There used to be a ballpark…

Some sports channel was playing the sappy Sinatra rendition of “There Used To Be A Ballpark”  by Joe Raposo (which I’m assuming was actually about Ebbets Field) last night over a montage of photos and videos of historic scenes at Yankee stadium — Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Roger Maris, Thurman, the Mick…so many great Yankees, making one more trip around and along the freshly chalked basepaths of memory and time.  Silly song, but the title will soon also apply to the soon-to-be-no-more Yankee Stadium.

I was at the big ballpark in the Bronx last week, less than a week before the final game. We sat just a few rows behind the Yankees dugout, midway between home plate and first base. During a rain delay, I peered out from under a plastic tarp and watched the ghosts as they slid into bases, made sure they touched the plate when they scored, leaped into the stands in pursuit of fly balls, tossed their masks, threw high and tight, signaled to the bullpen, lost the ball in the lights, smacked Ballantine Blasts into the upper deck and tipped their hats to the crowd.

Growing up in Yonkers, just north of the Bronx, I’d take a bus to the Woodlawn subway station, catch the 4 train to 161st Street and sit in the upper deck — when I was a boy, the games were rarely sold out, and it was possible to go up to the ticket window just before the game and get at a seat in the third tier of the grandstands or in the bleachers, the only seats I could afford.

These photos were taken before my time, but they do show the Stadium the way I remember it from early boyhood, before it was closed for two years and renovated in the mid-1970s:

My father was a Yankees fan — he had to be, as a second-generation son of Italian immigrants growing up in the New York City area in the 1940s and early 1950s in the era of Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio. And while my father and I fought and differed and argued and never really reached a meeting of the minds before he died — we always agreed that the New York Yankees were our team.

One time I went with my father to the Stadium. He’d somehow gotten tickets to a preseason meet-the-players open house. And I think I remember actually seeing that famous sign in the runway between the clubhouse and the dugout, the one with the quote from Joe DiMaggio: “I want to thank the good Lord for making me a Yankee.”

So about ten years or so ago I managed to get hold of a baseball signed by DiMaggio. I gave it to my father as a Christmas gift. Before he died, my ailing father clearly stated that he wanted his grandson — my son Matt — to have the Joe DiMaggio ball. Why? Well, my father doted on his first grandson. And my father also knew this story.

It was Opening Day of 1996 and it was snowing. Little Matthew was 7 years old. He and I sat behind home plate, just under the overhang, wind and snow blowing directly in from centerfield. We were bundled up but still freezing. I don’t remember now who the Yankees played on that Opening Day and I don’t remember if they won or lost the game, that first game of their first World Championship year under new manager Joe Torre and with their hotshot rookie shortstop Derek Jeter.

What I do remember is saying this to my son:

You’re going to remember this because it’s your first baseball game, and it’s Opening Day, and it’s your first trip to Yankee Stadium, and you’re here with me in the middle of snowstorm. But most of all I think you’re going to remember that man standing out on the mound about to throw out the first pitch? You know who that is? That’s Joe DiMaggio!

More than ten years later, my son still has that ball signed by DiMaggio and still remembers that Opening Day and that conversation, and that’s one reason why I got teary eyed when Bernie Williams finally returned to the Stadium for last night’s final game; when Derek Jeter gave a surprisingly eloquent and apparently off-the-cuff speech to the fans after the game, then led his teammates on a farewell lap around the field, and when PA announcer Bob Shepard’s rumbling “Ladies and gentlemen….” echoed around the grand old ballpark one last time.