The platform of the northbound 161st IRT station provides an odd view these days, as the Yankees prepare to move into their spotless new stadium just a few feet from the tracks, with its gilt-lettered Decline-and-Fall sense of imperiousness, its arched retro façade vainly trying to evoke the grandeur of the original empire. But the sight of a new athletic palace in a time when excess signifies nothing but ugliness isn’t what’s so startling; that’s long been the Yankee way. No, it’s the sight of the old one, still standing, in the new one’s literal shadow, and well past its allotted time.
I knew that it hadn’t been razed, of course. I just wasn’t ready, as I stepped off the train for a late-afternoon sneak peek at the new one, for the old one’s striking sense of decay and almost-overnight obsolescence. Darkened, discarded, the building seems hunched, ashamed: a flaking relic that evokes visions of the municipal future of Alan Weisman’s World Without Us, when an indifferent nature will quickly reclaim all that we’ve built. Brushstrokes of rust stain the support beams on the back of the old center-field scoreboard. Down below, on the corner of 157th and River Avenue, rectangular cement boxes full of dead plants have been half-stripped of their brick facades. Beyond the old right-field bleachers, mud seeps up through the stones embedded in the plaza, seemingly ready to swamp the whole walkway. The blue awning above the ticket offices next to Gate 4 is torn, and ripples in the wind.
Yankee Stadium was hardly an architectural landmark, of course, once it been renovated in the mid-Seventies. The columns had been removed, the classic upper-deck façing had been incongruously slapped up on the signage beyond the outfield, and a phallic baseball-bat sculpture in front of the river entrance had risen like a piece of bad pop art. Design-wise, the “new” old stadium felt like a mutant. A classic ’57 Plymouth, say, with its fins and grill removed, trying to be a Toyota.
But the building deserves a better fate than this: to be held up as a shell of its former, glorious self, its decline visible and obvious for the fans about to file by the millions into the coliseum across the street. By now, the old place should long ago have been physically erased from this plane, and enjoying life in the Valhalla of dead stadia, with the disappeared motley-but-loveable Shea and storied Comiskey, alongside the shades of the multi-use monstrosities and the elegant old parks alike, all of them eternally trading happy tales of glory days gone by.
Instead, the old stadium still sits among us, as if in a coma, drained of a century’s worth of delirious energy, unable to rant against the injustice of having been abandoned for no good reason other than ego and dollars that no longer exist. As it beckoned my eye away from its Invasion-of-the-Body-snatchers pod-like doppelganger, the old place seemed to ask not for retribution, or even sympathy, but memories.
But the faces and names started to blur; rosters blended and mingled. In the last thirty years, the spasmodic fits of the owner have made virtually every season an unpredictable, insubstantial shifting of the sands. Reggie’s three home runs in one game of the 1978 Series stand out, of course, and Jeter’s tumble into the stands against the Red Sox a few years ago, and dozens of others feats of athletic and emotional glory. But those aren’t memories of a stadium. They’re memories of baseball players.
The building itself seemed to ask for an homage. And so, on that recent gray afternoon, I thanked the ballpark for the days when it stood tallest and proudest: the late Sixties, when there were so few of us nestled in its welcoming shell, and the columned stadium assured us that, despite the terrible baseball being played on the field, we were at home. When the DiNoto’s Bread sign stood out like a beacon of light, reassuring us few solitary thousand souls folded into the arms of its upper deck that we had a family.
Stand on the south end of the downtown side of the elevated platform now, and you can see white paint covering the top two stories on the back of 845 Gerard Avenue, a six-story, yellow-brick apartment building. For decades, beneath that paint, the back upper brick walls of 845 Gerard displayed a brightly painted legend: “Buy DiNoto’s Bread,” in yellow lettering atop of a field of red, green and white. The DiNoto’s sign didn’t glow or blink. I can’t imagine it sold the DiNotos much bread. I certainly don’t remember seeing any bakeries in the warren of bars and souvenir shops under the tracks.
But it wasn’t a commercial sign to me. It was a beacon of greeting that signified the compact between our odd band of faithful and the house where we’d assembled and the strange, exotic borough we’d assembled in. As I sat alone, up in that sunny or night-tinged stratosphere, a teenager in refuge from places where I’d never belonged — the Upper East Side, boarding schools – the panoramic view of the Bronx hypnotized me. And as the team struggled far beneath me, as Horace Clarke botched another grounder and Dooley Womack surrendered another long home run, the DiNoto’s sign spoke of — promised — a Shangri-la somewhere out beyond the park: a true neighborhood, where people did belong, had roots. Led real lives. Had real families.
Sometimes, in the middle of another 13-1 loss to the Orioles, I would wonder about the stories of the other solitary men and boys who sat up there with me. I would wonder what had drawn them here. Did they, too, feel as if they’d found a place they belonged? But I didn’t wonder too much. I was just glad to be there, in my house, where, win or loss, the DiNoto sign was always there, beckoning, assuring. I could almost smell the bread baking, wherever it was being baked, wherever it was being sold.
In later years, as a sportswriter, I went to hundreds of Yankee games. I cared about few. It was a job. I sat in the press box, and if the DiNoto’s sign was still there, I didn’t notice it. I was being paid to watch baseball, and when the game was over, to scurry down to the stadium’s basement to interview mercenaries. As a worker, I found myself as far from that upper deck as I could have possibly been.
When did the sign disappear? I can’t say for sure. All I remember is that one night a decade ago, I went to a game as a fan, with a friend, and sat in a lower-level box seat on a night when Darryl Strawberry hit a home run into a lightning-laced sky. That night, I noticed that the DiNoto’s sign had been painted over. The DiNotos were gone from my old house. That was the night when I knew that the relationship between me and my team, long eroding, had finally been severed.
Now I have my own house, and I have raised my own son, now in his twenties. I never took him to the stadium. I probably should have. But when he was growing up in the nineties, the stadium was not a home, just a ballpark full of false idols, packed to the rafters with screaming, beery strangers. Not family. I took him to football games. It was easier. Giant Stadium was never a house, just a stage. He’s a Giant fan now.
Perhaps, in some other dimension, in some other timeless time, in some other Valhalla, I will be privileged to break bread at the DiNoto family’s table. But on that gray afternoon, the colors of the vanished sign still glowed far more brightly than the gilded letters across the avenue, and more than brightly enough to welcome me home.