There was a T-shirt in New York in the early '80s that said, "Welcome to New York, Now Go the ---- Home." It is only with a small degree of exaggeration that you can apply the same sentiment to the experience of watching a game at Yankee Stadium. It is not for the faint of heart or for the aesthetic-minded.
The list of complaints is sizable: the ridiculous ticket prices, the lousy concessions (how can pretzels not be warmed-up by the third inning?), the appalling conditions of the bathrooms, the cramped alleyways and the obnoxious, well-heeled, suburban kids yelling "Farm-ing-Dale" into their cell phones. It brings to mind the joke about the two old ladies at a Catskills Resort that Woody Allen told in Annie Hall:
"Boy, the food at this place is really terrible," says one.
"Yeah, I know, and such small portions."
That's also how I feel about Yankee Stadium, a tourist attraction that is a throwback to the rough old days of New York, when the city didn't care about you. (Why care when you were going to show up and fork over your dough anyway?) In spite of the obstacles -- Yankee Stadium can be a hard, unforgiving place -- the sheer massiveness of the park is breathtaking. It is a glowing field stuck in the middle of a concrete jungle.
"Yankee Stadium is something else, a law unto itself," wrote critic Wilfred Sheed. "It has earned the right to look any way it pleases and I wouldn't change a seat of it."
It drives my friend in California nuts when I refer to Yankee Stadium as the Stadium. He thinks I'm being a typical, self-inflated New Yorker (guilty). But it's also true. Yankee Stadium, built in 1923, was the first ballpark to be called a Stadium. It used to be called The Yankee Stadium, then eventually just The Stadium. It wasn't built to be quaint or intimate like Fenway Park or Wrigley Field, or any number of modern parks -- including the upcoming Mets' park, Citi Field. It was meant to be a coliseum. A fitting palace for Gotham City.
The old Yankee Stadium, prior to the mid-70s renovation, housed some of the most famous sporting events in history -- the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling re-match in 1938 and the '58 NFL title game between the Giants and Colts. The deal to remodel the Stadium was in place before George Steinbrenner bought the team in 1973; originally estimated at $25 million, the final cost soared well over $100 million. Robert Lipsyte wrote a scathingly critical piece on the new park in Sports Illustrated. Before construction was complete, Yankee Stadium historians Bill Shannon and George Kalinsky wrote, "It will leave us with a great sports landmark structurally mauled somewhat beyond need in our view. But some Yankee Stadium is better than none, and that seemed to be the alternative choice."
Still, more than a thousand protestors greeted Opening Day in 1976. "As has been borne out since," noted historian Philip Bashe, "the refurbishing of Yankee Stadium has done little to stem the rising tide of poverty and urban decay in the South Bronx."
"They changed a lot of it," utility infielder Fred Stanley told Bashe, "There were some things about it that were the same, but it wasn't the old Yankee Stadium."
Physically, the renovated park followed the trend of cylindrical, hollowed-out Stadiums that were in vogue in the '60s and '70s. It may have been slightly more convenient than the old version, but aesthetically it was not an improvement. The bleacher seats were cut in two and the centerfield fence went from 461 feet to 417. "Death Valley" in left-center went from 457 feet to 411, though the corners were pushed out slightly (future "renovations saw center field go to 410 feet in 1985, then 408 in '88, while left-center eventually ended up at 399). The place was colored in royal blue.
The Stadium was an instant success because the '76 Yankees won the pennant, and winning is the only measure of success in the Bronx. One of the defining moments in the team's history came when Chris Chambliss hit a home run against the Kansas City Royals to win the pennant and was mobbed while trying to circle the bases. The scene reflected the atmosphere of the city. In the late '70s games there had an apocalyptic feel. The atmosphere was lawless, like something out of The Warriors and, later, Fort Apache, the Bronx. It was Pacino screaming "Attica!" in Dog Day Afternoon. The fans took charge.
Observed Roger Angell: "It is a new game -- one for which we have no name yet, and no rules. Chambliss makes it at last to the dugout, without touching third or home (third base had disappeared), and vanished under the lip of the dugout, with his uniform shirt half torn away and the look on his face now is not one of joy or fear or relief but just the closed, expressionless, neutral subway look that we all see and wear when abroad in the enormous and inexplicable city."
In Game 6 of the 1977 World Series, more than a dozen kids sat on the right-field wall with their legs dangling in play during the top of the ninth inning as the Yankees closed in on the championship. Reggie Jackson stood in right field wearing a batting helmet to protect himself from the various projectiles being dropped onto the field. The visiting Dodgers were horrified at the scene. When the last out was made, Jackson bolted toward home as fans streamed onto the field. He was able to weave his way through the oncoming traffic until one poor schnook got in his way. Jackson absolutely leveled the guy, ran right through him, before diving safely into the dugout.
There have been some memorable fights on the field -- Graig Nettles breaking Bill Lee's arm in a Red Sox-Yankees brawl in '76, Darryl Strawberry throwing a sucker punch after Armando Benetiz drilled Tino Martinez in '98 -- but they are minor when compared with the daily fights in the stands. Red Sox slugger Jim Rice once climbed into the left-field seats to chase an agitator. Yankees legends were not immune to this treatment either. Everyone from Babe Ruth to Mickey Mantle to Reggie and Dave Winfield, even Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera,have been booed (they don't call it a Bronx Cheer for nothing). They've even taken it to the Boss. When Jackson, then with the Angels, homered in his first at-bat against the Yankees after not being re-signed at the end of the '81 season, the crowd chanted "Stein-brenner sucks! Stein-brenner sucks!"
By the end of the decade, enervated by Steinbrenner's ceaselessly paranoid interference, fans began forming groups like SOS (Stamp Out Steinbrenner) and FOUL (Fans Opposed to Useless Leadership). In late August 1989 fans chanted "George Must Go! George Must Go!" Then, on Sept. 15, Steinbrenner held the first-ever "Banner Night." There were more than 150 placards, mostly dissing the Yankees owner ("Pardon US, George, Sell the Yankees"), but just one arrest: a fan dressed as a monk, with a large wooden cross around his neck, and a banner that read, "Forgive Him Lord, He Knows Not What He Does."
The raucous spirit of the Stadium fans is best seen in the bleachers. In the early '80s the bleacher gang was lead by the charismatic MC Melle Mel -- his sidekick was Busy Bee, and Kool Keith was a frequent member as well. Author Mark Lamster still recalls the pain of high-fiving Mel, his hand stinging from Mel's huge gold ring. "His signature was a dead-on imitation of Stevie Wonder singing I Just Called to Say I Love You," recalls Lamster, "which he'd do standing on one of those blue plastic bleacher seats, waving his head back and forth." There was plenty of drinking and smoking in the bleachers until late in the game, during a tense moment, when Melle Mel would silence his corps to attention. "Toe-nail time," as he called it.
Years later the self-anointed Bleacher Creatures started Roll Call, the practice of calling out each Yankees fielder's name in the top of the first inning. Yankees fans began the much-copied practice of clapping with two strikes on a hitter during Ron Guidry's 18-strikeout game in '78.
The Stadium crowd has changed throughout the years -- recently, as attendance has topped 4 million per season, it has become more corporate and suburban than ever. Still, when the Yankees win a big game, the place shakes and makes a kind of noise that is unmatched in any park. When the Yankees are losing, the park can be a drag -- unfriendly, crude and boorish -- but you go because of the possibility of something thrilling happening, with Josh Hamilton's record-breaking performance at the Home Run Derby on Monday night being just the latest example.
Great teams and players make the Stadium. And so do the fans. So has the legendary public address announcer, Bob Sheppard, now 97, reluctantly forced to the sidelines (remember when he carefully pronounced "Shigetoshi Hasegawa"?) The Yankees' bottom line has always been about the bottom line: winning. And the new park will be labeled a curse, no matter how much more comfortable or expensive it will be, until the Yanks win there.