Bronx Stroll: Glory Days Gone

Written by C.J. Sullivan on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.


Eighty years
ago this April 18, more than 74,000 fans busted through the turnstiles for the
opening day of Yankee Stadium and watched the Red Sox lose, 4-1, on a third-inning
home run by Babe Ruth. With this game, the Yankees knew the power of the home
crowd. Today, they are baseball’s hottest property due to a legacy of big
money some say began on that Wednesday afternoon. (Even that home-run ball hit
by Ruth carries on the big-money tradition: It sold at auction for $126,500
in November 1998.)

If you go
behind the scenes at Yankee Stadium today, however, it’s like stepping
behind the curtain and finding an old man, not the wizard you were expecting.

Last Saturday–as
fine a spring day as we’ve had yet this year–I’m lined up with
50 others at the press gate for a noon tour of Yankee Stadium. A portly man
with a southern drawl is talking to a guard manning the entrance.

"Now
the Big Red Machine–the 1975 version of the Cincinnati Reds–they were
something. They were the best baseball team ever."

The guard
smiles. "That may well be," he answers. "They sure could play
some baseball."

A horde
of kids comes charging out of the stadium, bouncing off the walls on a sugar
high from a just-held birthday party. Four exhausted adults follow them. One,
a woman holding a huge, half-eaten cake with a Yankees logo on the frosting,
yells, "Don’t run! I said, don’t run!"

With that
command, the kids take off running, top speed, toward River Ave. A chubby Latino
kid wearing a Roger Clemens jersey leads the way. The woman with the cake follows,
muttering, "I tell them not to run–they run."

We’re
joined by a no-nonsense, middle-aged man wearing a windbreaker, jeans and a
Yankees baseball cap. He introduces himself as Joseph Bua, our tour guide for
the day. He looks around and warns, "When we get in the clubhouse, no photos
can be taken. You can use your camera anywhere but in the clubhouse."

Someone
asks why.

"It
is at the players’ request. That’s their home away from home, and
they want their privacy. Most stadiums don’t allow anyone into the clubhouse,
but at least here you get to go inside. But I have to warn you: If you take
a photo, the film will be confiscated and you will be escorted out."

The crowd
files in, and Bua brings us to an elevator that takes us down into the bowels
of the stadium. In the hallway leading to the clubhouse, the ground floor of
Yankee Stadium looks like any cellar in any apartment building in New York.
The floor is painted cement, the walls are exposed cinder blocks, and the ceiling
has duct work, exposed electric wires and pipes running across it. We enter
the Pete Sheehy Clubhouse through a Yankee-blue metal door that has a Joe Dimaggio
quote on the inside: "I want to thank the Good Lord for making me a Yankee."

The crowd
huddles in, and Bua makes sure no one is getting ready to take a photo. One
young woman comments that the room isn’t very impressive–just a bunch
of cubbies and cheap carpeting. Bua points out Derek Jeter’s locker–a
few women giggle–and the locker next to it that’s reserved for the
boy-wonder shortshop’s fan mail. He then turns solemn and points out the
locker that has been empty since August 2, 1979–the day Thurman Munson
died in a plane crash.

As we leave,
Bua again warns us about taking pictures, and I wonder why anyone would want
to.

We head
down a tunnel and toward the field. Above us, the Yankee motto, as taken from
Gen. Douglas MacArthur: "There is no substitute for victory." Bua
leads us into the Yankee dugout, and the group sits on the same bench that hosts
the asses of Jeter, Torre, Williams and–a scary thought–David Wells.

Bua stands
above us on the field and announces, "This is it. This is where the Yankees
sit."

The padding
on the dugout bench is covered with a cheap, sky-blue plastic with a rip in
the far corner. The roof of the dugout has the same cover as the seats, and
it sags in the middle. Someone has written his initials with a magic marker
on the white wall by the dugout phone.

"When
you come to a game and you’re sweating or freezing in the stands, the players
down here got it pretty good. The second step of the dugout has central air
conditioning coming out of it, and the seats have heaters below them."

George Steinbrenner,
we’re told, spares no expense. The playing field has four different kinds
of grass. I look around, and I’m amazed at how low-rent Yankee Stadium
is. On tv, it looks so glorious.

I catch
up with Bua in the outfield, and ask him some questions. Turns out, he lives
and works in New Jersey for American Express, and has been a weekend tour guide
for the last two years. It’s clear that he loves the job, and he’s
quite good at it. He keeps everyone moving and has his Yankees patter down cold.

We enter
Monument Park. A brass plaque along the walkway informs us the Yankees’
"NY" insignia was originally designed in 1877 by Louis B. Tiffany
(famous for his stained glass) to honor the first NYC police officer killed
in the line of duty. The Yankees took it on as their logo in 1909. Further in
are the original three monuments (Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Miller Huggins)
that were once on the playing field. A child in the group asks her father if
people are buried here under the stones.

"No,
sweetheart, these are monuments to the players. They aren’t buried here."

The kid
is confused. "But it looks like a cemetery. Where are the bodies then?
Who is buried here?"

I ask Bua
if the Yankees have any plans to celebrate the stadium’s eightieth birthday.

"I’m
not sure, but they should," he tells me. "This stadium is not going
to make it to 100. This place just costs too much to maintain. They have to
constantly repair it, and the work never stops."

From the
outfield, I look back toward home plate. I lean against the padded outfield
wall and enjoy the deep-blue sky and the kelly-green grass. Right here the weather
is perfect, the field is beautiful and all is well in the Bronx. I think of
Bua’s last words to me on the subject of the stadium, and wonder how long
it will last.

"It’s
a shame, but I don’t see this being here in 20 years."

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