Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 22, 2018

A New Season’s First Trip Home

After all these years the task of getting to 161st Street and River Avenue is a familiar routine, or more precisely one of two equally well-tested approaches. Sometimes my hotel is in Midtown. On other trips it’s north of Gotham in Stamford, Connecticut. If home base is the former, then transport to the Stadium is by the 4 train, the Lexington Avenue express rumbling underground up the East Side and into the Bronx. This time though I’m staying in the Nutmeg State, so it’s a short walk from my hotel to the Stamford Transportation Center, the second busiest station in the Metro North Railroad system behind only Grand Central Station.

While most railroad terminals including Stamford’s are strictly utilitarian, a few older ones like Grand Central are architectural wonders, reminders of a time when travel by the iron horse was a regal experience. But the reality is that however memorable the point of embarkation may be, once the engine starts pulling its line of cars, not much of America has developed in a way that puts its most scenic parts out by the train tracks. Shortly after leaving Stamford and crossing into Greenwich the express train to Yankee Stadium rolls past the lush green fairways of the old and very private Innis Arden Golf Club, and then by an artificial turf athletic field on which teenagers are playing lacrosse. But the locomotive’s route also soon reveals that while the town may be one of the wealthiest in the country, not every home in Greenwich is a mansion with a luxury SUV in the garage.

The train moves into New York, rolling by the familiar list of station names. Port Chester, Rye, and Harrison, then past Mamaroneck. The old station, now a restaurant and commercial space, is a beautiful red brick Romanesque building with high arches and steeply angled roof lines. Beside it the train platforms are deserted. It will be a very different sight two summers hence, when the USGA brings the men’s U.S. Open back to nearby Winged Foot Golf Club. That week fans by the thousands will disembark here for the short bus ride to the exclusive country club where in 2006 Phil Mickelson had his most desired tournament won, until the 72nd hole.

On past Larchmont and New Rochelle, where the Metro North track splits off from Amtrak’s, turning first west through the few remaining suburbs and then again south into the Bronx. Here it parallels Park Avenue, though this narrow northern extension with the famous name is but a shadow of the broad concourse in Manhattan, on the other side of the Harlem River. At last the train glides slowly around a sweeping right turn, hard by the athletic field of Cardinal Hayes High School, past the imposing walls of the Bronx Terminal Market shopping mall on the left, and finally comes to a stop at the Yankees-153rd Street Station.

This Metro North station is less than a decade old, having been built for the specific purpose of providing another means of transport to the Stadium. In the company of fellow fans, I make my way along a pedestrian walkway above the tracks and then turn left and head down a stairway to ground level. Just outside, in the nook of the corner where walkway meets stairs, stands “the Bat.” It’s a 138-foot-tall exhaust stack that serviced the boilers at the old Stadium. Decades ago a “knob” was added at the top, along with a winding of “tape” along the handle, making the giant pipe look like a baseball bat standing on end. Once located just outside the old Stadium’s main gate, the Bat served as an instantly recognizable meeting place for friends going to games, and while those boilers are long gone, the Bat still stands.

A quick walk past Heritage Field, site of the old ballpark, then across Babe Ruth Plaza and through the security checkpoint, and I’m back on familiar ground. While the journey is routine, there is always undeniable excitement when making it for the first time each year. The longest season began in late March, but with this inaugural trip to the Bronx it’s now official – a new campaign is underway.

Part of each year’s first visit is seeing what has changed since the previous autumn. Not to the field of course; while some teams have been known to tinker with a ballpark’s layout by moving fences in or raising the height of outfield walls, a franchise as steeped in tradition as the Yankees would be loath to make such alterations. Here even the mowing pattern on the grass is unchanging. Last year the tiny alteration of replacing the semicircular cutouts by each of the three bases with an angled straight line was deemed radical. This year the closest thing to an on-field change is the extension of netting in front of the stands far down each foul line, a move duplicated at parks across the country.

Off the field there are always new sights to see. This year there are two new bars on the field level, continuing a trend of offering fans additional locations to socialize away from their seats. There are also some new food offerings, most notably two large outlets for King’s Hawaiian Grill. The California-based bakery and restaurant has been featured at Dodger Stadium since last season. Now it has a baseball home on both coasts. Meanwhile in the main food court a vendor offering a variety of delicious freshly made soups has been replaced by one selling ice cream. With this visit beginning on a cold Friday night in April, I don’t count that as an improvement.

As always there are a few new advertisers. On the strength of some unfathomable logic, Starr Companies, a massive global insurance and investment firm, has decided it makes sense to buy prominent space on the right field scoreboard, replacing MetLife. Other new billboards, for an auto parts supplier and a manufacturer of salad dressings, are more modest in size and placement.

The trip’s real purpose is to see my heroes back in action, and soon enough the Yankees take the field. On this trip they will face the Toronto Blue Jays three times. It quickly becomes apparent that the first of those contests will not go well. On the mound Sonny Gray is ineffective. Staked twice to an advantage of two runs, he immediately surrenders both leads. After Gray departs the bullpen is not much better, and Toronto wins 8-5.

But under blue skies and in more seasonable temperatures, the Yankees fare better on both Saturday and Sunday. Aaron Judge blasts a mighty home run into the second deck in left field to put New York ahead on Saturday afternoon. Young Jordan Montgomery holds Toronto in check, and then the Yankees pile on in the bottom of the 6th, plating seven runs with an outburst in which Miguel Andujar’s double is the only extra base hit. The final score is 9-1.

Sunday brings the major league debut of 21-year-old Gleyber Torres, New York’s top prospect. With their 24-year-old ace Luis Severino on the mound and regular left fielder Brett Gardner given the day off, every member of the Yankees’ starting lineup is under the age of thirty. Torres begins his big league career quietly, cleanly fielding two chances at second while going 0 for 4 at the plate. But Severino is dominant, shortstop Didi Gregorius hits his sixth home run, and Andujar goes 4 for 4 with an RBI, as New York closes the series with a 5-1 win.

Late Sunday afternoon, for the sixth time in three days, I am on a Metro North train between the Bronx and Stamford, this time heading north, the first Stadium visit of a young season behind me. By taking three of four from the team ahead of them in the standings, including one game before I arrived, the Yankees have climbed above .500 and hopefully begun a march toward the top of the division. Twenty games in, the season’s outcome is impossible to guess. But win or lose, New York’s lineup on Sunday made clear the franchise’s commitment to a new generation. The story I’ll witness on future visits this year will be written on a very fresh page in my team’s long story.

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Responses

  1. Ballgame aside, Mike, I love your description of the train ride and the sights along the way.
    Ω

    • Thanks Allan. I’ve made that ride so many times over the years I decided it was about time to let a wider audience take in the view.

      M-

      Michael Cornelius
      603.498.5527
      http://www.onsportsandlife.com


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