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Home Base

"Nostalgic" derives from the Greek words meaning a painful longing for home, and I suppose it describes my feelings for Yankee Stadium and why its demise this week makes my heart heavy. Having first entered the place 50 summer seasons ago, I’ve felt at home there as I have in no other place I regularly revisit, some of them far older in actuality as well as weightier in my own experience. But this may be because the Stadium (capital “s”, always) was for me a twice-found home--first, during my childhood, and later, after a long hiatus, during my children’s childhoods. A home rediscovered may make for a wiser nostalgia--or at any rate, a deeper kind of nostalgia.

Only shards of memory remain of the very first game I saw at the Stadium, the Yankees against the White Sox, in 1959, one of the few seasons in those days when the Yankees lost the pennant. It was late in the season; the team was going nowhere; the greenness of the grass truly was shocking; and I saw Mickey Mantle strike out at least once. A fellow named Marty Patterson, a gentle and generous man who worked for my dad, took me, putting me forever in his debt. But within a couple of years, my parents decided that I was old enough--just 10 and a half, but it was different back then--to hazard the IND from Brooklyn to the Bronx, so long as I went with a friend.

After begging my parents on the last day of the regular season in 1961, I got to sit in the center-right field bleachers and see Roger Maris hit his 61st home run to break Babe Ruth’s single-season record. Three years later, I snagged a World Series bleachers ticket, snuck into the grandstand, and saw Mantle break another of Ruth’s records, for most Series homers, while lifting the Yanks to a breathtaking victory in Game Three in the bottom of the ninth (though they would lose the Series in seven games). Yankee Stadium was a wonderful place to become a baseball fan, but, given all the milestone events I was lucky to see, it was also one of the places that first got me thinking hard about American history.

Suddenly, though, in 1965, the enjoyment seemed to vanish. The team’s fortunes soured, to the delight of Yankee haters everywhere--including Brooklyn, where the Mets had become a near-beer substitute for the departed Dodgers. (This is the place to confess my own brief attachment to the Mets during their first two years at the Polo Grounds, and even for a season in Queens at Shea.) But baseball didn’t stick with me. Now and then, I’d glance at the standings in the New York Post; and I remarked on the city’s joy when the lowly Mets got good enough to win the World Series in 1969. But all through college, graduate school, and after, baseball dwindled in my mind into a childish thing I’d long since put away. I can’t recall once setting foot inside Yankee Stadium during the 20 years after Mantle hit that Series game-winner in 1964.

Over the winter of 1984-85, much time and a world away, I found myself trapped in an unceasing melancholy. My friend and colleague Mike (who would later know melancholy of his own) went out and bought season’s tickets at Yankee Stadium, just for the Sunday games, which were played in the daytime and would be easy enough to get to from Princeton. The sun and air, Mike thought, would do me good. It did me better than good.

The Stadium had been completely remodeled since I last saw it--its copper spider web frieze was gone, and all of the added touches had a decidedly unattractive ’70s look. But the grass was just as green as I remembered it, the dirt was a deeper brown, the blue of the seats even bluer; and to be seeing any colors at all in the funk I’d been in was a godsend. I also got to relearn the pleasures of seeing decent baseball. Although the Yankees were at the start of the drought that would keep them out of post-season play for more than a decade, they fielded some good teams and some genuine stars. And even when the team was losing, I’d tell friends, I could always look out over the centerfield wall to the Bronx County Courthouse, and see and hear the Number 4 IRT rumbling by, and get lost in a reassuring reverie. Much had changed, in my life, in everything, but I had found a home again.

And I could show that home to my children, instruct them in its mysteries and little rituals (like how to pass along a hot dog for a fan in the middle row without dropping the little mustard packet), as well as help them learn about baseball. My son, James, barely five years old at his first game, quickly identified one player whom he took to be his favorite; he proved himself a natural scout, as the player was the still-beloved first baseman, Don Mattingly. (I chose Rickey Henderson, showing I had good taste in talent, too.) The season restored my equipoise. Thirteen years later, my daughter, Hannah, just turned nine, got James’s seat for the day. I’m not sure she knew what she was in for, but David Wells, a beery, good-timer throwback (who once donned a ball cap worn by Babe Ruth himself, the original baseball good-timer) pitched a perfect game.

And so I’d done something with and for my kids, something that my own Bronx-raised father had not done (he did many other wonderful things), and that was new to me, an essential part of fatherhood nobody had told me about, which involved finding all over again an old home I had forgotten.

Now, creative destruction--which in this instance, as in many others, is just a fancy phrase for greed--has turfed us out of our summer resort in Tier Box 604, Row B, Seats 1, 2, and 3. Yes, there will be a new Yankee Stadium, and it looks as if we’ll get Sunday seats there, cheaper in fact (if not as good as we had them, upstairs, right behind home plate), and in a more commodious building right across the street that will actually look more like the original Stadium did before the 1970s remodeling, although the words “Restoration Hardware” do come to mind. But for all of the propaganda that the Yankee moguls and their minions have spread, it will not be the same, not by a long shot, and not just because the courthouse won’t be in view, or because the peculiar nooks and crannies in the walk-up ramps will be gone, as will a thousand other things I tried to see and savor on the day of the stadium’s final game, when they opened the place to the masses for one last walk-around.

I was skeptical going in for that last game. Being half-Irish, I know something of the catharsis of a wake, but this felt more like turning a funeral into a festival with the body not even cold--indeed, not even dead. Capitalism has its own inspiring wonders, but this evening of change and progress boded ill. Yet the festivities were not at all tacky: The introduction of the players old and new was handled with simplicity and grace; even having Babe Ruth’s 90-plus-year-old daughter throw (or, rather, bounce) the first pitch made perfect sense. The Yankees beat the Orioles in the regularly scheduled game. I communed with the friends of many seasons, knowing I would see them again--George, my right-wing sidekick who hates Papists, the Red Sox, and the Mets, and not necessarily in that order; Phil, the witty, sweet-tempered professor and labor mediator and his extended family (including head-shaved “Nikita,” or so dubbed by George); Fred Schuman, the wandering one-eyed regular who prowls the aisles getting fans to clang for luck with a metal spoon on his dented frying pan; the ghosts of fans departed.

Mostly, though, I got to sit in Box 604, seat 2, for one last time, and James, 28, was in seat 3, and Hannah, 19, was in seat 1. I could go on about all of what that meant to me, having them there, and I could tell you of what happened the other night and over the many summers before. But some things, I’ve learned, you just don’t write about; some things you remember and pass along in private. Funny, that--the private lore and inner sentiment of so public an experience in so public a place. I think it’s part of the wisdom that comes with finding home a second time. Anyway, I will hope against hope that it survives the Stadium’s decease. And I now say goodbye to a building that taught me as much--more--about what really matters in this life than a stack of books ever could, a stack as high as the Stadium’s flagpole.

Sean Wilentz is a contributing editor at The New Republic and professor of history at Princeton University.

By Sean Wilentz