Larry Banman: Even Yankee haters shed a tear for the loss of a building.
September 23, 2008
Baseball fans said “goodbye” to Yankee Stadium on Sunday night. Those who love baseball, with the possible exception of Boston Red Sox fans, are feeling a little emptier this week. The Yankees have always been a team that you either loved or hated, but it is undoubtedly the tam that has given baseball a significant part of its identity for the past century. Yankee Stadium is certainly not at the same level as Mecca is for Islam, but it is one of the shrines that would be on the “must-see” list for baseball aficionados. It is that significant.
The Yankees have always played on the biggest stage and have amassed World Series championships, 39 pennants and 47 playoff appearances. Many of the most recognizable baseball names from Ruth to Gehrig to DiMaggio to Berra to Mantle to Jackson to Jeter to Rivera have put on the pinstriped uniforms with the interlocking NY for a logo.
In 1973, a group of investors, led by Cleveland-based shipbuilder George Steinbrenner, purchased the club from CBS for $8.7 million. Within a year, Steinbrenner bought out most of his other partners and became the team’s principal owner. To a non-Yankee fan, Steinbrenner was like the relative who had a lot of money, had a nicer house and drove a fancier car than anybody else in the family. He always had the money to get what he wanted. Owners like him are why other owners pled for concessions like salary caps and luxury taxes. Teams in markets like Pittsburgh and Kansas City couldn’t afford to compete with Steinbrenner for the most talented players. Many people saw that as an unfair competitive advantage and they took special delight in Steinbrenner’s frustration whenever those expensive acquisitions didn’t pan out as expected. However, few people can logically dispute that fact that Steinbrenner helped grow the game of baseball to its current status.
Many of the owners who publicly criticized Steinbrenner became very wealthy because as baseball grew, so did the value of their own franchises. In George’s case, his $8.7 million is now worth an estimate $1.3 billion, according to Forbes.com. At any rate, Steinbrenner did nothing to diminish the prominence of the Yankee name in the pages of the history of baseball.
When the original Yankee Stadium opened 85 years ago, Babe Ruth hit the first home run in the new park. After that game, New York Evening Telegram sportswriter Fred Lieb christened the new ball park as “The House That Ruth Built.” With its short porch in right field (less than 300 ft.) it was also cynically called “The House Built for Ruth” as many of the drives hit by the left-hand hitting Ruth went in that direction. For those who like to store tons of trivia in their cranium, in the last game played at Yankee Stadium, Andy Pettit was the winning pitcher in the 7-3 Yankees victory while Chris Waters of Baltimore was tagged with the loss. Mariano Rivera pitched the final inning for the Yankees, but since his team was ahead by more than three runs, he was not credited with a save. The official attendance was 54,610 and those people saw Derek Jeter have the last official at-bat for the Yankees, they saw the Yankees’ Jose Molina hit the last homerun in the ballpark and they saw Baltimore’s second baseman, Brian Roberts, hit into the final out in Yankee stadium. Roberts hit a groundball to New York first baseman Cody Ransom who ran to the bag for an unassisted putout. Ransom and Rivera had a laugh as Ransom good-naturedly refused Rivera’s request for that historic ball. Ransom gave the ball to the future Hall of Famer and Rivera probably has that souvenir safely tucked away.
As I watched the game unfold, I was struck by the fundamental differences between baseball and football, and I am not speaking about the way the game is played.
Baseball has been given the name “America’s pastime” but there is no doubt that football is the more popular sport. Attendance figures would show that more people go to baseball games but that is a function of the fact that the baseball season is 162 games in length while football has 16 games in its season. The cost to advertise in footballs ultimate game, the Super Bowl, is $3 million for a 30-second slot. And, most of that time has already been purchased. Depending on which teams play in baseball’s World Series, the telecasts of those games sometimes don’t even outdraw other programming in its same time slot.
Baseball appeals to people who love statistics and history. Because there really haven’t been many significant changes to the game of baseball, it is plausible to compare the performances of today’s players with those who played in the early days of baseball. Back in the 1950s, the season increased from 154 to 162 games, the American League instituted the designated hitter rule in 1973 and the pitching mound was lowered after the 1968 season. Steroids are leaving their stain on the game, but the basic contest as played between the lines has remained virtually unchanged for the past century.
Compare that to football, which seems to tweak its rules after every season. One year, the rules are changed to help teams generate more offense, more points, more fan excitement and a better product to market. If the offense gets too dominate, the rules are tweaked to help even out the competition on the field. That doesn’t make football better or worse than baseball, it just makes it different. Professional basketball, in my opinion, has gone even further down the road toward being a form of entertainment.
When I attended a Denver Nuggets game a few years ago, the techno-wizardry was amazing. The impression which I was left with was that the basketball game was just one of the aspects of a marketing package. You could have gone to game, known nothing about what happened during the athletic contest and come away feeling like you had been entertained.
Baseball lends itself more toward a study of the nuances of the game. The play behind the play is often as intriguing as the play itself. For today’s audiences, however, that isn’t entertainment. For many of the same reasons, “Diehard III” will outdraw a Sherlock Homes mystery on PBS. People want their action served on a platter and they want heavy portions. Most don’t want to wind their way through a web of intrigue.
I hope we always have room for the game of baseball. I hope the game doesn’t die with those of us who can remember falling asleep while listening to the game on a transistor radio. I hope the factors which have made the game popular don’t become so outdated that we lose that part of the fabric of our society. Even if it was the Yankees that played in Yankee Stadium, I like following a sport in which the buildings themselves are part of the nature of the game.
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