Yesterday, ESPN's Buster Olney reported that, according to his sources, Major League Baseball will soon announce that the 2008 All Star Game will be played in the Bronx, in Yankee Stadium's last season. As a symbolic hail and farewell to the stadium, it can't come soon enough. Good riddance!
One can only hope that neither baseball nor the Yankees will maintain the absurd pretense that the park where Derek Jeter plays is the same one in which Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle played. It isn't, and an All Star Game being played in a park that was built a couple of years before I was born will be about as much a goodbye to "The House That Ruth Built" as playing a game in Prospect Park would be a goodbye to Ebbets Field.
That many people don't realize this is a testament to short memories and a testament to the power of the Yankees brand and its association with tradition and nostalgia; it's nonetheless true. In 1974 and 1975, Yankee Stadium was destroyed. The facade was removed, the columns and pillars supporting the upper deck were removed, the dimensions were changed, wooden seats were replaced with plastic ones, the press box and clubhouses were remodeled, luxury boxes were built, and so on. It was a new park in everything but name, and a rather ugly one. The changes were made at taxpayer expense to ensure profits for a privately held entity, and their general effect was to make the park uglier and a worse place for most people to watch baseball.
People with the cash to sit in luxury boxes got a better deal, but everyone else got the shaft. Look at a picture of the first Yankee Stadium, and you'll note that as in Wrigley Field or Fenway Park, people in the upper decks are perilously close to the field. That's because a park that incorporates columns and pillars can support decks extending much closer to the action. One that removes those elements, as the new Yankee Stadium did, has to recess the upper decks. This is why you need binoculars to watch a game from those seats these days; it does prevent the odd field-level seat from being stationed behind a girder, though, and thus ensures convenience for the high-paying few at the expense of the comparatively low-paying many.
Looked at this way, the park at 161 Street is less a shrine to the Yankees' dynastic qualities and more of a ridiculous reminder of how baseball teams manage to rip off cities. For no evident reason, the city destroyed a perfectly good ballpark it owned, built a new one for $180 million in 2005 dollars, and then signed it over to a plutocrat. In the process, the city destroyed something of great historical and aesthetic value and replaced it with a bowl of concrete so impractical it would barely last more than 30 years.
Of course the city is making the same mistake all over again. The new, new Yankee Stadium, which will swallow up 22 acres of parkland and replace it with Astroturfed garage rooftops and the like, will seat spectators even further from the action than the old, new Yankee Stadium, and the cost looks to run close to a billion dollars, with most analysts estimating that the public will subsidize roughly $400 million of it — all this for a project of no discernible benefit to anyone other than the Yankee organization. Probably in 2039, it will host an All Star Game while everyone grows misty about how Babe Ruth played there.
Like anyone else, I have countless wonderful memories of great times I've had watching baseball at the stadium; it isn't a ballpark in the same sense that Wrigley Field is, but the quality of a ballpark is far less important than what goes on there (people manage to get sentimental over Shea, for Pete's sake), and mostly what's gone on at Yankee Stadium is great baseball. It's still always worth keeping in mind that when anyone involved with baseball starts talking a lot of bosh about history, tradition, and the heritage we share, what they mean is that they want to spend your money to make more money for themselves, and that when Major League Baseball decides to celebrate the past, it's because they think they can sell it. An All Star Game in New York City will be pretty great. The certain-to-come YES Network special in which Michael Kay cries while preaching about how Whitey Ford and Andy Pettitte toed the same slab of championship destiny, and how one can breathe in that destiny by making a last trip to the hallowed ground in the South Bronx? Not so much.