Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Matt's Yankee Stadium Memories: Part I

As some folks may have heard, the Yankees will be playing their final games at E 161st and River Ave this season, as Yankee Stadium will be torn down and replaced by a newer, cleaner version across the street. Now, baseball fans are already pretty nostalgic, and Yankee fans especially so, given all the great teams of the past. Add to that the impending end of The House that Ruth Built, and you've got a perfect storm for the nostalgia. A number of Yankee fans over at Bronx Banter have been sharing all season how they've planned their last (and sometimes first!) trips to the Stadium. In a season where it looks as though the playoffs are but a dream, still fans are flocking to the park pilgrimage style. I am not immune to this behavior, and I will be making my last visit to the Stadium on July 8 to watch the Yankees take on the best team in baseball: the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

This will be, I believe, my fifth game in Yankee stadium. I went to one game in high school, one while in college, and two when I was very young. My only memories of my first game in Yankee stadium was that the game was against the Oakland A's, was probably in the summer of 1989, and the Yankees lost. According to, the Yanks did host the A's for three games on Memorial Day weekend, and lost all three- this is a good indication I was there for one of those games.

I was a year older when we went to my second Yankees game, and I remember more about the game, but not the opponent. The first thing that jumped into my head was that Steve Balboni (pictured) pinch hit, got on base, and was immediately lifted for a pinch runner. For some reason I considered these moves odd, and they stuck with me. I also remembered that we went to the concession stand at some point during the game and missed a home run by Kevin Maas. These two memories were enough for me to pinpoint the game; it was against the White Sox on July 14, 1990.

It's too bad I don't remember all of the details about this game, because it looks like a good one. Sure enough, Steve Balboni hit a single to left field in the bottom of the seventh inning, while pinch hitting for catcher Matt Nokes. He was replaced by pinch runner Wayne Tolleson, who ended up scoring two batters later on an RBI single by Kevin Maas. The then 25-year old Maas was playing in just his twelfth career game that day, and already he was hitting .280/.400/.560. His 3-for-5 effort on July 14 raised his career OPS above 1.000, where it bounced around for the remainder of the season. He eventually played in 79 games with a .252/.367/.535 line and 21 home runs, including the one he hit during the fourth inning while I was off getting a hot dog with my dad. Maas would continue to play parts of three more seasons with the Yankees, never showing a glimpse of the "Home Run Kid" power he had in his first games in the Bronx. One of the top Yankees' blogs is dedicated to his brief moments of brilliance.

There were a number of famous players White Sox involved in the game: Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk had a pinch-hit groundout in the fifth; likely Hall of Famer Sammy Sosa was in his second big league season and went 0-for-5 hitting eighth. Current White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen was 3 for 5 while hitting 9th, and FOX announcer Steve Lyons was also in the game. Most historically, Bobby Thigpen set the single season record for saves in 1990, and picked up save number 29 of 57 in this one, though I probably missed it. Knowing my family we probably left with the game tied in the ninth.

This Yankees team is the first one I truly remember, and I knew all of the players. One of my first cherished baseball card sets was the 1991 Fleer Yankees set-- it was one of the very last true cardboard sets, before every company started going to glossy finishes on their cards. And what a way to go out, with quite possibly the ugliest baseball cards ever. Still, I can remember most of that team off the top of my head:

C: Matt Nokes, Bob Geren
1B: Don Mattingly, Kevin Maas
2B: Pat Kelly
SS: Alviro Espinoza, Randy Velarde
3B: Jim Leyritz
LF: Mel Hall, Oscar Azocar
CF: Roberto Kelly
RF: Jesse Barfield
DH: Steve Balboni

SP: Tim Leary CL: Dave Righetti
SP: Chuck Cary RP: Lee Gutterman
SP: Andy Hawkins RP: Greg Cadaret
SP: Mike Witt RP: Erick Plunk
SP: Dave La Point

I only had to look up third base (I'll always remember Leyritz as a catcher) and two of the starting pitchers. After Mattingly, Jesse Barfield was probably my favorite player on this team. I got to meet Barfield a few years later, while at a New Jersey Cardinals game, and told him as much. He thanked me as he signed one of the K's I brought to the games to hang up on the railing behind my seat.

Still, this team was terrible, they lost 95 games and were actually above their Pyhthagorean record. Two weeks earlier, the Yankees had lost despite Andy Hawkins allowing no hits through his 8 innings. Two weeks after this game, George Steinbrenner was banned from baseball for life because he'd hired a gambler to dig up "dirt" about Dave Winfield in order to get out of a $300,000 commitment to the Dave Winfield Foundation charity. Most folks believe that it was under the direction of Gene "Stick" Michael, without the meddling hands of Steinbrenner, that the Yankees dynasty of 1996-2001 was built. So the first game I can remember in the Bronx came at a pivotal time in my favorite team's history. But all I was concerned with was why a pinch hitter was lifted for a pinch runner immediately after getting on base, down by 3 runs in the seventh inning...

Next time, I'll review the next game I saw in Yankee Stadium, which was more than 10 years later.

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