By Jon Lane
William Blake wrote, “The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” At first glance, the new building on 161st Street and River Avenue is a modern-day manifestation of this sentiment.
I was in the building a mere five minutes, and the stadium already made enough of an impression to last a lifetime. For those few moments, it wasn’t only about a day’s work but an appreciation of what it took to get here and the payoff of a collective effort between organization, borough and city.
As I type, the towering screen above center field is showing Bernie Williams playing an instrumental version of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” as part of the Hard Rock Café’s celebratory guitar smash, a ribbon-cutting ceremony to commemorate the opening of the Hard Rock Café at Yankee Stadium.
I’m barely getting started. Upon my arrival to the Hard Rock at Gate 6, across the McDonald’s on River Avenue at 8:30 this morning, it’s been non-stop touring and picture taking, with a hardy welcome breakfast in between. There’s lots more coming from today’s workouts. The Yankees are back in town, and there’s an exciting team and breathtaking ballpark to discuss.
Right now, Ace Frehley is playing a live version of his hit, “Back in the New York Groove.” You cannot make this stuff up!
The Yankees are in town, back as a unit for the first time since saying farewell on September 21, 2008, but for the first time since 1923, the place next door is silent and empty. No ghosts, no relevance. It’s really strange.
Back at the Hard Rock, once I got a chance to poke around. I played the role of paparazzi. Numerous dignitaries were made available for photo opportunities. Outdoors rehearsing were children from the Bronx-based Renaissance EMS, an organization down the street at 161st and Third that offers music classes to neighborhood kids. It’s an affordable program offering mentorship and education to teach self-discipline through the use of music.
“Kids learn to be disciplined by learning instruments and using that knowledge in a constructive way,” said Wayne Jeffrey, a guitar instructor at Renaissance.
At the end of the Great Hall, high above the Yankees’ team store, lies a gargantuan high-definition video screen. In between the screen and the main entrance at Gate 4 was a classically designed tribute to Yankees history, photos of the many greats that played in pinstripes.
Lenny Caro, president and C.E.O. of the Bronx Chamber of Commerce, who worked with the Yankees and New York City to make this building a reality, praised the effort in creating jobs during tough economic times. The cynical outlook is that while Johnny Six Figures can afford the best seats and enjoy the luxurious aspects of the new Stadium, Joe Lunch Pail can use the experience of being in the building as a suspension of disbelief.
“It’s hard, I’m not going to say it’s not,” Caro said. “The average guy is not going to come to 10 games a year. He may come to four or five. We need to forget. We get up every morning, put on the news and you’re depressed in two minutes. If you can get a little sunshine for that day, take advantage of it.”
A couple of notable quotes from Hal Steinbrenner, who met the media after Joe Girardi:
On selling a beautiful, but pricey experience during an economic recession:
“We understand a lot of our fans are struggling. This is the worst recession in most of our lifetimes. At the same time, I think baseball has always been an escape for people. What we’re going to provide here is an unbelievable experience for thousands and thousands of our fans. Despite the troubles they’re going through right now, maybe they’ll be able to get away for two or three hours and get their mind off things. We’re going to make that experience tremendous. We see that as our role. We provide entertainment and we’re going to do it right.”
On the perception that the new Yankee Stadium is a splashy and gaudy endeavor being marketed during a terribly tough time for New York City:
“We started building this two years ago and there is no doubt times were different. I don’t see this as ostentatious or flashy. I see this as classy. We did our best to bring all the tradition this great franchise has had the last century into this ballpark and at the same time make it as nice as we can for our fans. If some people want to call it flashy, so be it. I just think this building is classy and will be here a long, long time.
On whether Joe Girardi will be on the hot seat if the Yankees fail to reach the playoffs:
“I haven’t even thought about it. As far as I’m concerned we’re going to make the playoffs. Our fans expect that every year and we expect that every year; my dad expects that every year. This like that, we’ll cross that bridge if we come to it, but I’m not expecting that at all.”
On whether anything less than a World Series is letting the fans down:
“I can sit up here and say if we don’t win a World Series, we’ve let our fans down. I will stand up here and say that because that’s the mentality of everybody in this organization.”
I’ll have much more on these expectations in my 2009 Yankee Season Preview running this weekend.
Some quick press box nuances before I head down:
In the old place, the writer’s work room and dining area were in the basement, which means you had to take an elevator to and from the press box before and after games. Here, everything is in one spot. The dining room, called Sheppard’s Place after the legendary Bob Sheppard, is across the media working area. From there, a private press elevator takes you downstairs to the clubhouses.
The team is working out down before a select group of about 1,000 fans. I’ll be back later with more observations and a separate diary on reactions from Yankees players.
A colleague and friend said it best: “Today is the happiest day of the year.” (Unless the Yankees win the World Series, that is.)
On the field, in the clubhouse and in the stands, the new Yankee Stadium has everyone at a fever pitch, making it easy to forget that the Yankees still have two games left on their exhibition schedule. There are questions that are overlooked, but not to be ignored:
How long will this freshness, this newness, last? How helpful will a private chef, whirlpools, lap top kiosks affixed in every locker and that incredibly large (100 feet wide and nearly 60 feet tall) Diamond Vision be during the dog days of summer and that inevitable losing streak? This same colleague noted Nick Swisher in the dugout laughin
g with the enthusiasm of a child celebrating a birthday and Christmas on the same day. Will Swisher’s infectious personality help lift this team through the dark days and stop losing streaks before they grow exponentially out of hand?
That’s for another day. Dry runs are set for tomorrow night and Saturday afternoon, and Swisher already picked up on a nuance different from across the street: the wind. Even though this place is one block away and facing the same direction, balls hit into the outfield was moving more towards the right.
A preview of the 2009 World Series’ deciding game? Just wondering ….
The blending of today and tomorrow with yesterday is the essence of the new Yankee Stadium. Tony Morante is the Director of Stadium Tours and the team’s resident historian who made his first trip to the original building in 1949.
“They showed that you can put a frieze up with the lights,” Morante said. “And that was a problem we had moving from 1975 into 1976 when the Stadium reopened. They determined they couldn’t do it because it would have been too heavy. This brings back April of 1923 once again. That’s our signature, the signature of Yankee Stadium. That’s the crown that makes it so special.”
Morante and his group are working on getting all 26 championship banners ready for Opening Day on April 16, weather permitting.
“These banners are so fragile, they’ve been pushed aside for 35 years now,” Morante said. “After having them properly restored, they’re still experiencing a lot of oxidation and it’s going to be very difficult for them to weather a lot of storm.”
Thanks for reading everyone. I’m back later with a new entry detailing some great anecdotes from the players, with one, Derek Jeter, looking ahead to the inevitable dismantling of the venerable facility across the street.