Bronx, N.Y., January 8, 2010 — I made my annual birthday celebration/trek to Yankee Stadium the other day. The reason I give myself (and anyone asking) for why I brave the chilly winds of the South Bronx in January each year is to pay off the coming year’s season ticket plan, but in reality it’s more a pilgrimage than a buiness trip. I actually bumped into Joe Torre on this trek two days into 1997, shaking his hand and thanking him for one of the best summers of my life just three months after a glorious downtown parade. I’ve been hooked into carrying out this trip ever since.
It’s impossible to pay tribute to the shiny new palace, particularly for longtime fans such as myself, without casting a glance across 161st Street to the site where the Baseball Cathedral, the original Yankee Stadium, undergoes its slow, sad, piece-by-piece destruction. The route behind the old Stadium past the old Yankee offices through which Metro North travelers trekked to the new place last summer was closed off. I was able to walk around the House That Ruth Built from the bat that still stands near its home plate, past where the old sidewalk cafe served pregame sandwiches and beers, onto River Avenue and left onto 161st Street. But the west side adjacent to the new soccer field for Bronx school children and residents was off limits.
Coming onto the new Stadium, I noticed a section of the concourse ringing the new Palace was closed off between Gates 6 and 4, and I had to walk down the steps to Babe Ruth Plaza and back up the other side to reach the ticket office and pay off my plan. Heading back toward River Ave. and the subway, I noticed that there was an opening in the shell covering the old place, along 161st in the spot in left field between the end of the grandstand and the left field bleachers. Oftentimes in years gone by, those bleachers were filled with school groups, Con Ed kids and others the Yankees invited in for low-cost seating, in the place farthest removed from the action. That’s not the case in the new park. Most terrace seating and all 14 grandstand rows that ring the new Stadium from foul pole to foul pole, and beyond, are further removed from the field of play than any bleacher seat. The sightlines are good for the most part, but the players look a lot smaller from perches 100 feet (and a good deal more) further distant from the action from just one-plus year ago.
I scooted back across the wide expanse of 161st to witness a sad scene. No bleachers, no dugouts, no field boxes, main boxes, main reserved seating. The loge is gone. The place looks like the Doomsday Machine from the original Stark Trek is eating it up piece by piece. I was glad to see the Tier still exists. The view from the Yankee Stadium Tier is one we’ll never see again, hanging as it did over the action. It gave me small solace to realize that Boxes 603 and 622, which held my Sunday and weekday seats respectively, are still there while all the perches closer to the field are long gone.
I tore myself away from my ballpark reverie. The wind whipping down 161st was pulling at my collar and penetrating all six layers of clothing. The Yankee store next to the Hard Rock was packed. Warming gradually among all the bodies, I asked if any of the items had been marked down now that the Christmas rush had subsided. But no, it’s all still full price. It is indeed good to be King of the baseball world.
But the old Stadium and the new one were not the only places to take the winter pulse of Yankee land. Yankee merchandise in volumes equal to what hangs in the Stadium store is sold outside the park on the street and in stores across River Avenue; the ones across from the old place, located further away now, held out the most promise. Following the 2006 season when Derek Jeter fell a mere 14 votes short of winning the MVP to Justin Morneau of the Twins, I bought a “No. 2, The Captain, MVP” double-X for $10; it was a blast wearing it in 2009 as Derek approached and passed Lou Gehrig’s Yankee hit record, and challenged for the MVP yet again. It is my hope and my plan to wear it in midsummer 2010 as well.
There were No. 55 Hideki Matsui’s marked down, but not much really; the World Series MVP still carries some cachet. Chien-Ming Wang’s No. 40 hovers near the sales rack, but it apparently won’t make the transition until our Taiwanese stalwart signs with another team looking for a killer sinking fastball. His Bronx prospects appear bleak. On the $10 rack there were still a few No. 25s from the one-year-removed Jason Giambi. Did the arrival of new superstar first baseman Mark Teixeira drive the value of Jason’s shirt down even more? Then I came across a few surprises. Rodriguez? How could A-Rod’s shirt have found its way to the absolutely-must-so sales rack after a postseason where he came through in the clutch time after time after time? But then I noticed the second digit — this was a Rodriguez No. 12 shirt, not Alex’s No. 13. The T-shirt makers had unwisely run off a bunch of Ivan Rodriguez shirts in the two months he spent underperforming in the Bronx in 2008.
Number 34: There was another shirt I didn’t expect to see marked down. Hadn’t AJ Burnett’s stellar start in World Series Game 2 turned the Classic back into the Yanks’ favor? Yes, but this wasn’t AJ’s shirt, but rather hard-throwing Phil Hughes’s shirt from the 2008 season, back when it was hoped and expected that he would be a rotation rock. Still, if you think Phil has a big future (and most Yankee fans do), how cool would it be to have a shirt from a player’s earliest days? I know my brother’s proudest possession for years was a No. 46 Don Mattingly, bought back in 1983, before he halved his number and took Bronx Baseball by storm.
I searched in vain for a No. 36 Nick Johnson from 2003 or a Javy Vazquez 33 from 2004, the year that righthander arrived for his first tour in the Bronx in a trade for Nick. No T-shirt vendors apparently have any of those shirts left now that both guys are back to play baseball for the game’s most storied franchise in 2010.
But my fevered number search that had begun an hour or so earlier proudly gazing at what was left of Box 622 in the old Stadium hit its nadir when I came across the unluckiest of numbers. Coming off back-to-back 100-rbi campaigns, Bobby Abreu waited three and a half months following the close of the 2008 season before packing up his number 53, which he had worn eight years in Philly and much of three in New York, and moving it onto Anaheim. The Angels got Bobby as a free agent bargain last February, and were rewarded for their move. And now they have the honorable Mr. Matsui under contract as well. I suppose if Hideki wants No. 55, rookie hurler Sean O’Sullivan can be persuaded to give it up. That is, if O’Sullivan even makes the 2010 Angels squad.
But the Abreu No. 53s weren’t alone on the rack; they were hanging in tandem with Melky Cabrera shirts displaying the same two digits. From the perspective of the must-go sales rack, there was certainly no sadder number than 53, now that Melky has been shipped off to Atlanta in a trade for the returning Vazquez. Bobby, Melky, Yankee outfielders, wearers of the same number one day, banished to another team the next. But how could they both have the same number? Well, Melky, you see, he traded in his 2008 number for Bobby’s No. 53. Little did he realize he was taking on the unluckiest of digits. Let me see, what was his number before?
Number 28, now there’s a number that has a “ring” to it. Wear it in good health, Joe.