Arts & Entertainment

Picking Splinters: The Empire Strikes Out

When the Yankees and Orioles play out the final game at Yankee Stadium this Sunday, it will be from a far different script than many had foreseen at the start of the season.

In fact, I wonder if anyone in the Yankees organization seriously thought (or was allowed to seriously think) that the final game in the stadium that has seen more World Series than any other would not be played in October.

And yet, barring a comeback that could only be matched by Lazarus, there will be no playoff sendoff for Yankee Stadium. It seems an undeserving fate for the house that Babe Ruth christened with a home run on its opening day and inaugurated with a World Series in the Fall of 1923. After all, the Stadium serves as the center of the Steinbrenner-coined Yankee Universe, an empire built on World Series pennants. How can the home of legends like Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle and Maris, a home that has so often heard the cacophony of the crowd, go out with little more than a whimper?

Quite simply, the stars that shine at the stadium just don’t shine as brightly as they used to. The team’s plan of placing an All-Star at every position hasn’t brought them a World Series since 2000. So maybe the Stadium’s final days have a lesson left to teach. After all, there’s more in its mortar than monuments to hall of famers.

It’s true that recently Yankee stadium has been synonymous with the Steinbrenner Star System and its cast of high-priced free agents – A-Rod, Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon among them. The field has also featured a class of blue-collared Bombers like Thurman Munson, Bill “Moose” Scowron and Phil Rizzuto, who was once told he was too small to play in the Majors by then-Brooklyn Dodgers Manager Casey Stengel. Rizzuto then went on to win the 1950 MVP award 15 years later.

These were the personalities that resonated with a New York fan base that didn’t spend its Saturday nights polishing its silver. I don’t know if anyone’s noticed, but 161st and River, the address of Yankee Stadium, isn’t exactly the Upper East Side.

Yes, you’ve seen the celebs like LeBron and Billy Crystal and Rudy Giuliani in the stands, but there is also the famous Freddy Sez.

Freddy Sez is actually an 82-year-old chap named Freddy Schuman. With a weathered face that has seen more Yankee games in the Stadium than even Mickey Mantle, Schuman circulates through the stands with a wooden post decorated with an ever-changing – and usually misspelled – inspirational sign and a shamrock-adorned pan he encourages fans to hit with a spoon to “bring the Yanks luck.”

Freddy has been an institution at the stadium since I became a fan of baseball in the mid-1980s. Seldom does he watch the game, he’s more bent on banging his pot and sharing that duty with a host of eager fans, a list that has included former Yankees and George Steinbrenner himself, but more often consists of New York City police officers, doormen, utility workers and a caste of characters that are going to have an awfully hard time affording the increased prices of the new Yankee Stadium.

Next season, seats in the second deck in the infield, seats that now cost $75 per seat per game, are increasing to $350. Field level seats will rise to $2,500 a pop, meaning that for a season package of four seats, you’ll have to cut a check for $810,000. Bye, bye, blue collar. Hello, blue blood.

It’s reasonable of course, baseball is a business and some folks out there – some companies rather – will be able to gobble up those tickets en masse. And the Yanks need to find a way to continue to pump out $20 million per year contracts to their free agents. After all, George’s son, Hank “The Bank” Steinbrenner has already promised big changes for next season. That means C.C. Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Francisco Rodriguez and maybe even Manny Ramirez will be wooed with bookoo Bronx bucks.

Never mind that it was guys like Scott Brosius, Paul O’Neill and Charlie Hayes that brought the team its most recent world titles. And never mind that the price spike is a completely unreasonable way to pay back the similarly unreasonable dedication many middle-class fans have for this team.

So maybe this Yankee Stadium finale isn’t so much of an unfitting ending for a palace draped with more than twice as many American League pennants as any other park. Perhaps instead it is a completely appropriate start to a new era. A new era where talented athletes take solace in their free agent pay days and appear apathetic when they fade from postseason contention, while a similarly blasé crowd of corporate clients follows that fall from the stands.

I wonder what Freddy Sez about that.