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THE HOUSE THAT RUTH BUILT : FIRST PERSON

Grass roots revisited

A last trip to Yankee Stadium in the famed ballpark's final season triggers a flood of nostalgia for a fan who has been going there for 40 years

September 21, 2008|David L. Ulin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Here's what I'll miss most about going to Yankee Stadium: The little slice of right field you see from the 4 train just after it rises out of the tunnel and onto the elevated tracks. It's like a quick taste, an appetizer -- one fast flash of grass and then it's gone. I've been marking my visits here by that tiny vista ever since I first started riding the subway to the ballpark in the 1970s; before that, I don't remember how we got there, just that we did.

I went to my first game at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 20, 1968 -- a Friday night, Yankees-Red Sox, Fritz Peterson against Jim Lonborg. I was 7 years old. My father, 32 at the time, took me, and we sat on the first base side, mezzanine level, and saw Boston win, 4-3.

Other than the score, it was an almost perfect evening, one I remember vividly.

Carl Yastrzemski went deep for the Red Sox; the Yankees' Bill Robinson hit an inside-the-park homer (still the only one I've seen live) and Mickey Mantle hit his final major league home run.

My memories are so sharp that, at one point, I began to doubt them; recollection usually doesn't remain that clear. Eventually, I looked up the box score of the game and discovered that it had happened just as I'd recalled it, that the experience really had been etched that deep.

Forty years later, I'm visiting the Stadium for the last time, on the first night of the old ballpark's final homestand, which concludes today. Next season, the Yankees will move to an all-new Yankee Stadium across the street, designed to look like the original before it was renovated in the mid-1970s, although every true fan understands this is a sham.

The new stadium is a money grab, an attempt to cash in on the revenue potential of luxury boxes and boutique shopping, the distractions that have come to define the new face of baseball as a corporate game. The Steinbrenners can talk about tradition all they want, but the only tradition served here is the age-old one of "to the victors go the spoils."

The irony is that the Yankees aren't victors any longer; for the first time in 15 years, they aren't even in contention. As I enter the ballpark, they are mired in fourth place in the American League East and playing out the string.

And yet, here I am, on another Friday night, on my way to a Yankees game with my father, just like when I was a kid. It has been raining since about 3 p.m., but we've decided to come anyway, walking to the subway, going four stops north to the Stadium, a route I know so well I can anticipate every curve of track as the train crosses from Manhattan into the Bronx.

I've made this journey hundreds of times, good seasons and bad, night games and weekday afternoons.

In 1986, during another game with Boston, I got the entire left-field stands to salaam my then-girlfriend (now-wife) Rae after Don Mattingly led the Yankees back from a nine-run deficit to beat the Red Sox; Mattingly always played well when Rae was around, as if she were his good-luck charm.

In 1981, my father and I watched Ron Guidry and Goose Gossage beat the Dodgers in Game 1 of the World Series, after Pearl Bailey sang the national anthem and James Cagney threw out the first pitch.

I've been to bat day, ball day, helmet day, sat in the bleachers and taunted opposing players, chanted and screamed and high-fived with people I'd probably never otherwise talk to, listened to old-timers talk about Joe DiMaggio's grace as a center fielder, Yogi Berra's ability to hit bad balls.

This is the cliche about baseball, that it's a fabric, woven equally from experience and myth.

This tapestry, or so the story goes, extends through the generations, but if that's true in a certain sense, it's a personal heritage, as well.

Despite the rain, the Stadium's gates are open; as we go up the ramp, my father asks if I remember the night he lost the car. In fact, I tell him, I was just sharing that very story with a friend.

It's an interesting dynamic, fanhood, in which memories and anecdotes become a way of fitting yourself into something larger, identifying through the filter of a team.

When it comes to the Yankees, of course, such a process has long been institutionalized, as tonight's rain delay goes to show.

Above right-center field, the Jumbotron shows a succession of great Yankee Stadium moments -- Mickey Mantle Day; Babe Ruth's farewell; Lou Gehrig's iconic mantra, "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth," booming out through the public address system one last time.

There is a video about Thurman Munson, and then, as the rain becomes a steady downpour and my father and I huddle beneath the overhang of the upper deck, a documentary about Babe Ruth.

Once again, we get the story of his called shot, hear about the bellyache heard 'round the world, watch the home runs that transformed the baseball of another era and helped to usher in the modern game.

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