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June 26 2006: Dodging Raindrops

I had an experience yesterday that I have never had before in my life: seeing a game at Yankee Stadium with empty stands.

Oh sure, when I was a kid we often went to games that were half-full. Even Dave Righetti’s no-hitter on a sweltering July 4th had ten thousand seats empty. But these days, when the attendance record was broken last year and is on pace to go up once more, here’s how it happened that me, corwin, and 6,807 other fans saw a game together at the big ballpark in the Bronx.

The trip began on Friday night, when corwin and I packed up our car to head to New York. Normally these weekend jaunts to Yankee Stadium involve leaving the house early enough so that we can get into the Yankee-radio listening area by 7pm–game time. But he had to work a little bit late, so it was actually7:05 when we pulled away from the house. Searching the radio dial proved fruitless–there is no station in the Boston area that carries the Yankees, for obvious reasons. WCBS 880 from New York comes in sometimes if the weather is right and the sky is dark, but on June 23rd the sky is as bright at 7pm as it gets all year. Oh, and it was raining, so the Red Sox game’s start was pushed back over an hour, cutting off our usual alternative listening plan.

So, we suffered through the static for several miles of the Mass Pike. Then we pulled off in Framingham, to the massive Shoppers World shopping center, to the Best Buy, where we knew they had the XM Satellite Radio “MyFi” on clearance sale.

We’ve been drooling over the concept of XM for a while now, ever since they started running all Major League games every night. When I did my book tour for 50 Greatest Yankee Games the rental car I used had an XM radio in it. My thought was–my god, I love but this would be in the car

So we bought the MyFi. And then corwin had to spend 20 minutes on the phone with them getting the account activated, while I drove speedily toward Connecticut. As it turned out, of course, by the time we got it working, we were pretty much pulling in a regular non-satellite broadcast of the game, but hey, it was a great excuse to finally break down and buy one–plus it was on clearance sale. Success in baseball is all about being in the right place at the right time, and that’s true of shopping, as well.

It was around the sixth inning when we reached Rein’s Deli in Vernon, CT, our traditional stop-off point, and of course they had the game on in there. We sat and watched two innings while we ate. My usual order there is pastrami, cream cheese and cucumbers on rye, grilled. I know it sounds weird, but try it some time–it’s delicious. Kyle Fransworth came in to pitch and we got back in the car. Despite Farnsworth causing us, as always, to chew our nails, he got out of the inning, and the Yankees did win the game.

Now that the game was over, we flipped around the other channels (look! Oakland at San Francisco!) and talked about the upcoming games. I said I wanted to see a pitchers’ duel that ended with Mariano getting the save. corwin said he wanted to see A-rod hit a home run. I reminded him Giambi still owes me one from an earlier trip. (I know this makes no sense, but I’ve decided Jason owes me a home run for every time I make the trip to see him. What is funny is that he usually does hit one.)

We arrived at our midtown hotel at around 1 in the morning, and immediately watched an hour of Sportscenter, which is like a decadent luxury for us. (There is no TV in our house. We have the Internet instead.)

The next day was Old Timer’s Day, but gray skies and pouring rain, which have dominated the season all over the northeast, made it look grim. We put on our pinstripes and went down to breakfast, only to find the hotel’s buffet line had just closed. They served us in the bar instead, which suited us just fine since they had World Cup soccer on in there and we got to see Germany’s two exciting goals against… whoever that was they were beating. You can see my interest in soccer is well-honed. I just like the World Cup games and all the excitement around them. I pretty much always root for the host country, and always against Brazil. Anyway, Germany went on to win that match, but by then we were already on our way to the Bronx. We took the 4 train from Grand Central Station up to the Stadium with our rain ponchos at the ready.

We arrived just in time for the opening of the gates at 12:30. With the weather crummy, the crowd was relatively thin for the Old Timer’s Day ceremony, so we sat down below, in the main section against the wall, right by Artuso’s Bakery in Section 9.

By far the loudest ovation of the day, and the first standing ovation, was for David Cone. Sadly, because of the weather, we didn’t get to see him actually pitch. I still think they should have played Wiffle Ball or something instead–I hear Coney is wicked with Wiffle pitches. Darryl Strawberry was introduced right after Cone, and he got quite a loud and warm reception, too. Mattingly’s of course was so loud you couldn’t hear any of his introduction at all.

Then we had a rain delay. We went up to our regular seats, in Row R of the upper tier. Now, a lot of people hate these seats, but I absolutely love them. I love the steep rake of the upper deck that insures I am never trying to look around the head and shoulders of a tall person sitting in front of me. I love being able to see plays develop on the whole field from the bird’s eye view. Not to mention I love that the seats are still under twenty bucks. And everything above Row P or thereabouts is under the roof. Dry. Shaded.

We never had to break out the rain ponchos because sitting under the roof as we were, we stayed dry.

Then, after much sitting around, the Yankees and the Marlins played one half-inning of baseball, during which the Marlins got a run off Shawn Chacon, and then it rained again and they put the tarp back down. corwin turned on our brand-new portable sattelite XM radio to find out what was happening with Philly and Boston. He was just in time to hear the final inning, in which Tom Gordon with two outs and a 3-3 tie, in the bottom of the ninth, and a full count on David Ortiz, threw something that Ortiz powered out of the park for another of his patented game-winning homers.

Time went by. Because of the sheer number of empty seats, corwin and I invented a new game: sunflower seed baseball. Basically you crack the seed in your mouth and shell it, then you spit the shell as far as you can. One row is a single, two a double, etc… You make an out every time you can’t get it past the seats in front of you. We were just getting going with that when we began to suspect the game was called off. We saw all the relievers leave the bullpen and then all the Marlins go into the dugout and collect all their gloves and stuff. That seemed like a pretty sure sign there would be no game.

At about 7pm, six and a half hours after we had arrived at the Stadium, Bob Sheppard announced it officially: game called. That was definitely a new record ratio of number of hours spent at the Stadium per innings watched.

The good news was that they planned to make up the game the next day, as the night portion of a day/night doubleheader. The bad news was that would mean driving back to Boston in the middle of the night, but that’s really not that bad for a pair of night owls like corwin and me.

So the next morning we went down to breakfast–in time for the buffet this time–and at the table next to us was a nice lady in a David Ortiz number T-shirt. We ended up riding the elevator with her back up to our room before checking out. Me, I was in my lucky Mike Mussina jersey as the pitching matchup was to be Moose against Dontrelle Willis.

It had not rained all morning, though the sky was gray, but then on the way to the Stadium is came down in torrents. Sigh. We were coming up from the East side, so we went up the FDR and crossed over to the Deegan. There was no game traffic thanks to the rain, and we pulled off and up to the first parking lot there, one of the independent lots. “Twenty five bucks,” the guy told me. Then I told him we were staying for both games. “Fifty bucks.” Uh, sorry Charlie, I don’t think so. We pulled out, went another fifty yards or so and into one of the actual Stadium lots, for a mere $13, good for both games. Welcome to New York.

For this game, for some reason, we had Row B. We’ve never sat down that low in the tier, and we still haven’t since instead of sitting in the rain, we climbed up to Row T this time and waited for the rain to stop. Right around game time it did, and by two o’clock it looked like I was going to get my wish.

And I did, a pitchers’ duel with Mariano Rivera getting the save. Can’t ask for much better than a 1-1 tie, broken by a solo homer in the late innings, and then Mariano time. The only perhaps blot on the game was that Farnsworth made us chew our nails again, but he –phew– got out of the inning without giving up a run, so it worked out. Frank Sinatra all around.

We left the Stadium happy, and then looked for a way to kill a couple of hours before they would let us back in for the next game. Good old Ball Park Lanes, “the cleanest place in the Bronx” (so their banner says). For twenty bucks two adults can shoe-up and play for about an hour. That was two games and boy do I suck at bowling. I did have a few strikes though, mostly by sheer luck, and today my arm is killing me. But it was fun. Then we had a huge, dirt-cheap dinner at the Dominican restaurant across 161st Street, El Molino Rojo, and headed back to the park.

We went in Gate 2 since it was the nearest one and couldn’t help but notice there was no line for Monument Park. It has probably been 2 years since my last trip through the Monuments–actually since that day we took press photos down there–so probably 3-4 years since I had seen it with the general public. The line is usually too long. But the entire Stadium was clearly deserted, so we went ahead and wandered around the plaques for a while.

By the time of the first pitch, I had counted, by hand, a total of 500 people in the upper deck. We sat in section 1, our favorite section, Row T to stay dry. Then around the end of the first inning, the security guards started motioning everyone to come down. Of the 200 people I counted in the bleachers, about 150 took the invitation to go into the main section and sit in box seats–while the real section 39 bleacher creatures huddled closer together for solidarity. Lots of people left the upper deck to go down there, too, but not the diehards in section 1. We moved down to row L for a while, but then it started to drizzle, so we climbed back up.

Even the spring training games the Yankees play draw bigger crowds than this. According to the press notes, the last time the Yankees had a crowd that small at Yankee Stadium was April 7, 1984. It was a surreal experience, like watching a private exhibition.

Unfortunately, the Yankees played like it was an exhibition, and they were shut out 5-0. A-rod and Giambi did not hit the homers we wished for.

And yet somehow I couldn’t be too disgruntled. I got to spend two whole days at one of the places I love most in the world, and Moose got his 2500th strikeout and won a 2-1 victory, and I went bowling. And corwin and I got to spend a lot of quality time together. Did I mention we’re leaving on another baseball trip Wednesday? To Seattle, for the SABR convention. Which means that the summer fun is just beginning.

Addendum: As I post this, I find it worthy of note that Jason Giambi got my memo about owing me two homers a day late: he homered in his first two at bats tonight against the Braves.

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