Monday, July 18, 2011

The Evil Empire

The 5th inning of our father-son epic journey.  If you are just starting, go back to 'Round Tripper post, and work your way forward to follow the storyline.

DAY THREE (Part 2): The Evil Empire

I grew up in a highly partisan environment.  If you loved the Mets, you had to hate the Yankees.  If you loved the Yankees, you hated the Mets.  Before interleague play and the 2000 Subway Series, the Mets and Yankees only played once a year – the Mayor’s Trophy game, an exhibition contest held each May.  It was a big fundraising event, and the team’s regulars usually played a few innings before giving way to benchwarmers and Triple AAA prospects (usually meant the likes of Jim Beauchamp or Ron Hodges batting cleanup for 9 innings).  The game was meaningless, except to us boys between the ages of 8 and 18.  The Mayor’s Trophy game winner provided kids one year of bragging rights, and would serve as a indisputable comeback against any reasonable argument about one team’s superiority over the other.  Mets go to the World Series in 1973?  Yankee fans didn’t care, as long as the Yankees won the 1973 Mayor’s Trophy game.  Yankees crush the Dodgers in the 1977 Fall Classic?  No concern for Mets fans, as long as the Mets won the 1977 Mayor’s Trophy game.

This is the kind of irrational thinking that I had somehow passed on to my son, growing up 200 miles away from New York.  My poor boy played Little League for the Yankees, and his bias shone through before every game.  His team would gather in a circle and cheer, “One, two, three, YANKEES!”, and my loyal offspring would cheer, “One, two, three…” and then fall silent.  He had been programmed such that he could not cheer for the Yankee name, even when he was on their team.  He talked openly about how he could destroy his Yankee cap once the LL season ended.  I had created a monster.  Now was my chance to teach him some balance, some respect for the competition, some maturity about fandom.  We would mingle with the enemy for an entire evening, weather permitting.

The 7 mile drive from Manhattan to the home of the Bronx Bombers took a mere 50 minutes.  At least I knew before we got into the car that it would take that long to traverse such a short distance.  The directions were simple, and we quickly found parking close off the exit.

Covered parking to the left was $35.  Open air lot parking was $25 to our right.  The $10 savings could buy us an extra hot dog.  I turned right, parked where directed, and soon realized that saving $10 might come back to haunt us after the game.  Cars were being stacked like sardines in a can, and we were told to leave our keys in the car.  Hmmm, here was a lesson in trust, and I didn’t want to have a lesson in trust in the Bronx.  Leave the keys and trust.  Lock the car and take the keys, and forget trust.  We had little or no valuables (at least not of value to others), and the car wasn’t going anywhere as car after car filled the lot.  I followed directions, left the keys, and prepared myself for 3 nervous hours of a tenuous trust.

With scorebook in hand, we headed towards the stadium, looming ahead in the misty fog.  It wasn’t raining, but it was about as close to raining as it could be without actual drops coming down.  We followed the gathering crowd through the hallowed ground of the old Yankee Stadium.  I was here once before in 2009 when part of The House That Ruth Built was still in place.  The old stadium was not demolished; it was disassembled piece by piece.  Today, there was nothing left, replaced by a Legends Field for players of lesser talents and even lesser bank accounts.  The sidewalk beneath our feet was speckled with bronze plates marking famous dates in the old Yankee Stadium’s history – Don Larsen’s perfect game, Reggie Jackson’s 3 home runs in the WS, and the return of baseball after September 11th.  You couldn’t really stop to read every marker since the fans were creating a strong current pulling us towards the coliseum that rose in front of us.

Yes, I said coliseum.  If the Mets played on a field, the Yankees played in a stadium.  While Citifield invoked images of a pastoral game, Yankee Stadium invoked images of gladiators fighting to the death.  You could not see into the stadium from the outside, only the eerie glow of the floodlights on top, but the feeling was that inside those concrete walls, there was a 50-50 chance you could be eaten by a lion.  If intimidation was part of the architectural design, then mission accomplished.

Once again, our 8 ½” by 11” Stub Hub print out worked at the gates and we were inside the Jungle.  We were accosted almost immediately by one of the photographers who takes your picture, hoping you will go home and purchase that picture from their website.  This particular photographer must have smelled blood or be compensated by commission, because it felt like we were being sold a timeshare from the woman.  This was our first run in with the stereotypical “pushy” New Yorker, so I had to demonstrate to Thomas how to reciprocate by blowing the person off.  Take notes, Thomas.

We were about 75 minutes from first pitch, and I was committed to walking through Monument Park beyond the centerfield wall.  Monument Park at Yankee Stadium has oversized tombstones of granite that commemorate the greats of Yankee history, and there are many.  The names of Yankee heroes are synonymous with the game of baseball itself – Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Berra, Mantle.  The nicknames are equally embedded in American culture: The Babe, The Ironman, Joltin’ Joe, Yogi, The Mick, Mr. October.  You can be a hater all you want, but you cannot deny respect for the accomplishments and contributions of these legends of the game.  You could argue that beyond Tom Seaver, the most famous name associated with the Mets is Bill Buckner, and he played for the other side.  The Yankees are baseball history, and Monument Park would be a good appetizer before we made it to Cooperstown the next day.  This would be my first attempt at rehabilitating my son just a little bit.
The line to enter was long, but moved quickly.  When standing next to the actual monuments, it is hard to imagine that at one time, these colossal pieces of stone were actually on the field of play in the old, old Yankee centerfield.  But they were.  It had to feel like shagging fly balls in a graveyard.

The monuments were neat, and I enjoyed educating Thomas about these heroes of baseball.  The best part for me was the view from over the fence towards home plate.  How could anyone hit a baseball this far?  Thomas could have stood there for hours watching as batting practice was taking place.  This was an interesting vista for a ball game.

Assuming that the impending rain wouldn’t delay the start, we still had time to kill, so Thomas and I headed to the left field corner where Colorado Rockies’ players were tossing up balls caught during outfield practice.  Security must have sensed my loyalty to another team, and would not let me pass into the reserved seating section, but Thomas was allowed to stand right on the wall, begging for a soft toss from one of the outfielders.  No balls were claimed, but he did spend a good 20 minutes right in the middle of the action.  It is in moments like this, when a child is close to the players and the field, that a lifelong love of the sport takes root. 
I spent those 20 minutes at the top of the stairway chatting with the usher and a woman whose family was down close also trying for stray baseballs.  Believe it or not, she and her husband and kids were spending the week visiting Citifield, Yankee Stadium and then heading to Cooperstown.  Great minds think alike.

We ate the traditional sausage and peppers ballpark dinner, and headed to our seats in the clouds.  That is not to say that our seats were high up in the stadium.  That is to say that our seats were in a cloud.  The evening was a dreary one, with visibility of less than a mile.  More than once we would look out across the stadium from our seats along first base and think, “Those people on the other side are in a cloud.”  Of course, those fans on the third base side were probably looking at us and thinking the same thing.  Thankfully, we were underneath the overhang, and any actual rain did not hit us.  We suffered only from the blowing mist.

Thomas kept score the entire game, and took his responsibility very seriously.  If the pitch count at the end of the inning disappeared too quickly from the scoreboard before he could take note, he became agitated.  This was the first part of the trip when we could just sit and talk and watch baseball, without distraction.

Of course, there was the distraction of the people in front of us, who kept getting up from their seats constantly in the middle of innings, bringing back all varieties of food-like products, posing for cell phone pictures of themselves, and surfing Facebook while the game was happening.  These people represented what I hated about Yankee fans.  They were more concerned with saying they were at the game than actually being at the game.  They were there in their Stepford Wives’matching pinstripe uniforms, wanting to tell all their imaginary friends that they went to a Yankee game, when none of them were following the action of the game.  They weren’t fans; they were groupies.

OK, that was unnecessary, but I feel better.

Jeter was on the DL, so we didn’t see the newest member of the 3,000 hit club.  No Bob Shepherd on the PA.  Mariano Rivera was not needed on this night, so we did not get to hear Metallica introduce #42 into the game for the save opportunity.    We did experience the Roll Call, when the right field crazies chant the name of every Yankee player in the field, one at a time, until they acknowledge the crowd with a wave.  We did hear the infamous, “Hip Hip Jorge!” cheer, and we did see a slightly deflated Jason Giambi hit a home run against his former team.  The Yankees lost, but given our pre-game biases, we were not disappointed. 

Thomas kept score to the final out, and we watched the 9th inning from about 20 rows behind the 1st base dugout.  The weather was not perfect, but it was a perfect night of father-son baseball bonding.  By the end of the evening, Thomas might have actually cheered once for the home team, but he might not admit it.

The night was far from over, however; we were headed halfway to Cooperstown before we could go to sleep for the night.  Now it will probably rain.

Next Up:  Escape from New York    

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