New home for the Yankees

April 9, 2009

I came to New York in 1971 to work for the Associated Press and I covered the weekend shift at both Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium, where the Mets played. I’ve spent a good part of my life covering baseball in New York, the last 21 years for Reuters.

The Yankees ballpark had the air of a grand old lady, slightly down on her luck. At first sight it was an impressive structure with the historic field and that magnificent original copper frieze that lined the stadium’s roof above the upper deck. But a close look revealed a stadium deteriorating almost everywhere.

For a working photographer it was no fun, one had to kneel in an aisle to shoot pictures or work in a “crows nest” box hung over the upper deck wall behind the Yankees dugout. But there was a palatable sense of history present, for me, every day I worked there.

In 1974 they closed the park and the Yankees played at the Mets’ Shea Stadium–a building that was uninspired and unexciting the day it was built in 1964. For two years the old Lady was given a major face-lift, but when I returned to cover opening day in 1976 my reaction was the surgery had gone all wrong. Instead of keeping the architectural hallmarks of “the House that Ruth Built,” the architects tried to make a brand new stadium that looked modern. While the outside walls and the lower seating bowl remained, much of the original was gone forever. As a last-second thought, the frieze was recreated only on the outfield area’s exterior wall. Even the improvements were minor, a few luxury boxes, and still inadequate photography positions. I hated the place. The real Yankee Stadium was gone.

The new Yankee Stadium certainly recaptures the grandeur of the original ballpark. Intimate–unlike the cross-town Mets’ new CitiField–it is not. It is impressive. The footprint is bigger than the old ballpark yet it seats roughly 10,000 less, and while I never spend much time wandering the upper deck in any park, it seems that if anything, the seats above the field are farther away. The foul territory around home plate has been reduced to bring the costly seats closer to the field, while there appears to be a bit more space between the foul lines in the outfield and the stands.

Monument Park is a disappointment. In the original stadium the monuments stood in centerfield and mounted on the outfield wall–if a ball could be hit into them it could be converted to an inside-the-park home run, unless the center fielder was very good maneuvering through them. In the rebuild the centerfield fences were brought in and the park was behind the wall, but still very visible to almost everyone in the stands. In the new stadium the park is still behind the centerfield wall, but it is longer and not as deep. To its disadvantage much of it is recessed under the overhanging structure that holds a restaurant and the monuments to the Yankees storied past are “buried” under it.

The fan amenities are fantastic–places to eat and drink are everywhere. The seats appear to be comfortable and there are broad concourses to move people in and out. I’ll reserve judgement on the working positions for photographers until I’ve had more time to shoot there, but first impressions are that they are not much better than the old stadium, which is a shame because there was an opportunity to provide so much more for the visual recording of the continuing history of this most famous team.

Frankly, all three stadium incarnations for this storied franchise reflect the type of organization the Yankees are—the new Yankee Stadium is big, bold, and confident–and overwhelming.

But the biggest plus for me is that glorious frieze that lined the original stadium’s roof above the upper deck is back, and it defines the ballpark as THE home of the Yankees.

If the Babe ever returned, he would feel at home.

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