Thursday, April 16, 2009
October, not opener, will define stadium
By Jerry Crasnick ESPN.com
NEW YORK -- Old habits die hard, and Yankees manager Joe Girardi took the scenic route to work Thursday morning. Rather than exit the Major Deegan Expressway at 161st Street and the Macombs Dam Bridge, he took the River Avenue exit to the office.
Or, as a sentimentalist might refer to it, Memory Lane.
The drive took him past the old Yankee Stadium, and Girardi glanced through an opening in the structure to see a large tent where baseball used to be played. For all he knew, there were preparations taking place for somebody's wedding, bar mitzvah or Sweet 16 party.
The old ballpark is officially a relic now, and Girardi has only one tangible reminder of the time he spent there as a player, coach and manager.
"I've got my dirt from home plate, and in the bag you can see the white chalk and sunflower seeds," Girardi said. "There's a little bit of everything in that dirt, so it's special to me."
The Yankees embrace tradition, so it was no surprise to see Yogi Berra throwing out the ceremonial first pitch.
The 2009 season will be devoted to building new memories in the Bronx, in a grandiose park that's more coliseum than cathedral. The new Yankee Stadium's perks include a Rhode Island-sized video board in center field, high-definition TV screens behind the gift shop cash registers and calorie counts displayed prominently with your concession fare.
For those keeping score at home, it's 500 calories for a sweet Italian sausage, and $16 for a slice of pizza and a Stella Artois.
All those amenities and a $1.5 billion ballpark price tag mattered little as euphoria took a U-turn Thursday. By the seventh inning, Yankees fans were clamoring to get out of the park.
Sight lines, hitting backgrounds and foul territory might change, but bad pitching is forever. That was never truer than Thursday, when Girardi's middle relievers kept sprinting out of the bullpen like clowns piling out of a Volkswagen.
The twosome of Jose Veras and Damaso Marte turned a pitchers' duel into a nine-run deficit, and the Cleveland Indians ruined the new park's debut with a 10-2 win over the Yankees before a sellout crowd of 48,271. Johnny Damon logged the first hit and Jorge Posada collected the first home run, but the day belonged to the Tribe.
Strangely enough, a prominent postgame theme revolved around whether the new Yankee Stadium is actually quieter than the old yard. On a day like this, who could tell?
"Home-field advantage is all about the atmosphere and all about the fans," Derek Jeter said. "Our fans were great today. We just didn't give them much to cheer about."
Cleveland sent 12 men to the plate in a momentous seventh inning, and Grady Sizemore blew it open with a grand slam off Marte.
"In certain cities, you can hear people heckling you from the stands," Sizemore said. "There are so many people screaming in New York, it's just noise. They were loud today, too -- until when we went up 10-1."
Nobody does tradition like the Yankees, and the featured elements in the new ballpark opener ranged from Yogi Berra throwing out the ceremonial first pitch to a 1923 Babe Ruth bat being laid across home plate before Jeter's first-inning at-bat. When asked whether he could ever contemplate swinging a piece of lumber that heavy, Jeter smiled.
"Not against Cliff Lee," he said. "Maybe if it was [Tim] Wakefield."
Lee threw six effective innings and outpitched CC Sabathia, whose uneven performance this season has been a microcosm of the Yankees' 5-5 start. Sabathia was horrible in Baltimore, terrific in Kansas City, and valiant-yet-flawed against Cleveland, piling up 122 pitches in 5 2/3 innings.
With his lack of consistency, Sabathia isn't alone. Despite a $201 million payroll and major expectations, the Yankees are a work in progress and a mass of contradictions.
Although free-agent signee A.J. Burnett has already been hailed as the anti-Carl Pavano, Chien-Ming Wang's 28.93 ERA is all the evidence you need that he's spending way too much time up in the strike zone.
Although Nick Swisher is hitting .406 with four homers and a 0.00 ERA, Xavier Nady might as well be prepping for a guest appearance on "House." Nady has undergone an MRI and two X-rays on his ailing right elbow, and he's scheduled for a CT scan Friday. The only certainty is that he won't be playing anytime soon.
The new Yankee Stadium has all kinds of perks, including some upscale food choices.
Although rookie outfielder Brett Gardner is giving the Yankees the speed, defense and scrappiness they had hoped for, poor Cody Ransom is hitting .100 with two errors and making the Yankees count the days until Alex Rodriguez's return.
As for the bullpen, it's pitcher-to-pitcher and day-to day. Some fans who bought tickets to the opener might have been traumatized by the sight of a frenzied Damon continually sprinting back to the left-field fence at a dead run.
At this point, the Yankees probably could benefit from some normalcy. Since April 6, they've been bystanders for a season opener in Baltimore, a revamped Kauffman Stadium celebration in Kansas City and an American League championship ring ceremony in Tampa Bay. They were starting to feel like America's guests.
"This seems like our 10th Opening Day this year," Jeter said. "Everybody's excited about today, and it's something we'll all remember. But you look forward to putting it behind you and sort of getting into a routine."
New York has six games left against Cleveland and Oakland before this homestand concludes, and it'll be a while before the players determine precisely how the new park plays. With the short porch in right field and the vast expanse in left, don't look for anything too drastic.
In the meantime, armchair architects and ballpark critics will draw their own conclusions. It's been said that the park is too opulent for trying times -- as if the Yankees somehow could have envisioned the current economic meltdown.
And if you adhere to the notion that a 10-figure expenditure should buy a ballpark that's innovative or breaks new ground, you've come to the wrong shrine. In so many ways, the new Yankee Stadium looks eerily like the old Yankee Stadium.
Commissioner Bud Selig was celebrating his 15th birthday when his mother took him to Yankee Stadium for the first time in 1949, and they sat in the upper deck. He experienced a similar thrill when he saw the field stretch before him Thursday. Selig believes the Yankees had to walk a fine line in balancing tradition with the need to give fans modern amenities, and he thinks they succeeded.
"You really have to be clever about it," Selig said. "Let's be honest -- Yankee Stadium was the most famous sports cathedral in the world. Do you want to preserve it? You bet you do because you're preserving the legacy of the franchise."
There will be lots more games to play, memories to make and $10.75 cheesesteaks to sell in this place. But as gruesome as the opener was for the Yankees, no one is going to dwell much on a blowout loss in April. The ultimate litmus test for this ballpark will be how many games are played here in October.
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.