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The Best Seat in the House
The game of baseball frames many of my sweetest childhood memories.
I made my first friendships playing Little League, and these friendships were shaped by countless hours of team batting and fielding practice on our neighborhood diamond. I consider our coach, a burly police officer named Mr. Ferguson, to have been my first great teacher. He drilled us in baseball fundamentals until they became second nature, but also allowed us time to practice acrobatic catches and double plays, feats we dreamt ourselves capable of but had little chance of ever actually executing in a game. Practices were focused but fun, a solid foundation for a lifelong love of baseball.
As a fan, I grew up rooting for the New York Yankees, and the team's players became my earliest heroes. I looked forward to visiting Yankee Stadium at least as eagerly as I anticipated the first day of summer vacation, Halloween night, or Christmas morning. I was still too young to realize that I might lack major league talent, and the handful of games I'd seen in person just fueled the dream that I too might play someday at the Stadium.
As momentous as any trip to see the Yankees seemed at the time, there was one particular game that made an impression so vivid and powerful that I can hardly imagine my childhood without it. In fact, it's hard not to wonder how my adolescence might have unfolded had I been anywhere else but Yankee Stadium that day.
The game, against the Kansas City Royals, was played on a sweltering Sunday afternoon in late July 1983. I had just turned eight. Personally speaking, it had been a banner summer for baseball.
I was halfway through my second season of Little League, starting at shortstop and leading off for my team, the legendary, perennially pennant-contending Brunt & Brooks Pharmacy. Being sponsored by a pharmacy didn't yield the tangible rewards enjoyed by some of our rival teamsnamely, Tony's Pizzeria or the Ice Cream Villabut one through nine, B&B had the best third-grade ballplayers in town. My team won many games that summer.
After the school year ended that June, my bedtime had been pushed back late enough that, if the pitchers worked fast and kept the score down, I could watch Yankees night games on television right up to the last out. Summer days peaked with Little League practice, then dinner in front of the TV listening to Phil Rizzuto call that night's Yankees game until Mom or Dad sent me to my room. That Fourth of July, I sat on the living room floor and watched every pitch of Dave Righetti's no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox. It was one of the most exciting things I'd ever seen; the fireworks show broadcast later that night from over the East River seemed dim in comparison. A few nights later, tuning in to another game, I saw Dave Winfield reach up and over the outfield wall to pull a game-winning home run back into play. I was awestruck by his catch. For weeks afterward, I imitated it so tirelessly against the four-foot-tall chain-link fence surrounding our Little League field that I came home from baseball practice every night with scrapes and bruises up and down my left arm.
Then came the game against the Royals. Since the night my dad brought home the ticketsone each for him, my little brother Damien, and meI'd been able to think and speak of little else. We arrived at Yankee Stadium in time for the national anthem, and our seats in the upper deck had an expansive view of the field and the Bronx beyond it. Once the game started, though, I had trouble keeping my eye on the ball.
A friend had recently taught me how to keep score, the system of shorthand by which the details of any baseball game can be recorded for posterity. In my eagerness to correctly make note of each at bat on the scorecard, I spent a good share of the afternoon with my head in the program, half a step behind what was happening in the game.
Also competing for my attention were a trio of belligerent beer-swilling Yankees fans in the row directly behind us, huge men, unshaven and foul-mouthed. I stole quick glances at them over my shoulder between pitches, fascinated but terrified they might catch me staring.
The Yankees took a 4-3 lead into the ninth inning. Damien and I joined the crowd in a lusty chant of "We Want the Goose," a reference to Goose Gossage, the Yankees' celebrated relief pitcher warming up in the bullpen. It was my favorite ballpark huzzah, excepting the bugle call that always ended with a spirited "Charge!" After a two-out Royals single put the tying run on first base, Yankees manager Billy Martin acquiesced to the crowd and brought Gossage in to close out the victory. My brother and I retook our seats, satisfied at having influenced the course of the ballgame. I noted the pitching change on my scorecard and, while the Goose warmed up, double-checked my earlier handiwork.
"Wait, is the shortstop number 5 or number 6 if you're keeping score?" I asked my dad.
"Number 6," my dad answered.
"So when the shortstop throws to the first baseman, it's 6-3, right?"
"That's right," he said. The crowd cheered Gossage's first pitch, a strike.
"And a called strike three is a backward K or a regular K?"
"Matt, get your head out of the program. You're missing the game."
"But which one is it?"
"Backwards. But you're missing all the action. George Brett's up. Watch the game. You can do that when we get"
He was cut off in midsentence by the crack of the bat. By the time I located the ball, it had begun its descent; it came down far beyond any Yankee's reach, over the outfield wall. With two outs in the top of the ninth inning, Brett's homer had put the Royals ahead by a run. One of the men in the row behind us cursed and tossed his half-full beer cup over my head, over the upper-deck railing, and down onto the fans in the box seats below. More than a few drops splattered my scorecard; long streaks of inky beer ran down the page into my lap. I looked to my dad, who had somewhat miraculously been spared the shower. Unaware, he still faced the field, watching Brett circle the bases. I blotted fruitlessly at the scorecard with my T-shirt.
"Here comes Billy!" screamed the beer-thrower over my shoulder.
I craned my neck and could see that the Yankees manager had indeed left the home dugout. Martin walked out toward the home plate umpire, gesturing animatedly at the bat Brett had just used to hit his home run.
"What's he saying?" I asked my dad.
"I don't know," he said.
All four umpires huddled around home plate. The home plate ump emerged from the conference and turned to the Royals dugout, then extended his thumb and swung his arm, throwing Brett out of the game.
Brett, the Royals' best player, didn't take the ejection very well. He burst out of the Royals dugout and onto the field, charging straight at the umpire. The Yankee Stadium crowd went bananas. In half a second, thirty-five thousand fans, including the tall ones in the row in front of me, were on their feet. Another cup of beer sailed over my head.
"I can't see the field!" I shouted. "I can't see anything!"
My dad lifted Damien onto his shoulders and helped me up onto my seat. In the middle of a huge scrum at home plate, Brett was being forcibly separated from the ump by three of his teammates. A fan to our right with a transistor radio reported that Brett's bat had been ruled illegal"something about too much pine tar"and the home run nullified. The game was over; the Yankees had won. The first few lyrics of Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" blared from the Stadium's public address system.
My last glimpse of the Yankee Stadium field that day had Brett, still livid, being escorted up a tunnel from the Royals dugout. Up a tunnel to what, I didn't know.
A twenty-two-year-old Yankees first baseman, Don Mattingly, was also at the Stadium that afternoon. Though it was his rookie season, Mattingly had already established himself in the Yankees lineup; he had in fact had a hit in each of New York's nine previous games.
Without a doubt, he had watched the Brett spectacle unfold from a better seat than mine. But at that point in his career, he'd been in the big leagues only a few months, and I'd like to think he was just as thrilled as I was to be at Yankee Stadium that afternoon. I imagine he watched that game from the Yankees dugout with the same sense of wonder I felt myself, way up in the upper deck.
At breakfast the next day, my mom spread the morning's sports page on the kitchen table and pointed out the article about what was already being called "the pine tar game." I had never been present at a newsworthy scene before, and I pored over the story and photos; I grasped for the first time that what happens in the world one day is what shows up in the paper the next.
After reading the story and studying the box score of the pine tar game, I moved on to the accounts of all the other major league games that had been played that Sunday. In those box scores and recaps, I recognized one or two players' names from the few dozen baseball cards in my collection. I made the connection between the names and the faces, and that connection made a big impression on me. I understood: you could follow the game this way.
When I started receiving an allowance of a few dollars a week that fall, it passed nearly instantaneously from my dad's pocket, through my hands, into the pocket of the five-and-dime-store owner who sold me more of these cardboard portraits. As my collection developed, I learned more teams, and players' names, and early eighties baseball history. I stored the cards in shoe boxes, like my dad told me he'd done growing up in Brooklyn forty years before, and swapped doubles with Damien and friends at school. I studied the ballplayers' faces and statistical histories, and became a reader by returning to the sports page to look for those same names in more box scores and game stories.
I coveted my Mattingly cards over all the others. Through the mid-eighties, when Mets fans owned bragging rights at school and on the playground, I kept my faith in the Yankees.
Mattingly made this possible. He won the American League batting title in 1984, when I was nine, and its Most Valuable Player Award in 1985. In 1986 Mattingly had 238 hits, more in one season than any Yankee had ever hit before. In 1987 he set an American League record by hitting six grand slams and tied the record for consecutive games with a home run with eight. I watched them all. Defensively, every year from 1985 to 1989, Mattingly was awarded the Gold Glove as the league's best-fielding first baseman. By the fall of 1989, when I entered high school, the wallpaper in my bedroom was fully obscured by Don Mattingly posters and photos, pictures that I'd carefully clipped from sports magazines over the previous half decade.
Though my family lived in North Tarrytown, a suburb about twenty miles north of New York City, I enrolled as a freshman at Regis High School, an all-boys, all-scholarship Jesuit school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It was the same high school my dad had graduated from thirty-seven years before. At age fourteen, I began taking the train and subway to and from school, an hour each way.
The tracks ran along the Hudson River, through the Bronx, into Manhattan; as the train passed through the South Bronx, it was possible to catch a glimpse out the window, just for a second or two, of the Yankee Stadium facade. During baseball season I tried to sit on the side of the trainthe left side on the way to school, the right side on the way homethat gave me a look at the Stadium and the sign that announced when the Yankees would next play at home.
On game days, a wholly different energy emanated from the ballpark than on those days when the Yankees were on the road. Knots of cars and tailgaters softened the usually harsh landscape of vast, empty asphalt parking lots; the sidewalks around the Stadium bustled with cops, vendors, and early-arriving fans. Behind the facade, you knew preparations were being made for a baseball game to be played. Even passing the Stadium at forty miles per hour, with the sounds of the ballpark muted by the train's half-inch-thick glass windows, you could feel the place buzz: the Yankees are home and playing tonight.
One morning a few weeks into my junior year at Regis, I was on my way to school when I saw that the Stadium sign read boston tonight 7:05. It was late in the 1991 baseball season, and though the Yankees were already well on their way to a fifth-place finish in the American League East, the Red Sox were still within reach of the pennant. It's always a big game when the Red Sox visit Yankee Stadium; in this one, the Yankees could play the spoilers. I also knew there wouldn't be too many more chances to see a baseball game that season. I picked up a newspaper on the seat next to me and checked the starting pitchers. By the time the train crossed into Manhattan, I'd decided I was going to the ballgame.
I took the subway up to the Bronx right after school let out, paid five dollars for a walk-up bleacher ticket, and entered the Stadium as soon as the gates opened. For a year or two already, I'd been convinced there was no better seat at Yankee Stadium than in the back row of the right-field bleachers. Only from the bleachers did you watch the game from the same perspective as the players in the field, facing the batter, which heightened the feeling of being in the game. I also believed that from my seat at the base of the Stadium facade, I could see more of the park than from anywhere else in the house. Every other view lacked the panorama available from the cheap seats. Fans sitting in the upper deck couldn't see those in the box seats down below, and vice versa; most fans in the park had to lean forward and crane their necks to see into one corner of the outfield or the other. From the back row of the bleachers, though, I could take it all in: the roiling mass of bleacher fans immediately before me, the expanse of grass patrolled by the right fielder, the infield in front of him, and finally, framing my view, the three tiers of seats that sat tens of thousands. The only sight I missed was of the scoreboard directly overhead, but I already knew the score and had all the stats in my head anyway. I was close enough to watch visiting outfielders feign ignorance or grimace at the taunts from the bleachers. Close enough to have developed, by close observation, an authoritative impersonation of the Yankee outfielders' between-pitch fielding stances. Close enough to have a fighting chance at leaving the ballpark with a home run ball. Closer than I'd ever been or imagined I'd ever be to the game of baseball and to the New York Yankees.