By Kevin Baker
There are so many choose from, it’s hard to pick just one. There’s my first (and only) game in what was truly the old (pre-1976) Stadium, the first major-league game I ever attended, back in 1967. It was against the California Angels, and as I recall Horace Clarke hit a home run, and Joe Pepitone lost the game on an error. Par for the course for the Yankees of that year.
There were the World Series clinchers in both 1996 and 1999. The 1996 game was especially thrilling, a very close contest with the crowd roaring continuously, and the stands literally shaking. It also featured tens of thousands of Yankees fans, waiting to get in, breaking into a “F**k the Bra-a-a-ves!” version of their tomahawk chant. Afterwards, people were carrying around a coffin, marked Atlanta Braves, like something from four or five decades ago. The 1999 clincher was a little less exciting—the Yanks already had a 3-0 lead in games, and Clemens shut the Braves down for most of the game—but it does stand out for watching Mariano Rivera break Ryan Klesko’s bat three times in the ninth, reducing a team that was about to be swept in the World Series to helpless laughter.
I was also fortunate enough to be at Mo’s playoff debut, in that 15-inning epic against Seattle, back in 1995. Here was this skinny little guy, coming out of the bullpen in extra innings, when we had nobody left, and throwing pure heat. It was a marvelous, crazy game, with Leyritz hitting that walk-off home run in the rain, and the Stadium misbehaving wildly.
So many games…I was at David Wells’ perfect game, thanks to my brother-in-law, the Twins fans. I remember rushing over from Shea in 1985, when both New York teams were fighting for first down the stretch. The Mets had won a thriller that afternoon against the Cardinals, and the Yanks beat the Blue Jays that night. The crowd was fired up, sensing a Subway Series, and when some poor woman who was singing the Canadian national anthem forgot the words they showered her with boos, almost starting an international incident.
So many memories…moments that remain for no particular reason, just the sheer beauty of the game. Like watching Pedro Martinez making his way out to the bullpen while storm clouds blackened and swelled before an evening game late in 2003. Or watching a windstorm sweep all the accumulated debris of the Stadium around and around the park, while waiting for the second game of a doubleheader to start one night back in 1980. Watching Sparky Lyle use the whole ballpark when he had nothing, making hitter after hitter crush towering, useless flyballs to Death Valley in the Stadium’s old, original configuration. Or a broiling, July day back in 1999, when there was (typically) no ice in the park, but no one cared too much because the Yanks were pounding Cleveland to sweep a three-game set.
There were the unexpected games, the delightful games. Like Opening Day, 1978, when they handed out “Reggie!” bars to every customer, and Reggie Jackson responded by hitting a three-run homer in the first. One-by-one, then in flurries, then in a steady rain the small, square, orange-wrappered candy bars came floating down from the stands as Reggie toured the bases, like a tribute to some Spanish bullfighter.
On July 2, 1978, I saw Mickey Rivers bring his strange magic to the Stadium once again. Rivers was always a favorite of mine, an improbable star, a Trickster icon. He was a weak-armed, erratic centerfielder and a leadoff man who never liked to take a pitch, but somehow he had a way of doing the little thing that could break open the game. He came up to pinch-hit in about the seventh inning or so of this game, with the Yanks trailing Detroit, 2-1 and one man on base, and immediately hit a long flyball to rightfield. Mickey Stanley leapt to get it at the wall. About a dozen Yankee fans out in right field leaped for it, too. The ball bounded away. Stanley, a veteran of fourteen major-league seasons, ran over to complain to the umpire that he had been interfered with. While he did, both Rivers and the runner in front of him went all the way around to score. The Yanks won, 3-2, in a year when they didn’t have a game to spare. That same October, Rivers noticed that Bucky Dent’s bat was cracked in the playoff game in Boston, and handed him another one…
So many moments. Every time Mariano Rivera came loping out of that bullpen. Every time Don Mattingly stood up there with that bulldog stance. Rickey Henderson reaching base, Dave Winfield vaulting up into the seats to take away a home run; the roll-call from the rightfield bleachers every game…
My very favorite memory, though, had to be an epic game between the Yankees and Red Sox on July 1, 2004. This was, more or less, the last moment the Yanks still had the upper hand in the rivalry, and they were going for a three-game sweep at the Stadium.
It was a wonderful game, a game where all sorts of things happened, the lead changing hands again and again. It was a game that seemed as if it might never end, going on into extra innings, with each team threatening repeatedly, being stymied only by one outstanding play after another. Alex Rodriguez snagged a hot shot at third, stepped on the bag for the force, then made a great throw from his knees to the plate, to get the Yanks out of a bases-loaded, no-out situation. A little later, Derek Jeter made his now famous run and grab of a sinking, Trot Nixon pop-up with the bases loaded again, plunging head-long into the left-field stands and cutting his face open.
There were more theatrics, right up to the end. Manny crushed a titanic home run in the top of the thirteenth, only to see the Yanks come back yet again, with two outs and nobody on in the bottom of the inning, on three, booming hits from Miguel Cairo, Ruben Sierra, and John Flaherty, of all people. It was a delirious, wonderful, startling game, with all the tension and the drama you could want.
But I think the image that stands out most for me was all the defensive shifts the Red Sox made when the Yankees loaded the bases a couple times themselves in extra innings, always with equal futility. Terry Francona put them into one, desperate shift after another, bringing outfielders into the infield, and then back, so that in the late, Bronx night the players were tossing their gloves back and forth to each other, a shower of leather flying through the air, making this epic, major-league showdown seem for a moment like nothing so much as a boys’ pick-up game.
That’s my Yankee Stadium memory. I’ll miss the dirty old thing.
Kevin Baker is an acclaimed novelist and writer. He is currently at work on a book about New York baseball.