For the past 35 years, my father and I have been going to opening day at Yankee Stadium together. In the beer commercial version of this story, the tradition would begin with my great grandfather, and be passed down from father to son over generations. But in truth, this was a tradition we created out of whole cloth. My grandfather, a German immigrant, wasn’t much of a baseball fan. Even if he had been, taking his son to a major league game would have required traveling thousands of miles from their Oregon home.
For my dad, though, a love of baseball was something that identified him as a true-blue American instead of an immigrant. Growing up in the 1940s, he harbored visions of playing shortstop for the Yankees, a dream he never did realize. But ever since moving to New York in 1973, he has been privileged to watch shortstops from Alomar to Zuvella, not to mention a skinny kid named Jeter.
He has also passed that love of the game onto his children. Like our father, my sister, Annie, and I became baseball fans at a young age. At first, we were in it for the peanuts and Crackerjacks, but as we got older, we learn to root, root, root for the home team.
So when Dad offered to pull us out of school one afternoon to go to opening day at Yankee Stadium, we jumped at the chance like rookies called on to pinch-hit. In case the principal didn’t think attending a ballgame was a suitable reason for cutting class, Dad conjured up a fictitious story that our grandmother had died and we had to attend the funeral.
The following April, he alleged that our other grandmother had died. Our grandfathers died in the third and fourth years of our tradition. By the fifth year, the principal was onto our scam, but since our grades were good, he winked at our absences. From those early days up until I moved to California in 2003, we only missed one opening day together: In 1993, when my grandmother actually did die, and we all had to fly back to Oregon for the funeral.
My memories of those first few years are foggy, but one is indelible: The first ever game halted by candy. Reggie Jackson had ended the 1977 World Series with three home runs on three consecutive swings, and, as he famously predicted, somebody named a candy bar after him. On opening day of the following season, the Yankees handed out Reggie Bars to each arriving fan. Never one to shy from the spotlight, Jackson took a monstrous swing on his first at-bat and launched a fourth consecutive homer into the seats. As he rounded the bases, thousands of fans rained the chocolate bars bearing his name onto the field.
Over the years, we’ve sat through heartache (Mark McGwire’s game-tying laser beam home run off Mariano Rivera in 1997) and joy (Hideki Matsui’s grand slam in his first game in pinstripes in 2003). Some years we sat in box seats; other years in the upper deck, depending on how tough a ticket it was. Sometimes the Yankees won, sometimes they lost, and sometimes it rained.
Our tradition has evolved, as have the people in the seats. I’m older now than Dad was when we first started going to games (though I still feel like a kid whenever we’re at the ballpark together). When Annie moved to Chicago, my wife, Lisa, took her place. Like Annie and me so many years earlier, Lisa originally came for the hot dogs, but learned to stay for the thrill of competition and the beauty of the game. Today, she’s as astute as any baseball fan I know.
The game itself has evolved too, even in hidebound Yankee Stadium. Hitters wait for their appearance music to end before stepping into the batter’s box. Relievers run in from the bullpen rather than riding on baseball-shaped golf carts. The exploding scoreboard uses subway races, shell games and a dreadful performance of "Cotton-Eyed Joe" to entertain fans between innings.
New York, too, is a different place than the city that Gerald Ford famously told to drop dead in 1975. Today, there’s less grit and more hedge fund money flowing -- so much so that almost every home game is as sold out as a playoff game.
But some things never change. Every team in the league starts with a clean slate. The bright green grass on the field reminds us that the boys of summer are back, even if it doesn’t feel quite like spring yet.
On opening day, the Yankees always showcase pinstriped legends from the past before introducing the current crop. Dad’s best friend, Herb, always buys the hot dogs, Dad and I always keep score, everyone submits a number for the attendance-guessing contest, and we always sing “Take Me out to the Ballgame” arm-in-arm during the 7th-inning stretch.
Ever since opening day was moved up a week in the calendar to accommodate an extra round of playoffs, it has usually been cold, raining or both. The lone exception was 1996, when it snowed, yet inexplicably, the show went on. Fittingly, that season ended with the team’s first world championship in 18 years and a parade up Broadway, where a blizzard of confetti fell on the players. The Yanks would win three more World Series from 1998-2000, meaning we were witness to championship banners being hoisted on the first day of the following seasons.
The Yankees moved to a new stadium across the street from the House That Ruth Built. This shiny new structure includes features like boardrooms and martini bars that, to me, don’t fit with America’s pastime. So 2008 was the last time Dad and I could go to opening day at the old ballpark and experience the real deal.
Getting to this game from my current home in Los Angeles required a bit more effort than fabricating a relative’s death. The weather didn’t cooperate either, as a soft rain fell steadily through the afternoon, forcing a postponement until the following evening.
It turned out to be a blessing, as the next night was warm enough for shirtsleeves. Reggie Jackson returned to celebrate the 30th anniversary of that candy-covered home run. As he threw the ceremonial first pitch, the 84th and final season at Yankee Stadium was underway. In the fifth inning, when the game became official, a frail George Steinbrenner appeared, Oz-like, on the video screen in the outfield, and ordered that the “81 Games Remaining” sign be reduced by one.
Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees’ $275 million man, got the home team on the board first with an RBI double, then scored the go-ahead run in the seventh. Melky Cabrera, the homegrown 23-year outfielder, played the role of Bronx Bomber, hitting a Yankee Stadium special that barely cleared the short right field porch. But his two sparkling catches in center field drew even more applause from the crowd, which has always appreciated the finer points of the game. Meanwhile, the pitchers kept with a more recent Yankee tradition of excellence: Seven strong innings from starter Chien-Ming Wang, and lights-out relief from young phenom Joba Chamberlain and Mariano Rivera, the closer with ice water in his veins.
The Yankees couldn’t have scripted a better start to their final season in the old ballpark. The tightly contested 3-2 game was over in a manageable two hours and 31 minutes, a refreshing change from the four-hour slogs the team has been known to engage in. It was the team’s 11th straight win on opening day.
As we walked out toward the subway, we saw the new ballpark looming across the street. Already, we could see some instantly recognizable trademarks, like the white-columned balustrades surrounding the top deck, and a limestone exterior replicating the original stadium before the 1975 renovation. To insure that the new park carries on the mantle of the most hallowed building in American sports, the Yankees will relocate the monuments to past greats like Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Munson.
The House That Corporate Luxury Boxes Built may not ever feel as hallowed and familiar as the Yankee Stadium I grew up with. But it won’t matter as long as there is baseball, and as long as my dad and I get to spend the afternoon playing hooky together.
-- John Rosenthal grew up in New York but now lives in Santa Monica, Calif. Graig Nettles has been his favorite player ever since he saw the Yankee third baseman put on a defensive clinic in the 1978 World Series. The original version of this story appeared in Hemispheres Magazine in October 2008. It is republished here with the author's permission.