Farewell, Yankee Stadium

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 25, 2008

By Steve Huffman
NEW YORK ó Know how they say that when it comes to trivia, the first thing that pops in your mind is the answer to give?
OK, here goes:
Who hit the first-ever home run in Yankee Stadium?
(Remember, go with your gut.)
You’re right! It was Babe Ruth!
That was April 18, 1923, the stadium’s opening day when the biggest crowd ó 74,217 ó in the history of baseball poured in to have a look.
(Here’s a tad more trivia: Before the game, the Babe declared, “I’d give a year of my life if I can hit a home run in this first game in this new park.” In actuality, he may have given that year and a few more. Babe didn’t live to be an old man.)
Here’s a tougher question: Who hit the last home run in Yankee Stadium?
Give up? I don’t blame you, but for the record, it was Jose Molina, who did so Sept. 21, 2008, the night of the final game played at Yankee Stadium.
I wasn’t on hand to see Babe’s first blast, but I didn’t miss Molina’s parting shot by much.
Accompanied by my brother, Ron, and two of our good friends, we traveled to New York to see the Yankees the nights of Sept. 16 and 17.
We had a lot of fun. It was ridiculously expensive ó we each paid $335 for our tickets and almost that much for a round of beers (kidding, but not by much) ó but one day (with any luck, many years from now), I’ll be able to pull my grandson aside and say, “Your granddaddy visited Yankee Stadium during its last week of existence.”
The trip came at the suggestion of Gary Rogers. Gary is a lifelong Yankees fan who grew up down the street from me in Burlington.
He used to get me to trade him my Mickey Mantle baseball cards, somehow convincing me that Marv Throneberry of the New York Mets was where it’s at.
Gary is fond of telling people that the two of us have known one another since before we started school (I’ve never had the heart to tell Gary that I have no recollection of him before fourth grade when we were both in Mrs. Benson’s class, but we’ve got a lot of history between us, regardless).
Gary told me this past summer that he’d never been to Yankee Stadium and would like to go before they tore it down (the new Yankee Stadium opens next spring). I took my sons to Yankee Stadium a few years ago and Gary figured I’d be a good tour director.
So he asked me to line things up. So ó being the pass-the-buck kind of guy I am ó I called my brother Ron who once pitched against the New York Yankees (I’m not making this up. I’ll get back to that in a moment), figuring that with his ties to the organization, he could probably get us some really good seats really cheap.
It didn’t work out quite that way, but it was still a memorable experience (I use glowing terms like “memorable experience” in a vain attempt to justify having invested $1,000 in a trip to see a pair of baseball games).
Along the way, Gary’s brother, Guy, agreed to accompany us. Guy’s job was to line up the airline tickets (they somehow doubled in cost, too, between the price I was first quoted and what I actually paid, but, as Bill Gates probably says, what the hey, it’s only money).
We flew out of Charlotte and stayed in Manhattan’s upper west side in a place where the shared bathroom was down the hall.
From there, we took the D train to the 161st Street Station, which is the Bronx and Yankee Stadium.
When I visit a place like Yankee Stadium, I try to remind myself of the historical significance of the site. Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle played alongside one another in the outfield there.
Lou Gehrig was a staple at first base and delivered his “luckiest man alive” speech from home plate.
Johnny Unitas steered the Baltimore Colts to an overtime win over the New York Giants for the 1958 NFL Champion-ship there, a game that put professional football on the map.
(Side note: At the end of regulation, the referees called the captains together for the coin toss. “For what?” asked Giants linebacker and captain Sam Huff. It was, after all, the first overtime game in NFL history).
Knute Rockne delivered his “win one for the Gipper” pep talk in a locker room there and Muhammad Ali laid waste to Ken Norton in a 1976 boxing match.
Marilyn Monroe, Pele and Nelson Mandela have all been there.
When Babe Ruth died, more than 200,000 passed through the stadium’s gates to view his open casket.
As Derek Jeter, the Yankees current shortstop, told a teammate, “Just wait, when the ghosts come out here.”
Oh, and, by the way, in 1977, Reggie Jackson belted three homers in a single World Series game there.
Speaking of Jackson, let me get back to that earlier reference to my brother pitching against the Yankees.
Ron pitched for the UNC baseball team in the early 1980s.
(Brace yourself for more trivia: When he graduated from UNC, Ron had the school record for most appearances by a pitcher. I’d never admit as much to Ron, of course, but I’m proud of my younger brother).When Ron was at UNC, the daughter of George Steinbrenner, the owner of the Yankees, was in school there. So on their way back from spring training in Florida, the Yankees would swing by Chapel Hill for an exhibition game against the Tar Heels.
It was 1981, I think, when Ron came on in the third inning against the Yankees. The first Yankee he faced was Jackson, who singled to left.
Then Ron ó a lefty with a nice move to first ó picked Jackson off base, though the umpire, doing what umpires have done for all eternity, missed the call.
Ron went on to pitch against several other Yankees ó Dave Winfield and Bucky Dent, included. A number of these former Yankee greats were on hand last Sunday for the final game at Yankee Stadium.
I’d like to tell you that something momentous ó besides being charged $9.50 for a beer, I mean ó happened during the games I saw. But I’d be stretching the truth.
The fact is, the Yankees were all but eliminated from post-season play by the time we arrived in New York. The Yankees may not have been going through the motions of concluding the season, but it’s not like it was the seventh game of the World Series.
Oh, sure, we got to see Johnny Damon and Alex Rodriguez both hit homers on our second night, and got to see Andy Pettitte pitch (he lost).
But there were plenty of empty seats in the stadium’s upper reaches for the two (mid-week, that’s true) games. A video montage that aired several times during each game showcased the Yankee greats ó Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and the rest.
Airing almost simultaneously, though, was a warning to fans to treat the stadium respectfully, cautioning that those caught trying to steal souvenirs would be prosecuted. (The story I heard was that some fans had gone so far as to attempt to unbolt their seats and take them.)
Stadium artifacts will be auctioned ó often via the Internet ó in coming months. If I was the cynical sort, I’d say that Steinbrenner and Co. are so adamant that fans not steal from them so they might fleece the public for every penny they can through those auctions.
But Ron, Gary, Guy and I didn’t waste a lot of time contemplating the politics of baseball. We watched the games and had a good time, and reminded ourselves we were watching history in the making.
Or, more precisely, in the passing.