Bronx Stroll: Glory Days Gone

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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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