I was told by my father a long time ago that baseball is not as much a sport as it is a game. The venues where these games play out give more evidence to that notion, as the carefully-prescribed measurements all fields must follow (90 feet between bases and 60 feet 6 inches from the pitcher’s mound to home plate) are seemingly implanted into a stadium, rather than being built around it.
Baseball stadiums are shrines, not necessarily to the teams playing in them, but rather the culture that surrounds it. Fenway Park in Boston has character through its age; Marlins Park in Miami is wrought with decadence and flash.
But located in the Bronx, New York is the game's shining palace. The 50,000-seat Yankee Stadium stands as an icon in architecture, with facades which replicate the ornate and deep history characterizing much of America’s oldest metropolis and the modern facets of the world’s cultural center.
It was made with two things in mind: baseball and New York City. The many concerts and annual college football bowl game that is played there each winter are money-makers meant to help fund its development, and increase its cultural significance.
So what was anyone to expect from a soccer game?
When I entered the stadium three hours before kickoff, it was empty. If you have ever been in a place meant to hold tens of thousands but has less than a hundred, you have never felt so small. It is what I imagine astronauts must feel looking back on the earth from space—cynically meaningless and cold, optimistically significant and miraculous.
I felt out of place in a stadium I have been in a dozen times before. Not for the emptiness, but the awkward way I was meant to look at the field. The subtly of a baseball diamond had been buried by the rigidity of a 110-by-70 yard rectangle.
The regular infield dirt was covered with temporary grass, sod laid down for this occasion. Enough to disguise it as a soccer field for the players only. One goal line extended about 15 feet past the first base line. The other, out in left field, teased the warning track. Plenty of space behind the sidelines, a welcome sight for players who are routinely hovered over by gawking fans every time the ball nears the chalk (baseball reference).
But nothing quite made me as uneasy as the way Monument Park was made irrelevant. If you have ever been to Yankee Stadium (old or new) you are familiar with Monument Park. It sits just over 400 feet away from home plate, beyond the center field wall and holds the legacy of Yankee greats. DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra, Gehrig and of course Ruth reside there—at least, their baseball spirits. (If you aren’t familiar with these names or the sport, replace those names with that of Pele, Maradona, Cruyff and Platini, and imagine they all came from the same club.)
It is the centerpiece of Yankee Stadium in much the same way as the Shankly Gates of Anfield, the one thing that ties the mess of seats and concourses together.
It was absent on Sunday night. Not mentioned, noted or even seen by many there. Tucked away about 25 yards behind the PSG bench—out of sight, out of mind.
As someone who loves the story of baseball and the rich history it has to offer to this country’s sporting and cultural history, the whole thing seem like much more of a farce than I ever expected. It really was going to be a promotional stunt hoping to reel in fans for the future via merchandise sales (someone’s got to fund Hazard’s transfer).
Armed with pessimism I left the press box and ventured outside to see the crowd gather. An hour before the match it seemed the 38,202 fans who would soon fill out the stadium were lined up eagerly in front of turnstiles waiting to gaze upon what I just had moments earlier.
The atmosphere was electric. I have never been around 38,000 Chelsea fans at one time—and no, that is not rounding down. There likely were no more than 200 or so French supporters. Blue was the color of the day, replacing the pinstripe patterns that generally congregate outside the park.
I spoke to a few to see how their anticipation differed from my experience. John Mortein of Endicott, NY told me he was looking forward to the “European Champions playing in the home of the baseball champions,” with his two young sons in Lampard jerseys by his side.
George Giuliano of Montclair, New Jersey had similar sentiments. A lifelong fan since the 1970s, George had a particularly good year seeing his beloved Blues and New York Giants both crowned the champions of their respective sports. He noted the disparity between supporters, with very few “Frenchies” in attendance.
Luckily I was able to track down a few “Frenchies” in Abib and Mohammed who are both Senegalese-born PSG fans now living in the U.S. They preferred to talk more about the overshadowed history of great footballers who hail from Africa, with George Weah topping the list ahead of Samuel Eto’o and Didier Drogba. I asked them how they would make their voices heard when so outnumbered.
“I don’t know how we will be heard,” Abib told me. “But we have to be here to say Allons-y PSG!”
The game started right on time, and for 90 minutes two teams kicked the ball around tentatively. No surprise to anyone who knows that these preseason games are exhibitions at best, most of the time they rarely even approach that. The practical reasoning is of course not to risk injury and no one will fault their players for not going all-out in mid-July.
But the void I felt earlier gazing upon the field was now filled with the pride of fans who had come from all over the Northeast United States to see their favorite team and take part in this historical day. Suddenly it had all come alive, and the ineptness that was presented before the whistle blew became the breeding ground for the atmosphere that makes a stadium special.
Roberto Di Matteo in the postgame press conference commented on that very atmosphere, thanking the fans who came out and even saying it “felt like a home game.”
He added, “the atmosphere was very good and the supporters enjoyed themselves. I was watching them, what they were doing. For us it’s a good experience. The club has been here before and we can see football is being followed very much here in the United States.”
It was the first time he or any of the players had been inside the new Yankee Stadium, which he described as a “piece of art.” But how much is that “art” created with walls and beams and how much with the fans that give it life?
Monument Park was not being cast aside in spite of this game. It was just not alive yet. The emptiness I felt when I first entered, looking at the pitch, was not due to the foreignness of the layout. It was that there was nothing to give that rectangle meaning.
For two-and-a-half hours, Yankee Stadium was as much one built for soccer as any in the world. Not because of the temporary lines placed on the field, but because the fans made it one. Chelsea could have played this match anywhere—from the Meadowlands in New Jersey to the Great Lawn in Central Park—and it would have been a perfect venue. Because when fans show up with bright smiles to watch their heroes perform, where you actually kick the ball matters very little. Much like how the plaques and names of Monument Park only have meaning when presiding over a baseball game.
So how did Yankee stadium fare in hosting its first-ever soccer game? Just ask the fans.
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