By Rob Neyer
My first visit to Yankee Stadium, and for that matter my first visit to the East Coast, was in 1991. I was working for Bill James then, and accompanied Bill to New York for the annual Society for American Baseball Research convention. At that time, I had seen only five major-league ballparks, and none east of Cleveland.
Of course I’d been reading about Yankee Stadium since I was a little boy. By 1991 I was utterly obsessed with baseball — this was before I developed any other serious interests — and in a sense Yankee Stadium was New York.
Just one problem: When Bill and I were in town, the Yankees weren’t. Instead we went to a Mets game at Shea. Now, I don’t mean to complain because it was baseball and it was New York and of course there’s been plenty of history at Shea Shadium. But it wasn’t where Ruth and Gehrig and DiMaggio played. So one afternoon during our stay, I hopped on the subway and headed for the Bronx, just to see what I could see.
From the outside, I couldn’t see much. If you’ve been there, you probably know that the building doesn’t look like much (and I didn’t walk around to the third-base side to see the big Louisville Slugger). But a big gate beyond the right-field corner was open to the sidewalk, and I could see the field, blindingly green in the sunlight. I wanted to see more, so I scrunched up my courage and walked in like I belonged there.
I got about two steps when a beefy security guard with a mustache and a blazer stepped right in front of me. I couldn’t see the green anymore.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“Uh. I just wanted to, umm, see the field.”
“You can’t do that.”
So that was Yankee Stadium, and would be for nearly nine years.
Early in 2000, I moved to Boston to write a book, essentially a diary about attending every game the Red Sox played in Fenway Park that season. You probably haven’t seen that book, as the whole thing turned into something of a mess (which you can read about here if you’re interested). One of the nice things about living in Boston and working on the book, though, was that I finally got another chance to visit Yankee Stadium, and actually go inside this time. Which led to one of the greatest baseball games that I have ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot of them).
It was late May, and the Red Sox were in New York for a three-game Series, Friday through Sunday. And truth be told, the first couple of games were clunkers.
Friday night, the Red Sox beat the Yankees 4-1 thanks to one of the last good games Ramon Martinez ever pitched. But my friends and higher were halfway up the upper deck beyond right field, and couldn’t see the scoreboard or understand a word Bob Sheppard was saying. By the fifth inning I’d given up trying to keep score.
Saturday afternoon was even worse. First I got fleeced by a scalper. I thought I was buying two tickets together, one for me and one for a friend. But when we actually looked at them, we found that were a few sections apart. When I arrived at my box seat, I found out I was under the overhang. It was hot and humid that afternoon, and I spent most of the game just trying to stay awake. This time I didn’t keep score at all.
So that’s two games and two completely underwhelming experiences. This is Yankee Stadium baseball?
And then, the 28th of May.
I almost missed it. Yankee Stadium. Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN. Roger Clemens vs. Pedro Martinez. And I almost missed it. The beginning, anyway. I was in Manhattan that afternoon, and took the Number 6 train. As you might know but I didn’t, the 6 doesn’t stop at Yankee Stadium, but instead blows right on past. By the time I realized what I’d done, I was three stops past the Stadium and wound up somewhere called Cypress Avenue, which felt like a long, long way from Ruth’s House.
I did get back in time, a couple of minutes before 8; because the game was on ESPN, it wouldn’t start until 8:05. Still, I had no idea where I was going; Section 11? Box 41? Row C? An usher guided me toward the infield, and eventually I realized where I would be sitting: fourth row, right behind the Yankees’ dugout. Nirvana.
There I joined Andy, a Harvard law student who had so graciously offered me the ticket. At that moment, settling into my incredible seat for a night game featuring two of baseball’s best teams — ancient foes no less — and two Hall of Fame starting pitchers, the game was already one of the more memorable in my life.
What happened next? Most of the following is straight from my book, and captures the rawness of my reactions that night, as I wrote most of these words while riding the train back to Boston the next morning . . .
Through the first eight innings, how many runners reached base? One. With one out in the seventh, Trot Nixon tripled to left-center. The Yankee infielders moved in — a single run might be quite precious — but Clemens didn’t need any help, striking out Brian Daubach (looking) and Nomar Garciaparra (swinging). That half-inning aside, there was little sustained drama involving the hitters in more than a bystanding way (Pedro struck out nine batters in the game, Clemens 13).
What happened in the ninth inning could almost as easily have happened in the seventh inning, or the eighth. But it happened in the ninth, thus lifting tonight’s proceedings from good game to man, what a great game.
John Valentin led off for the Sox and tapped a grounder to second baseman Chuck Knoblauch. One out. Jason Varitek tried to bunt his way on, but he didn’t get the ball close enough to the third-base line and Clemens threw him out. Two outs, and it’s getting late, and we’re starting to wonder if this one’s going past midnight.
But then Clemens ran a pitch high and inside to Jeff Frye, who dropped his bat and trotted down to first base . . . But no! Plate umpire Brian Runge is waving off the HBP, then pointing madly at Frye’s bat on the ground, telling all of us that before the ball struck Frye, it struck his bat. Foul ball. Frye argued and Jimy Williams argued, but there was nothing to be done about it.
Frye meted out the best kind of justice, though, smashing a hot grounder right back up the middle. Clemens could have made the play, maybe should have made the play. But he did not make the play. Sometimes these fractions of inches become important, and these fractions became terribly important a moment later because Trot Nixon batted next. And Nixon creamed one of the Rocket’s rockets well into the right-field stands. Two-zip, Red Sox. (Later, we learned that after Nixon struck out looking in the first inning, Clemens had screamed at him, “Swing the bat!”)
Knoblauch led off the bottom of the ninth, and Pedro nailed him. Was it a coincidence that, just a few moments earlier, Clemens had come inside on Jeff Frye? Does Pedro have so much confidence that he’d happily award the Yankees a baserunner in the ninth inning of a 2-0 game? Nah, I don’t think so. I think the ball just got away from him. And Knoblauch’s the sort of guy who probably enjoyed getting plunked. That brought up Jeter, who promptly singled to right field, Knoblauch stopping at second.
Out of the Red Sox dugout popped Jimy Williams, and I was so sure about what would happen next that, on my scorecard, I drew the line that denotes a pitching change. I had no good idea of Pedro’s pitch count, but I estimated somewhere around 100, given that he’d run very few deep counts, and had faced only twenty-eight batters to that point. He’d been a bit shakey lately, though, if Tino Martinez’s long fly in the seventh and Ricky Ledee’s longer fly in the eighth were any indication. What the Sox really needed was a double play, and Derek Lowe — ready to come in at a moment’s notice — throws a heavy sinker that results in a lot of double plays.
Say what you want about him, but Jimy Williams is his own man. After a lengthy consultation with his battery, Williams shuffled back to his subterranean lair, never having made any gesture toward his bullpen. It would be Pedro’s game, and he responded by striking out Paul O’Neill with high heat. Next up: Bernie Williams, and he shot a fly ball into the right-field corner. Initially I thought it was gone, and part of me wanted it to be gone. Yeah, I was pulling for the Red Sox, but what a thing to see, a game-winning, three-run bomb that would have turned the Stadium into the Happiest Place on Earth. But Nixon flagged down the ball near the warning track; Knoblauch tagged at second and went to third.
That brought up Jorge Posada, and he missed Pedro’s first two pitches by a couple of feet. One change-up and it’s over, right? Ah, but this game wasn’t prescribed. Posada took a ball. And then, impossibly, Pedro plunked him, too.
So here comes Tino Martinez with the bases loaded. A single probably ties the game, a double probably wins it, and a home run gets you the biggest celebration in the Bronx since last October. By this point I was hoping for an out, or a home run. This game, it seemed to me, should be decided by the two starting pitchers. Plus, I was drained. After being on edge for nearly nine full innings, Bernie’s drive to the track had grabbed most of what emotional energy I had left.
I’ll be honest with you: After three games at Yankee Stadium, I’m not in love with the place. Yankee Stadium — and especially the field itself — is history: Ruth and DiMaggio and Mantle and Reggie, and of course all those World Series. The building itself, though, is not particularly distinguished.
Fenway Park is a place. The Green Monster and Pesky’s Pole and Lansdowne Street and all the rest. If a native of Alpha Centauri 4 came to Sol 3 for the express purpose of watching a couple of baseball games but knew nothing of the game’s lore, Yankee Stadium would be just another ballpark (granted, a large and fairly rowdy one). Take our alien to Fenway Park, though, and he’d likely fall in love with not only the building, but the game on the field as well.
There is one thing that I do love about Yankee Stadium, though, and it’s probably not something you would guess.
I love the clock.
At the top of the scoreboard that’s just to the left of straightaway center field, you can always find the time. And not just any old time, but the OFFICIAL TIME.
The time of my life runs according to the baseball season, especially this particular baseball season. So there’s the OFFICIAL TIME in big block letters, my official time, always available in one’s field of vision, just like the pitcher and the batter. And at 11:08 tonight, a game I’ll never forget officially ended when Tino Martinez chopped a routine grounder to second baseman Jeff Frye, who made the routine throw to first base. At 11:08 tonight, I was as happy to love this sport as I have ever been.
Rob Neyer writes about baseball for ESPN.com.