Monday, September 22, 2008

Myth, magic, and memory in play at Yankee Stadium's curtain call

Yankee Stadium got its grand send-off last night, and it was bittersweet to see old heroes returned for one last look at the place, even if they weren't my heroes. It's probably even more bittersweet for Yanks fans who were hoping for a fairytale, one-last-championship-in-Ruth's-House year that was not to come. Instead, Whitey, Yogi, Reggie, Babe Ruth's daughter and other Yankee luminaries came to share a moment with a 2008 team in transition, not just to a new home, but to a next wave of free agent talent and up-and-comers on whom the jury is still out.

I wish we could see what the stadium was like before they really butchered it in the 70s, architecturally speaking. Structurally, I'm not really sure why it's viewed as the ultimate field in the game, open though I may be to differences of opinion. But let's be realistic and note that far fewer tears like this were shed for the old Briggs/Tiger Stadium in Detroit, or Comiskey on Chicago's south side, where much baseball history also took place. It's because Yankee Stadium housed so many winning teams that it's deemed such a magical site. I can't deny the existence of this particular brand of magic, and the accumulated moments of elation, especially for the Yankees fan.

But... I've been to Wrigley Field, and from my perspective the Cubs' fan culture is as lively as that of the Yankees' while much closer to what the game is purported to be about. As an attending fan of the visiting team (and who knew Blue Jays fans could draw so much ire!), I've experienced a lot of nastiness up in the Bronx. Perhaps that hard-nosed, sometimes vicious, winners' killer instinct is part of Yankee identity, but it tends to act at odds with the Yankee class of icons from Gehrig to Jeter. I didn't see much of that ugliness in Chicago, though perhaps Cardinals fans and Steve Bartman can attest to different experiences. Meanwhile, Wrigley really seems to have retained most of its history. It courses through the ivy and is evident in the sale, at reasonable price, of a local brew (Old Style). It extends from the rooftop bleachers adorning neighborhood buildings to the unpretentious manual scoreboard, to the lack of in-game gimmickry. (Nobody ever mentions how loud the "House That Ruth Built" is -- with the cheers of fans, yes, but also with speakers mid-range-tweaked to destroy the Organ of Corti, blasting the lamentable "Cotton Eye Joe" in addition to regular reminders of how great the Yankees are.) Admittedly, one might argue that it's this humble hope against hope that has persisted since 1908 that keeps Wrigley honest, while Yankee Stadium basks in its luster.

Wrigley is also truly woven into the neighborhood it calls home. Yankee Stadium has its attendant pubs, scummy bowling alley, and shops for devotees, and its fame for being famous, but can it really boast to be part of the fabric of a town, especially after the 70s renovations that sealed it off from the community? To this writer it has always seemed so monolithic up there at 161st Street, hugged by the above-ground 4 train and Interstate 87. It towers and insulates its outfield from neighbors, while Wrigley allows those rooftop cheap-seats. Owner George Steinbrenner even emerges as one who has questioned the importance of this stadium's aura, threatening at various times to move the team to New Jersey or to a New York location deemed safer. To call this the hallowed hall of baseball undermines the fact that it's a league of teams, each representing their own towns, regions, local flavors, and above all their citizens, that keeps baseball going -- not one storied franchise or place.

I've been to better sites for seeing the game; the Orioles' Camden Yards and even my beloved Blue Jays' state-of-the-art-for-1990 Rogers Centre (Skydome) come to mind as less expensive for a great view of the field of play. Camden of course has ushered in a number of beautiful period-style ballparks that I hope to visit in my lifetime. As a good friend and Yanks fan notes, "sure, but no one is there" to see the games in Toronto or places like it. It's true that if you build a winner, and New York can usually afford one, the fans are more likely to come -- especially in the nation's largest city. But it's also true that one can simply admire the game, even with a crowd half the size that the Bronx is accustomed to, and not require the insane spectacle and scrutiny that the sports media subjects the Yankees and their largest-market brethren to. It's a spectacle that simultaneously intensifies and cheapens the importance of the stadium. That's perhaps not the Yankees' fault, at least to begin with, but they've certainly bought into it, and they most certainly sell it.

I think about the Brooklyn Dodgers, no less central to the identity of their city than the Yanks were, before they skipped town. The grounds of Ebbets Field are buried under low-income housing in Flatbush. Little but a scratched plaque reminds us of the magic, and the monumental moments, that happened there. Where the fanfare for this House Where Jackie Ran? What we saw in Yankee magic on Sunday Sept. 21, 2008 is emotionally equalled by the Brooklyn melancholy of 1957. The Mets can be lauded for resurrecting the ghosts of 'Dem Bums with a beautiful new stadium modelled on Ebbets, complete with a Jackie Robinson Rotunda. If only the admission were also a little more reminiscent of the 1950s.

But let's not kid ourselves. The Mets and the Yankees are both insanely profitable enterprises moving to lucrative new digs, with massive taxpayer help that they don't really need, considering taxpayers can't afford their own homes these days. To their credit, the Mets appear to be taking far less in the way of public funds, and they won't be forcing NYC to build new public parks to augment ones displaced by the new stadium, as the Yankees allegedly are.

Regardless, the usual rationale for throwing the gift of public stadium money at a sports team is to keep the team from leaving. That would have been a distinct implausibility when this venture was first proposed. Both the Yanks and the Mets trade on the New York location, aura and fanbase, and rely on these for their very well-being. A Las Vegas Yankees, or even an NFL-style Jersey arrangement, would never have been in the cards during the cash-flush NYC of the 2000s, if ever. Forgive me if I don't mourn for the Yankees, or if the magic of this moment is tempered by the underlying reason we face it in the first place. The team will have plenty of opportunity to re-tool its aura and make New Yankee Stadium memories with the benefit of luxury box money, further gimmicks (another Hard Rock Cafe? In 2008?) and more expensive seats.

So, when I think of Yankee Stadium, and its relative worth, I am going to do my best to consider the friends of mine that are true Yankee fans and true baseball fans of the highest order (one of whom I referred to earlier). To them, the worth of that stadium is found in memory, not in the high revenue of luxury boxes or the great value of the bleachers. It's rooted in bonding with their fathers, for together they waited through the dismal 80s to see the team win again. It's found in the experience of going to a game, ever less accessible for the average family but still deemed worth the effort and expense for many of us. It's seen in the imperfect heroes that are elevated beyond belief by the sports media, heroes that yet interest us for their flaws, because we just might for a night see something amazing.

Yankees fans need fear not -- theirs is still a fine baseball organization that will continue to succeed and produce more amazing moments, and it is an entertainment behemoth that can support that production. There is something lovely about the notion, though, that we can share these moments on the periphery of just any field (after all, the Yankees have not clinched each of their historic titles on home turf!). It's what happens that counts, after all, even as the surroundings change to mark the era (70s Yankee Stadium) or to mark power and glitz and big-letter-T Tradition (New Yankee Stadium). When the hysteria subsides, we return to that power of personal memory, which, for me, eclipses one team's ownership of many great moments in one place, on even the most cherished scrap of land.