Error: I'm afraid this is the first I've heard of a "comments" flavoured Blosxom. Try dropping the "/+comments" bit from the end of the URL.

Fri, 31 Oct 2008

East 161st St and River Avenue: Part II

The passage of time affects all things, and my family's annual outing to Yankee Stadium was no exception. All too soon, most of my siblings and I had reached the age where we had moved on to bigger and better things than getting a new Louisville Slugger bat every year (most of us were also past the eligibility age of fourteen anyway). So by the early 1970s, although we continued to watch on TV and listened on the radio, we had pretty much stopped attending Yankee games as a family.

By that time, the physical condition of the stadium had deteriorated pretty badly, and the South Bronx in general was not in much better shape. Not long after George Steinbrenner purchased the Yankees from CBS in 1972, he and New York City government struck a deal to keep the team from moving across the Hudson River to a new stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands: the city would buy Yankee Stadium and lease it back to the Yankees. In addition, Steinbrenner and the city would jointly undertake a major renovation of the stadium during 1974 and 1975; the Yankees would play their home games in Shea Stadium (the home of the New York Mets) for those two seasons; and the "new" stadium would reopen in time for the start of 1976 season.

But 1976 was time for transitioning from high school to college, and getting on with life. Baseball was just one of those things, and, while I followed the Yankee championship teams of the mid-1970s (a welcome change from the long dry spell of mediocre Yankee teams that started around 1963), I didn't feel any compelling urge to go back to the stadium and watch a game in person. Baseball had become something to watch on television, something to read about in the Sports Section of the New York Times, not something to be experienced in person.

College, in turn, gave way to work, and later came marriage and children. It wasn't until 1999 that baseball and the Yankees came back into my life, through an unexpected avenue.

We lived in a rather pleasant northern suburb of New York City, and my two kids attended the local Catholic school. Like most Catholic schools, it had two abiding characteristics: it was perennially short of money, and it thus relied heavily on volunteer efforts of the parents to help make ends meet. And, thanks to one parent in particular, our school had a rather unique form of fund-raising that went far beyond the usual bake sales and raffles: he was the general manager of all the concessions at Yankee Stadium, and he had worked out a deal with the team -- volunteers from the school would work at a souvenir stand for most home games, and, in return, the school would get to keep 10% of the overall sales from that stand. It was an incredibly generous deal, considering that the arrangement covered not only the busiest games of the regular season -- Opening Day, Old Timers Day, and two or three homestands against the Red Sox -- but it also included the post-season playoffs and possibly the World Series. A real win-win for all concerned.

One evening in February, my wife showed me a flier that came from the school, asking for volunteers to sign up to work at Yankee Stadium. I was intrigued, and the thought of going back to the stadium stirred old memories. I figured I'd try it out on Opening Day and a few midweek night games early in the season. (I worked in Manhattan, and my hours were flexible enough that I didn't have any trouble leaving work a little early and taking the IRT subway up to the Bronx a few hours before game time.)

So with a great sense of anticipation, I drove down the familiar roads back to the stadium I had only seen on television, a place I had not visited in person in nearly thirty years. It was Opening Day, a day full of anticipation, a day when all the teams are in first place, a day rich with the promise of things to come. And I would not be just one of the fifty thousand or so spectators -- we had come to work at a souvenir stand, so this would be my introduction to the inner workings of Yankee Stadium, the business behind the game.

The "backstage" area at the stadium was located far away from the places normally accessible to the ordinary fan. While the seats rose in four levels above the field, the business operations were run from offices below the field level. From the Employee Entrance at the northwest corner of the stadium, you passed a guarded door to a single stairway which led down to the inner sanctum. Here, well apart from the press of fans above, this was the domain of newspaper, radio, and television crews; of players walking back and forth between the tunnel to the dugout and the clubhouse as batting practice and warmups got underway; and, of course, of scores of vendors, hawkers, cashiers, stockers, cooks, and managers, whose job it was to move food and merchandise into the mouths and hands of the fans attending the game.

One of the things you never really think about when you're a kid watching a ball game at the stadium is just how big a cash business Major League Baseball has become. The larger gift shops and food stands accepted credit cards, of course, but by and large, most transactions were in cash. Just before you reached the concession manager's offices as you walked down the third base side of the stadium, I was surprised to see a moderately sized room containing what looked like nothing so much as a small-town bank branch, with a row of teller's windows behind barred, bulletproof glass partitions. Behind the windows, I could see a good-sized vault, and a dozen or so each of coin and currency counting machines -- all whirring and clinking busily, as wads of bills and fistfuls of coins were fed continuously to them, their digital readouts recording the ever-growing amounts of cash being taken in from the fans upstairs.

Finally, near the end of the stands, was the main concessions office, although calling it an "office" was more like calling the rest of the stadium a restaurant -- certainly there was food for sale there, but that was far from its primary function. Most of the rather large space was taken up by aisles stacked to the ceiling with boxes full of all the various shirts, caps, pennants, jerseys, yearbooks, scorecards, and other souvenirs being sold at the stadium. Off to one side, a couple of desks equipped with PCs and phones constituted the "office". The place was a continuous hubbub of activity, mostly of boxes being packed full of merchandise and sent out to the various sales stands around the stadium.

I picked up a slip from the assistant manager, who told me to present it at the cash room on my way back to our stand. This authorized me to pick up an initial infusion of small bills and coin for the stand's cash register, so we would be able to make change for people paying in cash until we had accumulated enough in the register to fend for ourselves. I took the slip back to the cash room, and passed it through the slot at the bottom of the window to the attendant. He took my slip, read it, and passed it back, asking me to sign on one of the lines at the bottom. I did, and then on a revolving passthrough door beneath the window, he placed a blue zippered canvas bag about the size of a modest paperback book, with the cash inside. We would return the bag with the day's take (in cash and credit card slips) back there after the game.

Back at the stand, our shipment of goods from the warehouse arrived, and we set about arranging our display cases and figuring out how to store the bulk of our supplies. Then we raised the louvered doors and we were open for business.

One thing that ballpark concession stands don't have are orderly lines for ordering and checkout. Instead, people generally press forward wherever they find an opening, so the front of the stand tends to be crowded with customers. I learned very quickly the necessity of working the crowd horizontally from left to right in my area at the counter, avoiding the trap of only dealing with the people standing immediately in front of me (which inevitably led to cries of, "I've been waiting here for ten minutes already!"). Most people had a good idea of what they wanted before they got to us, and that made things simple. Sometimes, though, a customer would agonize over this or that, trying to make up their mind. Again, I learned pretty quickly to move on to the next customer during these deliberations, just to keep the lines moving.

The biggest crowds at the stand formed during the hour or so before the start of the game, and then again starting in about the eighth inning as people trying to beat the traffic (or those with young children) left. But during most of the rest of the game, things were generally quiet, and with three of us working the stand, we could take off singly or in pairs to go into the stands and watch some of the game if we wished -- which is something I did, reluctantly at first, but more and more eagerly as the season progressed. I was learning to enjoy baseball again, not just watch it. (Being able to see the games in person for free didn't hurt either.)

Our stand stayed open for around a half hour or so after the last pitch of the game, catering to the stragglers who didn't want to get caught up in the rush for the exits, and who often picked up their souvenirs on the way out so as to not have had to carry them around during the game. Finally, after the requisite time, if we didn't have anyone come up for two minutes, we would lower the doors and start our closeout. This involved counting how many of everything we had left in the stand now -- by subtracting these figures from what was originally delivered at the start of the game, the concessions team would compute how many of each kind of item were sold, and thus how much our total sales dollars should be. One of us (usually me) would count out the cash in the registers, and add up the amounts of the credit card slips. We would note these amounts on the paperwork inside our cash bag, and compute our net cash take for the game. I would take the bag back down to the cash room, sign for the final tally, and pass the bag back via the passthrough door to the counters inside, where it added to the stadium-wide total.

Even on the quietest days (a midweek game against a second-tier team like Toronto, say), our stand would manage to take between $1000 and $2000 total (cash and credit). For weekend day games, receipts of $2500 were not uncommon, and for "event" days like Old Timers Day or games against top-tier teams like Boston, we could gross $3000 or more. (I, of course, was also pleased that each game meant another contribution of several hundred dollars to the school, an additional hedge against a tuition increase next year.) Multiply the take from our one stand by the dozens like it scattered throughout the stadium, add in the food and beverages, and the take from the department-store-like gift shop near the home plate entrance (which was mostly stocked with fancy or big-ticket items), and you can start to see just how much cash flows through the stadium with every one of the 81 home games each season. The only places I can think of that are comparable in that regard are casinos and racetracks.

So I ended up working about twenty games at the stand during the 1999 season. The Yankees had a great year, too, and made their way through the playoffs and the ALCS to the World Series. For any baseball fan, the Series is the ne plus ultra of the season, and I always wondered what it was actually like. And now I would find out!

Our school would be working three locations during the Series: a trailer outside the stadium across from Gate 2, a tent pitched on the sidewalk outside of Gate 3, and our stand inside. To appease the television gods, all the World Series games are played in the evening, with the first pitch coming well after 8:00 PM, but in anticipation of the crowds, we were told to report to the stadium at noon and for the outside stands to be open for business by 1:00 PM. For our first game, I was assigned to work the tent outside. Administratively, our setup wasn't a lot different from any other game, although the volumes of merchandise we were given were much larger, there were many Series-specific items (mostly caps, tee shirts, sweatshirts, Yankee jerseys, and souvenir programs -- premium merchandise at premium prices), and the amount of cash we were given for the registers at the start of the game was not the usual $100, but $250.

And true to the prediction, by the early afternoon all the walkways and sidewalks around the stadium were getting quite crowded. The Series seemed to bring out an odd mix of visitors to the stadium -- diehard fans, season ticket holders, and corporate luxury boxholders waiting for the gates to open (which wouldn't be until the late afternoon anyway), mixed in with a surprising number of tourists who had no real intention of trying to scalp a ticket for the game, but just wanted to be there so as to be able to say, "I was at Yankee Stadium for the World Series." It was these folks who wanted official World Series souvenirs as tangible proof that they were indeed there, and thus the foresight of the concessionaires in having a number of outside locations like our tent set up to meet their needs. During the regular season, people would buy a shirt, a cap, something for each of the kids; during the Series, people brought shopping lists with tens of items on them, buying for friends, relatives, coworkers. More than once, a limousine would pull up nearby, and a couple of cashmere-coated businessmen would get out, come over to our tent, and order armfuls of our top-of-the-line merchandise -- usually, our leather World Series jackets at $250 each. I personally dealt with a Japanese businessman who spoke almost no English, but managed to convey with gestures and a bit of playing charades that he wanted five of the jackets, all size XL. I swiped the $1250 tab onto his Amex Gold card, he took the shopping bags of jackets back to the limo, and drove off -- the biggest single sale I ever made in all my time working at the stadium.

The afternoon hours seemed interminable, and I was happy to take a "break" when the cash registers in the tent would be filled to overflowing , and I would count out $5000 or so in cash, zip it into one of our blue bags (we had been given four of them at the start of the game for this very reason), and then bring it back to the cash room. Of course, there was no way that we would even think of trying to walk though the crowds with thousands of dollars in cash in our hands. Fortunately, this contingency was anticipated, and "milling around" outside our tent were several unformed and undercover New York City police officers, who were in reality assigned to our location to discourage troublemakers and to be available as escorts in situations like this. It was probably the only time in my life that I was glad to be escorted away by a police officer!

As usual, once the game actually got underway in the evening, the crowds thinned, and we were able to go inside and watch some of the game -- although we limited ourselves to no more than two or three innings, just so that everyone would have a chance. And unlike the regular season, it was extraordinarily unlikely that we'd be able to wander into the mezzanine or the upper deck and find empty seats. I'd seen what the stadium looked like on TV during the World Series games in the mid-seventies, but that didn't prepare me for the physical reality of being in the middle of 56,000 hyper-enthusiastic Yankee fans. There was a sense of tension, of anticipation, that was present not just in critical game situations, but with every at-bat, with every pitch -- it was almost palpable. I couldn't sit down, so I let myself be swept along by the waves of psychic energy as I wandered from one section to the next, pausing to watch a batter or two each time, then moving on, taking in the view of the game from different perspectives around the stadium. It was a rare treat for a reemerging baseball fan.

Finally, the game ended, we faced the exiting crowds, didn't close until well after midnight, did our extended count-out of what was left unsold, and turned in our last bag of cash, finally departing the stadium around 1:30 AM. It was a long, cold, and exhausting stint, but it was also exciting. And the next day we got to do it all over again.

The Yankees won the Series in 1999, their third in a row and twenty-fourth title in franchise history. And over the course of the season, I had had a memorable reawakening of my love for the game.

The 2000 season brought the Yankees another American League title, and the chance to play their arch-rivals from Queens, the New York Mets, in the first "subway series" since the days in the 1950s before the Giants and the Dodgers left New York for sunnier California climes. As hard as it was to imagine, the tension, the sense of rivalry, was ten times greater in this Series than I had felt against the Braves the previous year, probably because there was a higher proportion of Mets fans in attendance (given that it was only a short drive or a subway ride from Queens to the Bronx). No opportunity to rag on the Mets was wasted -- to this day, I laugh when I remember how the owner of an apartment building across from the stadium painted an otherwise blank wall which faced the stands with an enormous, pithily simple message to the Mets:

Flushing: How Appropriate

The year 2001 was another championship season for the Yankees, and this time their rivals in the World Series were the Arizona Diamondbacks. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 had disrupted baseball's schedule, so that we would up playing the first World Series game on Halloween. (Special tee shirts were rush-produced that showed a pumpkin with the World Series logo carved into it -- some of the boxes we got were right off the truck at the loading dock, and were still warm from the printer. We sold out of them as fast as they could be delivered.) The games were quite memorable as well, the Yankees coming from behind in extra innings in Games 4 and 5. You can't imagine that a structure the size of Yankee Stadium could be anything but rock-solid, but in those extra innings, with all the non-stop pounding, chanting, and clapping, I could feel the entire stadium begin to vibrate and sway beneath my feet (I was working the "inside" stand in the upper deck that year). I now had a small, tangible, physical sense of what it must have felt like when the Tacoma Narrows Bridge started vibrating and pulsing in the wind back in 1940 -- another unforgettable feeling.

The Yankees eventually lost the Series to the Diamondbacks, and didn't get back to the Series until 2003, against the Florida Marlins, a team that made one of those (not as rare as you might think) "worst to first"-type transformations that season. I figured the Yankees would have an easy time of it -- I'd never heard of most of the Marlin's players. Who were these guys anyway?

Well, we soon found out. The Yankees were rocked back on their heels time and again. The sixth and deciding game proceeded more and more depressingly for the Yankees, the Marlins' starting pitcher eventually throwing a complete game shutout, clinching the title for Florida. This was the first World Series game I had ever attended where the energy and excitement I had always taken for granted ebbed away quickly and never returned. I was still a bit in shock at the turn of events as we packed up and counted out the stand. It took longer than usual, as we had to do the final reconciliation of deliveries vs. sales -- there would be no Game 7 to catch up on it tomorrow. We didn't finish until nearly 2:00 AM.

I walked though the now-empty stadium, through the field-level seats, taking a look around in the peace and quiet. Without my noticing, one of the Florida players had come out onto the field with his wife and kids, and was leading them in a jog around the bases. He spotted me, and called out, "Hey! You New Yorkers were all really great! Thanks for letting us be a part of it!"

Although I did not know it then, 2003 was the last time the Yankees would reach the World Series (but just wait 'till next year!). And this player's words have always stayed with me, as I watched his family run and jump with glee on the sacred ground of the infield dirt at Yankee Stadium, the Head Office of Baseball.

I felt very thankful that I, too, had been part of it all.