I can still remember the first time I entered that stadium. I was still only a young boy, and couldn’t possibly have been more excited to see my first big league game. I grew up around the Yankees. Between living in the tri-state area, the tales on the playground, and the history passed down by fanatic uncles, Yankee baseball was almost a way of life. Sure, I’d watched the Yankees on TV for years. From the time I left the womb, the Yankees were always on television around me. I couldn’t help but feel the mystique and aura of the stadium coming through my TV screen.
But this was different. It was unique. This wasn’t Yankee baseball as I’d known it my entire life. There was something special about this place. Nuzzled in the middle of the Bronx, somewhere on the corner of River Ave and 161stStreet lay the greatest cathedral known to man, and I was about to experience it. I’ll never forget the first time I entered through those magical gates. I strolled through as if it were completely natural, like it had been my home for years. The excitement had to be evident on my face, as my jaw was hanging low and my eyes wandered around the narrow walkways decades old. This stadium was different than any other I’d ever experienced. Sure, the smell of hotdogs was the same, and the souvenir sodas ran about the same size. But the energy of the stadium was like nothing I’d ever experienced. Perhaps it was the buzz of an early April game, and the excitement of a new beginning. Perhaps it was the hype surrounding the newest free agent acquisition, or the pitching performance of the night before. It could have even been that the rival Boston Red Sox were in town. I, on the other hand, believe it was something quite different. The energy of the stadium wasn’t due to performance or excitement. It was due to the history and pride of this great ballpark. It was about the generations of legends who occupied that stadium for years—from Ruth and Gehrig, through DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra, Rizzuto, and Mattingly; up to the current mainstay of names like Jeter, Williams, and Rivera. It was due to the pride and tradition of the Yankees that started with ownership and was carried down through players and fans alike. This was Yankee Stadium.
I’ll never forget the first time my eyes saw that field. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. The second I stepped foot into that tunnel and caught a glimpse of the blue sky and the top of the grandstand, the hair on my neck stood right up. A chill shot right down my spine. It was beautiful. Sure, this stadium came through my television screen 81 times a year, but it was so different in person. It was bigger and brighter. The grass was greener. The fans were real. Despite the awe, I felt at home.
The Yankees would go on to win that day, by a score of 3-2. As I rose from my seat to leave, I heard “New York, New York” for the first time in the stadium. It’s a tune that I haven’t quite been able to get out of my head since. As I watched the players exchange handshakes and congratulations with each other in the middle of the diamond, I realized exactly how much this place had won me over. I couldn’t get enough.
As the years passed, I continued to go to Yankee Stadium as often as possible. The games on TV just weren’t the same anymore. I returned at first, with family and friends, usually on day trips on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. As I grew older, and became a junior in high school, the freedom of a license made me a frequent visitor to the ballpark in the Bronx. My friends and I would take every chance we could get to head to the Stadium, whether it was a Sunday afternoon or a school night. We got season ticket packages in the bleachers, taking every opportunity we could get to be noticed by Bald Vinny, shout on the top of our lungs during roll call, or hassle the opposing centerfielder. We begged those we knew with access to season tickets to give us a game here or there. We spent endless hours on eBay and Stub Hub trying to land the game we’d been waiting for. We ate, slept, and lived Yankee baseball. We’d arrive early, trying to snag a batting practice ball, or an autograph, and toured monument park whenever we weren’t in the bleachers. We saw it all—Boston, Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Toronto, Kansas City, Texas, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, interleague games. We made it to Old Timer’s Day. We saw A-Rod’s first Yankee homerun. We were there for the dog days of August, and sat through April rain delays. The stadium was our home.
Looking back on my relationship with the Stadium, I don’t know if I could actually point out my favorite experience. I’ve sat everywhere—from behind home plate, to the left field bleachers. Each game brought something unique. I’d been waited on in the box seating just beyond first base. I’d talked to Freddy behind home plate. I’d had A-Rod wave his glove at me when I shouted his name a few rows back of third base. I'd caught a batting practice ball. I’d felt the Stadium rock during playoff games, and I’d been there for numerous fights and ejections in the bleachers. There was no favorite experience; I loved it all.
As game time approached Sunday evening, I couldn’t help but think of the Stadium. I’d watched so many playoff games on TV in it. I saw four World Championships in it. I’d seen perfect games and no hitters. I’d watched homeruns and web gems. I’d even seen the ghosts come out, as they always do, and spark Aaron Boone’s bat to drive the Yanks to victory. And most of all, I’d always seen a smile.
To say that Sunday night was memorable would be a great understatement. I once again looked upon Yankee Stadium from my television, hundreds of miles away at college. I watched the pre-game ceremonies bearing the names of the legends I spoke of earlier as well as the guys I grew up idolizing—O’Neill, Brosius, Boggs, Cone, Wells, and Girardi. I must say, when Bernie Williams jogged out on the field, it was difficult not to choke up. Having Julia Ruth throw out the first pitch, was icing on the cake as far as I’m concerned. Her presence made Yankee Stadium even more special, as she began the ending to the Stadium her father built.
The game itself was something special. While most would have drawn up the last game at Yankee Stadium being Game 7 of the World Series, unfortunately it could not be. However, the game had a must win Game 7 feel. Appropriately, Andy Pettitte took the mound and did not disappoint. The crafty lefty surrendered three runs in his five plus innings of work, recording his 2,000th strikeout and becoming the last winning pitcher in Stadium history. He offered vintage Pettitte looks, tipping the brim of his hat, and covering his face with his glove so that only his focused eyes could be seen, a familiar picture of the late 90s Yankee dynasty. Pettitte left the game in the top of the 6thinning to a standing ovation, receiving a curtain call in the process. Perhaps it was appropriate that Joba Chamberlain also pitched in this game. The young right hander will likely play a huge part in christening the new stadium, and it was great to see him be a part of closing the old one. It was also tremendous to see Derek Jeter taken out of the game in the 9th inning. The Yankee captain got an outstanding ovation on his way off the field, and he too received a curtain call. However, seeing Mariano Rivera close out the game was something very special. As the opening lick to “Enter Sandman” struck up on the Stadium loudspeakers, I got the same chill on the back of my neck sitting on my couch as I have so many times before at the Stadium. Watching Rivera pitch a 1-2-3 ninth and grasping the game ball was something I’ll never forget.
My hat also gets tipped to ESPN. The network did a tremendous job in making the final game memorable. Between the pre-game coverage they offered, all the way until Derek Jeter’s speech and tour of the Stadium, they did an outstanding job. They did the last game justice by showing the Stadium’s subtleties that together add up to form Yankee baseball. They showed roll call from the bleacher creatures. They allowed names like Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, and Reggie Jackson to enter the announcer’s booth. They didn’t cut to commercial during the seventh inning stretch and showed the Stadium’s famous Irish Tenor. They even allowed Yankee broadcaster Michael Kay to commentate an inning in the booth. The fact that they caught every image right up until the end was great, and they deserve all the praise they can get.
Through and through, I must say my Yankee Stadium experience these past nineteen years has been tremendous. This stadium has brought happiness to me and those around me. It’s shown me adversity and triumph. It’s instilled a Yankee pride in me that cannot be removed. Although I will miss it dearly, I look forward to the new stadium next season. I don’t think I can say it any better than Derek Jeter tonight—“Although things are going to change next year, we're going to move across the street, there are a few things with the New York Yankees that never change -- it's pride, it's tradition, and most of all, we have the greatest fans in the world.”
While I don’t want to take away from the captain’s words, I realized something more tonight about the New York Yankees. Whether they’re loved or hated, they are always respected and have set the standard for excellence. I learned this tonight in memorable fashion, as I will never forget it. My roommate is from Boston and a diehard Red Sox fan at that. Over the year and a half or so I’ve known him, we always battle about baseball and I’ve never heard him say a nice word about the Yankees. That all changed tonight, however. As he walked in the front door and saw me watching the game, he said, “This is the first time I’ve ever rooted for the Yankees to win because it just wouldn’t be right if they lost this one.” While I took that as an above and beyond statement, I found it even more amazing later in the game when from his room I heard, “Hey Tom, what inning is it?” “The seventh,” I replied. “Let me know when it’s the ninth. I wanna see it,” I heard back. As we sat there, Yankee and Red Sox fans, we both watched the final out in awe. That’s when it all came together. It’s not about being the best team, or having the best fans. It’s about earning the respect of your peers and setting the bar high for others. It’s about achieving great accomplishments and having others recognize those accomplishments, no matter where their allegiance stands.
This night was so much more than just memorable. It was breathtaking.
Thank you Yankee Stadium. Thank you for all that you’ve given me and baseball fans around the world. You will be dearly missed.