Sunday, September 21, 2008

The House That Ruth Built

In a way it’s ironic, that we are losing “The House That Ruth Built” at about the same time when so many people are losing their homes, too. Oh, well.

There is something about the great cathedral of baseball, Yankee Stadium, which the new stadium could just never have. It will take a while for me to call the new stadium with its luxury boxes, restaurants, shops, excellent site lines 'Yankee Stadium. This is the Stadium where all those 26 World Championships were won. This is where I learned about the world’s greatest sports franchise, the New York Yankees from my dad, Bernie Novick, a Yankee fan.

Today, rather than naming a baseball stadium after the team that plays there, ‘naming rights’ are sold for millions and millions. Stadiums are named after orange juice companies [Minute Maid Park- Houston Astros; Tropicana Field – Tampa Bay Devil Rays] or multi-national banks [PNC Park – Pittsburgh Pirates; Citizens Bank Park – Philadelphia Phillies] or world-wide communications companies [AT&T Park - San Francisco Giants; U.S. Cellular - Chicago White Sox]. You need a scorecard just to figure out which ballpark you’re in.

But not at Yankee Stadium. There, the product is written in big blue letters a mile high and two miles wide for all the world to see: Yankee Stadium. Home of the New York Yankees.

The last time I went to Yankee Stadium was two years ago. We arrived too late to see Memorial Field. But not the first time I went…in 1962. Summer, July. A mid- week night game against the old Kansas City Athletics...

It was a night game, and my father was taking me alone. Both of my brothers were in sleep-away camp, and I got to go to my very first baseball game with just my dad. From Brooklyn to Yankee Stadium was a mere 18 miles away. But on the subway, it would almost two hours. I did not care.

Before we left, my father made sure I had my Yankee baseball cap, and glove---because we were going to sit in the ‘best seats at the Stadium’, my father declared, and sure a ball would be hit near there. My mother made sure I had a chicken sandwich for dinner and a sweatshirt in case it got cold. We were on our way.

We took the Gerritsen Avenue bus to the D Train at Avenue U and East 16th Street. But before we went through the subway turnstile, my dad asked me for the chicken sandwich in the brown paper bag. He took it and through it in the trash.

“At Yankee Stadium”, he said, “You have hot dogs for dinner, not a chicken sandwich.” I was very open to learning all about baseball protocol. “But, when we get back home, if mom asks ‘How was the chicken sandwich?’, you need to tell her with a big smile, ‘Boy, that was the best chicken sandwich I ever had!’ ”. So, I was tuned in to our own little subversion of the truth.

And all along the subway ride, my dad made me practice, smiling, rubbing my stomach and saying, “Boy, mom, that was the best chicken sandwich I ever had!”. I had to sound convincing. The D train went all the way from Brooklyn, right to Yankee Stadium. The subway got more and more crowded as we traveled through Brooklyn, through mid-town Manhattan, and on in to the Bronx. And I kept on practicing. It made the subway ride fun.

We arrived for a 8 o’clock game at about six thirty, to catch batting practice. As we exited the subway at 161st Street in the Bronx, I could see the Stadium in the distance. The streets were packed with people of all shapes, sizes, and colors all walking to the Stadium. We crossed many streets, and the Stadium got larger and larger. “We have the best seats in the house,” my dad proudly declared.

We took the escalator up and up. As we got to the first level, I asked, “Are our seats here?”. “Nope, our seats are much better than these,” my dad called out over the buzz of the crowd. We went up one more level. “What about here? Are these our seats?” “Nope, even better than this. We have the best seats in the Stadium,” my dad said again, very proudly. Finally, after three more levels, we finally got up to the highest level inn the Stadium.

As we walked through the tunnel from the escalator to the seats, I could see the greenest green of the grass in the outfield, the brownest brown of the infield dirt, and the bluest blue of the sky.

And there they were: The New York Yankees taking batting practice. Number 7, Mickey Mantle. Number 8, Yogi Berra. And Roger Maris, Number 9. We walked up a steep set of steps, to just five rows from the top, just behind the first base side.

“These are our seats? All the way up here?,” I asked somewhat incredulously. “Of course, these are the best seats. You can see the whole Stadium from here. You can see the people on the roof tops watching the game. This is where the real fans sit….but, if you want to sit down there…” he seemed to say derisively, “we can save money and get cheaper seats…”. “No!,” I protested, “Let’s stay here---in the good seats.”

“Now, you can have as many hot dogs as you want. But remember, when mom asks, what do you say?” asked, prompting me again. “I give her a big smile, and say ‘Boy, that was the best chicken sandwich I ever had!’”.

We stood for the Star Spangled Banner, and I stayed standing until every Yankee was
announced as they took the field. I will never forget that booming voice, welcoming everyone to Yankee Stadium, and telling everyone that any reproduction of the game broadcast without the written permission of the New York Yankees was not permitted. That seemed like a good idea, but I was only eight and no plans to broadcast the game on my own anyway.

My dad explained to me how to keep score. That the flags on the Stadium roof showed us what place the Yankees and all the other teams were in. How the people on the nearby roof tops could watch the game for free. And taught me how to call out to the guys carrying food, so that they would hear me and walk up all those steps just to sell me a hot dog.

First inning, one hot dog, one soda. I found it amazing that people would just bring food directly to you. Third inning, the same. As Yogi popped up a foul ball, I got some ice cream. After a Maris single in the sixth, popcorn.

After the seventh inning stretch, another hot dog. At the end of the top of eighth, Cracker Jacks, and I was done. More than full. By the end of the game, I was stuffed. And my dad still made me practice, with a big smile, ‘Boy, that was the best chicken sandwich I ever had!’.

The game ended [Yankees 7, KC 2] and the blue July sky turned darker, and darker and finally we walked to the subway, and caught the D train back to Brooklyn. For a good portion of the way, we had to stand, but that was OK. The rest of the way home, I sat on my dad’s lap, asleep. We finally arrived home with my mother waiting for us at the door.

“So, how was the game?” she asked. “It was great!” I told her a series of disconnected facts about the game. About the subway ride. About the great seats we had. About the Stadium. “So, how was the chicken sandwich?”, she asked. Here was my big chance. My father looked at me. I looked at him. “Boy, that was the best chicken sandwich I ever had!”, I said proudly, rubbing my stomach. My dad smiled back. Success. We had fooled her.

“And how many hot dogs did you have?”, she asked. “Three!” came out the number, before I realized I had been found out. We did not practice that question! She looked at my dad, and he looked at me.

And so, Yankee Stadium, “The House That Ruth Built”, the green, green grass where Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jo DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, Thurman Munson, Bobby Murcer, Ron Guidry, Reggie Jackson, Don Mattingly, Derek Jeter, and so many others played for the greatest team in the world ----and called 'home' ----is no more.

Thanks, dad for taking me to my first baseball game there. And thanks, mom, for the chicken sandwich.

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