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End of a baseball era: Yankee, Shea stadiums taking their last at-bats

By Pat Borzi
Thursday, Sept. 18, 2008
NEW YORK — For those of us who measure our memories in brick, mortar and alabaster, these are the final days of a certain era of baseball in New York City.

Yankee great Joe Dimaggio, once voted the greatest living player, returned to Yankee Stadium in 1963 for Old Timers Day.
Yankee great Joe Dimaggio, once voted the greatest living player, returned to Yankee Stadium in 1963 for Old Timers Day.

NEW YORK — The northbound D Train screeched to a halt under River Avenue, at the 161st Street station in the Bronx. From there, a snaking path led to street level — up a stairway, down a long hallway, up another stairway and into daylight, under the elevated tracks for the No. 4 train. 

The past and the future intersect at the corner of River and 161st.

On the left stands Yankee Stadium, the neighborhood’s anchor tenant and the home of baseball’s most famous franchise.

On the right, rising like a hologram, is the palatial new Yankee Stadium, the outside construction almost completed, shining in the mid-morning light. On a Saturday morning in August, fans with digital cameras stood taking pictures from across the street, a scene that repeated itself throughout the weekend.

It won’t be long before the new stadium is the only one standing. With the Yankees about to miss the playoffs for the first time since 1993, Sunday marks the last game at the Yankee Stadium where Babe Ruth‘s largesse, Joe DiMaggio‘s grace and Mickey Mantle‘s brute strength inspired generations of kids, fans and songwriters.

Both Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium, the crusty home of the New York Mets in Queens, will be torn down after this season. The Mets can extend Shea’s life by avoiding last year’s historic collapse and qualifying for postseason play.

For those of us who measure our memories in brick, mortar and alabaster, these are the final days of a certain era of baseball in New York City. It wasn’t the Golden Age of the 1940s and ’50s, when the Yankees, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants filled their fields with All-Stars and made New York the Capital of Baseball (a Ken Burns coining). But it’s the one that spanned my lifetime. It saw the Yankees return to prominence and universal hatred, while the upstart Mets wrestled them for the city’s affections. 

Yankee Stadium is going because it lacks lucrative luxury boxes in the middle level, and George Steinbrenner preferred a new, modern building to a second major renovation. Shea is going because, frankly, it’s a dump. Just check the armrests on the seats in the upper deck, where the paint is so chipped that you can track every color choice in the 44-year history of the place. Atlanta’s Chipper Jones, a career .313 hitter at Shea who even named one of his four sons after the place, told The New York Times last month he might be the only person sorry to see the stadium go.

“It’s about time,” said Darryl Strawberry, the former Met, Yankee and St. Paul Saint who returned to the Twin Cities in July for the American Association All-Star Game. “When you look at all the stadiums around the league, everybody has new stadiums. The two New York teams, it’s about time they get new stadiums.”

He’s right, of course. But as a baseball fan growing up on Long Island, some of my most cherished memories occurred in these two buildings.

My father took me to my first baseball game at Shea, in 1967 or ’68 (it was rained out).  I learned to keep score at Shea on Aug. 20, 1969, when a young Mets pitcher named Jim McAndrew threw a two-hit shutout to beat the San Francisco Giants with Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Bobby Bonds. (I still have the program.)

And on July 22, 1971, in the only game I ever attended at the original Yankee Stadium, Jim Nettles of the Twins hit an inside-the-park home run. We went with our Little League, and the bus made the usually 75-minute trip back to my hometown in exactly one hour — record time that I never matched as an adult, driving myself.

Years later, as a baseball writer for the Newark Star-Ledger and other newspapers, I covered hundreds of games in these stadiums. I was there for Tom Seaver’s 300th victory, Jeffrey Maier’s reach, Joe Torre’s first world championship, Derek Jeter’s Mr. November home run in 2001, and so many other great moments. At Shea, Robin Ventura’s grand-slam single in the 1999 playoffs and the 2000 Subway Series happened before my eyes.    

This summer, something tugged me back to New York for one last visit. I needed to hear Bobby Darin’s “Sunday in New York,” a Yankee Stadium pre-game staple, one more time. And I needed a last look at Shea as a nod to my father, a broken-hearted Brooklyn Dodgers fan whose love for baseball gave me a career and a passion I’ll always be thankful for.

So please indulge me. If you bleed Twins, you may be doing some of this yourself, very soon.
The Bronx is beckoning
Let’s call it what it is. In 1923, Yankee Stadium rose from Bronx farmland as a $2.5 million middle finger at the New York Giants, who played in their bathtub-shaped stadium, the Polo Grounds, across the Harlem River in upper Manhattan. In that context, it’s the ultimate New York edifice.

A little history:  In 1911, the Yankees played at Hilltop Park in upper Manhattan. A fire at the Polo Grounds left the Giants temporarily homeless, so the Yankees let the Giants use their ballpark for a month-and-a-half. When the Yankees’ lease at Hilltop expired following the 1912 season, the Giants returned the favor by letting the Yankees rent the Polo Grounds.

The teams co-existed until Babe Ruth joined the Yankees in 1920. Suddenly, the tenants  began outdrawing the landlord, which annoyed Giants management. In 1921, the Giants told the Yankees to relocate as soon as possible. Miffed, Yankee owners Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast l’Hommedieu bought 10 acres of land from the William Waldorf Astor estate for $675,000 to build their triple-decked gem, the first American sports facility to be called a stadium, in full view of the Polo Grounds. In the Ken Burns’ book, “Baseball” (the companion to the PBS series), the photo on the seventh-inning introduction page shows the proximity of the two ballparks.

The Giants, like the Dodgers, headed west after the 1957 season. The ugly high-rise apartments built on the old Polo Grounds site can be seen from the landing on Yankee Stadium’s second deck, looking out over the Harlem River and the white Macombs Dam Bridge.

I never saw a game at the Polo Grounds, which was demolished in 1964. But I always felt a sense of history whenever I drove down the Major Deegan Expressway south toward Yankee Stadium and looked to my right, or cut through the old Polo Grounds neighborhood heading for New Jersey. A street that used to be called The Speedway ran behind the Polo Grounds, and that’s the route to the northbound Harlem River Drive.

In the six years since I left New York, a few things have changed around the old place. Macombs Dam Park adjacent to the stadium, where the Twins discovered a Panamanian kid named Rod Carew, has been leveled to build a parking garage. (Construction plans call for soccer and ballfields to be built on the roof.) The security perimeter around the stadium is so tight now that fans who used to crowd the police barricades alongside the players’ and press entrance have been shoved 30 yards away.

The windowless press room on the lower level (which Bob Nightengale of USA Today aptly calls “The Dungeon” and where I spent way so many crazy nights) looks about the same. But the stadium itself is a little dirtier than it used to be, the clearest sign of an aging George Steinbrenner’s diminishing influence on day-to-day operations.

Say what you want about Steinbrenner, but he demanded Yankee Stadium be white-glove spotless. God help any Yankee employee who walked past a candy wrapper or an overflowing trash can. Steinbrenner often conducted interviews on the move, leaving reporters scrambling to take notes and keep up, like a scene from some 1930s comedy. During one of these, Steinbrenner bent over in mid-answer to pick up a microscopic speck of cellophane that 99 percent of us never would have noticed.

One other difference can’t be overlooked. Legendary public address announcer Bob Sheppard, who is believed to be in his late 90s, has not been at the microphone since late last season because of ill health. His longtime protege, Jim Hall, fills in, speaking in the same clipped, crisp diction as his mentor. But it’s like Michael Buble singing the Sinatra songbook — pleasantly competent, but a cut below the original.

For some, there is no substitute for Sheppard. So at Yankee captain Derek Jeter’s insistence, a taped Sheppard introduction, not a live call by Hall, accompanies him to the plate.

The dignified Sheppard is especially missed on Sunday mornings, when the Yankees hold a Catholic Mass for team employees and stadium workers in an auxiliary clubhouse. For years, Sheppard handled the Scripture readings. Hearing the word of God from the voice of God — in a dead-quiet room (except for an occasional dripping shower, or a rolling cart in the hallway) — was something to behold.

Here’s hoping Sheppard makes it to the new stadium, which will seat 52,325 and bows to the original by restoring some features lost in the 1974-75 remodeling. Most notably, the trademark copper frieze on the roof of the upper deck returns. The new place will retain the current field dimensions — 318 feet to left, 408 straightaway, and 314 to right.

The staggering $1.3 billion price tag — yes, that’s a “b”, and more than double the projected cost of the new Twins stadium  — includes 51 luxury suites, a 31,000-square-foot “Great Hall” entranceway, a museum, an art gallery, a banquet and conference center, two bars and a high-end steakhouse that will be open year-round. This is what you can do when people buy your jerseys in Guam, and you own a television network that prints money.

Be ready to pay through the nose for tickets, as if current Yankee prices aren’t high enough. According to the Associated Press, the top ticket next year jumps from $1,000 to $2,500, and good seats behind the plate will be at least $100. The Yankees say the cheapest reserved seats in the outfield will be $25 and $20, with the bleachers at $12. Most seats will cost between $30 and $70. The Mets deliberately set their prices lower in their new stadium.

In an interview with MinnPost earlier this season, Jeter named the World Series-clinching games in 1996 and ’99 as his favorite memories of the old Stadium. I’ll never forget the ’96 clincher myself. It was my first year on the Yankee beat. When Joe Girardi tripled past Andruw Jones to put the Yankees ahead of Atlanta and Greg Maddux in Game 6, the stadium rocked so hard the press box shook. Moments like that stay with you long after the wrecking ball completes its work.

The king of Queens
The brick exterior of Citi Field, the $800 million future home of the Mets (Citicorp, a financial services company, bought the naming rights), mirrors that of Ebbets Field, the famed home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. That’s deliberate. Mets owner Fred Wilpon grew up in Brooklyn and played baseball at Lafayette High School, alongside a skinny kid named Sandy Koufax.

That this faux Ebbets rises in Flushing Meadows provides an awful bit of irony to those of a certain age.

In the mid-1950s, the Dodgers’ Walter O’Malley envisioned a grand domed stadium over a railroad yard in downtown Brooklyn. Robert Moses, then the city’s powerful parks director and no fan of sports or compromise, had another idea — a stadium in Flushing Meadow Park, formerly the site of the 1939-40 World’s Fair.

Ultimately, Los Angeles offered the Dodgers a better deal. Moses usually got what he wanted, and in 1964, Shea Stadium opened in conjunction with the new World’s Fair.  The stadium is named for William Shea, a prominent New York attorney who helped New York secure a National League expansion franchise.

In old color photos, Shea gleams. But it aged fast. One of the first multi-purpose stadiums, Shea was the home of both the Mets and the New York Jets until 1983, when the Jets moved to Giants Stadium after team officials called Shea the worst facility in the NFL. (Sound familiar, Vikings fans?)

Built on marshland that had once been a dump site, Shea from its earliest days has had problems with drainage, plumbing and even rats.  Pipes burst from time to time, the press box leaked, and the dugouts often smelled like swamp water. After heavy rains, water sometimes flowed down the steps from the clubhouse runway to the dugout. 

All that moisture had an upside. Longtime coach Joe Pignatano grew tomatoes in the bullpen, a tradition Brooklyn-born reliever John Franco continued for years. (Franco used to complain the grounds crew filched his tomatoes when the Mets were on the road.)    

In the 1980s, Mets ownership removed the distinctive red-and-orange rectangles from the stadium’s exterior and painted it royal blue. To these eyes, that’s when Shea lost its visual appeal. Compared with Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine, which is two years older and much better cared for, Shea resembles a busted-up old beater.

For decades, players and fans complained about the deafening noise from jets taking off and landing at LaGuardia Airport, and the unpredictable swirling winds that often make it feel 10 degrees colder than any other place in the city. My mom insisted we bring jackets to any game at Shea, night or day, even in August. And only the toughest fans, or the foolish, sat in the upper deck for a football game in November without heavy blankets or a flask of blackberry brandy.

The winds and Shea’s deep, symmetrical dimensions have long favored pitchers over power hitters. Philadelphia’s Jim Bunning pitched a perfect game two months after Shea opened, on June 21, 1964, though that probably had more to do with the Mets’ ineptitude than anything else (they finished last). Bob Moose of Pittsburgh threw the only other no-hitter in Shea’s history, in 1969. Curiously, no Met has ever pitched a no-hitter, though at least half-a-dozen pitchers did so after leaving the Mets, including Nolan Ryan, Seaver and Dwight Gooden.

Shea certainly can’t match Yankee Stadium for historic moments, but a few stand out. The Mets clinched both their World Series victories at Shea, in 1969 and 1986. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, a former Met utility infielder, still recalls the roar for Seaver on April 5, 1983, as Seaver walked from the bullpen to start on Opening Day in his return to the Mets. Seaver had been dealt to Cincinnati in a heavily criticized 1977 deal.

“I was in the dugout, and I got cold chills,” Gardenhire said. “People were going bonkers. I looked around and went, ‘Oh my God.’  That was something to be part of.”

Met fans can be equally nasty — in the late 1990s, they booed Franco just for warming up in the bullpen — but their affection for the Mets runs deep. Last month, hoping to head off fans from showing up with wrenches on the stadium’s last day, the Mets began selling pairs of Shea seats online for $869. I couldn’t get a Mets official to tell me how they settled on that price or what the seats originally cost, but supposedly thousands have been sold. Chipper Jones even bought two.

An old college buddy has been a beer vendor at Shea for more than 30 years; he remains the only person who ever got away with an F-bomb in front of my father. (Dad tried to tip him at a game, and let’s just say he turned it down a little too enthusiastically.)  He won’t tell me what he’s walking away with, though I doubt he’ll be writing a check for it.

“People talk about taking pieces,” said Strawberry, who plans to be at Shea for the official farewell. “Pieces of the stadium don’t mean anything. What means something to me is the support of the fans, Yankee fans and Met fans, the way they loved their teams. You think of all the fond memories you have in those ballparks with the fans.”

On my last night at Shea, Aug. 19, the Mets beat the Braves, 7-3. I thought about my dad and all the games we saw there. I tried to find where his company’s seats had been, field level on the third-base side. I remembered 1969, when the Miracle Mets won the World Series. I was 11, and with the Mets leading in the ninth inning of the final game, I talked our bus driver into letting off me, my brother and our friend Gary in front of our house instead of the bus stop so we could watch the last two outs.

In the end, I left Shea with a particularly vile final memory that somehow seemed appropriate for a place that needs to go. As I headed up the ramp from the clubhouse to the press box to finish my game story, a stream of sudsy liquid flowed down in my direction from behind a closed door. No one else was around. It reeked so strongly of ammonia that I nearly passed out.

Before moving to the Twin Cities in 2002, Pat Borzi covered Major League Baseball and the Olympics for the Newark Star-Ledger. He previously worked at the Portland (Maine) Press Herald, the Miami Herald and Newsday. He can be reached at pborzi [at] minnpost [dot] com.