My first memory of Yankee Stadium is so old, I can barely remember it. My father dates it to 1999, meaning I was only five years old. My obsession with baseball wouldn't become a thing for another decade; instead, my attention was focused on other things, like the flash of the No. 4 train between the right field grandstands and the iconic white facade ringed around the entire stadium. That's all I remember of it; not the home runs or the food or the pitches. All I remember is the train.
So it's only fitting that the beginning of my journey to the new Yankee Stadium a near 20 years later started with a train. I catch the Metro North out of Poughkeepsie, accompanied by four of my coworkers and friends, sporting handlebar mustaches a la Thurman Munson because for whatever reason we decided that this end of May game against the Houston Astros would be the day to do so. At Croton-Harmon, we get off and catch another train that will take us straight to the stadium, and with each stop drawing us nearer the train cars are filling with more fans bedecked in Yankee attire. Those we make eye contact with hide their amusement of our uniformed facial hair, and we share a brief exchange of kinship solely because of the interlocked Yankee logo on our shirts before they scramble for the last remaining seats in the car. Soon it'll be standing room only.
When we arrive, the masses are already forming below us. Streams of people are pressing towards the gates. The sound of hip-hop, influenced by the vast Hispanic population living beneath the shadow of the stadium, mingles with the murmur of countless voices morphing into one incoherent sound. Vendors are selling half-frozen water bottles for only a dollar, knowing full well the same bottle is sold for four times that price inside the ballpark. Children swathed in Aaron Judge jerseys walk in stride with their fathers wearing shirts branded with names like Williams, Martinez, or O'Neill. In this spot, at 1 East 161st Street, the past, present, and future are all together.
We all know the story; this current Yankee Stadium is the third of its kind. It stands across from where the House That Ruth Built once stood, transformed into a multi-field baseball complex for local kids to fulfill their dreams of standing in the same batter's box as the greats did before their time. From 1923 to 2008, that Yankee Stadium saw some of the greatest teams ever assembled in baseball history, and the mystique of the place was so great, many considered it to be the haunting grounds of the ghosts of those players instrumental in hallowing those sacred grounds.
But, like all things, that Yankee Stadium gave way to innovation and modernization. The new Yankee Stadium, which has seen only one championship in its first decade, had felt more like a mausoleum than an actual living ballpark. The halls are consecrated with the images of past greats; the limestone exterior harkens back to the original Stadium, and Monument Park and the Yankees Museum on popular sights for those who wish to refresh themselves on such a long and decorated history, or for those who wish to learn it for the first time. Baseball has always loved its nostalgia; the game itself stands as a reminder of a simpler time, separate from all other things outside the white lines. The Yankees, too, loved their nostalgia, and for a time it seemed as if they cared about the past more than they did for the present.
That's changed, now; coincidental, perhaps, with players like Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and Luis Severino. An injection of youth has affected the Yankees well beyond the diamond. You can feel it when the Boston Red Sox come to town, or the Astros. It's a playoff atmosphere in May, a reverberating anticipation of a future matchup dated for October.
My seats were in section 207. From the second deck in right field, we could see everything except from right-center field over to the foul line. Aaron Judge hovered just within sight but would disappear whenever he had to break backward to track a fly ball that flirted with becoming a home run. But from our seats, the stadium laid out before us on a hazy Tuesday, the sun sinking behind home plate and out of our eyes by the time the Yankees came up to bat.
The course of a game, much like a season, is an epic of two teams poised against each other. There is a natural flow to it, an ebb to each side's surging force to dictate the outcome of the game. And all of this is spectated by the fans, 50,000 encircling the field reminiscent of the Roman mob frenzied by the spectacle of two gladiators fighting to the death.
When the longest-tenured Yankee, Brett Gardner, drove Charlie Morton's—the three kids, roughly my age, beside me were convinced this was a different Charlie Morton from the one in Pittsburgh — second pitch of the game into the right-field seats, there was a buzz in the stadium. Morton, who has experienced a career revival this past year since he's joined the Astros, had the stuff and the ability to replicate what teammate Justin Verlander did in the previous day's game. It was a good start for the Yankees, but when the Astros responded in kind on an Evan Gattis home run in the top of the second, the buzz was replaced by a palpable nervous energy because, despite it being only the end of May, this was a must-win game.
The Astros are a good team, but you don't need me to tell you that. They hit with runners in scoring position, fielded the ball smoothly, and ran the bases when it suited them. Suddenly a 1-1 tie became a 5-1 Houston lead, and not even a Judge solo missile off the facade of the second deck in right field, one section next from where I sat, could shake the growing fear of another loss from our minds.
By the end of the eighth, fans were streaming for the exits. A 5-3 lead seemed like a fine enough lead for the defending champs to hold. However, I consider it both a cardinal sin and an act of premature pessimism to leave a game before the last out is recorded. You never know what can happen.
So when Miguel Andujar drew a rare walk in the bottom of the ninth, there was a sliver of hope. Even when Gleyber Torres struck out, with Brett Gardner, whose home run started the scoring, there was a growing suspicion that the top half of the Yankees' lineup was due for something incredible.
I can tell you with complete honesty that as soon as the ball left Gardner's bat, I knew it was gone. Perhaps it was because I couldn't judge the outfielder's positioning from the wall below me, but as the ball continued to travel, I knew by the time it landed it would be a tie game. Sure, I thought it was going further than the first row, but a home run is a home run no matter how far you hit it. If it goes over the wall, it ain't coming back.
And suddenly, Yankee Stadium was in playoff mode. It shook with the thousands of voices in a singular chant; it shook with the reverberation of fans pounding the seats with open hands. An impending defeat was replaced with the possibility of victory, a much-needed victory to prove to the baseball world that the Yankees were still a team to be reckoned with.
That victory was delivered on the speed of a Gleyber Torres' single into right field. The kid has become a fan favorite in less than a year. He's a stud, a phenom, a star in the making. My father had told me this is the next generation's Derek Jeter. Sure, that can only be determined if Torres' finishes a 20-year career in pinstripes after leading them through a dynastic run a la the Yankees of the 90's, but there hasn't been a home-grown middle infield prospect like this since Jeter, and it's exciting. He's a focal point that can draw those on the fringes of Yankee fandom into the heat.
He can be the hero and legend for kids in the Bronx just as Jeter once was.
A simple May 29th game against the defending champions was the greatest game I've seen at Yankee Stadium. Sure, a lot of that has to do with my upbringing in Florida, and while the distant memory of calling out Paul O'Neill's name in the right field stands of Tropicana Field in Tampa, in the same game where Darryl Strawberry hit a catwalk which probably stopped the ball from going to the moon, is a favorite, this game against the Astros will be one to remember.
Because something magical is happening in the Bronx. You can feel it as much as you feel the heat of the spring sun on the verge of summer. The kids grow wide-eyed when Aaron Judge steps up to the plate. Grown men and women do too. Aroldis Chapman commands the attention of the entire Stadium as he cocks back his left arm to unleash a fastball shot out of a cannon.
The Bronx has become a jungle again. And it's all fun and games when the Yankees win.