Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Tribute to The Stadium

Everyone knows by now that Yankee Stadium, the Cathedral in The Bronx, The House That Ruth Built, is winding down it's final season.  

Originally opened in 1923 and renovated in 1976, the Stadium has seen some of the best baseball games and been home the best baseball players in the history of the game.  And in a few short weeks, it will be closed forever.

A new stadium is being built just outside the current stadium and while I'm happy that it will still retain the name "Yankee Stadium" as opposed to "B&H Photo Park" or something, I have to admit I have mixed feelings about the new place ("The Onion" published a list of the changes in the new stadium).  Many of my fond memories of Yankee Stadium happened with my old boss and current good friend.  We went to many games together and he always graciously gave me a ride to and from the games and paid for my food.  We played made up games and drafted an "All Ugly Team"(Paul Assenmacher is so ugly, I couldn't even find a picture of him online).  His passion for all things Yankees comes out in this ode to the Stadium.  Any true Yankee fan should read this.  

My Stadium

183rd Street…Burnside Avenue…176th Street…Mt Eden Avenue…
170th Street…167th Street…161st Street-Yankee Stadium

Just seven stops on the Number 4 train.

That’s all it took for me to get to
my stadium.
Alternatively, I could opt to save the 15 cents, for a token…and walk about 30 blocks.

And that’s what I did just about every Saturday morning in the early ‘60’s.

I had turned 10 in 1959…and in my mind, being in the double-digits earned me the right to walk the “mean streets” of the Bronx to my stadium. I’d leave my house early, about 9 A.M. That would usually allow me to reach my stadium before 10, just as the players were starting to arrive.

They’d come walking randomly down River Avenue, heading towards the Press Gate. There would be a handful of kids
(growing as the hour grew later) awaiting the chance for the elusive autograph. I was usually the youngest. But all the signature-seekers turned to me, for I had the rare and valuable talent of recognizing the Yankee heroes in their “civvies”, without their numbered uniforms. Oh sure, most could recognize Mickey and Roger and Yogi (I mean, c’mon…who couldn’t recognize Yogi!). But it was only the truly erudite student of Topps trading cards, like myself, who could recognize the faces of Kent Hadley, Elmer Valo and Eli Grba.

I got ‘em all…all the autographs. Many times over. I mean I was there EVERY Saturday. After all it was my stadium. I rarely stayed for the actual game. Too expensive. Bleacher seats were 75 cents. That’s 15 packs of baseball cards
(chalky pink gum included)!

I usually took the long return walk home…although occasionally I would tell a policeman I lost my money… and twice they drove me home
(I made sure to exit the patrol car a safe distance from my parents’ view).

But then there were those times I did actually enter my stadium. They say you never forget your first time…and it’s true. We went as a family - my Mom, Dad and older sister Ellen
(Bobby Richardson was her favorite).  From the outside it seemed colossal. I figured it could hold all of New York inside, or at least all of the Bronx. We bought a 25-cent program and made our way through the entranceway in right field, last section 31-35. That was the first time I ever saw my stadium field in person. It was a beautiful sight to behold. To this day, hundreds and hundreds of games later…no matter where my seats may be, I will always enter the field through the last section in right.

There are several other “commandments” that I
(and my game companions) must adhere to in my stadium. First and most critical is touching the right field foul pole before going to our seats. Many who know me will contend that I always kiss the pole…but that’s only for big games. There is also no eating of any kind before the Yankees score. And no ice cream before a Yankee home run. A Yankee shutout is no fun for starving kids. Also, when the crowd rises in rhythmic clapping hoping for a third strike…stay seated! It is bad karma to get up. And… never, ever do “the wave”!!! That might be fine for Shea, but not in my stadium.

While most of my early visits to my stadium were with friends or my entire family, I do vividly recall one time when it was just my dad and I going to a game. That was special. My dad owned a linoleum store in the Bronx and worked almost every day…and night. It was rare that we got to spend any private time together, let alone a visit to my stadium. But someone had given him tickets to see the Red Sox play the Yanks in a night game. And it would be just the two of us
boys. I had been obsessed with this major event for weeks. Finally the night arrived and my dad actually closed the store on time. As we got onto the subway (no walking 30 blocks when you’re with your dad), I could barely contain my excitement. Only thing was…it was raining. Pretty hard. We got to my stadium, walked through our right field entranceway, and found the field covered with that dreadful, dreary, death-like tarpaulin. The usher showed us to our seats and wiped them dry (yes, they actually used to do that). We waited and watched. Nothing much happened. Except the rain and more rain forming puddles on the tarp and the field. I tried not to think the unthinkable, but then the voice came. “Ladies and Gentlemen, we regret to inform you that tonight’s game between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox has been postponed”. Sadder words were never heard in my stadium. As my tears mixed with the rain, I offered to my dad, with all the hope that comes with youth, “Maybe they’ll change their minds??” My dad’s perfect response was “Maybe they will.” We sat there and watched the rain pelt the tarp. And we sat. And we sat. Finally, after about 45 minutes I left my stadium holding hands with my dad.

My mom made appearances at my stadium as well. In fact, as a young lady, she used to semi-regularly attend
(the now politically incorrect) “Ladies Days”, where for half-price, she could go to a game and ogle her crush, “Scooter” Rizzuto. I have my own personal recollection of a game with my mom. It was “Mickey Mantle Day”. A day when one of the most popular players in Yankee history would be showered with gifts ranging from convertible cars to hunting dogs to washing machines. He would also be showered with thunderous applause and affection from a packed stadium crowd. And at some point during the 10 minute ovation, my always-overly-enthusiastic mom clapped her hands with such intense fervor…that she jarred the diamond from her wedding ring out of its setting! It wasn’t until an inning or two into the game, that she noticed the loss. At which point, my dad, my sister, myself and half of section 25 began a furious “treasure hunt”. After a few frantic moments of digging through Ballantine Beer cups, Crackerjack boxes and assorted ballpark flotsam, my dad emerged triumphantly with the diamond in the rough…or in this case, the mustard.

Perhaps, it’s because of my many years of my walking to my stadium…that these days I have admittedly become a “travel snob” when coming to my Stadium
(nowadays arriving from the OTHER direction – downtown Manhattan). I either drive and park directly across from my stadium (where the attendants know me and greet me with hugs), or I take a cab. But I do take the subway once a year – Opening Day. It's one more tradition. One that holds much metaphorical meaning for me. Coming from 86th Street, there is something special about being surrounded by New Yorkers of all ethnicities, all ages, all genders, all income levels…completely decked out in their Yankee paraphernalia…all eagerly anticipating the beginning of a new season. As the packed subway car makes its way through the underground tunnel…just as it approaches my stadium, it emerges from the darkness into the daylight…mirroring the onset of spring and eternal hope. In a thrilling moment we all get our first glimpse of the stadium. My stadium.

Seeing my stadium has always had a strange and powerful emotional effect on me. I believe it also imbues me with “special powers”. Case in point. The year was 1970. And like many, many others of my generation…I was in the lottery. The one conducted by Selective Service System. 156 was my number. Not good. Not “safe”. Along with the rest of the terrified 18 year olds, I began exploring ‘ways out”. After many somewhat bizarre considerations, I decided on applying for Conscientious Objector status. This precious and rare designation was customarily reserved for Quakers or sons of clergymen. Being a nice Jewish boy from the Bronx and son of a floor covering man…the odds were greatly stacked against me. But after months of applications and letters of recommendation about my peace-loving self…I found myself being interviewed by the members of my local draft board. Like a bad joke, my board was comprised of a priest, an army lieutenant and a congressman. And there I was … a trembling teen. As they fired questions at me…questioning my ethics, my principles, my sincerity…as they tried to arouse my temper and dug deep to determine if I was indeed non-violent by asking things like what would I do if someone tried to rape my grandmother
(I was thinking…you’ve never seen my grandma)…I stared out the window of my SS office on Gerard Avenue and miraculously I was able to look into my stadium! To this day I believe that I was somehow granted my CO status because I was inspired by “the great ballpark in the South Bronx”.

While seeing my stadium from the outside always begins to stir my emotions…being inside is my nirvana. Perhaps it’s because I am back home in the Bronx, sitting outdoors on a balmy summer evening or hot, sweaty afternoon and I immediately feel like I’m 12 years old again.

I’ve never had season tickets, but I attend about 30 games a year. Plus since 1975, I’ve only missed one post-season game. Where I sit…could be anywhere. During my Bronx days, the Bleachers were my usual home. More times than not I would be waiting at the front of the line to get my 75 cent tickets. As a rule, I’ve tried to stay out of the Upper Deck
(not crazy about heights)…although I did make my “greatest catch” there. Leaning over an exit-way and bare-handing a hard foul ball brought me a large and vigorous ovation…which I must say I handled rather coolly as befits someone who has caught over a dozen balls at the stadium!

In contrast to the far-reaches of the Bleachers…I have also sat in what are ostensibly "the best seats in the house." Those belonging to a fellow named George Steinbrenner, you may have heard of him. How’d that happen?? One weekday afternoon in the late ‘70’s, I decided to call in sick and head to my stadium. To abet me in my “crime”, I recruited my girlfriend
(soon to be wife) and her friend. Both ladies were rather attractive and, when decked out in their somewhat-too-tight Yankee T-Shirts, always served as good “bait” to attract the ballplayers…(to whom I would immediately introduce myself). Anyway, as we stood by the players’ parking lot, awaiting the players’ arrival…I spotted a familiar turtle-necked figure hurriedly walking towards the Executive Offices. While I myself would never be so bold as to approach him…I did send “the girls” over to remind him that we “met” him during Spring Training in Fort Lauderdale (along with thousands of others I’m sure). The Boss assured the ladies that “of course” he remembered them (sure…), and inquired if we had tickets for the game. When my girlfriend responded that we were just about to purchase them, he insisted that WE (I was immediately added to the equation) accept his complimentary tickets. Moments later his chauffeur cum manservant handed us three tickets, which I immediately identified as “pretty good seats”. We entered my stadium (through the right field entrance), touched the foul pole and headed towards the designated seats. As we got closer and closer to home plate and closer and closer to the field itself, the seats began to look better and better. Finally we went where few have gone before, stopped only by a linked metal chain and an imposing security guard. When I told him we, in fact, had tickets for the secured area…he smirked and smugly informed us that “No one has those tickets”. Politely, I presented him with the ducats I held in my hand…and suddenly his demeanor changed. “I’m very sorry Sir” (Sir??? Me???)…he showed us to the three seats directly adjacent to the Yankee dugout, (you know, the ones where Mayor Rudy or Bruce Springsteen usually sit). During the game, Yankee player after player checked out the VIP’s (or maybe just the T-Shirts) who were sitting in the Boss’ box.

I don’t always get to sit in the Boss’s seats. But truth be told, I have always been able to get extremely good seats for the 30something games I attend each year. How? Customarily, I select my games a few months before the season begins
(it’s amazing how many “memorable games” I am able to select randomly). About 30 years ago, I anxiously ripped open the envelope containing my season’s allotment…and I was disappointed. They were merely “OK seats”. So I figured it wouldn’t hurt to write a note to the head of ticket sales to see if he could do any better. And, oh yeah…I copied George S. I guess I wrote a pretty persuasive letter because in a matter of days I got a phone call from a Mr. Dick Kraft…from Mr. Steinbrenner’s office. He apologized. (To me???? A 27-year-old nobody????). He told me he would personally speak to the head of ticket sales on my behalf. A few hours later I received my second call. “Hello Mr. Skollar…this is Frank Swaine head of ticket sales for the New York Yankees. I have been asked to call you by Mr. Steinbrenner. I’m very sorry that you are unhappy with your tickets for this season. If you would like to come up to the Stadium, I’m sure we will be able to accommodate your requests”. Wow! I immediately went up to my stadium. Got tickets in the first row in short right field…plus…Mr. Swaine said, “Next time call me before the season and we’ll take care of you”. Double wow!! Obviously Mr. Swaine thought I was somebody who “counted” with the Boss. Fast forward: for the past thirty years I have contacted the gracious Mr. Swaine and have gotten excellent seats. (Note: Mr. Swaine retired this year…uh oh). Moral of the story…you don’t ask, you don’t get.

While we’re on the subject of my stadium’s seats…I should tell you that I do occasionally sport shiny blue cuff links that are made from the actual seats from the “old stadium” (Nice anniversary gift!). And one of those original seats happens to be currently located in my den! I won it in 1977 at a Sports Illustrated party where there was a Yankee trivia contest. I tied with two other people for the best score …my wife and my friend (who copied my answers). It came down to a playoff with each of us on stage. No copying now. When they asked the number of games in Lou Gehrig’s consecutive streak I easily answered 2130. I won the chair…AND…a prized photo with several of the ’77 Yanks (I magnanimously let my wife join me in the photo).

Speaking of my wife
(an ex-hometown Detroit Tiger fan)…after dating her for 10 years, I finally decided to make the commitment in 1979. After that length of courtship, I figured the proposal had to be something special. I had just the thing. I called the office at my stadium and asked if there was any way that I could propose on the JumboTron. In 1979, the answer was a swift, Sorry. If we do it for you, we’d have to do it for everybody. Hmmm, I guess they had a change of heart. Now in-game proposals are as much a part of the festivities as “Disco Stu” and the ground crew doing their YMCA routine.

By attending so many games over the years
(plus spring training) and always being among the first eager fans to enter my stadium on game nights, I actually had a chance to meet…and yes, befriend, several of the Yankees. My wife and I were on a first name basis with Gene “The Stick” Michael, Ellie Hendricks, Cliff Johnson, Goose Gossage and became very good friends with Fred “Chicken” Stanley and Sparky Lyle.

Besides my wife and I actually attending Sparky’s wedding
(with all the other Yankees)…my best Sparky story came one night after leaving my stadium. I was with a few friends, and shunning the subway, as was my wont, walked up to the Grand Concourse to try to hail a cab to take us back to Manhattan. Suddenly from across the street, I heard someone calling to me from his car. I saw it was some mustachioed guy in an over-sized straw hat, as I got closer the Pancho Villa look-alike, was none other than the current Cy Young award-winner himself. Sparky was heading downtown for some post-game “refreshments”,..and graciously chauffeured the 4 of us. Pretty cool, huh?

There was another ballplayer story that was something other than “cool”. We had befriended a Yankee rookie named Del Alston. We spoke with him before every game, and once
(a la Lou Gehrig) he promised to hit a home run for us…and DAMN he did!! (May have been his only one of the year). Anyway, one day after speaking with him pre-game, my stadium JumboTron flashed a message that young Del had been sent down to the minors. We were broken-hearted. We had mixed emotions as we watched the Yankees winning the game. Suddenly…Del shows up in his “civvies” to sit with us. We offered whatever non-professional counseling and advice we could. After all, it was expected of us in my stadium.

There were also those times when my stadium actually welcomed me onto its field.

Being an advertising guy, I tried to incorporate baseball into as many commercials as made sense
(and some even that didn’t). So I shot a print ad for Fruit of The Loom underwear on the field and in the locker room; I was on the field with my son, as Joe Torre “pitched” for American General insurance; and I presented an over-sized check on behalf of Barilla pasta to Wade Boggs.

And then there were the games themselves. As I mentioned above, I had a knack for picking out the most dramatic games of the year. So I was there in 1976 when Chris Chambliss’s HR sent the Yanks back to the World Series for the first time in 12 years
(true story, I passed out!); I was there for Reggie’s 3 homers against the Dodgers (the first one brushed off my fingers); I was there with the whole family for David Wells’ perfect game; and for Doc Gooden’s no-hitter (my son and I were shown hugging on the JumboTron); and I was there for my favorite moment - (Aaron Boone’s defeat of the hated Bosox); and my worst - Boston’s comeback in 2003, (I still deny it ever happened).

One of the coolest game memories at my stadium was a seemingly “ordinary” game in August 1996. I was sitting in the first row in left field. Darryl Strawberry
(rescued from the Mets) was playing directly in front of me. As is my duty in my stadium, I began shouting encouragement to “the Strawman”. From the first inning on, I began…Darryl! This is your night!! Two dingers for you! I feel it! Two HR’s. I wasn’t sure if he heard me, but certainly everyone else in my section did. So sure enough, Darryl’s first time up…GONE!!! Deep to right field bleachers. The crowd in my section acknowledged me. And when Darryl returned to left field, I reminded him…Told you Darryl! You got one more coming! Next time up…BOOM!!! OUTTA HERE!!! Now I received cheers from my section almost as loud as Strawberry’s. When he trotted out to left field, he pointed right at me and smiled. Great story, huh? Not over yet. Third time up…CRACK! THIRD HR!!!. With the crowd chanting “Darryl! Darryl! Darryl!", Strawberry takes his position in leftfield…looks right at me at laughs…I respond…OK that one was yours! Crowd goes wild!

But not all of my memories from my stadium were filled with joy…

One of my best friends, Sam called me one afternoon. After many years of sadness and angst, he decided to end his marriage. He had told his wife just that very morning and now, while relieved, he was feeling very down. I told him I had the remedy…let’s get together some of the boys and head up to my stadium. I was certain the Bombers, a few sausages and a beer or four could take one’s mind off of anything. We even scored a great parking spot across from the Bronx County Courthouse just two blocks from my stadium!!

But still, at first, my theory proved wrong. Try as we might, the boys couldn’t get Sam going. But then some “gallows humor”, a couple of hot female fans in the row in front of us and a stirring Yankee comeback…had Sam back to his old self as the outrageous center of attention. As we exited my stadium and walked towards Sam’s car…we were laughing and cheering and far away from any marital discord. But then…as we walked up and down the rows of cars, we couldn’t find Sam’s. Up and down the same block, maybe 20 times. But no Sam-mobile. It was stolen. The police came. Sam filled out lengthy reports. We took the subway home. Talk about blowing a game….

Anyone who worked for me over the years knew that the results of a Yankees game would be a big part of how they would be treated the next day at work. Soon, they all became pretty big Yankee fans. Every summer, we would have a group outing to…my stadium, of course. This one night in 1995, our entire group was there. We were even welcomed on the scoreboard. Some of my guys and gals, who hadn’t ever attended a game in their lives, were now screaming their heads off like the most ardent of die-hards. And…we won.  When I arrived home, I was on a high. Good game, good group. I opened the door and my wife met me with an ashen face. She said “I tried to reach you at the stadium. Your mom had a heart attack
(as my parents were vacationing in San Francisco)” I took 5 minutes to pack. I boarded the plane in less than an hour. And endured the longest flight of my life. When I got there, the doctor told me they didn’t think she would make it through the night. She did. She survived a coma. And the “miracle woman” lived for 3 more years. But she was never the same.

I was returning from a business trip in Chicago. Somehow
(through careful planning), I was able to schedule my meetings just when the Yankees happened to be visiting the White Sox. So I spent my two nights in Chi-town at someone else’s stadium…Comiskey. The Yanks won…and the Chicago fans hated me and my cheering. Arriving back at LaGuardia the next afternoon, I was ready to be home. I jumped into a cab, welcoming the air-conditioning on a hot August day…when I heard it. The radio voiced the incomprehensible… "And repeating our top story, Yankee catcher Thurman Munson has been killed in a plane crash”. The air seeped out of the cab. The breath from my body. Impossible. The toughest of the Yankees. Our captain.  I had tickets for the game the next night. I thought to myself, there was no way I could go. In fact, this tragedy forced me to look at the “big picture” and honestly, at that moment, I couldn’t imagine going to my stadium for the rest of the year…or ever again. But the next night I was there. With tears in my eyes I stared at the area around home plate. When the Yankees took the field…the catcher’s position was left empty. 50,000 people cried together. Then the game started. Life goes on.

Obviously my stadium is part of my life. It always has been. My dad was almost as Yankee crazy as I am. At 87, the status of the Yanks is still the first topic of conversation of our phone calls. My son and daughter have inherited the beloved obsession. They each visited my stadium before their first birthdays. And still come with me today.

On Old Timers day several years ago, my son Adam was featured prominently on the JumboTron holding a sign that read
“Scooter, my Grandpa thinks you’re great”. He made his return to the big screen just last year holding signs that read “StAy-Rod” (pleading for Alex NOT to opt out) and the TBS network zoomed in on "Torre Better Stay". In fact the latter sign was used as the final video visual at the end of the game…and featured on the Yankees website.

A few years ago, when my son was searching for a topic for his college application essay…it didn’t take him long. He wrote about three generations of men- my dad, myself and my son - finding a way to bridge the ages and communicate.
He wrote a touching story about three men sharing as they sat at a ballgame in my stadium.

One final anecdote. Several years ago my friends threw me a surprise birthday party. It warmed my heart to enter the room and see all the familiar faces. Work friends, school friends, family. And as I scanned all these faces…there was one more familiar one. He held a painted sign and an old dented pan. It was Freddy
(Shulman) the omnipresent, pan-clanging denizen of my stadium. A unique “gift” from a knowing friend. My stadium is never far from me.

While there will be countless stories, tributes, paeans, homages, recollections written about the Stadium…I contend no one has my personal life-inspiring, mood-affecting, memory-filling chronicle of my stadium. I will miss my stadium terribly…and for the record, I am not happy about the new state-of-the art doppelganger stadium across the street.
Will I be there next year on opening day? For sure.
Will I touch the right field foul pole? Of course
(if I am able to reach it).
Will I still make my 30-40 games a year? Yes
(as long as I can afford the king’s ransom).

Will it become
my new stadium? Only time will tell.

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