Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 21, 2019

Back To The Bronx For Another Season

For a dedicated fan of the Great Game, it is as much a ritual of the longest season as the call for pitchers and catchers heralding the start of Spring Training, the first meaningful at-bats on Opening Day, or the pennant pursuit through summer’s dog days. Ideally for the very first home game, but if work or life prevents that, then certainly before the new season turns a month old, comes the first of what will ultimately be several trips to the ballyard where one’s heroes roam.

For this fan, that park is of course the Stadium, the massive concrete and steel edifice that occupies the corner of 161st Street and River Avenue in the Bronx, just across that numbered street from the site where Babe once built a house. The first visit of the year, this one on a cloudy Saturday in April, is like greeting a close friend after several months apart. The relationship is familiar enough that one immediately notices if anything has changed.

Unlike recent years, that quick inspection does not result in an involuntarily raised eyebrow. There has been no dramatic restructuring over the winter, unlike two years ago when a few thousand obstructed view bleacher seats in both left and right field were removed in favor of terraced standing room and concession areas. Concessions do change though, as do advertisers. Two years ago, cheesesteak lovers were left to rejoice or mourn depending on their personal preference, when Jersey Mike’s replaced Carl’s as the chosen purveyor of the popular sandwich. This year’s change is not as absolute, for Nathan’s, the renown Coney Island based hot dog vendor is still very much a presence here. But there are now also stands offering Sabrett hot dogs, the brand found at countless street corner carts throughout the city. In a nod to the popularity of local breweries, several regional craft beers are also now available to complete the menu of that most common of ballgame meals. As for marketing, among the plethora of signs on almost every available space are new ones for Untuckit shirts and Discovery Reserve, a specialty lager offered by that most ubiquitous of stadium advertisers, Budweiser.

But if one first notices what is different, the true comfort in renewing the relationship with a fan’s home ballpark lies in the familiarity. After all, the contests are referred to as “home games” for a reason. The walk up the ramps from the Great Hall to the tier level can be made with one’s eyes closed, though surely every fan would want to open theirs when one emerges on the upper concourse and can first see the immaculate green and brown of the field below. The three rings of blue seats and the metal bleachers in the outfield are mostly empty two hours before the game’s first pitch, but soon enough they will be filled by more than 40,000 of the Yankees’ faithful, here to see their squad take on the visiting Kansas City Royals.

The giant interlocking NY is painted on the grass behind home plate as always, just as it was on the same spot in foul ground at the old Stadium across the street. The corny rendition of “YMCA” during the top of the 7th inning, complete with the grounds crew in the role of the Village People leading the crowd in the song’s dance routine as they sweep the infield has also made the short trip from one side of 161st Street to the other. So too have many of the personnel that make the Stadium run. One is reminded of that with the first piercing cry of “Cracker Jack!” A gray-haired African-American vendor, who seemed ancient when he sold his sugar-laden peanut and popcorn confection at the old park, is still at work and still in full voice. A YouTube search will return multiple snippets of the “Cracker Jack man” announcing his wares with a lilting voice that brings smiles to all who hear it.

In this familiar setting the Yankees take the field, though this is surely not the starting lineup that manager Aaron Boone envisioned penciling onto his lineup card every day. Over the course of the longest season every franchise deals with injuries, but this season the newly renamed ten-day Injury List has been populated by pinstripes at a record pace. Already thirteen Yankees have missed time, and of that number only one, pitcher CC Sabathia, has returned to action. Before this game is done the bad news will get worse. Slugging outfielder Aaron Judge puts New York on the board first with a home run to right in the opening frame, but a few innings later he hobbles out of the batter’s box after stroking another base hit. Judge leaves the game and is later diagnosed with a strained oblique that will keep him on the shelf for an indeterminate time,

Still the Yankees roll to a 9-2 victory, on the strength of three more home runs after Judge’s and fine pitching by Masahiro Tanaka. The lineup may not be filled with familiar names, but every player who dons a Yankee uniform knows that winning is expected.

This first trip of the season includes a second game on Sunday afternoon, and this one is considerably more nerve-wracking. Young Clint Frazier blasts a long home run to left field that plates three, and New York leads 5-0 in the early going. That appears more than enough, as starter James Paxton is dominant, striking out twelve through six innings. But in the top of the 8th relievers Chad Green and Adam Ottavino cough up the entire lead, and before three outs are recorded Kansas City is in front, 6-5.

That’s when backup catcher Austin Romine, forced into a starting role by an injury to Gary Sanchez, steps into the even larger role of hero. He singles home the run that ties the score in the bottom of the 8th, and two frames later, with the game now in extra innings, Romine comes to the plate again with runners on second and third and one out. On the second pitch he hammers a long drive to deep right center field that bounces on the warning track as Mike Tauchman trots home from third with the winning run. It’s the first walk-off win of 2019 for the Yankees, and we in the stands roar our approval.

Little more than an hour later this fan has begun the drive home from the Metro North train station in Stamford, Connecticut. The next visit to the Bronx will be for a night game while in New York attending the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black in three weeks. The next trip dedicated solely to the Great Game will come at the end of May. But as the miles click away and New Hampshire gradually grows closer, I know that when those dates come, like an old reliable friend, the Stadium will be waiting for me.

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