Friday, September 26, 2008

Yanks for the Memories

Yankee Stadium saw it's last baseball game this past Sunday and as I watched all the pregame festivities chock full of legendary players, historic moments and classic plays I took some time to reflect upon my own personal memories of not only Yankee Stadium but of the Yankees themselves. Yes, I am a die hard Yankee fan but even more so, I am a fan of baseball. I consider myself a baseball historian of sorts and those close to me know how much I gave to the game when I played it and how much time I have spent learning and studying the history of the sport. I never feel out of place discussing the game sitting around a bar full of older men who actually saw Mantle hit one of his majestic home runs or remember watching DiMaggio patrol center field. In a time when it was considered uncool to sit down & watch a full nine innings, I'd be there, intently surveying each pitch, each managerial decision, even doing my own little personal broadcast for whoever could stand listening to my rambling.
My first real baseball memory was the 1978 World Series, Yankees vs. the Dodgers and a few of the members of that Yankee team remain some of my favorite players of all time. Ron Guidry, Graig Nettles, Goose Goosage, Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson & Willie Randolph helped form my early love of the game & whose baseball cards I still have today even after most of my others were lost. When I actually started playing the game I begged my coaches to put me at third base even though I was a lefty just because I wanted to make plays like Nettles. I never got my wish so the pitcher's mound and first base became my home for so many years to follow. They called me "Gator" in Little League and I wore it as a badge of honor, even trying to model my motion after Guidry's although never quite being able to live up to the potential that nickname suggested. I did have some great moments on the field however and there are some who still refer to me by that name.
My first visit to Yankee Stadium was in 1984. My Aunt Lorraine was friends with Al Bumbry who was the center fielder of the Orioles at the time. The Orioles were coming off a World Series Championship in 1983, a team that consisted of future Hall of Famers such as Cal Ripken Jr. & Eddie Murray. I distinctly remember walking through the gates for the first time and capturing small glimpses of the field as we walked around the concourse to our section. When we finally made our way to our seats and I saw the Stadium in all its glory it was as if my eyes were seeing the world for the first time, all over again. The grass was the greenest green, the seats were the bluest blue, the smells of hot dogs and peanuts lingering in the air......heaven!!!!! "Beer Here" became a phrase I still imitate to this day. We got a chance to go to the field level where I was introduced to Al and he signed an autograph for me, my first real autograph. Later on in pregame warm ups, I walked around to the right field line where Al was shagging some flies and he told me to throw him my pen. He signed the ball for me on the field and threw it back up into the stands & I felt special, hell I knew this guy now....I knew a Major Leaguer!!!!! That game is now a blur, I was overwhelmed by it all, sensory overload for sure. We waited by the Orioles team bus after the game where I was able to meet Cal Ripken & Eddie Murray and I still have their autographs on the piece of paper they signed til this day. We went to the Stage Deli afterwards with Al and my lifelong journey as a baseball fanatic was well underway.
The next year my family went to Fort Lauderdale for spring training or as my sister would recall, spring break. This was back when the Yankees played there and also when Fort Lauderdale was the hot spot for spring breakers. While my sister stayed behind at the beach me & my mom went to watch a Yankees spring training game and I was hoping to get a chance to meet my new favorite player, Don Mattingly. Spring training games are more intimate than regular season games, the players come over to the stands to sign autographs and chat, you can catch them walking to their cars in the parking lot, it's just a more laid back atmosphere.....unless you're Rickey Henderson. The game was uneventful, Mattingly wasn't in the lineup and a lot of guys I had never heard of were on the field showcasing their talent or lack thereof so being the adventurous soul I was I told my mom I was going to go for a walk around the field. Somehow I made my way under the right field stands where the hitting cages were and I could see one light on at the end of the cages and I heard the crack of a bat. I made my way down the corridor and I came across none other than Donnie Baseball taking some swings in the cage. I was the only one there, my own little moment that only I can remember and in some ways it filled my tank and fueled the passion that I still have for the game. Donnie was my baseball hero and a lot of times we are let down when we actually get to meet our heroes but this wasn't the case here. Donnie let me stand & watch him hit and he signed his 1984 Topps Rookie Card for me and I told him that he was going to win the MVP Award that year.....did I mention that I'm a prophet too!!!!! After trying to explain what happened to my mom in my talk real fast without taking a breath sort of way, we headed out only to find my sister looking like John Candy in Summer Rental.....burnt to a crisp......I definitely got the better end of that deal. Later that season I once again attended a game with my Aunt and lightning struck once more. I ventured underneath a chain that blocked access to the box seats right over the Yankee Dugout and saw Mattingly coming in from the field after taking some ground balls. I had a ball & a pen with me & I called out to Donnie as he approached to dugout. He motioned for me to toss him the ball & my pen and proceeded to sign it before rolling it back to me on the top of the dugout roof. I almost felt like he remembered me from a few months back although it would be naive to really think he did. He just seemed to be one of those players that got it, the kind that would do those sort of things regularly.....make a kids day, year or lifetime.
More recently, I was able to attend one of the last games at Yankee Stadium with my mom. My fervor for all things baseball & the Yankees rubbed off on my mom and although she isn't the biggest sports fan you can rest assured she would call me after a late inning meltdown or a come from behind victory to discuss why or how it happened. We watched a lot of games together through the years, even through the lean years between 1982 & 1993. She even started picking up some of my famous lines and on a few occasions I could hear her in her room yelling at the son like mother. My girlfriend Jen was able to score some nice seats for a game against the White Sox and the first person I thought to bring was my mom. It was a great time & I think she was feeling those same emotions and smelling those same smells as I had 24 years earlier. It brought the kid out in her, yelling "There's Jeter!!!!!" as he ran some sprints on the outfield grass or commenting on how beautiful the moon looked beyond the facade of the upper deck. I'm so happy I got to experience that with her, I felt like the wily old veteran, pointing out different areas of the field, reliving my most vivid memories of the Stadium like the last out of the '96 World Series, Boomer & Conies perfect games, The Subway Series, Tino & Brosius' 9th inning Home Runs in games 4 & 5 of the 2001 Series or Aaron Boone's Pennant clinching Home Run in Game 7 against the Sox. I could go on forever about the magical moments and the iconic, beloved players that have graced that field but it's these few personal memories that will live on with me long after the ghosts cross the street & take up new residence at "The House that a player to be named later built".