By Jon Lane
We were let in at 11:55 a.m. For many of us, it was our first eyewitness account of the new Yankees clubhouse. My first glance is best summed up by a radio friend of mine who muttered, “Joe Girardi will need a megaphone to hold team meetings.”
I then turned to my left and saw Nick Swisher; his locker next to the main entrance. I heard a lot about Swisher’s glowing, infectious personality from my YES colleagues and saw it as the perfect time to introduce myself. After a handshake, all I needed to do was move my eyes from right to left. He picked up on what I was about to ask.
“I tell you, this is UN-BE-LEAVE-A-BLE!” Swisher said. “Last night when we got off the bus to come here, 50 grown men became five years old. I didn’t think they could top the last Yankee Stadium. They did that.”
Phil Coke was one of many who passed on an immediate trip home after living in Florida for seven weeks, not wanting to wait any longer for a look at his new home away from home. “We were drooling when we first got here,” he said. “I’m still wiping it off.” Coke’s locker neighbor, Brian Bruney, then cut in with an important question.
“How does this computer work?” inquired Mariano Rivera’s primary set-up man. Each locker is affixed with a lap top kiosk with an internet connection and individual message centers used to relay information on team meetings, workouts, batting practice, or if the manager wishes to speak to you. Behind the machine, Coke unveiled a cubby hole that resembled a place to put a hot plate, but better used for vast storage.
For an instant, Bruney wore a glum look on his face. After Saturday, the Yankees won’t be here until April 16 as their first nine games are on the road.
“It’s gonna suck for us to go on the road,” Bruney said, noting his belief that the new Stadium is “the best sports venue in the country.”
The 2009 season will be Andy Pettitte’s 15th in Major League Baseball. You may think he’s seen it all, until you hear about his adventures just getting to the new place. Because he was sitting in traffic, a few people noticed him, which left the left-hander wondering to inquire about the legality of tinted windows.
“That was awkward,” said Pettitte on sitting his car on River Avenue waiting to make a left. For the first time ever, he was right under the No. 4 train. “The subway goes by, rocks are falling on my car. They have all cars parked on the side of the road and all commercial vehicles are delivering stuff in the morning. Literally the only way to get by them is to go into oncoming traffic, and they’re backed up at the red light. People were honking.”
Once he finally made it inside, Pettitte admitted getting used to his new surroundings will take some time. However, he already has his favorite spot staked out.
“I’m a big whirlpool guy,” Pettitte said. “There are unbelievable facilities to help keep the old body loose!”
A couple of pitchers, Joba Chamberlain and Andy Pettitte, told Joe Girardi they felt the mound was a bit closer to the fans. Pettite said it felt like they took the old mound from Yankee Stadium and just brought it over and it might feel even closer once those seats are filled up.
“It looks beautiful,” Girardi said. “To hear our pitchers feel they’ve been on the mound already when they haven’t been there is a good sign.”
One reporter compared exploring the new surroundings to the anticipation of the old game show, “Let’s Make a Deal,” when contestants would learn what’s hidden behind certain doors. The first door Girardi opened was …
…”the kitchen. That was the first door I opened to get to the clubhouse. I love to eat. It’s my passion in life.”
Girardi will have his chances. The Yankees have employed two chefs to cook and serve Yankees players and coaches.
Derek Jeter was not among the group who visited here last night. In fact, before working out, he hadn’t seen the place, period.
“I walked in, came in the trainers’ room and been sitting here and you guys blocked off the whole view, so I can’t tell you how the clubhouse is,” Jeter said.
This morning, the team bus dropped them off and the players entered the clubhouse through a secret passageway. Freddy Schuman, known to longtime Yankees fans as “Freddy Sez” who carried a pot and teaspoon around the stands of the old Stadium, told me at the Hard Rock that fans won’t be able to see players come in and out of the new Stadium, unlike the old place where a crowd would wait behind a barricade as their favorites entered through a press gate.
Jeter will miss that interaction, but that’s not all. At the old place, his locker was next to Thurman Munson’s, which was left empty after the former captain’s death in 1979.
“You miss it but you appreciate it,” Jeter said. “It was special for me to be next to his locker.”
He’ll also miss Bob Sheppard, who hasn’t officially announced his retirement, yet chances of him appearing in the new building are slim. Jeter, though, will continue to step into the batter’s box to the backdrop of Sheppard’s recorded introduction.
“When I grew up, that was the one voice you always heard,” Jeter said. “That comes along with Yankee Stadium. People talk about tradition. He’s a part of that tradition as any of the players. I wanted to be introduced by him because that’s the only person I’ve ever known. I wanted to have it recorded just in case there was one day he decided to retire. He will always announce it.”
Jeter first heard Sheppard’s voice in person in 1986. A kid from Michigan, Jeter spent his summers in New Jersey and his grandmother took him to his first game. The only thing he remembered was that everything was big, but not as big as when he appeared on the field and worked out with Don Mattingly, Wade Boggs, Mike Gallego and Pat Kelly five years later, after completing rookie ball.
“For me growing up watching all these guys play, like Mattingly, and then being on the same field with him, it was kind of weird,” Jeter said. “Dave [Winfield] was the guy I looked up to growing up and when you get to meet him and all of the guys, you really get spoiled.”
Inevitably, the dismantling of the old Yankee Stadium will begin, first with the removal of the seats before the city takes apart the venerable building piece by piece. Like the rest of us, that’s something Jeter will never be able to let go.
“That will definitely be tough, especially when you think about all the things that’s happened there,” Jeter said. “It’s one thing to get adjusted to a new Stadium, but when you see the old one getting torn down, I’m sure it will be … what can you do? This is the good and that’s part of the bad, seeing that Stadium go.”