On a bleak January evening in 2002, two ambitious 18-year olds on winter break from college sprawled a U.S. map across a Cape Cod living room floor, sifted through a stack of ink-splotched MLB team schedules, and plotted a summer road trip for the ages: eleven games in eleven different ballparks in nine cities over ten days.
Over the last twelve summers, I’ve chipped away at my goal of seeing a home game in all 30 MLB cities. At press time, only three remain: Arlington, Houston and Minneapolis. Today we look at the past and present homes of the New York Yankees.
The second stop on that ’02 road trip was old Yankee Stadium. It was my first and only visit to the-house-that-Ruth-built-and-Steinbrenner-renovated. I wasn’t too familiar with the frenetic energy of New York as a Cape Cod kid who attended a tiny New England college that sat across the street from a sheep farm, and my senses were working overtime as we negotiated rush hour foot traffic through dark concourses and dingy corridors — it felt like the power had gone out and the entire place was running on a backup generator. We finally walked out to Gotham’s ballyard, lights shining on the action as zealots trimmed in enemy colors shouted encouragement for the bad guys — their good guys. Talk about being out of place.
The Yankees faced the Detroit Tigers, a team ticketed for 106 losses that season. We sat perched behind home plate from seats only Willy Wonka’s Great Glass Elevator could reach. Detroit’s Mark Redman, himself with many more stops to go on a road trip that traversed eight Major League dugouts, an All-Star Game, a World Series and 68 career wins, became sort of a cult hero for me that night as he gamely battled Andy Pettitte and clung to a 1-0 lead heading into the ninth. But the lefty, who had flummoxed Yankee hitters all night with his change-up, inducing countless weak grounders and pop-ups, ran out of gas in the final frame as Jorge Posada came through with a two-out RBI single to win it for the home team.
The new Yankee Stadium is an imposing presence rising from the Bronx concrete like something from a lost Grecian blueprint. Everything about the place is big, save for the distance to the right field fence. The concourses are lofty, well-ventilated, like museum halls. Huge banners are everywhere, celebrating the persistent excellence of the most decorated franchise in sports. The concession prices clear a big space in your wallet. The audio system is imposing — the thump of the drum machine behind the faux Westminster Chimes riff played after every home run (following an air raid siren) similarly clears space in your eardrums. The first time I visited, the Yankees turned Johan Santana (in his first start since throwing the first no-hitter in Mets history) into their own personal pinata, blasting four home runs.
While the old stadium experience was alarming to the uninitiated aw-shucks New England kid, the layer of dust on the former Yankees’ home at least resonated with the dirt-under-the-fingernails component of the fan base that supported the team. The new Yankee Stadium, while adorned with thoughtful touches that recall its predecessor’s original 1923 design, stands as a clunky symbol of pre-recession America. Planners imagined a cadre of corporate types plunking down huge sums to sit in cushy seats close to the field with slackened ties and smartphones to their ears. Today, we watch Yankee games and see a pastiche of blue seat backs, making the home of the most successful pro sports franchise in North America look like a minor league complex from the right camera angle.
Then you’ve got the Mohegan Sun Sports Bar, a prominent in-stadium watering hole that juts out from center field and prevents fans in right field from seeing play in left, as fans in left field similarly find it difficult to observe play in right. While Fenway has its share of poles cutting off frames of game action, and the Tampa Bay Rays tarp over obstructed view seats (which, conveniently for their flaccid fan base, take up a third of the stadium), this is, well, poor.
In the end, it’s still Yankee Stadium, home of professional baseball’s greatest winners and their fans, as vocal and passionate as any in Major League Baseball. The energy in the place is completely unique to New York. It is a grand stage for a grand rivalry, one that the Yankees dominated for over a century. But this new ballpark hosts an aging Bomber lineup, one holding out hope to avoid an injury jinx that decimated their chances last year so they can send their near-40 year old captain off with a fifth ring. Behind the opulent Indiana limestone facade, there are weaknesses. The Red Sox would be well-served to exploit them.