Thursday, April 9, 2009


"Just at the place, where according to my calculations, the Castle Keep should be, the soil...had to be literally hammered and pounded into a firm state to serve as a wall for the beautifully vaulted chamber. But for such tasks, the only tool I possess is my forehead...I richly paid for my Castle Keep."-- The Burrow, Kafka

Alas, it was not what I expected, unnerving in its excesses and regrettable in its deficiencies.

No, my inaugural visit to the new Yankee Stadium didn't disappoint me exactly. But then, I don't ask much either. Bathrooms and concession stands without prolonged lines. Beer that's cold. Food that's hot. Seats that don't leave me with either sore knees or an aching back. Toilet stalls not steeped in urine. And an arena where whiskey is less rare than filet mignon.

Yet for all its majesty and grandeur, the new Stadium sacrifices to extravagance and luxury simple ease and comfort. If the old ballpark is the House that Ruth Built, the new one is the House Built For Jeter. The rest of us are just visiting.

Athough in moments of whimsy, I'd called the Old Stadium "my synagogue"-- perhaps having heard the YES Network's Michael Kay refer to the 161st and River Ave., once too often as the "Cathedral of Baseball," and having spent more Friday evenings there, over the years, than in temple. Still, I'd always cherished the arena less than the Game played there. But whatever illusions of faith, reverence, and belonging the old Stadium nonetheless awakened, the new Stadium quickly disabuses.

The facade notwithstanding, this is not your Father's ballpark. Neither, I regret to write, is it mine.

Exclusion communicated itself from the moment I entered. Everything from restrictive bars (of drink and metal), to gated areas, to omni-present guards on patrol, to the shameless, obtrusive disparities in amenity and service that pervade the arena make for a setting neither hallowed nor ecumenical, notwithstanding the wall-to-wall pageantry, from old photographs to legendary memorabilia, designed to invoke the Yankees' sacred, collective memory.

The ostentatious luxury and privileged exclusivity instead evoked the sense of alienness and estrangement I experience inside the Medieval Cathedrals of Europe-- my admiration and awe for their ornate beauty always eclipsed by symbols and imagery that mark me a tolerated stranger, at best or at worst, an undesirable outsider.

And herein lies a perverse irony. As we all know, the New York Yankees love to wrap themselves in the pomp and ceremony of American patriotism. Flag-Raisings. Military displays. State visits. The, now, de rigeur, 7th Inning Anthem. (Unfortunately, no one explained to them the unseemly irony here as well. Conscripting an audience's participation in "God Bless America" by forbidding their movement during the song, actually mocks the very grace with which Providence blessed the nation to begin with-- its freedom.)

Yet the new Yankee Stadium's hierarchy in accommodation doesn't just disregard the nation, and its pastime's, democratic pretense-- it flouts it unabashedly.

The new Stadium brings to mind, rather, something European, conjuring the Royal Opera House or Elizabethan theatre's caste system and echoing the heedlessness of its display. Americans tend to minimize or to deny the significance of class privilege, equating it with decadence. Their monuments, memorials, and public fora tend, likewise, to reflect starkness, modesty, and democratic norms.

In the House For Jeter, architecture and appuretenance don't conceal class distinction; they parade it. Compared to Ruth's House, the tiers rise higher; the bleachers start farther away. The crack of the bat recedes. The smell of the eyepaint fades. The commoner and the groundling gaze upon a remote and distant stage.

The Bleacher's Outdoor Cafe-- a solicitous and impressive sop were it not so far away-- may very well placate the Stadium's most loyal groundling, the Bleacher Creature, or at least, sufficiently distract him from the bullpen now separating him from right-field. The Commoner, on the other hand, can't ignore the hierarchy. Ruth's House, at least, offered the consolation that the interminable lines, the oppressive crowding, the rancid bathrooms afflicted everyone. Here, in contrast, with each tier he must climb, the Commoner can't help but sense the amenities, service, and vantage diminish and the barriers forbidding access slacken-- his income and social status a badge he carries everywhere.

He enters at the Concourse Level, which abounds in space, television screens, and varieties of food (albeit with far less diversity than one might imagine, no Californian salad eateries or outdoor Texan barbecues as in Camden Yard.)

On the Main Level, the television screens contract in number and size, fewer guards patrol seats for unauthorized arrivistes trying to move down, and the concession stands revert to the ordinary Stadium fare of hot dogs, sausage, chicken tenders, and beer.

Go up one tier to the Terrace Level, on the other hand, and the televisions virtually disappear.

From the 30 to 50'' screens, hanging in plain sight, anchored at eye level, that surround the Concourse and Main Level, the Tier television dwindle to small, remote, intermittent screens set above, and at either end of, each concession stand-- only there, in fact, and nowhere else on the Terrace Level-- televisions that vanish from sight, in fact, once you reach the cashier and place your order. Unlike the old Stadium, no televisions occupy the concession stands' interiors.

Meanwhile, the Terrace Level grease pits feed both the Terrace seats and the Grandstand. The few guards, there, moreover, don't check tickets to enforce the distinction between them.

The remote placement, diminished number, and compressed size of the televisions on the Terrace Level-- accommodating, in the Grandstand and Terrace tiers, the very fans most preoccupied by the Game -- is either callous, myopic, or both. (On Friday night, half of them weren't even operative.) On the two levels below, one or more tv screens occupy practically every open space. Why no one saw fit to install them on the Tier Level between the vast blind stretches that often separate the concession stands is utterly baffling.

Of course, we plebeians can stand, eat, mingle and congregate on the Concourse level. Just don't succumb to the very temptation presence amid the trappings of wealth and proximity to the stage invite -- a view from the seats below. The Grandstand Commoner may pass himself off as a Commoner from the Terrace. Otherwise, the days when scattered empty seats enabled an eager fan to move down a section and steal a closer look have ended however. No longer are gates, chains, and cordons confined to the Field Boxes' first twenty-odd rows. Security now jealously guards access to the royalty's estate (Sections 15-25, $500-$2625); to the nobility's manor (Sections 115-125, $325-$375); and to the haute bourgeoisie's house as well (Sections 215-225, $100).


Witness my experience in the Castle last Friday night. While it hardly proves the Steinbrenner's new manse has a class system, it certainly dramatizes aspects of it.

As it happens, I entered Gate 4, about ninety minutes before game time, in desperate need of a scotch and soda. Make that a double.

For as much as I'd tried to resist the media hype, I'd succumbed to all the anticipation of Opening Night. No doubt, the considerable financial burden I'd assumed to upgrade from $25 Tier seats to $115 Terrace Premium Suite accounted for the anxiousness as well.

(My obsession with remaining behind home plate cost me about $15,000 more than I would have paid had I simply acquiesced to re-locating above third base, mid-way up the Grandstand, about as close as my five-years of seniority as a season ticket-holder granted.)

Whatever the reason for my abraded nerves-- an overexcitement reminiscent, at once, of the impatient eagerness I used to experience before trips to the Stadium as a child and the adrenaline deluge that engulfs me even in adulthood prior to a pivotal post-season game-- I needed a drink and badly.

Unfortunately, the first place I alighted was a commodious, but hardly opulent, half-filled bar. Here was the vaunted convenience I'd heard so much about, I thought: a bar situated the most obvious and proximate location possible. Well, not exactly. What I'd stumbled upon was the Legends Suite: the minimum to enter, a $500 ticket. (Rarely can a man purchase legendry at so meager a price.)

No sooner did I arrive at the Legends Suite then than did its two Janissaries outside explain the lay of the land and adumbrate what I'd encounter throughout the evening-- transparent but impervious glass, tantalizing me with perks, comforts and convenience I could gaze upon but never touch.

Seldom does privilege in an open American forum display itself so blatantly.

Of course, no New York City resident is foreign to class distinction-- to Gotham's incongruous blend of teeming pluralism and rigid economic hierarchy, of racial, religious, and ethnic diversity amid indelible disparities of status, power, and wealth. Rarely however are advantage and disabilities the Castle assigns its entrants so glaring, ubiquitous, and flagrant.

More often, geography, custom, and insurmountable barriers veil their appearance or bar our entry. How many of us, for example, are acquainted with the splendors of space a 5th Avenue triplex affords, savored the spectacular views from atop a Trump penthouse, or eaten dinner at The Supper Club? The new Yankee Stadium, by contrast, flaunts the luxuries all but its elite enjoy, begetting a kind of inverted feudal world in microcosm. Peasants enter at the bottom of the pyramid to witness the entitlements denied them before the Praetorian Guard march them up the causeways to where they belong.

Of course, when I asked the Yankee Guard where a redskin like me, with his paltry $115 Terrace wampum, actually could get some fire water, they had no reply. Neither knew. Nor did the next ten Stadium employees with whom I likewise inquired, including three of them whose shirts read "Ask Me a Question." No longer was I so disoriented. A little of the old Stadium, I thought, had lingered after all.

Twenty minutes later, an eleventh Stadium guide finally brought me to The Hard Rock Cafe. Only again, however, to be denied admissions. Having exceeded its capacity, the Cafe wasn't admitting anyone. There, the Guard, at least, recommended an alternative-- Mohegan Sun.

Ah, how could I have forgotten? Where better for a redskin to slake his thirst? But no, ten more minutes lapping the Concourse only interposed yet another barrier. This time, the sixty to one hundred people standing in line, the Guard estimated, posed a 30 to 40 minute wait. Mohegan Sun's interminable line and Mohegan Sun's overcapacity, I soon discovered was emblematic. Protracted lines and overcrowding plagued the entire Concourse level from the concession stands, to the access routes, to the food court's common areas. In conjunction with the cold fries I ate; the warm, flat beer I drank; and the sodden pizza and desiccated burgers I saw but mercifully forsook, I almost could entertain the illusion that the Yankees had never even moved. It was, of course, a fleeting one.

As it turns out, the saving grace of the $115 seat, that is, also contains its most diabolical peril.

The tiny Jim Bean Suite (more bar than suite, really), the one place to which my ticket actually admitted me was, mercifully, empty as late as 7:00pm. I received a double with alacrity, paid the same $10.00 it typically costs me at the bowling alley annex, drank it in relative peace, and watched the YES pregame simultaneously on four TVs. (I saw almost as many inside the bar as throughout the entire Terrace.) The rub, I discovered later, leaving in the private elevator. It, too, offers efficiency and convenience, conveying you to and from your seat quickly and directly. Only it opens, along the way, on the two suites below, which, unlike Jim Bean's Bar are genuine Suites and luxurious, opulent ones at that. They dwarf Whiskey Jim in size, offer catered food, and look directly on the field.

So, ye who suffer status anxiety, beware. The Castle on River Avenue will be a forbidding and unsettling place. Best to stay in your seat and keep your eyes fixed firmly on the game. Which, at a ballpark, is, perhaps, as it should be.

1 comment:

gordonhead said...

Brilliant though you failed to mention Gordon's bloated visage poisoning the view of home plate.