While I have a hard time recalling my first visit to Yankee Stadium, I remember almost everything about my final trip to the Yankees Iconic home. It was July 9th this summer, and little did I know that not only would it be my last visit to the current stadium, but my first visit to the new one.
It was a Wednesday. I parked across from John Mullayly Park, above 165th Street about a quarter 'til noon. I quickly made my south on River Avenue for the 1:05 start with the Tampa Rays. The construction of New Yankee Stadium dominated my view as I strode beside the park on the west side of the street. Within three blocks, I was passing the construction entrances on the backside of New Yankee Stadium’s right field. I stopped and loitered for a moment, hoping to catch a view inside the new arena.
As I stood there gazing at welders on a framework outside of and above center field, the lunch whistle sounded and a few moments later, workers started pouring out of the construction site and onto the sidewalk. Most of them turned north and began to trudge toward 164th Street, where a string of lunch trucks were double parked. Within a few minutes, two security guards stepped out from behind the fence and briefly conversed.
One of the guards was young, late 20s, the other much, much older; I made him to be 75-plus. The younger guard looked at his watch and spoke to the other man without really looking him in the eye. He pointed up the street toward the makeshift cafeteria and shuffled a half step in that direction. As he turned to walk away, he shouted something over his shoulder and then took a full stride up the street and then with a half trot, he was gone, disappearing into the lunchtime crowd.
The older guard, now alone next to the open entrance to the site, leaned against the wall. He reached in his pocket and pulled out a cigarette, which he fingered nervously, as only a nicotine addict can. It was obvious he was more than a little peeved that he was catching the late lunch shift, if only because he desperately need a nicotine fix. He looked past me toward his younger boss, and I watched as he mouthed an expletive.
I suppose it was a combination of curiosity and impulsivity that made me approach him. The other reason is I figured I had nothing to lose and that my hair-brained scheme, conceived in that instance of observing him, might actually have a chance of succeeding. I took a deep breath, rehearsed in my mind what my first words to him would be and approached the guard with a singular intent: begging or buying my way inside the perimeter to gain a view of the Yankees new confines.
As I stepped toward him he looked up and I said, “Well, I don’t guess he’s ever heard the phrase ‘age before beauty.’”
“Beauty was a horse,” he quipped.
“Say, you can probably tell by my accent I’m from the deep south. I’m a huge baseball fan, a Yankee fan, and I was wondering, is there any way on earth you could lead me in there for about a 30 second glance at the new stadium?"
Before he could answer I charged ahead, “Today is my last time to be in the city for Lord only knows how long; it’s clearly my last trip to the current stadium, and I was thinking of how great it would be 50 years from now to tell my grandkids how on my last day to go to a game at old Yankee, I also made my first visit to new Yankee Stadium.”
“Where are you from?” he asked.
At least that wasn’t a flat out no. “Tupelo, Mississippi,” I said with pride.
“Elvis” he exclaimed. “Hmmm, Mississippi, tell me what’s the connection between Mississippi and the Yankees?”
“Jake Gibbs and Buck Showalter."
“Right you are.” His voice trails off and he twirled the cigarette in his hands. “So, you’re a Yankees fan?” There seems to be a bit of skepticism in his voice.
“What’s your name?”
“Rocky, Miskelly, sir.”
“Well, Rocky from Mississippi, being that you are a Yankees fan, you’ll surely know the answer to this: 'Who pitched the Yankee’s first perfect game, and also the year and occasion on which it happened?'”
“Yes, sir, I sure would.” Doesn’t every baseball junkie know this? Perfect games are few and far between with only 17 in 128 years. 15 different teams have had pitchers who achieved this immortal feat. The Yankees are the only organization with multiple perfect games; three all total. Each of those pitched in Yankee Stadium.
“Don Larsen with a 97 pitch masterpiece in Game Five of the 1956 fall classic against the hated boys of summer, the Brooklyn Dodgers.” I answered with assurance.
He didn’t reply, but he eyed me quizzically, scrutiny evident in his face. This man was a keen sort; smart, observant, intelligent. What had led him at his age to be standing on the side of River Avenue, guarding the gate to a construction site? And now he was thinking—seriously debating—letting a late-40s southerner trespass through the back door.
“I’d like to let you in, I really would,” he said with an apologetic tone. “Truth is though,” he continued “I need this job, at least a while longer. However, I have to say, that would be a kick in the pants to tell your grandkids that you went in both stadiums on the same day. Not many people will be able to say that.” He chuckled a bit at the idea.
He started to speak again with more apologies, but I interrupted him. “Look,” I said, “Ask me any question you want about Yankee trivia. If I don’t know it, I’ll go away and leave you alone. But if I get it right, just let me walk in there and take a quick glance around. You can even act like you caught me sneaking in and throw me out.”
He didn’t say anything for what seemed like a long time while considering the challenge. “Ok,” he said with a pretty confident expression on his face, “if you know this, I’ll take you inside. Whose locker will be empty today in the Yankee Clubhouse?”
At that moment I heard the music from The Natural; I had goose bumps all over my body, I looked up toward center field, where the welders were preparing the framework for the video scoreboards and I could see sparks showering down like fireworks. I leveled my gaze at the guard, whose name was Frank, and prepared myself to speak; but there was a lump in my throat.
“Number 15’s” I said in a whisper. Tears formed in his bloodshot and aged eyes. “Thurmon Munson’s” I continued, my voice as somber as a preacher’s. “O Captain, my Captain,” I intoned. He was staring at the ground, remembering I suppose. Perhaps thinking of what might have been. “It’s been empty every day since 1979,” I added.
He looked up at me and we stared at each other. We were close now, cramped against the temporary fence that seals the construction site from the public, sharing a loss from almost 30 years ago.
Neither of us spoke as the crowd scurried past us on the sidewalk anxious to reach the stadium. In the muted light under the tracks, he reached out and touched me on the arm as the EL rumbled overhead.
He audibly cleared his throat then began to speak, “When we go in, I’m going to hand you a hard hat. Put it on. Take the clipboard I give you and follow me.” He increased his volume so that I could hear him over the train “Stay real close, we’re going to walk in, through a doorway and out where you can get a good look. We aren’t going to be in there long at all. Keep up.” He leaned in close to my ear as the train squealed its brakes.
“No one will say a word to you and don’t speak to anyone. If we meet anyone let me do the talking. Just act like you’ve been here before. When we get back to this gate, hand me the hat and clipboard, and get on the sidewalk before that young jerk gets back from lunch.”
“Thanks, Frank,” is all I can manage to say. My heart is pounding. I follow Frank into the dimly-lit space behind the wall unable to fully comprehend that I’m entering new Yankee Stadium. We bear right and I trail him for 30 seconds or so and suddenly we’re out and into the sun.
At first I was disoriented; I was expecting to walk out into the lower seating bowl along first-base line, but we’re in the right center field bleachers. I turn and stare toward home. The playing surface is below us, covered with dirt and gravel, trucks, vans and construction equipment. Nearby, cranes are hanging panels for the video display.
I don’t remember a ton of details, the work was so incomplete; rough concrete, no grass, some seats installed most not, but man what a rush nonetheless. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the old Stadium is the frieze or façade that runs above the billboards and scoreboards in the outfield. It is often used as a symbol for the stadium, or the Yankees. It was a prominent component of this year’s All-Star Game logo.
Originally the frieze ran around the roof of the grandstand’s upper deck and was made of copper. When the roof was replaced during the ‘70s' era renovation, the 1923 frieze was not. That’s when the smaller white façade appeared in the outfield. Here in New Yankee Stadium, I am transfixed by the new frieze; it looks absolutely timeless, so New York YANKEE and so white, that in the noon day sun it gleams as if made of alabaster.
Frank made a ‘follow me’ motion with his hand and I trailed him back to the dimly lit space under the stands. "Hey Rocky,” he said, as we disappeared once again in the dark bowels of the stadium, “this is gonna’ make one hell of a story for your grandkids.” I slap him on the back and hand him back the hard hat and clipboard and say, “Only because of you Frank, only because of you.”
As we walk through the near total darkness Frank asks, "Say, is Scott Bittle's 'thing' a gimmick pitch?" referring to the junior pitcher from Ole Miss that the Yankees recently drafted.
"Not at all," I answer quickly, "It's wicked, and it's the real deal. Just wait until you see it, or until he throws it and you don't see it."
Back on the sidewalk I shake Frank’s hand and press two folded twenties in his palm. “What’s this? Nahhh,” he says, realizing what I am doing. “You don’t need to do that,” he continues, trying to hand the money back to me without letting it be seen.
I clasp his hand and say “Frank, you’ve given me one of the most unbelievable gifts of my life. I am going to treasure these last five minutes for the rest of my life.” I pump his hand as If I am shaking it, but actually I am keeping his fist closed tight around the money. “I’d love to take you to dinner,” I continue, “but I have to be somewhere after the game. How about tonight you grab a bite on me and consider it nothing more than a simple thank you.”
“Ok,” he considers the idea, “Why not?” he shrugs. “Sure,” he says, seemingly reconciled. “I’ll sure do it.” And with that determined, I take a step toward the stadium and find myself quickly swallowed up by the crowd.