By Josh Wilker
A few months ago I saw Yankee Stadium for the last time. I was driving on the Major Deegan, headed north after a short trip back to the city where I’d lived throughout my twenties. My first impulse was to give Yankee Stadium the finger.
But then I remembered what happened the last time I gave Yankee Stadium the finger, years ago. My brother and I and another friend, call him Butch, were heading upstate for a court date. On another earlier trip of ours upstate Butch had gotten arrested for being the point man in our self-consciously absurd drunken heist scheme to steal a poster from a movie theater lobby. The poster featured an ape wearing glasses and playing chess. We were all pushing thirty by then. We had not figured anything out. Butch was apprehended by blond and tan teenagers in national movie theater chain golf shirts. They held him until the cops arrived, chewing their bubble gum.
Anyway, a few weeks later we headed back upstate on the Major Deegan and passed Yankee Stadium on the way. This was during the era when the Yankees won the World Series every single year. Every single lonely stupid meaningless drunken suffering New York year. My brother and I were Red Sox fans, and Butch was a Mets fan. We all felt conquered. We all felt like there was no place for misfits like us. We all held our middle fingers high.
Fuck you, Yankee Stadium, we said.
On the drive home after the court hearing, at which Butch was lectured by an incredulous 90-year-old judge and charged with criminal mischief, we were tired and silently drifting into our own orbits, bracing for the indignities of the days and weeks to come. No one had said anything for a long time. I remember that the song on the radio was that insipid virus of a ditty, “Walking on the Sun,” a clear sign that we had ceased giving a shit. You know, let whatever comes, come. My brother was at the wheel, driving the used car he’d bought with advance money for a travel book he would never complete. We crossed over the Macombs Dam Bridge, in the shadow, as they say, of Yankee Stadium.
I remember you scumbags, Yankee Stadium must have said, squinting down at us.
If memory serves, there’s a somewhat unusually placed traffic light at the end of the Macombs Dam Bridge. Or maybe it isn’t normally there and Yankee Stadium put it there just for that moment. Anyway, it changed from yellow to red. My brother’s mind was elsewhere. A car barreled straight at us, eyes getting wide in the faces of all its passengers. Brakes squealed, then came the sound of crunching metal.
You could certainly make the case that Yankee Stadium was merciful in its revenge. No one in either car was physically harmed in the head-on collision. But after my brother was able to nurse his convulsing vehicle to the shoulder, where the team of young muscular Bronx residents from the other car commenced screaming at him, I watched my brother age before my eyes. His posture sagged. His face went gray. He was barely getting by as it was. He had let his insurance payments lapse. He was getting screamed at and berated. His car, which he needed to complete the travel book he had been contracted to write, was clearly now no more than a few heartbeats away from flatlining. Butch and I looked on, Butch freshly saddled with the criminal mischief charge, me with the sad feeling that came from watching my older brother, who I’d always idolized, standing there in the middle of it all like a pitcher with nothing left and no help on the way. A mopup man who has to just stay in the box and take a beating as the boos rain down.
So I didn’t give Yankee Stadium the finger a couple weeks ago. But it seemed to me that I ought to try to go beyond mere superstitious restraint. The phrase “what goes around comes around” came to mind, so I tried to reach for a more positive farewell to the doomed ballpark than mere silence. But I couldn’t come up with anything in that moment. I thought first about all the painful games I’d been to there. I thought about the subway ride home from one of those games, when my brother and I glared wordlessly at a guy in a Yankee cap who laughed richly and deeply, a millionaire’s laugh, his tan arms around two beautiful women, a moment that seemed to sum up for us our placement in that city of have-nots and haves. I thought of all the bad moments that I’d watched on TV, too, everything all the way up to Aaron Boone. Then of course I also took a swallow of that inexhaustible elixir that is Game Seven of the 2004 American League Championship Series, the moment that, coupled with the subsequent sweep in the World Series of the Cardinals, made everything OK. But I decided not to mention this moment to Yankee Stadium. I didn’t want to get in a head-on collision.
In the end I said nothing, just drove, my middle fingers tucked in next to all my other fingers, both hands firmly on the wheel at ten and two.
But as the day went on I continued thinking about Yankee Stadium, as if something was prodding me to push beyond the cycle of spite and suffering and revenge.
I ended up thinking about the early 1990s. I ended up thinking about Phil Rizzuto, Steve Balboni, and Deion Sanders.
I’d moved to New York at that time, during what was, for me, a mercifully peaceful lull in the Yankees’ decades of dominance, the team guttering at the ragged end of what for the Yankees had already been an interminable playoff drought.
I had moved to the city just after finishing college, with no idea what to do with my life. My brother was already living in the city, as was my dad, so I drifted there by default, in a style diametrically opposed to the myth—most purely distilled in the song belted by Sinatra after Yankee victories—of the bright-eyed New York, New York newcomer bent on conquest. Had the Yankees, the team that had while haunting my childhood contributed to my general existential belief that I couldn’t win, been their usual bullying selves upon my meek, cringing arrival in New York, I might have curled up into a fetal position forever.
Lucky for me, they were putrid, laughable, their games on television often spooling quickly into insignificance, where the warm, welcoming light of the star named Phil Rizzuto always shone brightest. With the Scooter presiding, Yankee games became for me a way to enjoyably pass the time. It was the same when I went to the Stadium, unless I was foolish enough to go to a game when the Red Sox were in town, when all old wounds reopened. If they were playing anyone but my team, I could spread myself out across a couple seats in the sparsely populated upper deck and bask in the sun and sip a beer and live for a while in a world utterly free of consequence. It was just what I needed at that difficult time, an escape from time, from the feeling that I was hurtling forward into a life I wasn’t ready for and would surely bungle. For however much time it took for the Yankees to squander another chance at victory, I was neither here nor there. I was just watching baseball and nothing mattered.
I usually shared these afternoon sanctuaries with my brother, who was struggling just as much as I was with this new lemon of a vehicle called adulthood. Gradually, our focus came to center on one of the players on the Yankees’ sprawling roster or retreads and misfits, their balding mustachioed topheavy slugger, Steve Balboni.
Balboni enacted his last comically simple all-or-nothing at-bats for the Yankees during those years. We loved him. In a complicated world he made everything simple: he would either strike out or blast a home run, nothing else. More than that, he seemed sincere. I don’t think the term sincerity gets used much in the evaluation of an athlete’s performance, but there was something about Balboni that communicated this trait. We sent him a letter, told him how we admired him. A few weeks later, we got a letter back, a nice note from his wife. A sincere exchange, one of the few in our halting, irony-choked lives.
In years to come I would come to think that I had witnessed Steve Balboni hit a game-winning home run at Yankee Stadium, which would have marked the lone time in my life where I would have stood up and cheered for a Yankee. I understand now that this memory is faulty, and that it was my brother who was at that game and told me about it. When I realized this I thought that I was left without a happy Yankee-related memory from Yankee Stadium. The best I could do by way of farewell was simply not hold up a middle finger.
Then I recalled one early 1990s summer day when I sat in the upper deck with a friend, the two of us spread across several seats, taking our leisure. I don’t remember who was winning. A fly ball was lofted to left field. The Yankees’ young left fielder, Deion Sanders, circled under it, looking a little unsure, like someone who had just had a bright light blasted in his eyes.
Dear Yankee Stadium: The ball hit him in the head and fell to the grass. Dear Yankee Stadium: I was laughing. I was happy. I was glad to be alive.
Josh Wilker is the sole author and proprietor of Cardboard Gods.