By Jacob Luft
I was lucky as a kid in that my parents used to let me tag along on business trips. Oftentimes that meant New York City, though it could also be Chicago or D.C.. On one such trip to the Big Apple, I remember taking in the view atop the Empire State Building, looking west across the Hudson River and asking my dad, “What’s that over there?”
“Oh,” he replied, “that’s just New Jersey.”
(Little did he know he was talking to a future bridge-and-tunnel boy and proud resident of West Orange, N.J.!)
If mom and dad didn’t have time to take me out to see the sights themselves, they would leave me with my great aunt or some other family friend. Funny thing, though: I can’t recall ever being consulted on the destination. I was at the grownups’ mercy of what they considered to be a good time for a kid. That changed one day — I don’t remember the year, sometime in the mid-1980s — when my mom got in touch with an old friend of hers from the old country (Nicaragua) who volunteered to watch me for the day.
Upon picking me up at the hotel he asked, “Where do you want to go kid?”
That was my cue.
It was the dead of winter. I had heard the newsman on the TV say it would be in the teens with minus-7 wind chill. Suffice it to say, there was no baseball scheduled on this day. Don Mattingly was on a beach somewhere in the Caribbean bashing coconuts. He wasn’t bashing baseballs at the Stadium.
“Uh, you know it’s not open right?”
“I don’t care,” I said. “I just want to see it.”
“OK let’s go.”
He was kind enough to leave some frost on his windshield that morning for the benefit of a kid who had never seen snow, but it was more slush than anything at that point. Still, I was duly impressed. I recall crossing the river, heading toward the Bronx on the highway and seeing the big grey hulk of the Stadium rise up. He drove around in circles for a little while trying to afford me the best view possible. As many longtime Yankee fans have told me, the Stadium in the ’80s was drab and dreary, and that jibes with what I saw that day. From the outside it seemed a lifeless edifice, especially with heavy sleet providing all of 30 feet of visibility. But hey, that was The House That Ruth Built, and Lou Gehrig played there and so did Joe D. and Mickey Mantle and all those guys on the baseball cards I had back home in a shoebox. I was on Cloud 9 just being so near to hallowed ground for the first time.
Unable to gain access to the Stadium itself, we did what I considered to be the next best thing: We ate a McDonald’s a couple blocks away. Nothing like a Quarter Pounder, French Fries and a Coke to ease the sting. I remember the fries being extra salty, which went in perfect balance with the gritty neighborhood. And it wasn’t just any McDonald’s. It was a Yankee Stadium McDonald’s, with pictures of Gehrig and Ruth and other legends all over the wall. My pilgrimage felt complete.
“So,” my guide asked, “how about we go to the Statue of Liberty now?”
Jacob Luft is a senior editor at SI.com.