Faithful Departed—Yankee & Shea Stadiums

Yankee (1923-2008), Shea (1964-2008)

Yankee Stadium (1923-2008)

The champagne was all over my shirt and Derek Jeter stood there laughing. I had just played his accomplice by interviewing Darryl Strawberry in the corner of the locker room so that Jeter could spray him in the face with champagne moments after the Yankees had clinched the American League’s Eastern Division in 1996. Later that year, they won the World Series for the 23rd time in their history, and an even bigger celebration ensued.

A few years before I began covering the locker room for WOR Radio, I was a young cub radio reporter following around WFAN’s Yankee beat reporter, Suzyn Waldman. Down in the bowels of the stadium we’d see all kinds of strange things. One year we heard the click-clack-click-clack-cliiiick… as Don Mattingly ran and dragged his metal cleats on the stadium concrete, making sparks. John Wetteland used to roller blade down there with a hockey stick and tennis ball, checking us reporter types into the walls. Charlie, the keeper of locker and press room gate, would check our credentials every night without a word. I used to think he was older than baseball itself.

Perhaps the biggest treat was being able to walk down the clubhouse ramp, come out of the dugout and step onto the field to interview players before game time. It was magical to be standing where so much of Yankee history had taken place. The white façade around the stadium and the rumble of the #4 train in the distance were different from a player’s-eye view. Old Timer’s Day brought the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto and Reggie Jackson to the field for interviews and a few laughs. The pinstripes would make my eyes cross sometimes, watching them blur around the bases or shagging flies. There were days I thought about watching my first game with my dad, from the cheap seats in the left field bleachers, never expecting to ever be as close to the action as I now was. It was pure magic in a stadium filled with electricity, even when the place was half empty.

When the wrecking ball hits Yankee Stadium and the new place opens across the street, a bit of my then-youthful career will die with the magical simplicity and charm of the old building. The new stadium might be nice, but I don’t think it will ever be able to rock the way the old one did in those dynasty years of the ’70s when Reggie’s three big homers led the way; or with Jeter and Bernie for four more championships in the dynasty years at the end of the 20th century. A new era will be born with the new stadium, but I think some old Yankee magic will die with it as well.

Shea Stadium (1964-2008)

When Bill Shea brought baseball to Queens after the exodus of the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, he insisted that a new state-of-the-art facility be built. That stadium eventually bore his name and 40 years later “state of the art” was a far cry from how most people would describe Shea Stadium. “It might be a dump, but it’s our dump,” one fan quipped to me recently. “I’m going to miss this old place.”

Longtime Mets fans can remember the Miracle Mets of 1969: a bunch of no-name guys finishing in the cellar or close to it for the first 6 years of the franchise, who upset the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. They recalled the Amazin’ 1973 comeback when the Mets stole the pennant after being in last just a month or so before. A young reliever named Tug McGraw, shouting the rally cry “You Gotta Believe,” led them to the National League title before they fell to the mighty Oakland A’s in the World Series.

I was too young in those years; instead I starting rooting for them in the lousy years of the late 1970s, when people would drink beer in the stands and barely pay attention to the debacle on the field. Once the Mets were sold to Nelson Doubleday, the great-great grandson of the man generally considered the inventor of the game, hope sprang up amongst the rabble. The farm system was developed and the Mets were able to bring forth phenoms like Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Wally Backman and Lenny Dykstra. Mookie Wilson ran the bases with grace and when they traded for Keith Hernandez and later Gary Carter, the team started to finally look like a winner again. I was 16 years old in 1986 and the magic of that year never stopped. The Mets seemed to be poised to win no matter what the odds. They could be down by seven runs in the ninth inning, but everyone in the stadium believed a comeback could happen, and most times, it did.

Game 6 of the 1986 Series against the Red Sox will be the memory that most lingers with me. First of all, a guy parachuted into the stadium early in the game landing not far from the pitcher’s mound with an unfurled “GO METS!” sign. And we thought that was going to be the oddest sight of the evening. Now historic, a passed ball and then a slow roller up first that eluded Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner gave the Mets the comeback win and tied the series at three games each. All hell broke loose. After a rainout the Mets clinched the World Series the next game.

A subway series in 2000 brought some more magic back to the place, but it never quite recaptured the spirit of that ’86 season. Perhaps I am older and more jaded now, or perhaps the old stadium just pales in comparison to some of the newer ballparks and the magic of Yankee Stadium over the Triborough Bridge. But whether it was Baseball, the Beatles or the Pope, Bill Shea’s dream had over 45 seasons in the sun— some good, some bad, some magical, but all of them in a dump that we were proud to call our own.