Humility & Hubris
By Greg W. Prince
“I still don’t know why they asked me to do this commercial.”
—Marv Throneberry for Miller Lite
Alex Belth, apparently dizzy from inhaling Impetuous paint fumes, asked me to contribute a “classic-hater” perspective to this marvelous series of Lasting Yankee Stadium Memories. Nevertheless, despite my assigned role as the skunk that wanders into the wake — even an Irish wake — I don’t wish to speak ill of the dead. I, like many of you, know what it’s like to have the plug pulled on my ballpark against the wishes of its survivors.
I did, in fact, experience a very happy day at Yankee Stadium, my first game of five at Yankee Stadium. It was the only one the Yankees lost.
On Memorial Day 1986, I got a call from my friend Larry who used to be a Yankees fan before withdrawing from baseball altogether; he wasn’t really much of a sports fan in the first place, but the trade of Sparky Lyle to Texas drove him away for good. Anyway, he had been talking to another friend of ours, Adam, a genuine Yankees fan. There was nothing going on for either of them that day and they thought it might be fun to drive up to the Bronx from where we all lived on Long Island and see a game. They wanted to know if I wanted to go.
What a strange idea, I thought. I’d always held to a principled stand of never setting foot inside Yankee Stadium or anywhere the Yankees were playing. I refused to go on a day camp field trip in 1975 to Shea Stadium because it was for a Yankees game. At twelve years old, I was highly principled.
At 23, I was a little less so. I had nothing going on that Monday in 1986 either, which is to say the Mets weren’t playing. I didn’t feel I was being disloyal by using the off day to see another baseball game. It wasn’t like I was going to root for the home team.
When I discovered baseball in 1969, I discovered it as a Mets fan. They became everything to me instantly. I found out New York had another baseball team, too, but I didn’t understand why. I never understood why anybody who was a New Yorker would ever need another baseball team besides the Mets let alone instead of the Mets. I’ve never lost that six-year-old’s sense of bafflement. First, in ’69, I ignored the Yankees, which wasn’t hard. Then as they occasionally won their share of games and attention, I resented their existence. By the late ’70s, with the Mets going to seed and too many Mets fans in my junior high switching allegiances to the championship Yankees as if exchanging Keds All-Sports for Puma Clydes, my resentment flowered to full-on hatred.
Actually, it was probably hatred back at resentment, but I’m trying to maintain a sense of proportion about this.
Yet I did harbor a vague long-range goal of seeing every ballpark someday; Yankee Stadium was the one second-closest to my house and here was Larry offering to drive, and the Mets weren’t playing anyway…sure, I said. Let’s go.
Walking into Yankee Stadium for me was like walking into the Republican Convention. I’ve never walked into the Republican Convention, but as a lifelong Democrat, I can only imagine. It was just different. There was a team called “New York,” but it wasn’t the Mets.
I’d heard for years that you didn’t want to go anywhere near Yankee Stadium, you were taking your life into your hands. True, I wasn’t used to walking by a House of Detention before a baseball game as I did in the Bronx, but it didn’t seem like that big a deal. The area right outside the ticket windows struck me as rather pleasant, nicely paved, good landscaping. It all seemed newer than Shea. Every contemporary list of ballparks by age I had seen listed Yankee Stadium between Royals Stadium (1973) and Olympic Stadium (1977). It never occurred to me that this was the same Yankee Stadium from 1923. Such a big deal had been made in 1976 about the “new” Yankee Stadium, I assumed everybody was on board with the chronology.
We bought three very good field boxes behind first base no more than a half-hour before first pitch. I was surprised they were available. At Shea in 1986, you couldn’t get those seats. We were three of a little more than 30,000 in attendance on Memorial Day at Yankee Stadium. I was a little surprised there weren’t more people.
Yankee Stadium, from the inside, didn’t seem all that imposing. I’d read about how big it was. It didn’t seem that big. It felt very scaled down. Must have lost something in the renovation, I figured. I’d seen it enough on television so that it was more like walking onto a set than into a stadium. It definitely felt newer than Shea. It should have; it was a dozen years younger.
I bought two items at the concessions. One was an Angels cap. It was kind of a jerk move, but the Yankees were playing the Angels and I was instantly an Angels fan for the day. The girl who sold it to me at the souvenir counter couldn’t have been nicer. I think I was a mite disappointed I wasn’t growled at.
The other item was a program, two elements of which stood out.
1) An article by a fan who caught a foul ball off the bat of Tony Kubek in 1963. He exulted that “I was no longer a mere participant in the present. Kubek played with Mantle who had played beside DiMaggio who had played with Selkirk who had played with and had taken over right field from Babe.” Circle of life and the chain shall be unbroken and all that, but isn’t enough that ya caught a ball from Tony Kubek?
2) The Yankee roster listed, among others, No. 12 Hassey, Ron; No. 29 Shirley, Bob; and No. 3 Ruth, Babe.
The Yankees were so full of themselves that they listed EVERY RETIRED NUMBER in their scorecard as part of their roster. Hence, if Mattingly, Don needed a day off, manager Lou Piniella (who had replaced Billy Martin who had replaced Yogi Berra who had replaced Billy Martin who had replaced Clyde King who had replaced Gene Michael who had replaced Bob Lemon who had replaced Gene Michael who had played with Mantle who had played beside DiMaggio…) could always insert Gehrig, Lou in his place. DiMaggio was listed. Howard, Dickey, Rizzuto — what a bench!
Since there wasn’t much sizzle in the way of recent success to sell — and the most hyped prospects in an article on minor leaguers included future superstars Mike Christopher, Troy Evers, Bill Fulton and Steve George — the 1986 Yankees program reminded the reader again and again (and again and again) just how great the team used to be. Those pants your 1986 Yankees wear? They’re part of the “same uniforms” their predecessors put on, presumably one leg at a time. We were invited to learn more about those on-hiatus ghosts at Memorial (not Monument) Park, “a smorgasbord of Yankee tradition”.
Only the Yankees could hype a veritable mausoleum like it was an all-you-can-eat buffet.
It wasn’t like the 1986 Yankees were bad. They had Mattingly, Henderson and Winfield, if not much pitching. They were in second place entering Memorial Day, just a hair behind the Red Sox. The biggest cheer of the day, however, wasn’t for anybody current. It was for the grainy Thurman Munson tribute video which I was told they showed pretty regularly.
I got the sense every day was Memorial Day at Yankee Stadium. The history, the championships, the glorious past…I got it. But how about the present?
How about it? When the past wasn’t being applauded, the real-time Yankees of 1986 did not seem overwhelmingly supported. Maybe I was just used to the ongoing joyride at Shea, but it seemed pretty quiet, almost fatalistic, for a pretty exciting game, albeit a prototypical Yankee defeat for its era.
The Bombers hit. They scored seven runs. Mike Easler blasted a three-run shot off Mike Witt in the first. Ron Hassey tagged him for a two-run job in the seventh. Problem was, when it came to pitching, the Bombers were blasted. Four Yankee hurlers — Joe Niekro, Al Holland, Bob Shirley and Brian Fisher — worked the sixth, the inning when the Angels scored five runs. But all looked great for the home team when the extraordinary Mattingly drove home Bobby Meacham from second with the go-ahead run. They might have gotten more, but Brian Downing threw out Willie Randolph at third base.
The crowd stirred, if not to Munson tribute levels. Then its fatalism was validated. Dave Righetti came in and allowed a Downing single and Wally Joyner to homer. The Yankees put the tying run on third in the bottom of the ninth, but Terry Forster escaped. The Angels won 8-7. I cheered under my Angels cap as I’d been doing all day. Most of the crowd filed out quietly. I still felt like a stranger in a strange land, but I’d sure had a great time. Adam grumbled. Larry felt Sparky Lyle had been avenged. The walk back to the car past the Bronx House of Detention was most delightful.
I wouldn’t feel right, however, about leaving Yankee Stadium in this space on this note. As pleasant a place as I found it when it was humble, that’s not what Yankee Stadium was. Yankee Stadium was hubristic. It sure as hell was fourteen years later, a Saturday afternoon when the Mets visited and somebody gave me tickets for the boxes in left. This time I wore my Mets cap. This time I had a reason beyond hardwired spite to root for the visiting team. This time I was not gratified by the result. Bobby Jones couldn’t hold a 5-3 lead. In a blink, the Mets were down by six. Those of us there to support the Mets sat quietly while the game got further and further away from us and the majority in attendance roared. Somebody standing behind me bellowed at the Mets’ rookie leftfielder, “HEY TYNER! IT’S TIME FOR YOU TO MAKE AN ERROR!”
And in that very same at-bat Jason Tyner made an error.
I won’t pretend to have enjoyed it, but it compels me to admit that no matter how long it took, the late Yankee Stadium had a way of evening the score against visitors who dared to walk away from it in glee.
Greg W. Prince is co-author of Faith and Fear in Flushing, the blog for Mets fans who like to read.