The New Yankee Stadium: Championship Shell, No Creamy Nougat Center

yankeestadium.jpgI recently watched House of Steinbrenner, one of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentaries directed by Barbara Kopple. It wasn’t remotely as powerful as Kopple’s Harlan County U.S.A., which is a bit of an unfair comparison, since the latter is a chronicle of a bloody clash between Kentucky mine workers wanting to unionize and Big Coal’s hired thugs, and one of the most gut-wrenching docs you’ll ever see. And yet, I was surprised by how affected I was by House of Steinbrenner.* Early in the film, you see fans walking around Yankee Stadium during its last game, knowing this will be their last trip there, tears in their eyes. I was moved by it, and not just in an empathic way. I was surprised by how much of Yankee Stadium, as seen in the movie, was familiar to me.

* I was also baffled by why Kopple seemed to be given a hard time by the Yankees brass in the film, particularly Hal Steinbrenner, even though her movie was basically a love letter to the team and the stadium. Perhaps because, despite being a devoted Yankees fan, she dared to admit that Hal’s dad drove the team into a ditch in the 80s.

I don’t talk about it too much, but my mom became a Jehovah’s Witness when I was a kid. Aside from making you go to “Kingdom Hall” three times a week, there are also two small, local conventions a year that take up a weekend, and another ginormous convention once a year. For many years, this ginormous convention was held at Yankee Stadium. In the summer. This stems from the Biblical precept that being even slightly comfortable is sinful.

Somehow, we always managed to snag seats in the shady mezzanine. Pity the poor folks stuck with upper deck seats for three days of biblical reenactments and two-hour speeches on what the prophet Ezekiel means for us today. At the time, my favorite book was The Sporting News’ Take Me Out to the Ballpark, a collection of the history of various stadiums past and present, each one preceded by a detailed illustration of the park and its notable heroes. So rather than take notes on the sermons, as I was supposed to do, I’d sketch the outfield wall of Yankee Stadium. All of its ads for French’s Mustard and Utz potato chips, the scoreboard, and even the 4 train as it zipped past the gap between the right field stands and the bleachers.

At lunchtime, we’d wade through the sweltering stadium corridors to get chicken sandwiches and juice, the food tables smashed against shuttered concession stands and dusty ads for un-Christ-like products like Budweiser and the New York Lottery. Then we’d stroll the local streets, browse through the sports shops on 161st Street (a real treat for a budding baseball nerd), and get some ice from one of the Bronx’s ubiquitous Coco Helado carts.

So as I watched House of Steinbrenner, and saw fans filing through the royal blue hallways, a melancholy feeling washed over me. Seeing the goopy, pitted paint, those cramped, low-ceilinged corridors behind the stands, those slatted metal windows, and knowing they weren’t there anymore–the absence really hit me.

I saw this just before visiting the new Yankee Stadium. I went there expecting to have one of two reactions: either to be turned off by its ostentation and the team’s huge monuments to themselves, or to be grudgingly impressed. I didn’t expect the reaction I wound up having, which was basically: Oh, this again?

Keep in mind that I went to this game to actually watch the game. I didn’t do too much exploring, and I didn’t get a chance to check out more of the high-end stuff, like the Hard Rock Cafe or NYY Steak (not that I’d really want to), or any of the museum-y stuff. So this assessment is extremely superficial.

One good thing about Yankee Stadium is that it’s in an actual neighborhood. So if you really want to avoid high concession prices, you can grab a slice on the street beforehand. Or you can visit some of the bazillion t-shirt/memorabilia shops, which I always liked as a kid.

Unfortunately, being in an actual neighborhood also means dealing with actual neighbors, and their streets and traffic. CitiField may feel isolated in comparison, but when you exit the 7 train station there, you’re in no danger of being hit by a bus. The local streets also make getting out of the subway–either the underground B/D or the above-ground 4–a bit of a hassle, too. And the way the subway station is laid out makes it ripe for shoving and overcrowding. When we left, the B/D stations was dangerously cramped, particularly on the subway platform itself.

I don’t want to compare it to CitiField, and on the surface it would seem there are very few comparisons. But in reality, apart from cosmetic differences and seating capacity, they are two peas in a pod–as are many of the recent stadium constructions. Both parks do many things well (and many of the same things well) and improve on their predecessors. Both parks made choices that are downgrades, from a fan’s perspective.

So even though the new stadium oozes Yankee-ness, it felt like a Yankee shell placed on top of some template it shares with the ballpark in Flushing, and all of the newer stadiums. Which seems appropriate, since the old Yankee Stadium (the post-70s makeover version, anyway) had a lot more in common with the much maligned Shea than anyone cared to admit. The effect is especially pronounced in the guts of the stadium, like the concession areas and the exits. Apart from the color schemes employed, they’re virtually indistinguishable from those in any other newly constructed ballpark.

One thing it does better than CitiField: After you go through the turnstiles, there is a very large open concourse to where you can get your bearings and meet up with stragglers. There are also three very large elevators right behind home plate that get you to your seating level quickly. CitiField’s cramped Jackie Robinson Rotunda and escalators compare unfavorably. (They have elevators too, but they’re too scattered and small to be used by large amounts of people.)

I sat in the upper deck, down the left field line. You definitely feel closer to the action from the highest seats than in the old Stadium, which makes me think the Mets could have made a 50K seat stadium without sacrificing “intimacy”, as they insisted (although if CitiField looks empty at the end of another lost season, I can’t imagine what it would look like with 10,000 extra seats). But the new Stadium has many of the same perspective issues; we could not see lots of parts of the left field line from our seats, and I would guess there are similar issues in other upper deck locations.

The increased outfield seating is a big plus, and the new, enormous HD scoreboard a huge improvement over the old stadium. But having so much in the outfield emphasizes the smallness of the field itself It’s like having a coliseum surround a little league park. New Yankee Stadium looks small dimension-wise on TV. It looks even tinier in person.

I saw seven home runs in this game. I’ve been to eight Mets games this year, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t see seven total home runs at CitiField. Two of the homers were bombs, and the rest would have been fly ball outs virtually anywhere else. People often criticize CitiField’s cavernous dimensions, but I personally think home runs should be hard to hit. With every ball hit in the air, the crowd would rise a little, because virtually anything hit higher than a stepladder has a chance to go deep.

I hate to agree with Mike Francesa about something, but the loudness/insanity of the old place seemed to be lacking. Higher ticket prices keep troublemakers and other lowlifes out of the stands, but at the cost of an enthusiasm drain. Though the place appeared to be packed (attendance just shy of 50,000) and the Yankees were playing the Red Sox, those two factors didn’t translate into a raucous crowd. Did I want fistfights breaking out in every section? Of course not. But I didn’t want a tennis crowd, either.

Even when the Yankees nearly came back from a 10-1 deficit, there was a certain madness missing. There were plenty of Red Sox fans in attendance, and plenty of Yankees fans wearing t-shirts telling the Sox what they could do with themselves and their next of kin. But aside from one brief exchange of words between some 14 year old dumbass Yankee fan and an equally dumbass woman in a Sox jersey who was old enough to know better, I did not see a single confrontation between partisans. 

The closest thing I saw to hate was some good-natured ribbing from an 83-year-old woman who sat in front of us and needled Sox fans whenever the Yankees did something good. It’s hard for me to say if CitiField suffers from the same problem, since the Mets have been bad almost since the day it opened. But I imagine if the Mets improve and the seats fill up again, it won’t be with the same insane mooks you used to see in Shea’s upper deck.

On the plus side: Open-air concession areas, which allow you to see the field even when you’re not in your seat. Plenty of TVs also broadcast the action. And the radio feed is pumped throughout the stadium. That last item would be more of a plus if Yankees games weren’t called by the execrable John Sterling, but it’s a nice touch anyway.

Concessions are plentiful. There are lots of choices (aside from the ballpark usuals, I saw smaller carts with nachos, burritos, and BBQ), the lines move relatively quickly, and the staff are helpful. I got a sausage, and the woman behind the counter actually asked what I wanted on it. I don’t recall hearing a “what do you want on it?” query in any stadium I’ve ever been in.

But at the prices they charge for their concessions, the least Yankee Stadium can do is hire helpful workers. I knew I’d have to pay through the nose, but knowing that and actually doing it are two different things. I bought a Czechvar from a Beers of the World cart (which they also have at CitiField) for $11, because it was only two dollars more than getting a similarly sized Bud or Miller Lite. There are small beers for cheaper, but they come in such tiny cups that one member of our party who purchased one felt vaguely embarrassed to drink it.

Another thing the Stadium shares with CitiField for the worse is its exits. They’ve replaced the ramps of the old Stadium with cramped stairwells. It’s infuriating, but most new stadiums do this. I have no idea why, since they get claustrophobic and borderline dangerous at the end of a game, when 50K fans are trying to leave.

For all the complaints above, there’s really nothing wrong with the new Yankee Stadium. It is both impressive (outside gates in the style of old-old Yankee Stadium, the new and improved bleachers) and surprisingly subdued (everything else). But as with CitiField, there’s nothing overwhelmingly right with it, either. Again, they share many of the same pluses, particularly amenities and views of the field. Their minuses are also largely the same: pricing out large portions of their fanbase in favor of less enthusiastic high rollers. In aggregate, they’re both improvements over their predecessors, but at what cost?

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