Thursday, April 30, 2009

NO AMOUNT OF MONEY CAN REPLACE THE OLD YANKEE STADIUM

I vowed not to go. I really did. I told myself and others that, in homage to the real Yankee Stadium, I was going to boycott The House that George and the New York State Taxpayers Built.

Forever.

But, in a moment of temporary insanity, I broke down. I rationalized that I had closed the old place last September 21, so it was only right that I open the new one.

So, with my wonderful wife’s reluctant blessing (hey, what can I tell you; she’s a softie, and it was near my birthday, and she didn’t want to see a grown man cry), I went on eBay and spent an exorbitant amount of money to attend the opening of the $1.5 billion imposter stadium across the street from the most historic ballpark in the world.

(Although I’m a journalist by trade and believe in full disclosure, I value my marriage even more than my reportorial integrity. So out of respect to Beth, I cannot divulge the purchase price to her or you. Let’s just say it was one of the cheaper tickets available and it still cost me nearly nine times face value to witness this once-in-a-lifetime event.)

As I emerged from the brand, new underground parking garage across the street from the Steinbrenner family’s opulent, new playpen, the old Yankee Stadium was in full view, and I couldn’t help but feel conflicted – like I was betraying an old friend.

This, after all, was the magnificent, old ballpark my dad had taken me to for my first major-league game back in the summer of 1966, and the place where I had taken my daughter and son to their first game 32 years later.

This also was the place where the Babe, Joe D, Mickey and Jeter had helped the Bronx Bombers become World Champions 26 times; where the greatest game in NFL history was played; where Rockne implored Notre Dame to win one for the Gipper; where three Popes had celebrated Mass; where the greatest boxers of all-time had thrilled the masses; where U2 and Billy Joel had rocked the South Bronx.

For a brief moment, I considered scalping my ticket and heading back to my car, but I decided to give the new kid on the block a chance.

I must admit I was overwhelmed at first by the glistening edifice. It truly is spectacular.

The architect designed the exterior to look like the old Yankee Stadium before the renovations in the mid-1970s. The instant I twisted through the turnstiles I was amazed by the spaciousness of concourses. Unlike the old joint, there was room for droves to roam freely about. The restrooms were spacious, too, and, more importantly, clean and odor free.

The 12 story-tall “Great Hall" on the first-base side featured cathedral arches and enormous banners of the greatest players in team history. And as I made my way closer to the field I noticed scores of incredible black-and-white photos from every era of Yankees history.

I was very impressed.

The most striking feature was the fa├žade, which had graced the roof of the old stadium before foolishly being taken down during the aforementioned renovations.

From my perch in the second deck in right field, I had a majestic, panoramic view of it wrapping elegantly around the ballpark. It looked somewhat like an ornately decorated, multi-tiered wedding cake. And when I allowed my mind to wander, I envisioned the pre-renovated stadium I had witnessed as a wide-eyed 11-year-old.

The gargantuan, high-def Jumbotron in center field was so clear I could see the stubble on Derek Jeter’s chin. And the sound system perfectly captured every guitar note of Bernie Williams’ jazzy, pre-game rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,’’ which the former Yankee centerfielder performed, appropriately, while standing before a microphone in center field.

Yet, for all its modern amenities, something was missing. (And I’m not just referring to the spectators’ view of Yankees rightfielder Nick Swisher, who wasn’t visible to me or the other customers seated just 13 rows from the second-deck railing – yes, folks, $1.5 billion apparently doesn’t preclude obstructed-view seats.)

The energy of the old place was missing. The fans seemed lethargic, they sat on their hands. Perhaps, all the price-gouging the Yankees had inflicted on its loyal customers had taken its toll; had sapped not only their wallets, but their supply of adrenaline.

After a few innings, I left my seat and began wandering around the stadium. I visited the museum – which features the locker of one my all-time favorite Yankees, the late Thurman Munson, but not much else. I walked past the Jim Beam and Mohegan Sun suites, where only the deep pockets were allowed entry.

In the sixth inning, I decided to hit the road. (When you pay what I did for a ticket, you can’t afford a hotel. You make the 12-hour round trip to and from Rochester in one day.)

Pulling out of the garage, I caught a glimpse of the real stadium in my rearview mirror.

And I thought to myself that this change of venues might make obscene dollars and cents, but it makes no sense. At least not to the true fan, who understands that places such as Fenway Park and Wrigley Field and the old Yankee Stadium are not merely buildings – but historical landmarks.

I believe the ghosts of the Babe, Joe D. and Mickey hadn’t crossed the street to take up residence in the new joint. And neither had the ghosts of my father and so many other parents and grandparents and great grandparents.

As I crawled north on the bumper-to-bumper Major Deegan Expressway, I was melancholic. I realized that $1.5 billion can buy an awful lot, but no amount of money can take you home again.