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.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Bills fans decide to skip The Juice

In case you missed it - and you very well might have if you were fixated on the NFL draft - the Buffalo Bills unveiled their 50th anniversary team Saturday during a balmy, football festival at the Ralph.

I thought, overall, the fans did a good job of picking the team - though I think it would have been better had they chosen two offensive tackles instead of four guards for their starting offensive line.

To me, the most problematic aspect of selecting the Bills half-century squad is what to do with O.J. Simpson.

The fans' answer was to vote the Juice off the island. They instead went with three wideouts and only one running back - Thurman Thomas. Clearly the Thurmanator is most deserving, given his extraordinary and diverse skills as a runner, receiver and blocker during Buffalo's Super Bowl run in the early 1990s.

But I still wonder if you can have a true all-time Bills team without the most gifted player in team history.

Yeah, I know, the guy comes with incredible baggage. Any objective person deduced from the evidence presented at the trial of the 20th century that the Juice committed double-murder. The fact Simpson has been a constant thorn in the side of his adopted hometown of Buffalo ever since didn't help his case either.

Still, I remember what an incredible player he was for the Bills. He put Buffalo in the national spotlight in the 1970s. No athlete in the city's history was ever so loved.

So, I struggle with his omission, just as I struggle with whether his name still belongs on the Ralph Wilson Stadium Wall of Fame.

I suppose, though, you could look at it this way. Even if he had been voted onto the 50th team, someone would have had to accept on his behalf because no judge would have granted him permission to leave prison for the ceremony.

***

The Boston Red Sox have much more heart and grit than the over-paid, over-rated New York Yankees. And that statement comes from a guy who has followed the Pinstripes since 1961.

These Sox remind me in a lot of ways of the Yankees that won four World Series titles under Joe Torre. Regardless of your allegiance, you can't help but respect the way guys like Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jason Varitek play. And I like the even-handed, classy way manager Terry Francona runs his ballclub.

***

Speaking of the Yankees, their fate may rest not upon their jillion-dollar free agents, but rather on the arm of Phil Hughes, who's been called up from Scranton/Wilkes Barre in hopes of stopping their slide. And if the young phenom does come through for them maybe it will remind the impetuous Steinbrenner boys and Brian Cashman that the those last four World Series titles in the Bronx were won with a core of homegrown players.

***

I don't know what it is with my wife and keys, but lately they haven't been a good match. Last month, she managed to drop them down an elevator shaft and yesterday she lost them while we were walking through the neighborhood.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Time will tell if this Bills draft class makes the grade

The perspiration hadn't even evaporated on this NFL draft and a friend wanted to know what grade I was giving the Buffalo Bills.

"Incomplete,'' was my response.

More than a quarter-century of covering pro football has taught me that is the grade you should always give out immeidately after a draft. Talk to me in a few years and I'll be happy to give you a grade on the Class of 2009.

I'll give you two reasons why these instant draft assessments aren't worth the shellack Mel Kiper Jr. uses to hold his Tarzan hair in place.

One of the reasons is named Mike Williams. You remember Big Mike. Taken by the Bills with the fourth overall pick in 2002 draft, the walking solar eclipse was a can't miss offensive tackle. People throughout the league called it a brilliant pick. Sadly, I was among the blind. I parrotted what every other so-called expert was saying.

Well, we all know what happened there. Big Mike became the biggest draft bust in team history, with the ramifications of that personnel whiff still being felt by a franchise in search of a competent offensive line.

The second reason I hesitate to pontificate about drafts that just occurred is named Tom Brady. Even Bill "The Genius'' Belichick wondered if Brady had the stuff to play quarterback in the NFL, waiting until the sixth round - a draft position normally reserved for clip-board-holding QBs - to select Gisele's hubby.

The point is, despite the millions on top of millions on top of millions that NFL teams spend on investigating these pro prospects they still get it wrong an awful lot.

And I'm cool with that because it tells me that no one has come up with a test to truly measure the athletic soul. There's a human element to this that's still not quantifiable. I hope it always stays that way.

So, my warning to all of you NFL crazies is to not get too ecstatic or too bummed out about your team's recent draft picks.

Just remember how wrong all the experts were about Mike Williams and Tom Brady - the bust and the guy who will one day have a bust at the Hall of Fame in Canton.

COMING ATTRACTIONS: I was there at the new Yankee Stadium for Opening Day, and I'll have a review of The House That George (Steinbrenner, not Ruth) Built later this week.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

A club I preferred not joining

Well, folks, I’m happy to report that I’m back – not with the newspaper I called home the past 25 years, but back to writing regularly. Thanks to my longtime friend and colleague, John Moriello, and the encouragement of my wife and scores of former readers of my column for the Democrat and Chronicle, I’m going to be writing regularly on this blog.

The length and subject matter will vary, depending how inspired I am, but I hope to ruminate on sports and life on a daily basis. Everything is fair game – from assessing Bills draft picks to the difficulty of typing on my PC when our cat’s tail is resting on the keyboard.

I hope to do a mix of human interest-type columns, which were my niche at the paper, along with shorter musings.

Of course, this will be a whole lot more fun for me if you visit often and participate. Your feedback is most welcome – please just keep it clean. And please spread the word. The more, the merrier. (By the way, Google mail users should be able to go to http://groups.google.com/group/scottpitoniak and sign up to receive e-mail notifications each time I write something here.)

I’m in the early stages of this project, so please bear with me. I need to shake off the rust and get back into a writing groove. I’ll also keep you updated on several other projects I have going – including three more books.

For my first offering, I have an essay on what it’s been like being laid off. I hope it’s thought-provoking and I hope it prompts you to come back for more.

Thanks again for checking me out, and don't be a stranger.

Scott


A CLUB I PREFERRED NOT JOINING

My teary-eyed supervisor hung up the phone and told me they wanted to see me in “HR.’’ I awkwardly patted him on the back and told him everything would be OK. Then I shook hands with several stunned newspaper colleagues and trudged numbly toward the elevator that would take me to the human resources department and out of the old, gray “paragraph factory’’ that had been a second home for a good portion of my life.

After 35 dedicated, award-winning years as a sports writer and columnist, the end had arrived. And it had come sans fan-fare and thank yous. There was a cold, don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-way-out feel to the whole process. Human Resources? More like “Inhumane” Resources in this case. To them, it was all about procedure. I was no longer a person in their eyes, just a budget line item that needed to be erased from the books as soon as possible.

At age 53, I was being forced to join a club I wanted no part of; a club whose membership sadly is swelling at a pace not seen since the Great Depression. I was being laid-off, down-sized, jettisoned, eliminated, terminated – you pick the frigid description.

Nearly five months have passed since that fateful day when my company slashed 10 percent of its workforce – including many seasoned workers like moi. I’ve learned much about myself and others since walking out of that building a final time on December 3.

The death metaphor is not a stretch because you feel as if a part of you has died. A huge part. For more than three decades, my identity had been inextricably tied to my newspaper job, and then in a matter of seconds it was deleted as if it were some garbled sentence being expunged with a single key stroke.

I’ve definitely traveled through Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief.
There are moments I still feel anger toward the avaricious executives and shareholders who believe it is somehow their birthright to earn double-digit profits, even at a time when most Americans are struggling to keep their heads above water.

I occasionally find myself worrying about whether we will have to sell our home or if we’ll be able to afford medical coverage or my son’s college tuition beyond this year.

I miss the adrenaline rush I received from writing four columns a week. I miss the camaraderie of my co-workers, the entertaining, occasionally poignant conversations with readers, and the nobility that comes from the simple act of getting out of bed and going to work each day.

It pains me to see not only what happened to me, but to the industry I so loved. I still can’t believe how rapidly my beloved newspapers – once galvanizing, crusading forces in communities across the country – are traveling the road to extinction.

Strangely, some people I regarded as friends have disappeared. It’s as if you have some contagious, fatal disease. You are a leper. Like the cold-hearted corporate bastards who let you go, these false friends want no part of you. So sad.

But you also encounter true friends – people who value you for who you are, rather than for what you do or can do for them. I’ve been blessed to have friends check in on me regularly via phone calls, e-mails, text messages or lunch dates. I can’t believe the number of people who have offered emotional and financial support, as well as a steady diet of encouragement and job leads.

And I’ve derived inspiration from those who’ve been displaced before me and have gone on to reinvent themselves. There is no shortage of such role models in Rochester – droves of former Kodak, Xerox and Bausch and Lomb employees, in particular, who know what it’s like to be cast aside after a lifetime of devotion, but who have managed to carve out new careers in more humane environments.

I believe I’ve reached the fifth and final stage of Kubler-Ross’s seminal study on death and dying. It’s called acceptance. That’s not to say there aren’t times I still feel anger and depression about the unceremonious way I was dumped because I do, and that’s natural. But I’ve mostly put my past behind me. I’m looking forward, not backward. And I’m doing so optimistically, hopefully, despite the daily deluge of bad economic news.

Perspective comes with time. I’m a firm believer that things happen for a reason, and I’m an ardent student of history. One thing I’ve learned while dealing with the death of loved ones, my own health issues and a divorce is that brilliant sunshine has always followed any storm I’ve encountered.

Though I don’t totally understand why this happened to me, I see a bright future. My spirits have been buoyed by family, friends and total strangers, as well as the scores of people I wrote about through the years who taught me the true meaning of courage. They are people who endured far more hellish experiences than what I’m encountering.

So, as I travel down this road to an unknown destination, I do so believing that more good things await.

This much I know: I will attempt to keep writing till my final breath, even if it’s for an audience of one, because ink continues to course through my veins, and jousting with the Mother Tongue has always given me an incredible high.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Coming soon

Hello everyone.

I'm pleased that you've found this page, because I'll be using it very soon to return to writing about sports -- and more -- in the coming days and weeks.

Be sure to check back soon because I'm about ready to get rolling.

-- Scott Pitoniak