Friday, September 19, 2008

Memory's Wrecking Ball

AND THEN THERE WERE in just 3 games left at Yankee Stadium. After this series against the Birds of Baltimore, it's off to the wholly unnecessary new Stadium being built just a Ruthian blast away from the current cathedral of American sports, set to be demolished next spring after every last seat, section post and light fixture has been cataloged, indexed and sold off to the proverbial highest bidder.

Ironically, the Yankees are making a big show of warning fans attending this Sunday's game against helping themselves to any impromptu souvenirs on their way out. See, it's still big money, the memorabilia game, what with suckers still being born in this dying consumer republic at the alarming rate of one per minute. As proof, pairs of Shea Stadium seats were going for $869 -- get it: 1969 and 1986 were the Mets' two championships, so they made the price 8 + 69. Just what the hell you do with rusting stadium seats once you've overpaid for them and actually brought them home is another relevant question. Of course, telling you not to do something works very much like a call to arms for some New Yorkers -- or is it "New Yorkians" now as Brett Favre actually put it the other day? They should take away Favre's key to the city for that one.

My own Stadium memories go back so far, they almost seem to be among my earliest memories period, all the more rich because they remain intertwined with recollections of my dad taking me to games. Funny the Yanks are closing out with Baltimore this weekend, because the first game I have concrete memories of is actually a doubleheader loss to those same Orioles. Back then, the late 1960s, Baltimore was a powerhouse and the Yankees, well, the Yankees were something less than that. The glory days were in the rear view mirror, with Mickey Mantle on his last legs literally as well as figuratively. The product taking the field every night was subpar to put it kindly, with decent players like Bobby Murcer and, my favorite, Roy White, surrounded by so-so players like Horace Clarke, Jerry Kenny and Gene Michael.

The Orioles, on the other hand, were fielding some of the greatest players not only of their era, but any period in baseball history. The pitching was so good, with Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar and Dave McNally, that they would have four 20-game winners in one season. And with Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson and Boog Powell providing the power, there were a lot of nights like the one I suffered through that night: a discouraging 13-0 shutout loss in the opener, followed by another defeat in the nightcap.

Bat days at Yankee Stadium for this reason were something of a crapshoot. Like most young Yankee fans, you hoped you got a good bat -- in my case, one with a Bobby Murcer or Roy White signature, and not a Jake Gibbs or Tom Tresh model. Shea Stadium had to eliminate their own bat day giveaways at this time because of fan violence. When Yankee fans are the well behaved ones, you know you got a story.

They didn't call it the Bronx Zoo in those days for nothing. The half-filled stadium reflected the team's popularity in the City, as the rising Mets were beginning to capture New York at this time, with exciting young players like Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Cleon Jones, with the Mets turning from lovable losers to something like perennial contenders, and for that glorious year of 1969, even I got caught up a little in the fever, surreptitiously scrawling Tommie Agee in the palm of my glove in black marker after they won the World Series against the heavily favored Orioles.

Back at Yankee Stadium the next year, this time for Cap Day -- god how we lived for those giveaway days! -- I had one of the more traumatic experiences. After proudly wearing my new hat all day at the game -- that deep navy blue with, yes, the interlocking N/Y above the bill -- to my horror it was snatched off my head, never to be seen or worn again, as the heartless thief made his way down the exit ramp in a New York second. My mom made me write a letter to the team and, sure enough, a few weeks later a new cap came in the mail with a letter of apology from the team president of those pre-Steinbrenner New York Yankees, and I was a happy kid again.

For two years, 1974 and '75, the Yankees actually played their home games at Shea Stadium while Yankee Stadium was being refurbished. That's right, they shared a park with the Mets, so every day Shea had a baseball game featuring one of the New York teams. I haven't heard anyone talking about how some of the Yankees memories at least technically will also be lost when the wrecking ball is let loose on Shea.

The old Yankee Stadium, pre-renovation, had a feature that was eliminated in the new one: a kind of Yankee Hall of Fame that you could pass through on your way to Monument Park. It was really little more than some old uniforms in a glass case, but there was also a bank of phones where you could "talk to" Yankee greats. You picked up the receiver in, say, Mantle's booth and you heard a recorded message from Mickey. I never got tired of that.

One year, me and a friend went to a game along with my older brother and his friend Jimmy Kelly, who was known as a little crazy around the neighborhood. Now of course he's a New York City cop, so you see how things work out sometimes in the long run. Anyway, the Monuments were on the field in those days, just part of the cavernous centerfield, right in front of the 463-foot marker. I still find that hard to believe and yet I am sure that, yes, the players had to deal with all that while fielding a long blast to straightaway centerfield. I'm pretty sure I'm not embellishing this, but I can see how someone would be skeptical.

Anyway, you could also see the bullpen from Monument Park, and on this day reliever Lindy McDaniel was getting some work in. Lindy was one of the better players on the team in the early '70s, a trusty middle reliever and a reliable spot starter. So we started calling his name, once, twice, but no reaction, so finally, really loud, Jimmy yells: "Hey Lindy McDaniel you fucking faggot!" That got his attention, and sent us running back through the tunnel toward our seats. Ah, good times...

The late 1970s, of course, the Yankees started winning. Steinbrenner had taken over the team and was sparing no expense in upgrading the roster, dipping early and often into the free agent pool for top-notch talent like Catfish Hunter and later Reggie Jackson. It paid off to the tune of three straight World Series appearances from 1976-78, with championships the last two years against the L.A. Dodgers.

Summer of '78 found me working as a camp counselor at the Police Fresh Air Fund in upstate New York near Hunter Mountain, almost totally cut off from what was happening in New York for two months. Whenever I did manage to get hold of a paper, I saw the bad news getting progressively worse. Not only were the Yankees not going to defend their first World Series win in 15 years, they were so far behind the Red Sox that the AL East division itself was almost hopelessly out of reach. The lead ballooned to 14 games in July. Only a fool would think the season wasn't lost.

Then the Yankees reeled off a 35 of 49 stretch while Boston floundered at 25-24, pulling New York within a handful of games. Up next came the legendary 4-game series at Fenway early September, with the Yankees positively bludgeoning Boston by a composite 42-9 in what came to be known as the second "Boston Massacre." The next week Boston came to town for a 3-game series, and I was there for the finale, watching Yankee CF Paul Blair slap a bases-loaded single through a drawn-in infield for the 5-4 win in the bottom of the 9th, with a delirium ensuing that can only be termed seismic.

The Red Sox had given up their entire 14-game lead, and then some, only to show some guts of their own in coming back to tie for the division lead by season's end, prompting the historical one-game showdown at Fenway. I will never forget watching it along with Debbie Ellen Epstein, who happened to be the world's biggest Bucky Dent fan. And it was a good day to be a Bucky Dent fan on that day as he hit the go-ahead HR.

My only World Series moment comes from Game One, 1981, Yanks-Dodgers yet again in baseball's version of Groundhog Day. My friend Roger had waited on line for tickets the day before, not great seats, but then again we only paid $20 apiece! A younger, simpler time on pro sports. Singer Pearl Bailey blew the crowd away before a single pitch was thrown with a stirring version of the National Anthem, and then a Bob Watson 3-run bomb in the 1st inning had the Yanks well on their way to a 4-1 opening game victory. Yankees won the second game too, but then things spiraled out of control with the Series shifting out West.

See, we were up 2-0, and Roger also had tix for Game 6. But there wouldn't be a Game 6 unless the Dodgers could win a couple of games. So Roger did what I specifically asked him not to do: root for L.A. to win two games at Dodger Stadium and thus send it back to Yankee Stadium for at least one more game. Well, you know the baseball gods have a screwy sense of humor, and sure enough the jinx was enough to propel the Dodgers winning not just 2 but then all 3 games at home, and back in New York it was all over in 6 games. It was Dave Winfield's futility in this postseason that earned him the harsh sobriquet Mr. May. Who knew then it would be the last season that would end in the Series for another 15 years! Not me, not when a young lad name of Donald Arthur Mattingly showed up in the Bronx a few years later with a sweet swing and a commanding presence at 1st base.

But alas, the Winfield-Mattingly Era would also be bereft of postseason glory, always a sore spot for those of us who appreciated Donnie Baseball all those years. The early Joe Torre years seem like a blur now, almost running together in a haze of great playoff moments. The best games those years were the spontaneous ones we would attend, a select few of us at The Wall Street Transcript casually bolting from the office at noon of a workday, shooting uptown on the 6-train, arriving at our seats in time for 1:05 first pitch and ordering a well-deserved cold one after a long morning at work: the green, green grass of the field winking back at me reassuringly: relax... where else would you possibly rather be?

Those glory days it seemed like the year wasn't over until the parade was held downtown through the Canyon of Heroes. Now the Yankee team is forced into the uncomfortable role of postseason spectators. Both fans and players hope they don't have to get used to it when the new Stadium begins making its own history.


Johnny Starr said...

Sit back and open a cold one and watch the Mets play in October

jimithegreek said...

This is a great post. Bringin back some memories for me too. I remeber the Twins led by Harmon Killebrew and the Senators led by Big Frank Howard also beating on the Yanks those years! Who could forget Steve "Folly Floater" Hamilton? Really enjoyed this one. At least we can watch the Mets choke again!