The first baseball game I ever saw was an early season matchup between the New York Yankees and the Oakland Athletics, played at night under the high, washed-out floodlights of the old Yankee Stadium. It was the last day of April in 2002, and a full moon hung low in the sky. Some warm, sweet smell between cut grass and cinnamon spread through the air and squabbled with a taint of stale beer from the night before. Chants and heckles came from all over in the same thick local accent, prompting scattered laughter and sporadic applause from a thin crowd. The ballpark, old and clearly crumbling to just about everyone in the place but me, was alive.
I sat along the front of the top grandstand with my dad, punching the palm of a baseball glove with half a steamed hot dog hanging from my mouth. The glove had spent a few nights wrapped up in a rubber band under the far leg of my bed, and had one of those hand-splitting creases right down the center. “Watch out for foul balls,” my father said. “They might pop way up there and come back out of nowhere.”
Over the next four hours the glove came in handy, considering I buried my face in it close to 50 times. Dad and I sat there, feet up on the front wall, watching the Yankees take what Macho Man Randy Savage, noted public intellectual and professional wrestler, might call “a smack-down.” The home team dropped ground balls, hit foul balls (none of which came my way), and let up more runs in a row than they had in their last three games combined. Catcher Jorge Posada dropped enough pitches to make me want to stick little pins in the bobble-head likeness of him that they’d given me at the gate, and Jeter—my hero—struck out twice.
However, if you’d asked me how the game went before I took my little excursion through Wikipedia five minutes ago to find all that out, I wouldn’t even have been able to come up with the score (8-2, by the way). I couldn’t have told you what happened, who pitched, or how many balls left the stadium.
What I can tell you is how it felt to be in the place that Babe Ruth broke his first homerun record, looking down at the same field that my father saw when he watched Mickey Mantle play. Dad pointed out all the retired numbers in Monument Park and told me about the men they belonged to. He told a story about a childhood friend who’d been able to buy a few of the old seats from the stands when they were ripped out during a renovation and put them in his living room.
There was a palpable history to the park itself—a sense of tradition that hung heavy enough in the air to make you work a little harder for every breath you took within its walls. Sitting down in one of the seats for the first time was something sacred.
“My father used to take us there once every few weeks,” my dad would say about 10 years later. “It was just something you did back then.” We were at a party, wondering why I couldn’t recognize a single name on the Yankees roster for that night.
By then, they had torn down the stadium to build something much more crude and commercial next door, more a shopping mall than a ballpark, and I hadn’t really noticed the change. Ticket prices had gone up and I’d grown out of the obligatory fixation that all boys have on baseball. When the old park went away, I thought, everything I loved about the game went with it.
“It’s just harder to get out there now,” he said.
That was the last we spoke of it for a few more years. They built a few youth fields where the old stadium used to be, and I headed up to Boston for college and became a Red Sox fan. I went to one game at Fenway Park and fell in love with the place in that fervent, jealous way that everyone who wasn’t born in Boston does, then went back the next day to pick up two tickets for my dad’s birthday.
This one was a night game too, and the home team got beaten just as bad. But it’s only been a few months, and I can’t even remember the other team’s name.
I can recall only the pleasure of being back in a place so soaked in myth and tradition, admiring a game I’d let get away from me too soon. That night I watched the players take the field with a distinctive joy, of the sort that might come from finding an old photograph, or hearing an aria sung in a foreign language.
A few seats to the right, there was a young kid with his dad, laughing and struggling to put on what looked like a brand new baseball glove. There was a comfort in knowing that he’d always have this place. No matter how old it gets, it’ll stand virtually unchanged where it has for years, displaying its special brand of New England arrogance toward gentrification and progression for its own sake.
Most importantly, it’ll still be five stops away from BC on the Green Line. Snow and weather permitting, we’ll never be more than a half hour from a game at one of the last great ballparks in the country. That’s a luxury that’s no longer afforded to many cities.
Featured Image by Francisco Ruela