Jackson’s shoes. Imagining myself standing where he was, only with tens of thousands of angry fans, gave me new respect for Mr. October.

After about ten minutes of silent revelry, Gary, Mike, the PR guy, and the three Yankees trotted onto the field.  Each player cut a couple takes, and then we packed up our equipment and quickly departed. Altogether, I doubt we were there much more than an hour.

Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio
at Yankee Stadium in 1961.
Photo by Lee Lockwood.
We can still go to the Roman Colosseum; though nearly 2,000 years old, and stripped down to the bones, we can still go there. We can see the spot where emperors once sat and decided life or death. Yankee Stadium, by contrast, lasted just 85 years, and the only things that died there were hitting streaks, pennant dreams, and George Steinbrenner’s easy-going nature.

The Yankee Stadium I knew is gone. The Yankee Stadium Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Mickey Mantle knew is gone. No one can point out the spot where Joe Louis pummeled Max Schmeling in 1938 or where Joltin’ Joe and Marilyn Monroe sat together in 1961…or where I once sat and pelted Reggie Jackson with food for three innings in 1977. It’s as far away as being 12 years old. 

Perhaps, it’s just as well. After all, Yankee Stadium doesn’t exist anymore.
 
 

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