Sunday, July 18, 2010

Blog blast past: Hats off to our Ruthless capacity to live a lie

In the wake of George Steinbrenner's death, here's a piece on the closure of Yankee Stadium in from Sept. 22, 2008.

You can't talk about Yankee Stadium. There isn't any such place.

Cranky-panted Seamhead objections notwithstanding, it is impossible to not be touched on some level by the closure of the Stadium. One would have to be a sad bastard to begrudge anyone who gave in to the faux gravitas on Sunday night in the Bronx.

Look at it this way. A lot of people never visited the Montreal Forum, or maybe only got to do it once or twice. They still felt a sense of loss March 12, 1996, the day after the Canadiens played there for the final time. It's part of the understanding that pro sports would not exist without the glow you get from our shared existence as fans. I'm talking about the vibe that means two people can make plans to meet up with two other people they barely know after a game and already have the basis for a conversation.

That might be part of where the feeling of loss with the closure of the Stadium comes from, the loss of a first-hand experience. Speaking as a history buff who had the foresight not to study history in university and lose the ability to enjoy it, history is best when it's scuffed like one of Whitey Ford's pitches. Think about all the kids who'll never have the chance to be introduced to that now -- although with what the Yankees charge for tickets, plenty were denied that already.

Moving out of Yankee Stadium is another step closer to having our shared experience come even more prefab, sanitized and franchised.For instance, Maury Brown at The Biz of Baseball noted that Yankee Stadium III will have "a martini bar and a steakhouse on the inside – a ruse designed to recall the historic memory of the past while tapping into the wallets of those that come to a new stadium, not just to watch a game, but to be serviced in grand style."

In other words, you get Phil from Marketing's undercooked and watered-down notion of the 1940s and '50s passed off as historically based. Sterling Cooper would be proud; people think they are getting something, even if it's actually about as true to that bygone era as a typical Mad Men episode. Like, come on. Who has a martini and a steak at a ballgame?

So much for that famous ad that starred Humphrey Bogart: A hot dog at the ballpark beats a steak at the Ritz. And, of course, any baseball fan you'd want to watch nine innings of baseball with with drinks beers, always in the plural.

Enough about that, though. All in all, the Stadium sendoff owed more to George Orwell than to George Herman Ruth. This goes way beyond the Yankees ignoring their dismal 1986-92 era by not even having the common courtesy to bring out Steve "Bye-Bye" Balboni to wave bye-bye.

(Balboni was a laughably limited part-time DH who played two seasons in pinstripes and almost hit his weight over that time. In fairness, he weighed 225.)

Roger Clemens? To borrow Yankee TV play-by-play man Michael Kay's home run call, "See ya!" The disgraced right-hander was misremembered in the official record, even though it was just last season that the Yankees wanted him so badly that he signed a pro-rated $28-million contract for one season.

Ex-manager Joe Torre, who's now with the L.A. Dodgers, was similarly "disappeared." Never mind that Torre guided the Yankees to four World Series titles or that the image of him sitting stoically in the dugout is burned into my brain, thanks to Fox's death-by-a-million-quick-cuts style of presenting playoff baseball.

Torre won more titles than Hall of Fame Yankees manager Miller Huggins, who only had 15 other teams to contend with, and more than Ralph Houk, whose stature was such that he could only be portrayed in 61* by the guy who played D-Day in Animal House. However, he was fired and he's headed to the playoffs while the Yankees are not.

All of it rang a bit hollow, right down to the what-keeps-this-guy-alive Bob Sheppard's recorded player introductions. The Yankees ownership is likely feeling no pain over leaving. They have been trying to escape from that place since about 1981, when Snake Plisskin was appointed to the board of directors.

Remember the racially loaded innuendos George Steinbrenner perpetrated in the early '90s about the Bronx being too scary for his season ticket holders? It was all part of grand scheme:
"In truth, this was a happy occasion for everyone but the fans, who will need mortgages to afford tickets next year. The Yanks will finally own their own ballpark, the players will finally move from the utility closet in the basement into a real clubhouse, and the ownership will pocket fistfuls of cash from 60 luxury boxes.
-- Wallace Matthews,
Translation: It mean the Yankees, whom you need to have in the playoffs so you can hate something and know that you're alive, are turning into MLSE with foul lines. (The closure occurred on the same weekend the Tampa Bay Rays, with a payroll just $5 million higher than perpetually injured Yankees pitcher Carl Pavano's contract, wrapped up their first playoff berth. By the way, Rays owner Stuart Sternberg grew up as a Mets fan.

All the "85 years" talk reveals is our admirable, Costanza-like ability to live, like, 20 lies at the same time. It neatly ignores that, as ShysterBall said, "For the record, the last home run in Yankee Stadium was hit by backup catcher Duke Sims. It happened on September 30, 1973 against the Tigers. After that game, New York played for two years in Shea Stadium and then 33 years in one of those unfortunate 1970s-era ballparks that are now finally and mercifully gone."

Then's there the reality that the Yankees' deal with New York City for public assistance for Yankee Stadium III stinks to the point that even proud Republicans are calling the baseball team "taxpayer-leeching pimps." Republicans using that language? You'd swear a Democrat was about to get elected president.

There is all of that and more. It's not a Yankee-hating thing (eh, maybe a little). Maybe all of this speaks to the general shallowness of modern life.

In the absence of clarity, the best way to deal is to give priority to the mythology of Yankee Stadium has value, too.

For pity's sake, it was the only place that could be called the Stadium without anyone asking which stadium. When Crash Davis went off on his "one more dying quail" rant in Ron Shelton's Bull Durham, he talked about how one more hit per week was the difference between being in the bush leagues and being in Yankee Stadium.

It was about as close to something anyone can understand as you're going to get in a Hollywood sports film.

Sure, as far as ballparks appearing in movies go, Kevin Costner also played a character who felt compelled to drag a famous author to Fenway Park. John Hughes knew Ferris Bueller's day off would be incomplete without a trip to Wrigley Field. That is only from a fan perspective.

What Shelton, the ballplayer turned writer meant, was that Yankee Stadium was the proving ground for a player. The media has dumbed that down over the years, but it does not make it any less true.

Yankee Stadium was Oz-like -- a fantasy world full of odd creatures with names like Billy, Mickey, Whitey, Yogi, Reggie, Jet-ah and Mariano. On one night in 1996, thanks to Jeffrey Maier and an egregious case of craven home-team officiating, it was more like the shower room in Oz for the Baltimore Orioles. (Yeah, I went there.)

Whatever you think of the Yankees, there is a sense of loss when you know that here on out, Aura and Mystique are likely just the nom de peel of A-Rod's, um, casual acquaintances.

All of that is being left behind in the greater name of greed. Sports is big business, but it still sucks.


Mike said...

I sadly will never have taken in a game at Yankee Stadium, I was supposed to go a few weeks back during my vacation but alas I had to change that week off due to work and now have missed out. You're right sager some things will never been the same, and it does seem that with every new closure that comes along what is right about sports slips by the wayside.

I often do wonder what it will be like when the new stadiums & new arenas being built now get to some historic point, but then I think it's not possible for something named after a sponsor, changing sponsors regularly as well, to attain such a mystique.

It was a sad but important day for the sporting world last night, I think it's a good thing the Yanks are missing the playoffs this season so they could do a special evening for one last curtain call (not officially out of contention but c'mon, they're done!). Not just sad because of the loss of the stadium but also because the price hike is very much the future of sports, no way around it.

Great job sager!

Duane Rollins said...

I think this strikes a balance between cynicism and sentimentality just about perfectly. And it errs on the side of sap, which is the right angle.

It's not about the buildings. To bring it back to a Canadian perspective Maple Leaf Gardens was a dump. What it's about is the idea of the buildings. Shared memories, childhood wonder and all that stuff.

From an aesthetic perspective I've never really been all that taken by Yankee Stadium. Then again, I'm not a traditionalist. But that hardly matters. What matters is that to a lot of people it matters.

sager said...

You know the old saw -- if someone came to Canada and asked to be taken to our most important religious place of worship, they would be taken to Maple Leaf Gardens.

That childhood wonder element is huge. It's like what Ken Dryden said about the golden age being embodied by "whoever was playing when you were 12."

Thing is, in 1989, the Mets ruled New York baseball. They had Carter, Strawberry, Gooden and Keith Hernandez.

The Yankees regulars included Alvaro Espinoza, a past-it Jesse Barfield, Mel Hall, Andy Hawkins and Lee Guetterman. It was like the first team had missed the bus.

You see see why I don't worship at the Yankee alter, but understand that attention must be paid.

Duane Rollins said...

It's like what Ken Dryden said about the golden age being embodied by "whoever was playing when you were 12."

Say what you want about dear ole' Ken, he nailed it with this remains one of my favourite ides ever committed to print by a sports writer (and I think Dryden can be called a sports writer. He's been a lot of things).

I was a bit older than 12, but George Bell sinking to his knees is the golden moment of baseball history if you ask me. And, as you say Neate, the Yanks were nothing in the 80s. So, I've never understood the pinstripes thing. To me there are just the bullies that started to outspend everyone in the mid-90s. I can't bring myself to care that there won't be playoff baseball at the old stadium this year.

But, I can understand that yesterday was A Very Big Deal to a lot of people and I'm not prepared to judge. Hell, it will be a big deal to me the day they close the bloody Yardmen Arena and it's really a dump.

Rob Pettapiece said...

The note about the Stadium being a proving ground for a player rings true if one remembers Gustavo Chacin's big-league debut. He shut down the Yankees, in the Bronx, a few days after being called up from Double-A and his career seemed to be on the rise.

Four years later, he's nowhere to be seen. And who knows whether his career will outlast Yankee Stadium now. Cynicism indeed.

By the way, isn't the last game there actually a hockey game or something? Rangers and someone in February?

Duane Rollins said...

By the way, isn't the last game there actually a hockey game or something? Rangers and someone in February

There was some talk that the Mid Season Classic game would be there this year, but the NHL went with Chicago instead. It probably would have been bad optics to end things with a hockey game...

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