Where the Wild Cards Are, Part 1

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With the regular season over and the two wild card games approaching, I thought I’d do a two-part series about the teams and the cities hosting the two wild card games. First, Tuesday night the Yankees will host Houston, so this post is about them and their city. Wednesday the Pirates host the Cubs, so Tuesday morning you can read a bit about the Pirates and their city. Should either road team win, I’ll feature their city later this week.

I thought the Yankees couldn’t possibly host the wild card game, losing 6 of their last 7 games to garbage teams like Baltimore and especially Boston. But the Astros couldn’t win at the end either, so the wild card game will be played at the new Yankee Stadium.  Though they’ve played there 7 years and even the graffiti isn’t new, people like me who have special fond memories of the old Stadium will never forget the House that Ruth Built. When Ruth was a schoolboy in Baltimore, New York’s American League team was called the Highlanders, and they played in a wooden structure called Hilltop Park. They had opened play there in 1903 under the ownership of Big Bill Devery and Frank Farrell. By the end of 1912 it was clear to ownership that Hilltop Park would not suit them. For 10 years the Yankees shared space with the Giants at the Polo Grounds. The last two of those seasons were 1921 and 1922, during which time plans were made for The Yankee Stadium to be built. They needed a stadium because Giants’ manager John McGraw hated the fact that the Yankees drew more people than his Giants. He was also one of Babe Ruth’s most vocal detractors.  The stadium  opened in 1923. Since Babe Ruth was the centerpiece of the team then, it was dubbed “The House that Ruth Built,” a  name it still held 60 years after Ruth’s death  in 1948.

The memories I have of the old Yankee Stadium  are precious. I went there as often as I could in the 3 seasons before  I became a professional baseball broadcaster in 1991.  Though decades have passed I haven’t forgotten kissing my girl friend for most of an evening in a deserted loge section while the Royals were slaughtering the Yankees. I vividly remember eating foot long hot dogs and knishes on days I skipped work to go to day games there. I remember taking a tape recorder and radio to the loge, being joined by my friend Greg Ortiz, now deceased, another blind man with his dog. Together we would recreate into the recorder what we heard from John Sterling and Jay Johnstone on our radios. I’ve saved those recordings through the years since.  Thanks to September 11, equipment bags like ours are forbidden in Yankee Stadium and throughout major league baseball.  Near the end I don’t know what was worse-hearing of the death of Phil Rizzuto in 2007 or knowing the Stadium would be knocked down at the end of 2008. As it had been built, it could hold up to 71,000 for baseball, and sometimes did during the World Series. Some 95,000 saw Joe Louis box there in 1935 and a 1958 religeous meeting surpassed 100,000 people in the stands.  The new stadium doesn’t approach any of those numbers. For baseball it holds just 49,600.  The clubhouse is more than double the size of the old one, and the video board is in high def. The old stadium didn’t need a video board, and Eddie Layton’s Hammond organ played nightly instead of the obnoxious music played there now. The stadium just doesn’t have the mystique and the aura of the old one. Old Yankee Stadium was haunted by the ghosts of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle and all the Hall of Famers who played there and broadcast from its press box-Mel Allen, Red Barber, and Rizzuto for baseball, Bob Wolf for football, Clem McCarthy and Don Dunphy for boxing. When the Astros come in Tuesday they aren’t liable to be scared, as were the 1927 Pirates before the World Series. The new stadium lacks the intimidation factor the old one had.

The city itself takes a lot of getting used to if you come in from somewhere else. The book and TV series “The Bronx is Burning,” give an overall picture of the Yankees and the city itself  in 1977 when I was 14.  Then and now,  the narrow streets are always jammed with traffic, the sidewalks with pedestrians bustling to wherever New Yorkers  need to go. It isn’t as confusing as Boston or Washington. Only once have I gotten lost on the subways.  If you get a cab, you could be insulted in any language known to man.     The Carnegie Deli boasts the longest lines I’ve ever seen for a place its size. I’d say my eyes popped at the size of the line, but I can’t because I don’t have any eyes. I was astounded to find people were crowded outside the door to get their sandwiches. I was lucky to get mine and catch the subway to the basketball game I planned to attend that night. On the reverse side, when Mickey Mantle’s restaurant existed, I got the smallest, most overpriced nachos ever. It amazed me the place lasted until 2012, 17 years after Mantle had been called to a higher league. The traffic and parking problems Yankee Stadium has had through the decades are well known to fans. The subway is the easiest way to get there, and as preferable  as the subway  is to being stuck for hours in traffic,  even that can be an adventure. Once I took a girl friend on the A subway  at rush hour, and between the bouncing of the train and the bashing of passengers on all sides we were pressed face to face throughout the ride-and would have been so even if we weren’t an item. Only once did we  take the number 4 above ground train, and that was because the subway line I usually took was shut down by an explosion. Such is life in New York. One thing you can bet on if you listen to or watch Tuesday night’s Yankees-Astros game: a playoff crowd at Yankee Stadium reminds me of nothing so much as an English soccer crowd. That is even true of the current Yankee stadium. When the Yankees won it all in 2009, they roared, chanted and generally carried on as they rooted their team to victory. This is the Bronx Bombers’ first playoff game of any kind since the disaster against Detroit in 2012 when Derek Jeter broke his ankle in game 1 and the team lost in 4 straight. Masahiro Tanaka faces Houston’s Dallas Keuchel in, quite literally the game of the year for both teams.

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