|Stadium mystique makes up for mistakes|
By Jeff Merron
Page 2 columnist
Editor's Note: This is the 11th report card in Page 2's summerlong series rating all 30 ballparks in Major League Baseball.
NEW YORK -- It's impossible to enter Yankee Stadium without an enormous set of preconceived notions. Even if you've never been there before, you've seen the House that Ruth Built countless times on TV during the regular season, and many more times when it's all decked out in its full World Series regalia.
Yankee Stadium is the spine of the baseball history book, the glue that connects teams and the two leagues through the decades. Baseball's Golden Age began when it opened in 1923. The Babe christened the park with a three-run homer on April 18, 1923, the Opening Day ... of all Opening Days, and it was ordained: The nexus of the baseball universe had come to life.
The great moments are countless. The images of Ruth and Gehrig and DiMaggio and Mantle and Stengel and Ford and Berra and Guidry and Jackson and Munson and Nettles and Martin and Mattingly and Winfield and Gooden and Cone and O'Neill and Jeter and Williams and Clemens and Rivera and Pettitte (just to name a few), all wearing pinstripes, are part of our collective baseball consciousness, seeping into the brain crannies and demanding respect, admiration and awe, even if you're not a Yankee fan, even if you're among the many Yankee haters.
And then there's George Steinbrenner, a former shipping executive who has willed himself to fill the larger-than-life part of Yankee owner. He inhabits the ballpark, too, and I cursed him the whole time I was there, cramped in my bleacher seat, enveloped by the sights, sounds (I'll explain below) and smells of garbage. I cursed him when I was frisked like a common criminal upon entering the stadium (up and down, without warning, with force, without any cause for suspicion -- it's apparently standard practice). I cursed him every time I encountered a rude Stadium employee bristling with animosity, which was often. Are paying customers the enemy?
That's how it felt.
But there's more to it. The Yankee players have a real relationship with the fans, acknowledging the shout-outs from the rightfield bleacher creatures as they take the field. The fans, at least on the night I was there, were incredibly spirited (especially as the Yankees and Roger Clemens whomped the Indians), and didn't seem to deserve their reputation for obnoxious rowdyism. And, finally, you're there. Yankee Stadium is deeply woven into the fabric of New York, with all its grandiose glory, with all its obvious (and seemingly insurmountable) faults. It's something that must be experienced.
Seats throughout the rest of the stadium appeared standard issue, and were even padded in the dugout-level boxes. 3.5
2. Quality of hot dogs: The sign says "Nathan's," but these weren't the mouth-watering dogs I remember from Coney Island. A friend volunteered to eat a couple, and gave them a 3.5 during the game. The next day he got sick, and blamed the weenies. Seemed like a plausible hypothesis.
On the subway home. I got to talking with a fan who sat in the loge boxes on the leftfield side. He said he ordered a hot dog with sauerkraut at one stand near his seat. This left the concessionaires befuddled. They told him that if he wanted sauerkraut, he'd have to go to a hot dog stand on the other side of the stadium. If you're in the even-numbered sections, no sauerkraut for you! 2
3. Quality/selection of other concession-stand fare: The choices under the leftfield bleachers are extremely limited. But throughout the rest of the park, which I managed to tour only by flashing my press pass (secured just for these purposes) and arguing my way past half a dozen "ushers," the selection is average, but pricey.
A shout-out goes to the hot pretzels, which were big, warm, crunchy on the outside, and soft on the inside. A shout-down goes to the nachos. An interminable line leads you slowly to a, um, unique gastronomic experience. "Let me put it this way," a nacho-munching neighbor said when asked if they were any good. "I ate a piece of my napkin with my nachos, and I didn't notice." 2.5
4. Signature concession item: Probably the sausages. A compadre ate one, and proclaimed it tasty and filling. 4
5. Beer: The bleachers are alcohol-free, meaning you can't get beer in the cheap seats. Depending on your perspective, that could be a good thing, but The Babe would surely disapprove. When I snuck into the middle-class area I did score a fine Brooklyn Lager, and there was a fair selection of other brews. 4
6. Bathrooms: Not filthy, and no lines. 3
7. Scoreboard: It's possible to catch the big video scoreboard from the far end of the leftfield bleachers, and it looked fine from there. A demerit point for only flashing three out-of-town scores at a time. 4
8. Quality of public address system: It's loud, and it's worthy of Bob Sheppard. 5
9. Fun stuff to do besides the game: Heckling is both a sport and an art at Yankee Stadiium, and we did hear some good ones: "The cereal and the board game are the only ones I know on the other team, and that's only because they have stupid names." (Have a look at the Indians roster.) Another guy noticed that Terry Mulholland was sitting in the Indians bullpen, not far from our seats. "You suck, Mulholland!" he shouted. Simple, straightforward.
That's New York Style, and if you can, appreciate it. Tim Morris, a Stadium regular before he moved to Texas, still misses it. "There was teamwork and camaraderie in the bleachers," he wrote in a funny, fond remembrance of his time among the Creatures.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the Yankee grounds crew dancing and dragging the infield to the infectious sound of "YMCA." A great act. 4.5
10. Price/selection of baseball souvenirs: The selection is standard, the prices higher. Stick a Braves logo on a baby rattle, and it's $5. Put a Yankee logo on the same item, and it's $7.50. Are those rally monkeys they're selling under the bleachers? Looked like it. That's just strange. The selection is fine, but the prices -- well, it is New York. 3.5
11. Ticket price/availability: A week before I went, I scored six bleacher seats together for a Friday night game for $12 each ($8 plus a hefty $4 Ticketmaster charge). That's a bargain, about the same price as a movie in New York. But for less, you get less. As it says clearly on the Yankees Web site, "All Bleacher tickets are within our Alcohol-free family sections and those fans are restricted to Bleacher seats ONLY. There is no access to Monument Park or other areas of the Stadium."
I didn't see that until it was too late. If I had, I would have ponied up for more expensive Tier Reserved seats ($18), and gotten to see a lot more. And, from what I've been told, been treated a bit better.
If you're meeting friends at Yankee Stadium, make sure you each have your own ticket in hand before arriving. The Yankees have put together a byzantine system for leaving tickets at the will call window. I followed the instructions precisely, leaving one envelope containing three tickets for one set of friends, and another envelope with a ticket for another. The three-ticket envelope made it through the system properly, but the other ticket was lost, as was my friend for that evening. Fortunately, he's an experienced New Yorker, and, we learned later, left to see the ponies once he realized the situation was hopeless. 3
13. Interior architecture: Yankee Stadium is the classic ballpark, beautiful to look at from within. The grass seems greener there, the outfield facade lends a nice touch, and there are just enough weird angles to make the configuration interesting. In the bleacher area, you could exit quickly and easily through wide passageways that spill out into the street. I'm told that the escalators that take you down from the upper decks elsewhere are major bottlenecks, and the concourses and aisles are narrow. 4
14. Access: Go by subway. It's easy and relatively inexpensive. Getting there by car, parking, and getting out can be a major, long-lasting hassle. That's New York.
The Yankee Clipper seems like it's worth a splurge, especially if you're coming from Jersey. 4
15. Ushers: They screen for ignorant and hostile applicants. Then they hire them. 0
16. Trading-up factor: As noted above, I was restricted to the bleachers. But considering the usual big crowds and the medium-level prison security presence, it's hard to imagine moving down to the good seats under most circumstances. 2
17. Knowledge of local fans: "Like lab rats that will stimulate themselves to death on the pleasure bar, Yankee fans are so addicted to the thrill of winning that they derive no joy from the glory of our national pastime," wrote Joe Queenan in last Sunday's New York Times. That sometimes obscures their excellent knowledge of baseball. 5
18. Seventh-inning stretch: There's Kate Smith singing "God Bless America." There's a rendition, on organ, of "Take Me Out ..." Then there's the unique sight of John Luhrs dancing to the rollicking sound of the Rednex "Cotton Eye Joe." 4
19. Pre-and-postgame bar-and-restaurant scene: In the block surrounding the stadium, there's Billy's Stadium Sports Bar, the Yankee Eatery, Stan's Sports Bar, Stan the Man's Baseball Land, and the Ballpark Sports Bar and Grill -- plenty of places to hit before the game. But Yankee Stadium is in the south Bronx, which is not a place that invites the casual visitor to just hang out after the final pitch. Folks head for the subways pretty quick. 3
20. Wild-card: Outside the Stadium, it's dirty. Inside, it's absolutely filthy. By the fifth inning, heaps of garbage overflowed from huge bins under the bleachers, and it didn't look much better in the rest of the stadium. In general, it appears that Steinbrenner has let the Stadium go to seed. It's like an aging beauty queen who still takes a terrific picture, but upclose and in person looks worn down, her appearance buoyed only by the misty haze of memory.
Or to put it another way, what you see on the tube is much more glorious than what you get in person.
Even if you're not a Yankee fan, the history, the memories and the unmistakeable Yankee Stadium feeling, which emanates all the way from the mighty George down to the bleacher creatures, all combine to make a visit to Yankee Stadium worthwhile. There's Monument Park. There's the highest-quality heckling in all of baseball. There is the sense, the knowledge, that the immortals once prowled these same grounds. Even the infamous (but winning) mortals, the late 1970s "Bronx Zoo" Yankees, seem to inhabit the place. That's all good.
As is, of course, the standard (high) quality of Yankee baseball, which is worth seeing in person. 8
TOTAL SCORE FOR YANKEE STADIUM: 73.5