Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Destroying the High Temple in the Bronx

The New York Sun
July 11, 2008

For thousands of years, the most physically imposing buildings on earth were temples, churches, and mosques. But in the 20th century, new houses of worship came to dominate the landscape.

Yankee Stadium is the most storied of these contemporary shrines. When it opened in 1923, baseball was in the shadow of the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, and the wounds from the long war between the American and National leagues had yet to heal.

The Yankees' new home was the first baseball facility to be called a "stadium." In ensuing years, the team and Babe Ruth captured the imagination of America. Stadium lore became intertwined with Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio; the Baltimore Colts beating the New York Giants in the most important football game ever played; Sugar Ray Robinson wilting in the heat against Joey Maxim, and Joe Louis's annihilation of Max Schmeling.

In 1946, the year I was born, Yankee Stadium was only 23 years old. But from my perspective as a boy, it had been around forever. At age seven, I saw it for the first time. As I grew older and was allowed to navigate the city's subway system on my own, I went to Sunday doubleheaders with friends on a regular basis.

New York Yankees' Lou Gehrig, the "Iron Horse," wipes away a tear during a sold-out tribute at Yankee Stadium July 4, 1939. Gehrig's record breaking career was cut short by neuromuscular disease. (AP Photo/ Murray Becker / July 4, 1939)

Three of my childhood dreams went unfulfilled. I never saw a no-hitter; never saw a triple play, and never caught a ball that had been hit into the stands. But I did see the Yankees beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in a World Series game when I was 10. I watched Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris hit home runs in 1961. And I took pride in the fact that the stadium was impregnable. No one ever hit a fair ball out of it.

In the mid-1970s, Yankee Stadium was renovated. Steel columns that supported the roof and upper decks (and obstructed a clear view of the field) were removed. When the renovation was complete, the copper facade that ran along the edge of the roof and was synonymous with the stadium was gone. The colors were different too. The familiar aquamarine seats and surrounding environs had been replaced by a pedestrian blue.

But by then, my sojourns to Yankee Stadium had become less frequent. Visiting the stadium had taken on the feel of going back to a high school reunion; seeing a girl I'd longed for when I was young and realizing that, with the passage of time, she was far less enticing. Baseball as I'd known it as a boy was gone. And I'd changed, too.

Still, it's discomforting to me that Yankee Stadium (which has been in existence longer than many countries in the world today) is about to be torn down.

George Herman "Babe" Ruth addresses the crowd at the ceremony marking Babe Ruth Day, before the Yankees - Senators baseball game at Yankee Stadium, New York, April 27, 1947. In background are, left to right: Ford Frick, president of the National League; a radio technician; Mel Allen, radio announcer; Francis Cardinal Spellman, Archbishop of New York; and A.B. Chandler, baseball's high commissioner. (AP Photo / April 27, 1947)

Who wants a new Yankee Stadium? Not the fans. They like it the way it is. The Yankees have led the league in attendance for five consecutive seasons. Home attendance in 2007 was 4,271,867 — an average of 52,739 per game.

The new stadium, of course, is driven by economics. The 1970s renovation has been fully depreciated for tax purposes. And while the Yankees talk about creating a more "fan-friendly" environment, the "improvements" (like amenities in a Las Vegas hotel-casino) will be all about separating people from their money.

The original Yankee Stadium cost $2.5 million to build. The new stadium will cost in excess of $1.2 billion. One way or another, much of that total will be borne by the taxpayers of the City of New York.

The original stadium once seated 71,699 fans for baseball. Its current capacity is 57,545. The new stadium will accommodate 55,000. More significantly, it will be constructed in a way that positions the most expensive suites at field level.

Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle are shown at Yankee Stadium in this 1961 file photo. Maris broke Babe Ruth's single-season home run record on October 1, 1961. (AP Photo)

That's like the Vatican tearing down St. Peter's Cathedral to build a new house of worship with a Jumbotron and luxury pews.

The new Yankee Stadium will have 1,800 "legends" seats at prices ranging from $2,500 to $500 per seat per game. Those prices are obscene.

Alternatively, season ticket holders can choose from 1,200 seats at $350 a ticket or 1,300 seats at prices ranging from $135 to $100. There will also be 48,000 "non-premium" seats, most of which, the Yankees say, will sell for "less than $100."

If the Yankees' fondest wish comes true, the vast majority of seats in the new stadium will be purchased by season ticket holders. But no matter what happens, the shared experience of parents taking their children to a baseball game will become less common. Only the rich will be able to do it on a regular basis. Some parents won't be able to do it at all.

The new Yankee message isn't "bring your kids." It's "bring your clients."

Shea Stadium will also be demolished at the end of the year. But that's not much of a loss; 1964 (when Shea opened) isn't 1923. And there was never any grandeur to Shea. Not even Mets fans have an emotional attachment to it.

Yankee Stadium is different. The Yankees earned 37 American League pennants and 26 World Series championships while playing there. But let's face reality. Over the centuries, there has been a standard operating procedure for invaders, whether from Mongolia (like Genghis Khan) or Cleveland (George Steinbrenner). First, they occupy and pillage a temple. Then they destroy it.

Baseball is a game of tradition. It lives in large measure on its past. No matter how one styles the facts, the destruction of the original Yankee Stadium will bury another piece of baseball history. The Bronx Bombers might make more money over the next 30 years than they would have if they'd stayed put. But there will be one less link to that glorious era when baseball was truly America's national pastime.

Indeed, the Yankees might find themselves haunted by angry ghosts as a consequence of demolishing "The House that Ruth Built." For more than four decades, "The Curse of The Bambino" afflicted the Boston Red Sox. Maybe the coming years will witness a new curse. Ghosts don't relocate on command.

Meanwhile, last month, I said goodbye to a old friend.

The Yankees were playing the Cleveland Indians. It was a perfect night for baseball; warm with a gentle breeze.

The sky was clear when the game began and turned cobalt blue as the night wore on.

The players looked very young to me.

Andy Pettitte pitched into the seventh inning for the Yankees and left the game with a 3-2 lead. Joba Chamberlain came on in relief, walked two men, and surrendered a three-run homer to David Dellucci. The Indians won 5-3.

When the game was over, I walked to the concourse beneath the stands. Then, on impulse, I turned around and retraced my steps for one last look at the emerald-green field and massive stands that meant so much to me when I was young.

I was still moved by the majesty of it all.


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