In August of 1990 I left my house for the 39-mile trip to Anaheim Stadium to see a very bad Yankee team take on the Angels, but I never made it. I was driving an orange late 70s model Ford Pinto, and numerous things went wrong. First, I ran out of gas soon after getting off the freeway near the park, but after walking a few miles to and back from a gas station I discovered a deeper problem, the details of which have faded, but on that evening demanded a trip to a service station and some hard-earned cash out of my pocket. While I was walking the hard streets of Anaheim and haggling with a mechanic, the Angels’ Luís Polonia was hitting an inside the park grand slam, if you can believe it. The Yankees would lose 9-5, the fifth of six consecutive games they’d drop on a road trip that was as abysmal as my wanderings that night, and they’d end the season 67-95, buried in last place.
What I’m telling you is that things have been worse.
So even though I was disappointed as I watched the Yankees lose two of three to Colorado and confused by their first two losses in this series, I knew there was no way my son and I could skip the series altogether.
The late afternoon start was a double-edged sword. Ticket demand was low, so I was able to get two seats in the fifth row, midway between first base and the foul pole, without having to sell a kidney; but I knew we’d be baking in the ninety-degree sun for most of the game. It was a tradeoff I was willing to make.
When I took a tour of Fenway Park last spring I bought an MLB Ballpark Passport, a binder with pages for each major league ballpark so you can validate your visits to stadiums around the country by stamping the appropriate page with postage-style cancellation stamps available in every park. It’s fun. What I didn’t know when I bought it was how much I’d enjoy each exchange with the person armed with the stamp. In the Fenway gift shop, the sales woman at the counter was too nervous to do it, so she called over a co-worker; at Dodger Stadium the woman at Guest Relations positively lit up and said, “Oh, I love when people bring these in!” And then we talked for a minute about the parks I’ve been to and which ones I’m hoping to visit next.
In Anaheim last night, it was even better. The gentleman behind the counter was happy to apply the stamp and sign his name next to it, but then he noticed the scorebook I had with me, eyeing it as if it were a relic from the past.
“Hey, look at that! Where’d you get that? Can I take a look at it?”
It was actually a gift from a reader of this site several years ago, and I take it with me to every game, showing my age more than anything else. Why would any normal person spend time tracking information that’s readily available in real time on any smart device? I suppose for the same reason that I wear a tie to work, do crossword puzzles, and call friends on their birthdays.
“Hey, John. Come out and take a look at this! Look what this guy’s got…”
John emerged from a back office and immediately stepped into his role.
“Wow. Where’d you find that? My daughter plays softball, but everybody’s gone digital now. They’re using iPads.”
I half expected someone from Antiques Roadshow to come out and give me an appraisal.
Once we got to our seats, armed with a pretzel and a couple sodas, first pitch was still thirty minutes away and there were a handful of players out on the field. Nearest to us was Giancarlo Stanton, languidly stretching in the sun, then jogging a few gentle strides into the outfield before returning to the foul line to begin it all again. Dozens of fans stood in a crush along the rail, desperately calling for his attention, but Stanton didn’t seem to hear them. This was every single day for him, a superstar getting ready for work.
But then after a few minutes he turned towards the rail and slowly, slowly, slowly walked towards them. The mass of humanity before him surged and roiled, and dozens more fans flooded down from the seats above, each with a ball or a card or a hat or a jersey to be signed. They stood on the plastic seats to get better angles for their photos or to extend their reach into Stanton’s orbit. Two members of stadium security trundled down the steps and one dutifully told everyone not to stand on the seats; when no one heeded he only shrugged his shoulders and watched. Stanton stood in the eye of the storm, neither relishing the attention nor resenting it. We were ten or fifteen feet away, and I’m not sure if he ever spoke, ever smiled, or ever interacted with anyone beyond the exchange of the object to be signed. It didn’t matter, though. A small boy in a Yankees t-shirt emerged from the pile and bounced towards his father, clutching an autographed ball and a story he’ll tell for the rest of his life.
The Angels grabbed a 2-0 lead after Carlos Rodón walked Shohei Ohtani (two days late) and then coughed up a home run to Tyler Ward. There was another walk and a bomb (Luís Rengifo) in the second inning to make it 4-0, and then two more runs from a rally in the third and the Yankees were down 6-0. In the space of thirty minutes, all hope was gone.
As always when the Yankees are playing in this stadium, there were Yankees fans everywhere, especially along the right field line where supporters of the Bronx Bombers traditionally sit after raiding the secondary market to be closer to their heroes. It’s normally the most raucous area of the park, but on this afternoon it was subdued, and not just because of the oppressive heat. Everywhere I looked there were Yankees fans shaking their heads. There was muttering to my left and right. Out on the field it was the same. When a Yankee would strike out to end an inning — there were a preposterous sixteen strikeouts — he’d trudge slowly towards his position, shoulders sagging, head shaking in disbelief. A teammate would arrive with his cap and glove and there might be a pat of encouragement, or there might be more head shaking. They were a somber bunch out on the field, and so were we.
I didn’t notice it during the game, but as Carlos Rodón walked off the field after one of those disastrous innings, he responded to some heckling by blowing a kiss towards some dissatisfied Yankee fans sitting behind the dugout. This might’ve been the worst thing that happened, simply because Rodón has no idea what could be in store for him if he brings that nonsense to the Bronx. After Tommy Kahnle gave up a run in a messy eighth inning, he returned to the dugout and destroyed an electric fan.
No matter how frustrated you are with this team, I guarantee that the players are even more frustrated. On Wednesday afternoon, the weight of it all was showing.
But as I say, it’s fun going out to the park. When Franchy Cordero went deep to lead off the eighth and then the Yankees loaded the bases later in the inning, putting them one swing away from tying the game, the stadium suddenly woke up and it seemed louder than it had been when the Angels were scoring.
It isn’t like Friday night in the Bronx against the Red Sox, but there’s something special about being in a visiting stadium surrounded by so many cheering Yankee fans. It brought me back to a similarly warm afternoon in July of 1994 when Don Mattingly came off the bench in the ninth inning with the Yankees trailing 4-2 and promptly blasted a ball into the seats, sending all of us into a frenzy, or even just last season when we were in the stands to watch Aaron Judge hit his 50th home run.
All of us were poised for something similar, and the “Let’s-Go-Yan-kees” chants were echoing across the stadium, but when Oswaldo Cabrera struck out to strand all three runners, all the air came out of the balloon.
If you’re wondering why things look so bleak for this team, it’s really quite simple. The Yankee hitters struck out sixteen times on Wednesday afternoon and evening, and the Yankee pitchers yielded eleven walks. If you were to feed only those two numbers into the Baseball Probability Machine, I’m sure it would return a win probability of five percent or so.
As we walked out of the park, my son asked how long the flight back to New York would be, and my answer was quick. “About five hours or so, but it’s gonna seem an awful lot longer for them.”
We were home in a blink, though, and even if I’d known ahead of time how it was all going to shake out, I still wouldn’t have missed it.