Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 4, 2021

At Long Last, Back In The Bronx

The drive begins on the New Hampshire seacoast, just before 7 a.m.  The route is familiar, though it has not been traveled for almost a year and a half.  The air’s frosty during the quick stop for coffee in Portsmouth’s Market Square, but as the miles roll away, the path cutting across New England toward Gotham, the temperature slowly climbs, with the forecast calling for a high nudging above 50 degrees in the Bronx, though a breeze is likely to make it feel colder in the upper deck.  The sky above is free of clouds and a uniform robin’s-egg blue.  It is a postcard of a lovely early spring day.

Now the Camry passes over the seamless junction of the Wilbur Cross and Merritt Parkways in southwestern Connecticut.  But for a slight variation in the design of the exit signs, the two old roads are indistinguishable, one winding asphalt ribbon cutting through the forests of southern New England, a bit slower to traverse but far more scenic than I-95, which runs roughly parallel just a few miles to the south.  For this traveler, the start of the Merritt signals the approaching end of the automotive portion of this morning’s journey.  Less than five miles now to the exit for Route 8, which makes the short jog over to the Interstate, then the final twenty mile run down I-95 to the Metro North train station sitting hard by the highway in Stamford.  From there an express train heads straight to the 125th Street station in Harlem for the transfer to a northbound train coming out of Grand Central.  That goes back into the Bronx, turning onto the track that eventually makes its way up along the Hudson, but stops first at the endpoint of this morning’s journey for this traveler.  Half an hour before noon the train doors open at the Yankees – 153rd Street station.  After 536 days, this fan has come home.

The world has changed in ways that could not have been imagined at the time of that last visit to the Stadium, because of a virus that was unheard of in October 2019.  The greatest impact of the pandemic on the game day experience is obvious as one walks from the train station, past the site of the old, long-gone baseball cathedral, and looks across to Babe Ruth Plaza, the broad concourse that fronts the “new” ballpark, as it will always be called by some of us.  There will be no need today to navigate one’s way through a throng of fans milling about, taking photos and looking for friends or family members.  The plaza is almost deserted, for attendance is limited to just over 10,000 ticketholders, one-fifth of capacity. 

Even with that restricted number, separated in socially distanced pods of one to four seats scattered throughout Yankee Stadium’s three decks, merely having a ticket is no guarantee of entry.  Before fans can pass through the turnstiles, each must present proof of either being fully vaccinated at least two weeks prior to today, or a negative COVID-19 test result, either a PCR test taken within three days of the game, or a rapid antigen test taken with six hours of the scheduled first pitch.  The team has sent multiple emails to ticketholders reminding them of these requirements, and even with the short lines there is a brief delay as each person’s paperwork is closely examined.  With a vaccination card attesting to doses administered in January and mid-February, this fan crosses the barriers and soon enough is back inside the Great Game’s biggest stage.  

The first visit of every season – even one separated from the last by a pandemic and a truncated campaign of sixty games played in empty houses – is a time to check out changes to the ballpark.  Some new advertisers have paid no doubt princely sums to have their names prominently displayed.  T-Mobile has replaced AT&T as the cellular carrier of choice on the massive outfield scoreboard, and UberEats is one of several companies that have ponied up for smaller placards along the outfield fence and on the walls of the bullpens.  There are new gathering spots – bars with excellent views of the action on the field below – on both the first and third base sides of the concourse behind the second deck.  But like their third deck cousins, introduced in 2018, and many other concessions and amenities, these are shuttered today, reflecting a fiscally prudent but still depressing decision that the cost of opening them cannot be justified, given so few fans in attendance.

Of course, the point of being here is to see the Yankees play, and as the team take the field this fan settles into his seat, well removed from his nearest compatriots.  Corey Kluber is on the mound, one of several members of New York’s rotation who bring both an impressive resume and considerable uncertainty to the 2021 season.  The AL Cy Young winner in 2014 and 2017, injuries limited Kluber to just seven starts in 2019 and a single inning last year.  Today he struggles with his control, but yields just two runs, and only one earned, through four-plus innings, thanks in part to a pair of double plays snuffing out two Toronto threats.  The Blue Jays refuse to roll over, scoring a run in their next at-bat after every New York tally.  But after knotting the score at 1-1 in the top of the 3rd, the next two times those single scores come after the Yankees have plated two, giving the home squad a 5-3 lead as the game enters its final phase.  Chad Green is called upon for a four out save, and the right-hander delivers impressively, setting down the Toronto lineup in order and ensuring that the familiar postgame strains of “New York, New York” will echo through the Stadium while we in the stands, and the Yankees on the field, celebrate.

As this fan makes the walk back to the train station, preparing to reverse the route that began in early morning on a day-long trip that will end back in Portsmouth just before 10 p.m., the surreal nature of the experience is inescapable.  Even from the upper deck, one could hear every call by an umpire, and one suspects, the players could hear every hosanna or insult hurled their way.  And while many members of the media who were present during last year’s games with piped-in cheers have commented on the high noise level from limited crowds, the reality is that’s true only as compared to the fakery of 2020.  Still, while it may have been surreal, and while one longs for the day when the Stadium rocks with the frenzy of a full house and anonymous neighbors high-five each other, bound only by shared joy in their team’s achievements, make no mistake.  It was good to be home.

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