By Ben Kabak
I bounded up the stairs of the Yankee dugout on a sunny August afternoon to acknowledge the roaring crowd. I landed on the top step, turned around and saw an ocean of empty seas. Row upon row upon row of those familiar blue seats were staring back at me, waiting for the next home game.
For a minute, I almost knew what Derek Jeter feels like when he turns to wave at the crowd. From the top of the steps, I could see just the box seats just behind the dugout, and even that view sent shimmers down my spine.
But I’m not on the Yankees, never was and never will be. My Yankee curtain call was, instead, just a part of the tour at Yankee Stadium. In mid-August, with the Yanks out of town, my dad and I went on the tour at Yankee Stadium. This excursion wouldn’t be our final visit to the House that Ruth Built, but it was our gesture of saying good bye on our time. We weren’t deluged with constant scoreboard distractions, yet another playing of the Y.M.C.A. or some guy in a hat dancing to that seminal New York song Cotton-Eye Joe. Instead, we walked on the field, sat in the dugout and soaked in the aura and mystique of the stadium in Monument Park.
While I’ve been on the tour twice before, I didn’t truly appreciate it in 1994 as an 11-year-old and couldn’t enjoy it in 2000 as a camp counselor overseeing a bunch of rowdy 10-12-year-olds. This time, though, I experienced the tour as it was meant to be. When 11 a.m. in the Bronx rolls around, Yankee Stadium truly feels like a Cathedral. The stadium is populated only by the grounds crew tending to the field, a few security guards and other tour groups. The grounds echo with the spray of water on the field and the history of eighty five years. The empty stadium bare witness to thousands of games and players long lost to the annals of baseball history.
As we walked through the stadium and along the warning track out to Monument Park, I gazed around at the big bowl of Yankee Stadium, looking for spots that stuck out in mind. Derek Jeter leaped, in hot pursuit of a foul ball, leaped into the crowd over here in 2004. I gazed knowingly at the row of seats just beyond the left field wall where Chuck Knoblauch’s Game One home run in the 1998 World Series restored faith in the Bronx. I could still hear the roar of the crowd.
As we walked past the giant ads that now dot the outfield walls, my mind wandered back into my childhood. Once upon a time, the outfield walls at Yankee Stadium were blue all around. Once upon a time, I could show up to a 7 p.m. weeknight game and snare a Tier Reserve ticket behind the plate. Once upon a time, I thought the crowd in the Bronx was big when the stadium quiz revealed 31,000 fans, and I used to watch teenagers a few years older than I was sprint through the Upper Deck, racing for that foul ball amidst section after section of empty seats.
Gone are those simpler days of my youth. These days, the Yankees are a huge draw in New York City. The team enjoys unprecedented financial success, and the stadium is never empty. Heading up to the Bronx is no longer something you do on a summer night. It’s become an event, an experience. That is, after all, how the Yankees are branding their new stadium: Be a part of the New York Yankees Experience.
As I stood on the field in mid-August, saying something of a good bye to Yankee Stadium, I felt as though I were letting go of a part of my life. As I’ve grown up, nearly everything around me has changed. Schools, friends, women come and go, but Yankee Stadium in all its grandeur hasn’t changed since I was a three-year-old in 1986 heading off to my first games as a budding Yankee fan.
Over the years, I’ve seen the bad, the good, the highs, the lows. The stadium swayed under me when David Justice’s three-run home run in the seventh inning of Game Six of the 2000 ALCS delivered the Yankees a lead they would not relinquish. I felt a city starting to heal twelve months later as a trio of fighter jets flew over our heads shortly before the start of Game Three of the 2001 World Series. And I even remember a May afternoon in 1990 when Bo Jackson struck out four times and the Yanks won an extra-inning game. I begged and begged my dad to stay for the whole game, and to this day, we never leave early. day
I’ve seen the Yankees turn from a bumbling team in last place to a great dynasty to a group of overpaid superstars. I’ve seen the stadium go from 25,000 on a good night to 50,000 on a bad day.
As I grew up, Yankee Stadium remained an imperturbable constant. It was there, at the end of the 4 train, when, in 1993, one of my friends, a lifelong New Yorker at that, took his first on the subway to go to my tenth birthday party. It was there, still looking the same, thirteen years later, when I took my girlfriend on a tour of Monument Park for her first trip to the Bronx.
Yet, over the years, the experience has changed. No longer about the games, it’s about the Yankee Fan Marquee and the Dunkin’ Donuts Great City Subway Race. It’s about constant stimulation and distraction. For an hour in August, I felt the stadium return to its purer form when the game on the field was all that kept the crowd entertained.
When April rolls around, I’m sure the Yankee Stadium Experience will feel the same. The grounds crew will do the Y in the sixth inning. We’ll stand, reluctantly, for Kate Smith, and Bobby Darin, always a welcome voice, will greet our Sundays in New York. But while the Yankees will still play in a Yankee Stadium, that building won’t be the Yankee Stadium. To me, that will make all the difference.
Ben Kabak blogs about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.