Tagged: First Pitch

The House That Ruth Built

Now batting for the New York Yankees, the shortstop, #2, Derek Jeter, #2.

I can still hear legendary Yankee Public Address Announcer Bob Sheppard introducing Derek Jeter for his first at bat on Sunday, September 21, 2008. Jeter walked to the plate while Sheppard’s voice echoed around Yankee Stadium. Jesse, John, and I had flown to New York solely to watch the Yankees play the Orioles in the final game at Yankee Stadium. The House That Ruth Built was closing.

Baseball brought me to New York City for the first time. I would later live and work in New York for five years, but that first visit was about baseball. Knowing we only had one game to explore one of the greatest ballparks in baseball we arrived at 161st Street Station in the Bronx around 9:30 am, 11 hours before first pitch. We were greeted by a sea of fans who, like us, we eager to spend the day inside the House That Ruth Built before it closed.

We made it to The House That Ruth Built. (The Winning Run/ JJ)

The crowd outside the Stadium was chaotic, joyous, and a bit solemn all at once. The new Yankee Stadium stood just across the street, and except for a few glances I had little interest in the building. I had come to see THE Stadium, not its replacement. After slowly making our way through the line we finally entered the hallowed stadium. We soon learned our first stop would not happen. Monument Park was at capacity and the Yankees were closing it early. We scrapped our other plans and began exploring every nooks and cranny of the stadium that was accessible. We walked around the cheap seats, the foul lines, behind home plate, everywhere but our seats. Our seats were in the right field bleachers, with the Bleacher Creatures. Once you entered the bleacher area, security would not permit you to return to the rest of the stadium. We explored until our feet ached from the concrete. Once you join the Bleacher Creatures, there is no coming back.

Our first glimpse of the field was from behind home plate. Seeing the most famous baseball field in the world, where so much of the game’s history was made, where so many legends played, felt spiritual. I remember silently standing with Jesse and John gazing at the field, soaking it in. Three baseball fanatics in awe of their surroundings.

The field is beautiful from the cheap seats (The Winning Run/JJ)
Warming up before the game. (The Winning Run/JJ)
Breathtaking. (The Winning Run/JJ)

Our day touring Yankee Stadium went by in a flash before we joined the Bleacher Creatures. The pregame festivities included Yankee legends returning to the field one last time. Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Reggie Jackson, and other living legends were joined by the ghosts of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, among others. Fittingly Babe Ruth’s daughter, Julia Ruth Stevens, threw out the final first pitch in the House That Ruth Built.

Once the actual game began, it was like every Yankee game I would attend while living in New York. The nationally televised game between two teams who would finish the season a combined 36.5 games behind first place began at 8:36 p.m. There were plenty of people, like us, who were not the regulars among the Bleacher Creatures. It was easy to identify the Bleacher Creatures. They are loud, obnoxious, generally know their baseball, and above all are die hard Yankee fans. The chants began in the top of the first, roll call. Every Yankee, except the pitcher and catcher, had their name chanted until they acknowledged the Bleacher Creatures. Some players, like Bobby Abreu, waved quickly, others, like Johnny Damon, made us work for a few minutes before waving. The loudest chant was for the Captain, Derek Jeter. Jeter was the man; no one on the field commanded more respect than #2.

Our seats with the Bleacher Creatures. (The Winning Run/JJ)

I remember only pieces of the actual game. We went to the game for the experience, not necessarily the actual game. The Bleacher Creatures did what they do best, being loud. I have clear memories of a chant regarding Hall of Fame player and then ESPN Sunday Night Baseball announcer Joe Morgan, who was broadcasting the game. The chant was simple, “Joe Morgan Sucks! Joe Morgan Sucks! Joe Morgan Sucks!” Over and over and over. I was never a fan of Morgan’s broadcasting, but the Bleacher Creatures were less bashful in voicing their opinion. Another memory is a different chant “Box Seats Suck! Box Seats Suck!” The metal bleachers in right field were anything but leisurious. They reminded me of the bench at a little league game. The most memorable moment sitting among the Bleacher Creatures happened when people sitting several rows in front of us attempting to start the wave. Yes the wave. Every time they tried to start the wave they were booed and told to “Take That Sh@$ Back To Shea!” Eventually stadium security and the New York Police Department stepped in. This was late in the game after beer could lower people’s inhibitions. Obviously the people threatening those trying to start the wave were removed by security. Wrong. Attempting to start the wave gets you removed to the cheers of the Bleacher Creatures. I might have missed something someone said or did, but I like to think they were arrested for attempting to start the wave at Yankee Stadium.

On the field, Jose Molina hit the final home run in Yankee Stadium with a fourth inning two run shot off Chris Waters to give the Yankees a 5-3 lead. The Yankees would stretch out their lead in the sixth inning with a Jason Giambi RBI single and a sacrifice fly by Robinson Cano to score Brett Gardner. The tension was palpable in an otherwise meaningless game. Everyone wanted one last Yankee victory inside the House That Ruth Built. The Yankees led 7-3 heading into the ninth inning.

The guitar riff blasted through the speakers. Metallica’s Enter Sandman filled the stadium. The greatest closer of all time was trotting in from the bullpen. 11 pitches and three groundouts later, Mariano Rivera closed Yankee Stadium.

Mariano Rivera coming in to close out Yankee Stadium. (The Winning Run/JJ)
The final out. (The Winning Run/JJ)
Jesse and me after the game. (The Winning Run/JJ)
John and me after the game. Note the mounted police on the field to keep people off.(The Winning Run/JJ)

The celebration was not the World Series many envisioned to close Yankee Stadium, it was still special. Derek Jeter spoke to the crowd, thanking the fans and creating a bridge between the two stadiums. He was brief and to the point before leading the Yankees around the field to say goodbye. Yankee Stadium was the House That Ruth Built and the House That Jeter Closed.

The game ended just before midnight. An era in baseball history was closed. No one wanted to leave. Grown men were tossing empty water bottles to the player’s kids on the warning track, begging them to fill the bottles with dirt before tossing them back. Every nook and cranny inside Yankee Stadium was filled with memories and the thought of never coming back was almost too much for some to bear. Normally at the end of a Major League game the ushers and security are quick to push you out of your seats. This was different, we stayed in our seats for an hour after the final out. The crowd was slow to disperse and the stadium staff did not have the usual urgency to clear the stadium. It was after 1 a.m. when we left Yankee Stadium. No one was in a hurry to leave the ghosts of baseball history alone in a now closed Yankee Stadium.


The Only Real Game

In the wedge of India between Bangladesh and Myanmar sits Manipur.  This tucked away state of India is home to a seemingly unlikely baseball hotbed.  The local community has had baseball on the brain thanks to the influence of an American air base there during World War II.  While World War II and the Americans have left Manipur, unfortunately the violence and conflict have not.  Baseball therefore is not providing an escape from the daily stresses of life.  In Manipur, baseball is providing an escape from war.  The people are caught between the government and the various rebel groups which operate in the region.  This leaves the people vulnerable to extortion and worse.  The ongoing conflict does not receive the same attention as the Indian and Pakistan conflict over Kashmir, but Manipur is in just a great of need of peace.

The Only Real Game

The Only Real Game

Sports have the power to bring out the best in people and society.  It is no different in Manipur, as chronicled in the film, The Only Real Game.  The smiles and laughter are abundant as the people escape the harsh realities for a few hours.  The ongoing conflict has impacted the people in unimaginable ways.  They never know if they will survive another day or be forced to pay a tax to one or several of the rebel groups which vie for control of the region.  The Indian government has maintained martial law in Manipur since it became a union territory in the early 1960’s because of the conflict between the government and the rebels.  The lack of real governance in the region has left the state underdeveloped with the economy and people struggling to survive.  Despite all of these obstacles, baseball has remained one of the few constants throughout the last several decades.  The pure joy of playing gives individuals a sense of self-worth and belonging as they are neither part of the rebellion, nor are they fully accepted by the Indian government.  The people of Manipur are caught in between these warring groups with no viable options for escape.  Developing baseball gives in Manipur   This effort is being aided by Major League Baseball and First Pitch.  Working to develop the skills of the players while bringing together people is giving peace a chance to grow in this much beleaguered region.

Baseball cannot bring peace alone, it needs help from all corners of society, and in Manipur there are more dark corners than people able to support peace.  Living in the perpetual state of limbo, with few viable options for personal and societal development has created another major problem within Manipur.  HIV/AIDS rates in Manipur are among the highest, if not the highest among all the states in India.  The lack of health education, coupled with Manipur’s proximity to the Golden Triangle has made addiction to drugs like heroin increasingly prevalent.  The demand internationally for these drugs is ever increasing, and thus the drug traffickers are ruthless against those who seek to disrupt their manufacturing or selling of their product.  Some of the rebels are the drug traffickers and will not allow anyone to come between them and the illicit fortunes.  The easy access and abundant supply of heroin has created a society in Manipur littered with addicts.  These addicts are willing to take undo risks through the sharing of needles to get their fix.  The use and sharing of intravenous needles to inject heroin is the single largest contributor to the spreading of HIV/AIDS in Manipur.  The organized international drug trade combined with the political instability makes the people of Manipur vulnerable and has left the society to live on the edge of survival.

Escaping for the conflict in Manipur, even for just a little while.

Escaping for the conflict in Manipur, even for just a little while.

The Only Real Game sets the story of the people of Manipur against the backdrop of their love for baseball.  Director Mirra Bank does an excellent job of drawing the audience in with their love of baseball and the idea that the game is being played in this remove region of the world.  However, once the audience has become invested in the story, the focus shifts away from baseball and to the ongoing conflict which has consumed Manipur for decades.  The personal stories and struggles of the people in the film break the conflict down from being between the government against rebels.  It shows the people who are caught in the middle.  They face the brunt of the repercussions of the conflict.  Their lives have been interrupted and may never be made whole again.  Baseball provides an escape from the danger and the stress of surviving from day to day, while surrounded by chaos and conflict.  This has become a way of life for the people of Manipur.

Ready to play. Manipur is ready for peace.

Ready to play. Manipur is ready for peace.

Baseball is the game I love.  I want to know more about the history, the players, the strategy, and the statistics every day.  Ultimately though, baseball is just a game, and my life does not change whether my favorite team wins or loses.  On the other hand, there is much suffering around the world, little of which ever makes the news or is never brought to the attention of those who have the ability to make a difference.  Sadly, the struggles of Manipur is an example of such suffering.  There people continue to struggle to get by every day.  Warring parties fight for control and leave the people caught in the middle, nearly defenseless.  Today there are at minimum 10 major conflicts occurring throughout the world, with at least 1,000 deaths per year.  There are also more than 30 minor conflicts.  While I use the word minor only to denote less than 1,000 deaths per year, the people who live through these conflicts would not suggest there is anything minor about these conflicts.  Low death toll does not necessarily mean low violence rates.  Baseball is a game.  Everyone should be able to live in peace.  The Only Real Game draws attention to the plight of the people who have for decades lived through the horrors of war in Manipur, as others have elsewhere in the world.

German soldiers reacting to seeing Nazi Concentration Camps

German soldiers reacting to seeing Nazi Concentration Camps

Conflict will continue to rage so long as people are able to dehumanize one another.  If you can convince yourself that the other person is less than human, you become able to do inhuman things to them.  Sports, including baseball, allow us to meet on the field and to compete while also humanizing the opponent.  The fans of the Red Sox and the Yankees will often profess their hatred for the opposing team’s players, but it is only because they are trying to win a game, not because they believe they are superior to the individual.  The gap between “hating” an opponent because they beat you and dehumanizing an opponent is huge.  However, dehumanizing an individual occurs a little at a time.  This reduction of people to something that is worthless and should be struck down has happened before and if we as humans are not vigilant.  People are capable of some incredible achievements, but they are also capable of unspeakable horrors.  The dehumanizing of another person or of a group of people has happened in part because no one was willing to believe it could happen.  It can happen again and does still happen.  We must all, as human, seek to prevent these horrifying acts from continuing, because to turn away from these tragedies is to in some way condone them.