By Jay Jaffe
The first time Alex asked me to jot down a few thoughts regarding my favorite Yankee Stadium memory for the purposes of this space several months back, a veritable flood of recollections washed over me, things I’d witnessed firsthand at the majestic ballpark over the past 13 years, from the historic to the mundane. Having spent the past eight seasons documenting my time at the ballpark via my Futility Infielder website, I scarcely needed to review my notes except to pluck a few dates for a quick laundry list of memories to share.
But a funny thing happened on the way to delivering this piece, namely the most disheartening season the Yankees have had in a decade and a half. Not only have the cracks in the facade of the team’s roster and player development system been exposed — inevitabilities in the life cycle of even the most championship-laden franchises — but we fans have been struck with reminders of the current stadium’s gradual devolution into a less-than-hospitable venue. The ridiculous sunscreen flap atop the long-settled, none-too-accommodating umbrella and backpack bans, the heavy-handed security forces and the odious and completely un-American "God Bless America" fiasco all serve as reminders of the Steinbrenner family’s overzealous, misguided strategy to maintain the stadium in a post-September 11 world. Furthermore, with a cry of "wait ’til next year" the inevitable outcome of this season of discontent, we’re left to an uncomfortable reckoning with the new ballpark, the ugly back story of its fuzzy math and the gross inflation that will price many of us longtime fans out of the cherished ritual of regular attendance.
Suffice it to say that — for this fan at least — there’s been a mounting pile of baggage blocking the entrance to what the great writer Roger Angell termed "The Interior Stadium", the grand ballpark where each fan has a season ticket to relive the indelible, treasured memories of what we’ve witnessed. A mounting pile, but weighed against the some 130 games I’ve attended at the House That Ruth Built, not an insurmountable one. So having scaled Mount Samsonite, I’m ready to hand over my ticket and commence playing ball.
In the course of attending all of those games at Yankee Stadium II, I’ve come to appreciate the park’s spartan pleasures. I love the way contains the famous reminders of its old history — Monument Park, the white frieze, the flagpole in what used to be the center field patrolled by DiMaggio and Mantle, with the park’s original dimensions preserved by the wall behind it, the black batter’s eye where only the chosen few have reached with their towering blasts — and the portents of its own obsolescence, the narrow concourses, meager amenities, and fatal lack of luxury boxes. As limiting as that latter set is, it’s also been part of the park’s charm, at least to me. If you go to Yankee Stadium, you’re there to see a ballgame, nothing more and nothing less. No fountains, waterfalls, kiddie pools, mascots, slides, or other diversions. Compared to the modern mallparks, the center field public address system is much less intrusive, even when the hated "Cotton-Eyed Joe" blares. What follows here is not one favorite memory of Yankee Stadium, but a subjective top 10 whose glaring omissions might have me rethinking this list the moment after it’s published:
10. My first trip to the ballpark back in 1996, an epic August afternoon where the Yankees and Mariners squared off in a slugfest that went 12 innings and lasted nearly five hours, finishing long after my brother, Bryan, and I had gone home. It was just my second trip to a big-league ballpark (Fenway had been my first back in 1989), and though there were "only" some 44,000 in attendance, the raucous crowd and grand scale of Yankee Stadium made for a sensory overload that overwhelmed me in the summer heat. This marked the beginning of a ritual Bryan and I developed of attending Yankees-Mariners games, one that lasted eight or years before he moved across the country… to Seattle.
9. The time my roommate, Issa, almost caught a foul ball at the Stadium in a game against the Mariners in 1999. Along with Bryan, he and I were sitting in the front row of the Tier Box on the third base side when switch-hitting David Segui came to bat. Batting left-handed, Segui fouled one off, and as I looked at the baseball spinning against the overcast sky, I judged a fly ball correctly for possibly the first time in my life. "That’s yours," I told Issa, who was on the aisle seat. He is a soccer player, with no baseball experience whatsoever. The ball indeed came right into his hands, but rather than cradling it, he lunged at it, knocking it over the railing. With a grimace and a shrug, he slumped back into his seat as what felt like the entire crowd of 41,000 fans showered him with boos.
8. My first postseason game at the Stadium in 1998, Game Two of the Division Series against the Rangers. Just before the I made my first and only trip to Monument Park, and the indelible mental snapshot that stands out over the brief glimpse of those legendary plaques was the massive mustache of Rangers’ pitching coach Dick Bosman sighted while I stood in a seemingly endless line. Bosman’s assemblage of hair made more sense adorning the upper lip of a bartender from some old Western than on a man whose livelihood required a summer of toil in the brutal Texas heat. Coupled with that is the memory of my first World Series game just a couple of weeks later, Game Two of the four-game sweep against the Padres — simply the giddy thrill of making it to the Fall Classic 21 years after watching my first World Series on TV.
7. The sweltering Sunday afternoon in the summer of 2000 when my friend Julie and I practically peed ourselves laughing at the sight of a young Hasidic Jewish man who somehow fell out of the stands, far enough down the left field line to where the wall starts to slant upwards, a good six or eight foot drop onto the field. Visibly dazed and confused, perhaps even with a broken arm, he was escorted off the premises. His pain was our comedic gain, an eternal reminder of the rough justice of the Bronx.
6. The night of August, 8, 2000, when Oakland closer Jason Isringhausen came on to protect a 3-2 lead in the ninth inning but lasted only two pitches, surrendering solo homers to Bernie Williams and David Justice. The Yankees of the Joe Torre era made routine sport of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, but never did they do so with more surgical precision than that.
5. Among the small handful of majestic home runs into the black batter’s eye I’ve been lucky enough to witness, the one that stands out was the most unlikely, a shot by Country Joe Oliver off none other than Greg Maddux back in 2001 during a rare Sunday night game against the Braves. The journeyman backup backstop took Maddux into the black in the second inning of what wound up being his final game with the Yankees, not to mention his final big-league homer — a testament to the random and bizarre spectacles one might witness on any given day at the stadium.
4. The eerie glow the stadium produced in the distance on the night of October 30, 2001, prior to Game Three of the World Series against the Diamondbacks. With President George W. Bush in attendance to throw out the first pitch, security was so tight that the 4 train was forced to let its passengers off one stop early, at 149th Street, and I joined the fans on a surreal pilgrimage to the radiant Mecca of baseball.
The grounds outside the stadium were teeming with fans unable to gain immediate entry due to heightened security, and it wasn’t until the second inning that I received my miniature American flag and ascended the stairs to a spot in the Tier Reserved section high above home plate. Before I could sit down, I was greeted by the perfect crack of the bat as Jorge Posada crushed a solo homer for the game’s first run. I joined the cheer as I found my seat, thrusting my flag in the air: "Hip hip, JORGE! Hip hip, JORGE!" By that point, Bush had exited the park, and a few innings later, we watched as two Secret Service sharpshooters who had been stationed atop the stadium ported long duffel bags of rifles and telescopes past the crowd.
3-2. A pair of nights where Alex Rodriguez showed himself as inarguably best ballplayer in the world. First there was the night he hit three home runs off the Angels’ Bartolo Colon in the game’s first four innings as my friend Nick — the organizer of our 11-year-old flex plan ticket group and party to several of these memories — frantically willed the ball out of the yard: "Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!" The irony was that on this particular night, he’d been cast as a last-minute ticket replacement for none other than Alex Belth. Shortly after the third blast, I called Alex at home. He picked up the phone, and without announcing who I was, I began: "You shoulda been here, man," and I could hear the gears grinding as he tried to place who it was. "Oh, you fucking… you don’t think that I’m not thinking that…" he began, on his way to cursing a very blue streak. Coupled with this is the night in 2007 when I watched A-Rod do something even more rare: homer twice in one inning during an epic rally against the Mariners.
1. In the end, as I rummage through the weird and wonderful things I’ve witnessed firsthand at Yankee Stadium, I find only one memory which can top this list: the 1999 World Series clincher. That year, Roger Clemens was the new kid on the block, having joined the Yanks in that controversial trade for David Wells which shook up the defending champions as they opened spring training with the pressure to follow up the previous year’s 125-win juggernaut. I’d jeered the Rocket several times that season as he put up a fat 4.60 ERA to go with his meager 14 wins, and scorned him as he’d been pounded at Fenway Park during the American League Championship Series. But on this night, with the Yanks up 3-0 in games against the Atlanta Braves, the Rocket’s first World Series ring was within his grasp, and he performed his job with a zeal that stoked the sizable contingent of fans who mocked the Braves with broom-wielding tomahawk cheers.
Clemens pitched 7 2/3 innings and left with a 3-0 lead and two men on, and when Joe Torre pulled him it, Yankee Stadium shook. The entire upper deck perceptibly bounced, and I wondered about structural integrity as Nick, Issa and I — this was the only year we expanded our flex plan beyond two seats — hoisted the oversized, $10 plastic souvenir mugs of beer I had secured at last call in the top of the seventh. The stadium didn’t stop shaking for the next hour and a half, as Mariano Rivera extricated the Yanks from the jam which Clemens had begun and which Jeff Nelson had exacerbated. Jim Leyritz homered in the bottom of the inning — the last home run of the 1900s, as it turns out — and the Yankees closed the deal in the top of the ninth. As Keith Lockhart’s fly ball settled into Chad Curtis’ glove, suddenly 56,782 people were piling on each other and cheering, then singing "New York, New York" in unison at the top of their lungs.
That was the last of 16 World Championship ever clinched at the venerable Yankee Stadium, and for whatever reservations I may have going forward, the honor of being a part not only of that moment of baseball history but of that enormous crowd, united in such a moment of unbridled joy, is one I will never forget.
Jay Jaffe writes about baseball for Baseball Prospectus.