Last season, watching the New York Yankees was slightly strange and disconcerting. It felt like something intangible was missing, like some magic ingredient had been misplaced. Until recently, I couldn’t pinpoint the exact genesis of this general dissatisfaction. Perhaps it was Derek Jeter retiring, I thought, or the fact that the Yankees lacked a Hall of Fame-type figurehead for the first time since the 1910s. But then, it finally hit me: this team, and baseball in general, hasn’t felt the same since they knocked down old Yankee Stadium.
On a peripheral level, the new Stadium is great. To a visitor with no prior knowledge of baseball, it may even be one of the most comfortable and advanced arenas in the world, worthy of its $2.3 billion price tag. But to those who crammed faithfully into the ancient yard across the street, this new Stadium doesn’t yet have the character and substance which once made the Yankees great.
It may have the best amenities anywhere in the Major Leagues. It may be a wonder of modern engineering. And it may look pretty inspiring from outside. Yet from a sentimental viewpoint, the new structure leaves plenty to be desired.
I find the new park to be pretentious and clinical. Despite masses of sponsorship covering the interior, diehard fans are still priced out. Previously, those fans, and that breadth of support, was what made the Yankees great, what fuelled the team’s mystique and glory. In bygone years, the Yankees were a powerful monster of which all New Yorkers could be proud. The fans were the heart and soul of that monster. Now, a majority of those passionate boosters can’t even afford to get inside the Stadium, and are instead left to watch at local bars around the city.
Throughout contemporary American history, the ballpark has always been the one place where people of different races, creeds, religions and classes have willingly mingled. In setting the prices for certain seats at truly astronomical levels, the new Yankee Stadium takes that powerful concept and crushes it in favour of cold, hard cash. Unless Daddy has a large excess in his checking account, no kid even has a shot at sitting near the dugout or behind home plate anymore. Similarly, folks in the bleachers are further away from the action than ever before, stunting the gameday atmosphere and intimacy. There is now something of a class divide within Yankee fandom, created by the new Stadium and it’s tendency to categorize fans according to their salary, which is deeply saddening in this advanced age.
There was a conscious effort on the Yankees’ part to clean up the Stadium and the team’s clientele. I agree with this to a certain extent, but blue collar fans, often the most vociferous and loyal, have been largely priced out. As a result of this sterilization, the new ballpark has lost the menacing atmosphere that once propelled the Yankees to success. Opposing teams and fans would absolutely dread a visit to the old Yankee Stadium, where rabid fans would holler and scream, pushing their team to victory. I totally understand the need for a family-friendly experience, but there has to be some happy medium.
Obviously, the new stadium has some plus points. To argue otherwise would be complete folly. The exterior, hearkening back to the days of Babe Ruth, is mesmeric, and the new Monument Park looks fantastic. But, still, something is missing. I understand time moves on and, with each new generation, the need for development and innovation grows. Yet the new park is like a silky museum, rather than a relic of history in and of itself.
Old Yankee Stadium was a treasured hardball coliseum, a sacred monolith of tradition, with its sloping canyons of seats and memories woven into every corner. New Yankee Stadium, by contrast, is a shrine to corporate greed, catering to the elite and practically excluding the working man.
Old Yankee Stadium was rough and rugged, cold and caustic. But it was real. You could feel the history, you could sense the expectation, and you could almost reach out and touch the brilliance. New Yankee Stadium, on the other hand, is numb and nonchalant, clean and quiet. You can feel the overly-padded seats, you can sense the desire to squeeze every last cent from your wallet, and you can almost hear the gnashing of teeth from the father who has spent $500 on a family trip to the ballgame.
When compared to its predecessor, the new Stadium has double the concourse width, three times as many luxury suites, and twice as much team store space. Moreover, the Yanks’ new home has one restroom for every sixty fans, thirteen additional elevators, and a HD video board that is 5,134 square-feet bigger than its ancestor across the street. But part of being a Yankee fan was standing in line for toilet access and having to watch the actual game on the field, rather than replays on a gargantuan TV. Back in the day, going to Yankee Stadium was like going to watch the favoured sons in a local park, whereas now, it’s like going to watch a futuristic film at the world’s most expensive outdoor cinema.
Baseball was never supposed to be about glamour, sophistication or comfort. It was supposed to be about feeling and amazement. Thus, the best ballparks are those that stand as artefacts of a bygone age; those that loom as wonderful old landmarks to glories past. In those parks, you may be cramped into a hard-backed seat, facing towards left field, with your knees tucked under your chin, but there’s a palpable magic that makes all that okay. Old Yankee Stadium was one such place, drenched in the poetry and poignancy of yore.
It was truly majestic, a slice of baseball nirvana. It was the green and pleasant jewel at the heart of the Yankee kingdom. It was where Ruth launched ’em, where Joltin’ Joe chased ’em, and where Derek honed his greatness. It was where Grandpa sat, where Dad fell in love with Steinbrenner’s dream, and where the Yankee faith was passed on to the next generation of bright-eyed kids.
The place held political assemblies, religious conventions, college football and soccer games, heavyweight prizefights, music concerts and even a circus. What other building in the world saw Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali fight, Knute Rockne coach, Johnny Unitas drive, Pele and Eusebio battle, Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI deliver mass, Nelson Mandela orate, Pink Floyd perform, Lou Gehrig and Mickey Mantle bat, and George W Bush throw a ceremonial first pitch? What other building could be known universally as simply The Stadium? What other building, but old Yankee Stadium, in all its venerated might?
The Stadium was grandiose and otherworldly, whilst remaining salt of the earth. It was large and transcendent, yet still deeply personable and touching. It was the greatest sporting amphitheatre in the world, but still managed to feel like a cosy living room on a cold winter day.
At the corner of East 161st Street and River Avenue, ghosts guarded the hallowed gates, insuring the upkeep of rigorous standards. The Bambino. The Clipper. Yogi. You could see them all, if you looked close enough, and the goosebumps would tremble down your neck. The heroes would roam beneath the famous white frieze, or implore Yankee hitters to knock one towards the menacing home run porch, located a mere pop fly down the right field line.
The place reeked of baseball; of peanuts, beer and crackerjack; of empire. It always reminded me of the Coliseum at Rome or the Houses of Parliament in London; some kind of emphatic shrine to which the believing masses flocked for a sense of belonging, togetherness and pride. It was The House That Ruth Built, for crying out loud. What more could you want?
Over time, those memories congealed into expectations, and Yankee Stadium, like the defiant castle at the heart of a dynasty, became the largest stage in the baseball world. The lights were brighter there, the crowds more demanding. As the hometown team played, in those famous pinstripes, George would peer out, presiding over the juggernaut of his creation, surveying all that he wrought.
All the cheers from former glories, and all the immortal words from Gehrig and Sheppard, Allen and Sterling, washed over the splendid diamond in the Bronx, before seeping into the fabric and becoming ingrained in the venue’s eternal allure. Likewise, the tears and jubilation, ecstasy and anguish of the attendant millions was forever preserved, like pixie dust sprinkled over the luscious turf.
Old Yankee Stadium was the original baseball cathedral, the original baseball palace, the original baseball tabernacle. And, when it was mercilessly demolished, baseball became an altogether less enchanted pursuit. There’s now a Yankee Stadium-shaped void in the game’s historical essence; a void which, tragically, can never be filled.
Ultimately, we’ve moved into a new era. We now live in a tech-savvy, ultra-modern, hyper-sensitive world and perhaps the new Yankee Stadium was needed to usher the world’s most illustrious baseball team into that new context. And, built to that specification, the new arena is a resounding success, with mesmeric features that were once the preserve of fantasy. But, deep down, the mawkishness still nags at your heart, knowing that the children of today will never have the wonderful opportunity to watch baseball at the greatest Stadium of all: Yankee Stadium, where grit and winning meant more than glitz and money.