As we while away the days until meaningful baseball returns to the Bronx, we’ve entered the Wayback Machine, and we’ve revisited, for many of us, the Yanks of our youth. It’s always entertaining to sit here with the perspective of five World Series championships and a slew of playoff berths under our collective fan belts while remembering the lost years of the 1980s and 1990s. After all, who doesn’t love a little stroll down Memory Lane with Hensley Muelens?
For me, this Retro Week look back has taken me on ride to my childhood. My first Yankee experiences were in the mid 1980s as the Yanks toiled behind the AL East leaders, as George Steinbrenner traded the same players over and over again, wouldn’t let youth develop and sacrificed the Yanks’ draft picks for mediocre free agents. Still, as a little boy, I loved going up to the Bronx for baseball games.
One of the biggest differences between the Yankees of today and the Yankees of yesteryear was, of course, the ballpark. The Yankees of the 1980s played in a stadium that was barely a decade removed from a renovation. While our parents knew the Stadium as it was for the Mick and Joe D, we knew it for Reggie, for Don Mattingly and, when they moved in the fences, for Jack Clark. Camden Yards and the retro stadium craze was but an idea on paper by the end of the decade, but for kids my age, it was a baseball playground and Cathedral rolled up into one.
The old stadium in late 1980s and early 1990s was marked by its focus on baseball. There were no other diversions for fans of all ages than the game on the field. The concourses, cramped by the mid-2000s, were always pretty empty and so too were the upper decks. Attendance on the weekends topped out in the high 20,000s or low 30,000s. Only Opening Day or a Red Sox visit, even then, pushed the attendance toward the 40 or 50 thousand range.
We went to the ballpark those days for the games just as we do today. But our expectations were low. The Yankees of 1990 were flat-out terrible, finishing in 7th place for the last time in franchise history. In fact, from 1989-1992, for a span of four seasons, the Yanks didn’t finish above .500 and couldn’t climb out of the bottom half of the AL East. So with rows upon rows of empty seats in the Tier Reserve stretching out into the Bronx night, teenagers would scramble for foul balls, and security guards would chase errant fans from shuttered sections.
Eventually, when A-Rod arrived and then when construction on the new stadium began, attendance climbed, and the Yanks sold out nearly every game. In high school, I could buy tickets on a whim; by the end of college, StubHub was the only way to go. The stadium changed as the Yanks fancied up the seats with extra padding and waiter service. But the shell of the structure was reaching 80, and the Steinbrenners wanted a modern facility.
Today, we come to expect winning from the Yankees, and I wouldn’t want to return to those days of bad baseball with no crowds. Today, we have a gleaming, modern facility with wide open concourses and a different view behind center field. Sometimes, I may miss being a little kid and being awed by the park and players below. There is an innocence to it that we cannot recapture. But that is what our memories are for. Today, the Yankees win, and the Wade Taylors, Jeff Johnsons, John Habyans and Greg Cadarets of our youth are better left there.