Sunday night the New York Yankees played their final game in Yankee Stadium. The house that Ruth built and George Steinbrenner renovated has seen its last pitch. As I watched the game I found myself shedding real, heartfelt tears. I sat there watching Mariano Rivera close out the final home game of this season, a season that for the first time in 14 years will leave Yankee Stadium dark in October, and bawled like a baby. My wife commented on how cute she thought it was that I was so emotional but I was troubled. Where were these tears coming from? And, why a building made of concrete, steel, plastic and whatever else buildings are made of, was having such a profoundly emotional effect on me?
You see as much as this will annoy and inspire the derisive quips of many of my friends, I love the New York Yankees. I grew up in the Bay Area raised on National League baseball and the San Francisco Giants. I spent many a night shivering under a blanket with my family at Candlestick Park, watching the fog appear like some gray monster over the left field wall, intent on swallowing the stadium whole. The 70's and 80's were not kind to those Giant teams of my youth. They lost way more than they won and always seemed to be yielding to the dreaded Dodgers of Los Angeles come playoff time. The playoffs required that I choose another team to fill my October baseball void. It allowed me to extend my season and deposit the reservoir of pent up emotion into someone else's franchise.
The logical choice would have been to embrace the Oakland A's just across the Bay. But I went cold at the sight of the green and yellow jerseys they wore. Even though the A's were World Series champs in the early 70's, I still felt nothing, no allegiance bubbled up to the surface. I guess even as a little boy I knew nothing good could ever truly come out of the East Bay for me. My provincial SF-ness taking root, I ditched "my" American League franchise in search of another.
It wasn't much of a leap to take an interest in the New York Yankees. If you followed baseball even casually, you knew of the storied franchise and its players. Growing up in San Francisco you were taught two things: 1. The best crab in the world came from right outside the Bay and 2. Joe DiMaggio was the greatest baseball player to ever play the game.
I can remember my grandfather sitting in his backyard, within shouting distance of Candlestick Park, listening to the Yankees simulcast on the radio. He talked about the Yankees as if he had grown up in the Bronx all his life. You see the Giants only had existed for him recently, but the Yankees were the team he grew up with. Having immigrated from Italy to San Francisco via Ellis Island, New York City represented something to his generation of immigrants. It was that beacon of possibility, freedom, and liberty. New York City was the exporter of traditions for a vast, young nation that needed to establish a national identity. The Yankees were winners and America began to internalize this belief as well.
Those Yankee teams of lore would carry us through challenges and inspire us in the worst of times. In the thirties, during the Great Depression, when we became a nation of losers, the Yankees were winners. Reminding us of what we could accomplish with hard work, community, and belief in something bigger.
When our country was attacked and plunged into a World War in 1941, the Yankees won. We would win too. After the war, as our nation's prosperity swelled, the Yankees reflected this return to glory on the baseball field. The 50's and early 60's belonged to the New York Yankees. They wrote history on the baseball diamond as America was writing history as a nation.
But it was in the late 70's that I began my personal journey with the franchise. And perhaps more to the point, my intense desire to be one of those lucky ones sitting in the stands at Yankee Stadium.
The mid/late 60's and most of the 70's saw the historic franchise in a state of upheaval and turmoil. The cultural shift and chaotic change sweeping across the nation was being mirrored by the play of the Yankee teams of this era. Pennants were being flown above other city’s stadiums as flags and bras were being burned on the streets. By the late 70’s the city of New York had fallen into a complete state of disrepair and crime.
I was 8 years old in 1977 and baseball had become a major passion of mine. I still loved the Giants but found myself drawn to the shaggy players in pinstripes with each pack of baseball cards I opened. The uniform, with the big NY emblem above the heart, was both familiar and exotic. This team of scruffy renegades from a distant place beckoned to me.
Yankee Stadium itself seemed massive, a field bathed in light from light stands reaching high into the sky. The surrounding tenements and the subway cars appearing through the right field wall, seemed scary to me as I watched games from the comfort of my suburban home. Yankee Stadium might as well have been on the other side of the world, let alone on the others side of the continent.
It was in 1977 that the Yankees improbably won the pennant to face the hated Dodgers in the World Series. I had been following the Yankees all season long via the newspapers and “This Week in Baseball”. I couldn’t wait to watch my adopted team take on my enemy - I would learn that they were just as hated by generations of Bronx loyalists before me, when they played at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field before moving to sunny, Southern California – on television every night for the next two weeks.
I can still hear Howard Cosell’s grandiose and incendiary voice calling the call. What was even more fascinating to me was the chaos and mayhem he detailed that was occurring outside the ballpark. There were blackouts, serial killers, and fires, “THE BRONX WAS BURNING!” I was captivated. The city sounded like a zoo and the stadium looked like one big cage. When the Yankees did the impossible and all the “caged animals” streamed onto the field, the catharsis reached my living room 3,000 miles away. I was hooked from that day on.
The 80’s were not as kind to the Bronx Bombers and my meddle was tested. Luckily years of being a Giants fan taught me how to deal with losing. Yankee Stadium would become my baseball Mecca, even if I went there only in my dreams. Over the years the building and all it represented, would fuel my desire to someday live in New York City. I would be one of those lucky ones to sitting in the blue plastic chairs.
The mid/late 90’s saw the Yankees return to glory with a run of four championships. When people asked why a guy from San Francisco was a Yankee fan? I parried their examination by stating simply, “I like to win.” But it was much deeper, much more personal than that.
My wife and I moved to New York City shortly after September 11th in 2002. I had been to New York City a few times prior and I was resolute in one day counting myself among its citizenry. I internalized the words Frank Sinatra sung in “New York, New York” after Yankee victories at the stadium. I was convinced, like many before me, that my destiny was tied to this great, American city.
The first time my wife and I went to the stadium, shortly after moving to the city, I was so excited I couldn’t sleep the night before. You See, I was fresh meat in a city of devout carnivores. I wasn’t sure what I had gotten myself into moving out East and was questioning if I could in fact, as the song said, “Make it there…” Taking the 4 train to the stadium my palms began to sweat with each stop going uptown.
The train filled up with the familiar black and white colors of the team. Hats proudly worn with the NY logo known worldwide. They call it Yankee pride and mine was beginning to swell and grow inside of me. We were all here for one reason, the New York Yankees.
Upon entering the stadium I felt a wave of history wash over me. It was breathtaking. The field that was etched into my mind came alive. The colors were sharper and the sound of the fans taking their seats was almost musical. I felt a strange calm beneath my excitement. For the first time since arriving in New York I felt like I was welcome, that I belonged, at least here, for next three or four hours.
I would go to many more games over the next four years. I would take the train that seemed so mysterious and foreboding to me in 1977. I sat in box seats just rows from the field. I would go to day games by myself and sit in the left field bleachers. I sat in the final row of the upper deck, high above home plate. Taking in the Bronx skyline in the near distance.
Once my wife and I sat behind the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. We high-fived and screamed at the opposing team from seats that were worth more than I made all of that year. Every game was a dream realized. I never forgot how lucky I was to be sitting in that stadium.
Sometimes I’d go up to the stadium to try and get tickets from scalpers. I would walk around the entire stadium, just taking it all in and calling friends on the West Coast to make them jealous. If I couldn’t land tickets I’d sit across the street in a bar and watch the game on TV. The cheers would flood in the door as the subway rumbled outside above our heads.
Now that I’m back in San Francisco I get the Major League Ticket on digital cable. I watch as many Yankee games as I did when I lived back there. My friends still question the sincerity of my devotion. They are quick to remind me that I grew up in San Francisco and to, “Give it up already!” But what they don’t understand is that you don’t have to be from New York to be a New Yorker. You just have to live there. The city is made up of people who were born somewhere else but destined to live there. And if you no longer live there, just having lived there changes you. It becomes part of who you are, how you think, what you think about. The provincial thinking that leads to the diatribes I face during baseball season no longer affects me.
As I watched the final moments of Sunday’s game on my television, I was overcome with emotion. The team had gathered on the pitchers mound and their captain Derek Jeter was thanking the fans. The camera cut to saddened fans, some crying, and most looking kind of numb. That look you often see when someone has been told a loved one has passed. Jeter asked the fans to go next door with them and help build new memories. I look forward to the future and being able to do just that.
The team began circling the perimeter of the field, waving to the fans and doffing their caps. The end was here after 85 glorious and some not so glorious years. The camera fixed on a boy of about 8 years old wiping tears from his eyes. I sat in my kitchen doing the same. I thought about how lucky that little boy was to be there, and, how lucky I was to have been there.
I think the reason I was so upset was that Yankee Stadium represented a direct line to my youth, my hopes, and my dreams. As anyone living in an uncertain time can attest, change is a scary but necessary proposition. It made me think of all the things that have changed in New York in the short time since I’ve moved away. Yankee Stadium felt like a constant that connected the lives of anyone who had walked through its gates. It bridged the gap of generations and connected the dots of history. Yankee Stadium was more than a place where baseball was played; it was a home to big dreams.
I hope this will help explain my love for my adopted team and city.