] Last week, the most important monument in the United States honored the official point of midsummer. That’s right, the All-Star Game was at Yankee Stadium. As one of the lucky fifty-six thousand who were able to witness the most incredible all-star game in the game’s seventy-nine year history, I thought this as great a moment as any with which to open this blog.
In this summer before my departure for a yearlong adventure in London, this game marked the midway point of my final months in the States. In fact, the all-star game is the “Midsummer” Classic, the important signifier of the point of high summer. Occurring in mid-July and pitting teams of baseball’s best players from its two leagues (the American and National), the game decides which team will have home-field advantage in the World Series. This year, after 85 years of championship baseball, Yankee Stadium will be closing its doors. With my beloved Yankees floundering around .500, baseball’s living legends came out to pay their respects to what will probably be the last time this Mecca of baseball is shown on a true national stage.
One of my life’s fascinations has been sports, and more than anything else, the New York Yankees. When I sat at the stadium in 1996 and watched them win their first world championship since 1977, I was a fan for life (not to mention the fact that my father would have disowned me had I not shared his love for this team). As I depart for England, I hope to carefully document the cultural differences in fandom and fanaticism for sports teams. How crazy are soccer fans? Do they truly beat the way the Yankee Stadium foundations shake when October rolls around in the Bronx?
So without further ado, I will share some musings about my experiences with the celebration of baseball in New York:
Saturday, my brother and I attended the DHL All-Star Fanfest at the Javits Center. The Javits Center is a massive convention center in Manhattan that was converted to baseball heaven for the All-Star week. Free give-aways, showcases from the baseball hall of fame, free autographs from hall of famers, and of course more objects to buy than one would ever need whipped up such a fervor of baseball love that I promptly spent my entire paycheck on jerseys, hats, t-shirts, etc. We saw all of baseball’s trophies in their Tiffany and Co. Silver (the World Series trophy is especially astonishing close up), game-used jerseys from Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and of course, Derek Jeter, and baseball video games on the Nintendo Wii. Then, if that was not enough excitement, I took a swing in the batting cages, saw how fast I could pitch, and took some fielding practice (video here, let’s just say I’m not quite ready for the big leagues). I went home that night with a rekindling of baseball passion that I hadn’t had since my days as a little leaguer aspiring to one day wear the pinstripes.
Our next day was spent at the ballpark watching the All-Star Futures game featuring the top prospects in the minor leagues. I had never heard of any of the players and it could have been the most boring baseball game I had ever seen. It didn’t help that I really didn’t care who won; I cared only about the 95-degree heat I was sitting through. The World Team’s pitching dismantled the soon-to-be U.S. Olympic team and won 3-0.
As soon as the futures were done, the legends and celebrities took the field for a softball game. Paul O’Neill and Tino Martinez were back, playing softball. I loved every minute of chanting O’Neill’s name when he knocked the ball over the right field wall (a fake wall they set up in mid-right field for the softball). In his final game at Yankee Stadium in 2001, I was one of the many fans chanting his name as that that World Series game would be the last time we would see him in the Bronx in pinstripes. Spike Lee wowed the crowd with his surprising baseball skills. He was one of the few people in the game who actually ran the bases as opposed to a light trot. In the end the national league won the celebrity game as Mike Greenberg (host of the ESPN Radio show “Mike and Mike in the Morning” and shrewd manager of the national league) intentionally walked former Yankee great and hall of famer Wade Boggs when he had the chance to win the game. Boggs had homered earlier, and the walk gave the opportunity for ESPN broadcaster Kenny Mayne to be the hero. Mayne hit a weak fly to center and sent me home.
Monday brought the Home Run Derby. My brother arrived early and sat through batting practice to catch a ball. His patience was rewarded off a bounce on a hit by Cleveland Indians outfielder Grady Sizemore. The competition itself was thrilling and headlined by Josh Hamilton whose emotional return to baseball was one of the biggest storylines from baseball’s first half. The Texas Rangers’ outfielder thrilled the fans as he knocked twenty-eight balls over the fence in the first round, including a ball that nearly became the first ball hit out of Yankee Stadium. In it’s eighty-five year history, no one has ever hit the ball out of the park. Closest was the great Mickey Mantle who had hit a ball 614 feet into the light fixtures above right field. Hamilton nearly hit the famous façade that resides above the bleachers in right-center field. The crowd chanted his name in that eerie way that only the 56,000 at the Stadium could do. In my twenty years of life attending games at the park, I cannot recall the Yankee faithful chanting the name of any non-Yankee the way they got behind “Hamilton, Hamilton.” In the biggest anti-climax, Justin Morneau of the Minnesota Twins won the derby. Unfortunately for the fans, that 28 home run out burst tired out Hamilton and paved the way for Morneau to take the Derby. Yankee fans (myself included) went home pissed. Morneau eked out the 2006 MVP award from the godly Derek Jeter forever giving him a level of hatred from Yankee fans.
While the other events were exciting, nothing matched the day of the game itself. On my lunch break from work (my summer is being spent slaving in law offices as a paralegal to assist Corporate Attorneys in midtown Manhattan) I wandered over to 6th Avenue to watch the Red Carpet parade. Just about every living hall of famer and all the all-stars rode pickup trucks up 6th Avenue waving to fans and celebrating the game. Everyone from Hanley Ramirez to Hank Aaron made an appearance. After extending my lunch break to get a look at Mariano Rivera, Alex Rodriguez, and Derek Jeter, I had to get my sweaty self away from the throngs of people and back to the office while I anticipated the game itself that night.
Five thirty rolled around and I found myself back at Yankee Stadium watching those same Hall of Famers leaving the bullpens in a celebration of the history of Yankee Stadium. The all-stars took their places amongst the legends and in an instant the ghosts of the stadium rose up in a moment of reverence and beauty as the much hated and loved owner of the Yankees, George “the Boss” Steinbrenner, rode out to the pitchers mound to give balls to Yankee legends Yogi Berra (who Steinbrenner famously estranged after Yogi failed as a manager), Reggie Jackson, Whitey Ford, and Goose Gossage for the ceremonial first pitch. Steinbrenner has dealt with failing health as his crazy son Hal has taken increased control. It was George’s first appearance at the stadium all season and the crowd went nuts. The pitch was thrown and the game began.
This match was the longest game in All-Star history, a fabulous 15-inning marathon that lasted four hours and fifty minutes. I had to keep fighting my dad to let us stay later and later. He started playing the need-sleep card. Come on, it was only 1 am and the game was still tied. We had to stay till the end. I finally consented at the end of the 13th inning deciding that the game was never going to end, and we went home to hear Justin Morneau score the winning run on a sacrifice fly by Michael Young in the 15th inning just after 1:37 AM. The American League had won and, if by some miracle the Yankees make the World Series, game 7 will be in the Bronx.
All in all it was the greatest weekend of baseball I had experienced (well, as good as it can be considering the Yankees themselves still stink this season. The American League won the “New York Marathon.” Before I end this ridiculously long first post (I’m sorry but really wanted to get the full effect for comparison with a major sports event in Europe later in the year) I want to reflect on the most important part of the entire weekend.
The night before the all-star game, Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon was quoted as saying that he would rather be called on to pitch the end of the game than Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer in history and a lifetime Yankee. The idea that one of the most beloved Yankees would be passed on for a Red Sock in a situation to win the game at Yankee Stadium enraged the fans. This is Mariano’s house. He’s entitled to end any game played there. Sure enough, Mariano did get that opportunity, but Papelbon got to pitch the inning before and the crowd was not too happy. The minute he entered the game the “boo-birds” were out in full force. They were so loud and menacing. As he began to pitch the crowd chanted “OVERRATED” with the same fervor that they showered their love on Paul O’Neill all those years ago as he left the World Series for the final time. Pure unabated hatred was being hefted on this enemy of the Yankees. I was going hoarse yelling at him. He dishonored our entire franchise and our twenty-six world championships. How dare he suggest a Red Sox player end the game in YANKEE STADIUM’s last year. This biggest rivalry in American sports is so important that even when we hit the All-Star BREAK, the hatred never takes a rest. If you put that ugly “B” on your head, you will be booed. If you disrespect the Yankees at Yankee Stadium be prepared to need bodyguards in the city of New York.
Till next time. The Yankees have won three in a row after the break. Hopefully I’ll be giving you my pre-departure thoughts then along with happy news about how I can watch Yankee playoff games in the middle of the night from London. More pictures can be found at allstaryanks.shutterfly.com
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