I’ve been going to Yankee Stadium for 30-plus years. Over the course of a misspent youth and protracted adolescence, I have probably passed through those turnstiles some 300 times. Having lived in a dozen places, gone to four different schools, and attended three different churches over that same span, it strikes me that the southwest corner of River Avenue and 161st Street is the firmest geographical constant in my life — an odd thought. There was no chance, then, that I’d miss the final home game at the House That Ruth Built.
This past Sunday, the long history of the big ballyard in the Bronx ended as it began — with a Yankees win. Andy Pettitte pitched five solid innings, Johnny Damon and José Molina homered for the Bombers, and Mariano Rivera finished off the 7-3 win to stave off elimination from the 2008 postseason — for a few days, at least. A victory was essential, of course, to ring down the curtain on the Stadium in style. But the game itself was a secondary consideration. The night — a long, exhausting night — was about more than one game of baseball. It was about 85 years of cherished memories — not all of them sweet, but no less cherished — that will long survive the building’s impending demolition.
The Stadium gates actually opened seven hours before game time to give as many fans as possible a chance to stroll through Monument Park and along the outfield warning track. Even seven hours wasn’t enough: The early birds lingered and many fans waited for three and four hours without ever having that opportunity. When I arrived at six, hundreds of fans who remained on line were being turned away.
The Yankees planned an elaborate opening ceremony to celebrate the Stadium’s 85 years. The banner from the team’s first World Championship in 1923 was laid across the black bleachers in centerfield. The U.S. Army Field Band played, with a precision tighter than their drums. (In the only off-key note of the evening, actors dressed in vintage uniforms were introduced as if they were the players from the 1923 championship team — “Field of Dreams, without the corn,” I couldn’t help but mockingly observe.)
On the Diamond Vision screen, classic moments from the franchise’s storied past reeled by — Gehrig’s farewell, Don Larsen’s perfect game, Maris’s 61st, Reggie’s three dingers against the Dodgers, Bucky Effin’ Dent. And then, in a welcome reprise of the pre-game ceremony from the 2008 All Star Game, former Yankee players (and members of deceased players’ families) were introduced and took their familiar positions on the field. Whitey Ford and Yogi. Reggie and Roy White. Dave Winfield loping out in pinstripes once more. Willie Randolph sliding into second to get his uniform dirty. Bernie Williams, back at last to a deafening ovation, and looking ready to play. Honestly: The memories were so thick, we had to brush them away from our faces . . .
My dad took me to my first Yankee game in 1976, the year the team returned to the refurbished Stadium after its two-year exile in Shea. It was a Sunday in July, the Yankees were in first place, and there were at least 50,000 people there to see the Bombers beat the White Sox 5-0. To be honest, I don’t remember much about the game itself — other than being disappointed that Willie Randolph and Lou Pinella didn’t play (Team captain Thurman Munson did play, so the disappointment was mild). There were too many sights and sounds and smells for this seven-year-old to pay a scorer’s attention to the action.
Later games stand out clearer in my memory. On July 4, 1983, two neighborhood pals and I decided to take the 4 train down to the Stadium — as much because fans 14-and-under got a Yankee mug filled with mini Baby Ruths and Reggie Bars as because Boston was in town — and so it was that we got to see Dave Righetti throw a no-hitter.
We sat in the top corner of the upper deck in right (it wasn’t a full house, so we snuck down to the tier boxes soon enough). By the middle of the fifth — with zeros across the board for the Sox — a superstitious, indistinct buzz was building about the game Rags was pitching. John Tudor had started for the Sox — no slouch he: the lefty would lead the Cards to an NL pennant two years later. He held the Yanks scoreless until the fifth, when three singles and a walk gave the Bombers a 1-0 lead with the bases loaded — and Tudor promptly struck out Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield to end the threat. But Don Baylor added a solo dinger an inning later, and by the eighth, the Bombers had built a 4-0 lead.
For his part, Righetti sagely walked Jim Rice twice — the eight-time All-Star from Beantown just hammered lefties. The game would end with a rare Wade Boggs strikeout — footage that every Yankee fan has seen countless times now. We had gone for a cheap plastic mug (and I kept mine for years, until the team picture inside turned to mush) but we got a lot more for the price of admission. The Stadium was, well, like a box of chocolates: you never knew what you were going to get.