One Season HOME SWEET HOME? M
oving slowly along the infield grass of a brisk November evening, the ground ball hit by Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Shane Victorino took forever to reach second baseman Robinson Cano. In those precious milliseconds before the World Series-clinching putout was recorded and Queen’s “We are The Champions” replaced Frank Sinatra’s New York
theme throughout the stadium, I tried to imagine what Joe DiMaggio must have felt in 1936, or Derek Jeter some sixty years later.
Like those pinstripe legends, I was a rookie with my favorite professional sports team, the New York Yankees, and about to celebrate a world championship.
To say that my one season working as a maintenance attendant in the exclusive Legends Suite Club at the new Yankee Stadium was merely a job is a tremendous understatement. Right at the season’s inception, from those initial April exhibition games against the Chicago Cubs, a voice from somewhere
told me that I would be part of a special experience that would alter the course of my life. Principal Owner George Steinbrenner had built the Yankees a spanking new, $1.5 billion construction complete with state-of-the-art amenities, and Alliance/First Quality Management, the cleaning company contracted to maintain the newness of the ballpark, stationed me in the lower men’s restroom of their exclusive, bi-level restaurant.
Cognizant of the less-than-glamorous duties that came with the position, I felt fortunate to have been chosen to provide service in one of the most important venues of the sports ground; for the Legends Suite Club was a breathtaking provider of service that
transcended any entertainment or dining venue. Embodying the spirit of The House That Ruth Built
by blending Yankees tradition with the new millennium, seeing a century’s worth of Yankees images posted throughout the extravagant event space made employees and patrons feel as if they were a small part of history.
Discussing that point with Kevin Michaels, a Yankees historian masquerading as a Legends bartender, I could see from the gleam in his eyes that he too had taken residence in pinstripe paradise.
“Man, this makes up for all those games I longed to go to,” I told him Opening Day.
“I want to show you something,” Kevin responded. Flipping open his cellular phone, he punched the keys that led to his pictures section and showed me two bleacher seats from the old stadium.
“These cost me a pretty penny,” he crowed.
“Trust me, buddy, this season you’ll get back your return handsomely.”
Sharing a knowing smile, we embraced.
A black man from Jersey City, New Jersey and a bearded white man from Suffolk County, walking different lives yet on the precipice of sharing a season-long bond of Yankees love through trivia tests, T-shirts and championship pins. As if our union was ordained, I had found a kindred spirit, a blood brother in faith willing to join me on the magic carpet ride.
What was the color of the blood running through our veins?
Yankee Blue, of course.
For me, the opportunity to contribute to the hallmark of greatness that was the New York Yankees for one season was a dream come true. And with that honor came the responsibility of making all that I associated with feel right at home in that restroom. After all
, I thought, we’re family.
And sometimes being part of a family means recognizing that its members need reassurance that no matter what happened in the
upcoming baseball season, it would be one to remember. Sensing the trepidation of Yankees season ticket-holders paying exorbitant prices, supreme optimism and faith shielded the nervousness I possessed about the task ahead.
Besides, I knew the Bronx Bombers had history on their side: Herb Pennock, Joe Dugan, Wally Pipp, Bob Meusel and some guy named George Herman Ruth christened the Old Stadium with a world championship in 1923, some eighty-six years earlier when John McGraw evicted the future dynasty from the Polo Grounds.
Despite this nugget of information, I could understand the tension many felt: After an off-season in which the Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time in thirteen years; and the management threw caution to the wind and shelled out almost a half-billion dollars on free agents C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira, anything short of a 40th American League Pennant and 27th World Championship banner flying amongst the façade would have been unacceptable.
Championship perfection was also the expectation of the hundred or so servers, busboys, hosts, in-seat waiters, the Food Network performance cooking chefs, kitchen staff, bartenders and maintenance team of the Legends Hospitality LLC unit, as per the directive of its manager, Margaret Ann Quinlan. Firmly entrenched in her commitment to excellence by way of thirty-plus years of experience, the woman affectionately known as “Mugsy” preached chemistry, togetherness and teamwork all season long during her inspirational pre-shift meetings. Wanting the whole staff to be a shining example of the very best Yankee Stadium offered to ownership, CEOs, entertainers and hard-working season-ticket holders, the end result was a finely tuned two-tiered, dining extravaganza that made for an evening of comfort watching what Yankees faithfuls hoped would be the best team in baseball.
Or so we hoped.
Many positive feelings for the upcoming season were transformed to cynicism and fear with the March 5th report of Alex Rodriguez’s torn hip labrum. That he would miss the first twenty-eight games only added insult to a rapidly diminished legacy in desperate need of an overhaul. Already mired in grinding times, his mid-winter encore to a 2008 season where he was a magnet of distractions and turmoil was the startling revelation, then tearful admission, of a failed steroids test five years earlier. A Hall-of-Fame reputation has gone up in smoke, with a torn hip to boot. What a way to start a season
, embattled Yankees Manager Joe Girardi must have thought. A man of strong Christian faith, he too, was under intense scrutiny. Replacing former skipper Joe Torre, a man whose resume had ten American East Titles, six American League Pennants, four World Series Championship Rings and a postseason berth for all twelve years he managed the Bronx Bombers, Girardi’s inaugural campaign at the helm of sports’ most successful franchise consisted of 89 wins, a third-place finish in the American League East, and a spot next to me on my sofa as we watched the playoffs without pinstripes for the first time since 1993.
With all the money spent on the new ballpark and player acquisitions, he understood the unspoken ultimatum:
This was the first year in a fancy, pricey new stadium.
A half-billion dollars of new talent was brought into the fold.
The Yankees had a third-place finish in the best division in baseball in 2008.
You had better win the damn thing this year.
Other than Mayor Bloomberg, Joe Girardi was easily the most watched man in a city that never sleeps.
While many fans were blown away by the wide array of services in this new version of the old stadium, many of the guys relieving themselves in my home away from home wanted to take their eyes
off the product on the field; especially after the Yankees’ opening series to the Cleveland Indians. Bookending a 6-5 Friday afternoon victory were two humiliating losses. Our 10-2 homecoming loss on April 16th had fans emptying out before the seventh-inning stretch after the Tribe put up a nine-spot in the top of the frame.
“I paid all this money for this?” one patron asked sarcastically.
“It’s a long season,” I responded while cleaning out a flooded stall. (How’s that for stadium initiation?)
“Have some faith, man.” Before that first home game, I boldly said to all that I hoped our season would end on November 4 or 5, with us winning that last game for our 27th World Championship and holding our seventh Commissioner’s Trophy. (The trophy, initially awarded to the last team standing in baseball in 1967, was given to the Yankees in 1977, 1978, 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000.)
After a 22-4 nationally televised embarrassment two days later left the Yankees with a .500 record (6-6), my autumn aspirations looked particularly gloomy. Playing a mock psychotherapist when the Indians lit up a struggling Chein Ming-Wang and others in a 55-minute, 13-hit, 14-run second inning, I heard many a disgruntled fan voice their displeasure in that men’s room that afternoon.
“Two hundred million doesn’t get you very much these days,” one man said.
“We better make the playoffs this year, or I won’t be back,” another added.
Calmly hearing the frustrations of many, then, bravely speaking optimism to the early-season cynics, “It’s a long season,” I again encouraged to all that listened.
Others, finding solace in the exquisite services provided in the Legends Club, shared in my levity by accepting consolation hugs.
Oprah Winfrey would have been proud of the many I talked down from their ledges.
Somehow, I knew the Yankees would be okay. Despite early season
heroics by outfielders Johnny Damon, Nick Swisher and Melky Cabrera, slumps (Mark Teixeira: 3 home runs, 10 RBIs and a Mendoza-line .200 Batting Average, C.C. Sabathia’s 1-3 record in his first four starts); injuries (Jorge Posada, Ian Kennedy, Chein Ming-Wang, Brian Bruney, Damaso Marte, Xavier Nady and Jose Molina were all disabled); home rainouts; and losing skids (which included five straight defeats at the hands of the hated Boston Red Sox, something that hadn’t occurred in twenty-four years) left many impatient fans wondering if the team would ever locate its groove.
A rare blown save by Mariano Rivera (via back-to-back ninth-inning homers by Tampa Bay Ray stars Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria) in an 8-6 loss left the team in fourth place in the AL East with a 13-15 record, some 5-1/2 games behind the first-place Toronto Blue Jays. Further amplifying the early-season woes was a sluggish 6-7 record in their new abode, the House That George Built
Skip Bayless, a well-respected sports columnist turned controversially opinionated debater on ESPN’s First Take
show, gleefully predicted on his First and 10
segment of the program that the Yankees wouldn’t make the playoffs, even audaciously suggesting that Joe Girardi might be fired by mid-season.
And to top it all off, the archenemy Boston Red Sox were surging.
The outlook on a season filled with promise looked bleak, and a bad taste was forming in the mouths of an entire organization.
The date was May 7.
On May 8, one swing of a bat by a tormented man determined to reclaim everything he had lost turned it all around.