Friday, September 26, 2008

THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES


A couple of weeks ago, another in a long line of Meaningless Baseball Records was set when Derek Jeter passed Lou Gehrig in the non-category of Most Hits at Yankee Stadium. Never mind that Jeter still trails Gehrig in total career hits by over a hundred; the press, the fans, and even the players unleashed a chorus of hosannas that made the Bronx shake.

Of course, this is Yankee Stadium’s swan song, and any opportunity to heap encomia on the venerable arena (it opened in 1923, the first three-tiered ball park and the first to call itself a “stadium”) was not to be shunned. But from Queens, where Shea Stadium is also scheduled for demolition, nothing. Who has the most hits in Mets’ history? Does anyone know or care? It happens to be Ed Kranepool, who has probably never been mentioned in the same sentence with Jeter or the Iron Horse.

That’s part of the Yankee Stadium “mystique” that even visiting players acknowledge, the echo of baseball history that they experience either as a paralyzing burden or a spur to greatness. It’s much more than just a baseball park, of course. Three Popes have celebrated mass there; Gene Tunney, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson and Rocky Graziano all fought title bouts there; and both the New York Yankees and Giants football teams played there as well. But it never worked as a football stadium. The gridiron sat awkwardly in its peculiar dimensions, and nobody (I’m speaking from memory here) had a great view. It was indeed the House That Ruth Built, or at least, that was built for him: after the Yanks stole him from the Red Sox, flush with cash, they tailored their new home to his peculiar strengths. The result was as lopsided a baseball field as has ever been seen: the Babe was a dead-pull left-handed hitter, and the right-field stands stood only 295 feet from the plate – a pop fly by Ruthian standards. By contrast, left-center was an enormous poke – over 490 to deepest left center – and perhaps righty Joe DiMaggio’s career home-run stats are as impressive as Ruth’s when that’s taken into account. Fans used to entertain themselves in the off-season by speculating on what trading Joe D for lefty Ted Williams would have meant: Joe would have been bouncing balls off and swatting them over the Green Monster at Fenway, and Williams could have picked up where Ruth left off.

My first memory of Yankee Stadium (the old one, mind you, not the 1975 make-over) was sitting next to my father, watching a DiMaggio line drive split the outfielders for a double during his last season, 1951, against Boston. Later in the same game, Ted Williams defeated the Yanks’ defensive shift (pretty much the same as the one used against Giambi these days) by scorching the ball just inside the unguarded left-field foul line; I could see him laughing as he stood on second base, though Dad had to explain to me the subtleties of his gambit. Another vivid memory is of a game that my high-school baseball coach took the team to, in which Mickey Mantle, in the ninth inning, hit a two-hopper to the shortstop that lifted him off his feet and literally knocked him on his ass. Mantle, sensing an infield hit, turned on the speed and ten feet from the bag went down as if shot. To stunned silence, he curled into a ball and tumbled over and over, clutching his thigh. The play ended the game, with the Yankees losing, and the crowd filed out in silence, like mourners leaving the funeral chapel. That quadriceps pull was one in a long line of leg injuries that cost Mantle his speed and stability, and the chance to become the greatest outfielder in history.

Over the following decades, perversely, I seem to have attended more games at the stadium when the Yankees had lousy teams than when they were on top. In the early 60’s, all my friends were baseball crazed and we went all the time (with a student ID, it cost no more than a movie), and we got to watch Howard and Boyer and Kubek and a team that was always in contention. But after I was married, though I successfully made my wife a baseball fan, the roster had turned over: the big bopper of the early 70s was Curt Blefary (who?), and his supporting cast included the likes of Horace Clarke, Stan Bahnsen and Jerry Kelley. I remember us arriving there on a promotional day when anyone under 14 got in free. Nancy was 22, but we thought she could pass; she put her hair in a pony tail and untucked her blouse, bought one seat, and made it past the ticket-taker before a security guard gave her the fish-eye and sent us back to the box office. But we kept going to games, though the stadium was literally disintegrating around us: one night (it was a playoff game), a light mist was falling, and we thought we’d be OK because we were in the lower deck protected by the mezzanine, but the water was channeling down the rusting girders over us and splattering on our heads like a cold shower until we gave up and left in the fifth.

Still, win or lose, the park itself – particularly in the daytime – had grace and majesty, a dependable thrill whenever I emerged from the ramp into the sun and saw that distinctive columned fa├žade and that extraordinary curve (is there a mathematical name for it?) that enclosed two-thirds of the field. Anyone could have thought up Shea – just draw a circle, stick a diamond in it, and fill it with seats. Some of the newer parks like Camden Yards and Jacobs Field, at least on TV, look inviting and stylish. But none of them has the charisma of the ballpark in the Bronx.

Dave Anderson asked, in the Times last week, what’s the big deal about the Stadium closing? It’s not as if the team is moving to Los Angeles; they’ll be at the same subway stop, a few hundred yards away, in a new Yankee Stadium that will closely resemble the old one. Granted, Dave. But the idiosyncrasies will be gone. No more Monument Park right there on the field of play (everyone has seen film of Bobby Murcer trying to wedge himself between two stone slabs as he chases down a ball); no men’s rooms with long troughs for urinals; no more wooden seats, painted blue, with just the right curve for the spine. Instead, diminished capacity because of the sky boxes, huge price increases, and of course a very iffy team in the midst of a difficult transition. No longer will a rookie outfielder trot to his position in the first inning thinking, “I’m standing where Babe Ruth stood.” Instead, it will be more like “Right this minute, I might be the best right fielder who ever played here.”



Further reading: Harvey Frommer, Remembering Yankee Stadium: An Oral and Narrative History of ‘The House That Ruth Built.’