By Neil deMause
Of the five hundred or so games I’ve seen at Yankee Stadium, a fair number would probably qualify as “historic”: The Pine Tar Game. The Jeffrey Maier Game. Don Mattingly’s first postseason appearance. Jimmy Leyritz’ game-winning 15th-inning homer in the 1995 ALDS, presaging his more famous game-winning 8th-inning homer in the World Series the following year. Game 6 of the 1996 World Series, which ended with Charlie Hayes’ catch in foul ground and Wade Boggs atop a police horse. Game 4 in 2001, which ended with Derek Jeter’s 10th inning “Mr. November” home run. Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS, which ended with my friend David and I watching the final out on the TV in the bleachers concession stand, then turning on our heels and leaving before the Red Sox celebration could begin. No-hitters by Jim Abbott and Dwight Gooden (though I missed Dave Righetti’s July 4 no-no against Boston, along with most of the other 300,000 people who now claim to have been there).
Those, though, are all historic events – they’d be just as famed if they’d happened somewhere else. When I think of my two-plus decades as a Yankee Stadium denizen, I keep coming back to one weekend in 1985, which though historic in its own way, was mostly memorable for other reasons:
FRIDAY: It was the summer before my sophomore year in college, and rumors of a baseball strike were in the air, so I was determined to jam in as many ballgames as possible. The final weekend before the deadline was a four-game series against the White Sox – still then in those hideous horizontal-striped jerseys – so I set out to see them all.
I took my usual seat in Section 39 – the bleachers were general admission in those days, so I’d sit in whatever row was far enough back to give room to stretch out, but close enough to hear what Dave Winfield was saying if he made one of his excursions through the outfield fence gate to chat with fans during a pitching change. The game was instantly a seesaw battle, and went into the 7th inning deadlocked at three apiece.
Andre Robertson, the former phenom whose career was derailed in a car wreck on the West Side Highway, led off with a single, and was pinch-run for by rookie Bobby Meacham. Dale Berra, brought in that year to play for his dad (who lasted all of 16 games), reached on an error, bringing up Rickey Henderson. Henderson lined a ball toward Death Valley – then still a spacious 411 feet from home – and Meacham charged home, pausing only briefly to see if the ball would be caught. Berra, meanwhile, was running head-down, and was only a few steps behind Meacham as they approached home plate.
I had a perfect view of the relay throw from Ozzie Guillen to Carlton Fisk as it arrived, well before Meacham. Fisk grabbed the ball, lunged one way to tag Meacham, then the other way to tag Berra. A stunned, awed silence settled over the stadium.
The Yanks ended up losing in extra innings. It all seemed somehow appropriate for those years.
SATURDAY: The only game I’d bought tickets to in advance, as I was bringing my family, including my little sister, then just shy of four years old. Our seats were in the deep shadow of the field level down the rightfield line – arguably some of the worst seats in the park, as to see home plate you needed to twist sideways and peer over the heads of rows and rows of fans. My sister at the time was obsessed with a stuffed bunny that played the “Easter Bonnet” song. Conveniently enough, the Yanks left fielder at the time was Dan Pasqua, whose last name means “Easter” in Italian – so, with the single-minded literalness that has been required of stadium PA operators since time immemorial, Eddie Layton greeted Pasqua’s plate appearances by playing “Easter Bonnet” on his organ.
“Jennifer, listen!” I shouted over the din of the crowd as Pasqua came up for the first time. “You recognize that song? You know that song, right?” Jennifer looked around, either in an attempt at recognition or puzzlement why I was shouting at her.
A couple of pitches later, Pasqua turned on a pitch (from the forgettable Bill Long, Baseball-Reference.com tells me) and launched it into the right field grandstand, maybe 100 feet from our seats, putting the Yanks up 3-0. The crowd went nuts. In the enclosed space under the stadium overhang, the sound filled the air like a solid thing.
“Did you see that?” I turned to my sister excitedly. She was wailing, tears running down her face, her hands over her ears.
SUNDAY: This was the premier event of the weekend, for it was Phil Rizzuto Day, honoring the beloved scrappy Yankee shortstop turned beloved goofball Yankee announcer by retiring his number and showering him with wacky gifts. (The only one I clearly remember was a “holy cow” named Huckleberry – you could tell it was holy because it was wearing a halo – which promptly knocked the lightweight Rizzuto on his tuchus.) But the day was doubly special, for the White Sox pitcher was Tom Seaver, the twice-exiled Mets pitching great, who was going for his 300th win.
The bleachers in those days were full of regulars, and they were a far cry from the beer-swilling, obscenity-spewing “bleacher creatures” of recent years (though there was plenty of beer, and more than a few obscenities, and the occasional lighting of a Red Sox fan’s cap on fire). I know that Ali “Cowbell” Ramirez was there, and not just because I have a picture of him that I took that day, resplendent in red blazer and white fedora, but because Ali was *always* there, at least once the weather warmed up enough for him to make the flight up from Puerto Rico. “Big Daddy” Chico was likely there as well, along with the equally large man I knew only as “Seet Down,” for the exclamation he used on anyone who stood up during game action. Angel and his cousin the Little League umpire were there almost every game, as was the bleacher grande dame Tina, as cantankerous then as now. There was Whistler, the 50ish Puerto Rican man whose repertoire included a set of obscure whistles – all designed, we later discovered, to cast a hex on the Yankees in punishment for not having enough Latino players. And there was the resident bleacher celebrity, Grandmaster Melle Mel, with his gold chains and his Stevie Wonder impressions, as well as his less-flashy cousin and bandmate, “Kid Creole” Danny, who I’d been comparing scorecard notes with for half a season before I found out he was part of one of the most famous rap groups of the decade.
It was New York August hot, I remember, and the crowd was tensed for every pitch, torn between Yankee fandom and the emotional pull of a New York hero. (This was in the days before Mets fans and Yankee fans suffered their religious schism, and the city was as one.) The Yanks managed a run off Seaver in the 3rd, but that was all, as the 40-year-old was pitching like he was young again, driving off the mound with that familiar, effortless leg thrust. It was almost a relief when Yankee starter Joe Cowley melted down in the 6th inning, and the White Sox took a 4-1 lead. The way Seaver was pitching, we knew it would hold up, and it did, with Seaver walking off the mound to an ovation after a complete-game win. Phil Rizzuto had been upstaged again, and this time not by a cow.
In the newspaper the next day, I remember, Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez was quoted on the momentousness of the occasion. “I always said Tom Seaver was a myth,” said Hernandez. “And now this proves it.”
MONDAY: This was the last game before the looming players’ strike, which was bittersweet in those ways that only the last game before a labor stoppage, the offseason, a stadium being torn down can be. To be honest, I had to look up just now who won (the Yankees, 7-3, Ron Guidry defeating Floyd Bannister to move to 14-4 on the year). What I will always remember, though, is the sight, long before game time (I’d arrived extra-early, of course, to soak up as much baseball as I could for what I feared would be a long layoff), of Sox second baseman Julio Cruz playing catch with a fan in the front of the first-base grandstand – in the front of the *upper-deck* first base grandstand, casually tossing a ball and hitting a spot 150 feet away and 50 feet in the air over and over, like it was nothing.
Whenever the discussion turns to baseball players and their skills and their salaries – how hard can it be to play a *game*, right? – I remember that moment, and my realization that baseball players really are capable of something you and I are not. And, more recently, it’s been on my mind for another reason: That scene will never be possible in the Yankees’ new stadium, and not just because fans and players no longer interact as casually as they did in my youth, but because that spot that Cruz hit with his deadly, routinely accurate throws will be, in the new stadium, in mid-air – hovering about 30 feet in front of the club seats that will front the new, shrunken, set-back top deck. The overhang that helped make Yankee Stadium, from its days as the first three-tier stadium in the 1920s through a radical makeover in the ’70s, simultaneously baseball’s largest
ballpark and its most intensely compact one, able to generate a sound that could terrify four-year-olds, will be gone forever.
Melle Mel and the rest are long-gone too, and it’s almost unthinkable they or those like them will ever return. Part of what’s to blame is the increasing popularity of baseball, which has meant the Yankees can get $12 each for bleacher seats that went for $1.50 in 1985. But while those could have been passing things, a product of the Joe Torre era dovetailing with the Clinton economic bubble and Bush tax cuts, high ticket prices will now be cemented in concrete and steel. The new stadium will make its own memories, and certainly its own history. But they won’t be the same.