Mariano Rivera
Mariano Rivera

On Sunday afternoon, I went to Yankee Stadium to watch the Yanks play the San Francisco Giants on a beautifully sunny, breezy day in the South Bronx. It was a historic day of sorts -- the game marked Yankee pitcher Andy Pettitte's final home start (he's retiring again); and, more importantly, the ballpark staged a stirring farewell tribute to future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera, the game's greatest ever closer (who is also retiring, probably for the first and only time).

The last time I attended a game at Yankee Stadium (or, I mean, the 'old' Stadium, the one that Babe Ruth 'built,' before it was torn down a few years ago), George H. W. Bush was president, the Yankees’ biggest (and only) star was aging first baseman Don Mattingly and the highest annual salary in the game was about $4 million (Will Clark or Kirby Puckett, I can't remember which). Now, more than two decades later, Bush's son has himself been out of office for five years, Mattingly now manages the Los Angeles Dodgers and top baseball stars now command annual salaries as high as $25 million. In fact, the Yanks’ second baseman Robinson Cano may soon become the first $30-million-a-year player in history.

Oh, and over the past two decades, we have also witnessed three new wars, an unprecedented terrorist attack that killed thousands, a housing market crash, an economic upheaval that nearly brought capitalism down and the election of a mixed-race president.

But back to mundane matters.

Back in the early 1990s, as I recall, one could purchase a bleacher seat for as little as $5 -- now the cheapest seats cost at least $20 or so, while "good seats" can set one back hundreds, even thousands (from scalpers or otherwise).

In addition, the neighborhood around the Stadium appears to have improved greatly, whereas in 1992, the South Bronx represented the very prototype of the American urban nightmare: widespread drug abuse, violent crime, graffiti, and failed government policies. Now? It's more like Disneyland.

During this long interim between stadium visits, my once frenzied passion for baseball has cooled considerably. During the 1980s, I followed the game obsessively, reading and watching everything I could about baseball. However, as I got older and developed new interests and adopted new responsibilities, I had less free time for baseball. Even worse, I grew tired of increasingly outrageous salaries paid to ballplayers – even .220 hitters and journeymen I never heard of. The 1994 players strike and cancelled World Series damaged the game permanently (in my eyes), and then the grotesque “steroid era” completely alienated me from following baseball. (I admit that the exciting 1998 home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa temporarily rekindled my interest – until I learned the painful reality that it was all a chemically-induced fraud).

While I still loved the game and its glorious history, I vowed never to attend another Major League contest again. That is, until, I was invited to a Yankees game by some friends (free of charge, of course).

Yes, times have changed drastically since I last went to see the Yankees in person.

But some things have not changed. For one thing, I had thought the skyrocketing ticket prices (not to mention the higher costs of transportation) would have “priced out” the average, hard-core, blue collar fans. But I was pleasantly surprised to see that the fans around me (in ‘decent’ seats behind the right-field fence) were not doctors nor lawyers nor investment bankers, but rather policemen, firemen, construction workers and the like, by chatting with some of them.

But I surmise that the cost of bringing one’s family to Yankee Stadium would be equal to about one-third of an average family’s rent or mortgage – meaning such excursions are likely increasingly rare or reserved for special occasions (which Rivera’s retirement ceremony certainly was).

I suspect many of these fans are buying up tickets by using their credit cards, rather than cold hard cash as in the old days. Even after one buys tickets and spends money on gas or subway/taxi fare, one has to contend with the price of concessions at eye-watering prices. Yankee Stadium (like virtually all sports venues) not only sells the worst types of food imaginable (greasy hot dogs and sausages, rubbery French fries, artery-clogging cheese nachos, and other ‘delicacies’), but they charge prices that defy belief. Yet, fans gobble up this gastronomic garbage by the boatload, while washing this unholy mix all down with beers at $10 a pop. (Yes, it costs at least $30 just to get a slight buzz).

Fans also loaded up on every kind of memorabilia imaginable – t-shirts, caps, programs, posters and what-not (all greatly augmented by Rivera’s retirement and related items).

Thus, the crass commercialism and vulgarity that surrounds pro sports has not changed at all – however, technology has given it a new countenance.

Given that the American public are now used to instantaneous visual and aural stimuli through their televisions, internet, iPhones and iPods, a baseball game now takes on the appearance of a “television show” itself. A game at Yankee Stadium represents a constant assault on one’s eyes and ears – the scoreboard in centerfield bombards the fans with an endless stream of commercials, promotions, data, statistics – all interspersed with testimonials given by various celebrities to the greatness of Mariano Rivera.

The message from the Yankees appears to be: “You are now under our total control, we will swamp you with endless advertisements compelling you to give up even more of the hard-earned money you have already relinquished to us, and you will feel ‘entertained’ while we gouge you. Oh, by the way, there’s a game going on here, too.”

The Yankees are, of course, a billion-dollar business and whatever strategies they have their disposal (beyond the fielding of winning clubs) has been hugely successful as millions of people keep pushing their way through the turnstiles – regardless of distance or cost.

Another aspect of baseball that has not changed much has to do with race – the ticket-holders in Yankee Stadium were still overwhelmingly white, while most of the players on the field were minorities. I noticed that of Sunday’s starting lineups for both the Yankees and the Giants, about ten of the eighteen of the players were Hispanic. This is, of course, the future face of baseball as more and more Spanish-speaking players enter the game.

Indeed, the star of the day, Mariano Rivera, is himself from Panama. During the speech following the retirement of his #42 jersey, he briefly spoke in Spanish for the benefit of some Hispanic fans in the crowd. But I was touched by the fact that this predominantly white fan base gave this Hispanic fellow enormous adulation, cheers and love on an almost hysterical, Beatle-like magnitude.

Moreover, baseball fans, or perhaps Yankee fans in particular, seem to possess a bottomless reserve of patience and tolerance. Beyond the obscene salaries paid to players, baseball has been scarred by the steroid and human-growth hormone scandal – at the very center of this ugly storm is one Alex “A-Rod” Rodriguez, the Yankees third baseman who is currently under suspension by the league for steroid use.

Yet, he is able to play as he appeals his suspension – there he was, batting second as the Yankees’ designated hitter. I wondered how the fans would respond to him when he came up to bat – they didn’t cheer him as wildly as his teammates but neither did they boo. I even saw a handful of “Rodriguez #13” replica jerseys sprinkled among the spectators.

I was stunned – are these people aware of the full implication of what their ‘A-Rod’ has done? That he’s been taking steroids for years, pumping up his body and statistics, while repeatedly lying about it?

Then I realized that Pettite himself admitted to taking HGH – and here he was enjoying a warm farewell himself as a some kind of “hero.”

Just how deep is the fans’ patience and understanding? Is it limitless?

But it will be interesting to see how this A-Rod saga unfolds. If and when he is banished by the league permanently, the Yankees will probably quickly move to “erase” his presence in their history and legacy (much like Joseph Stalin use to make his enemies “disappear”).

For now, Yankees fans just want wins and a good time -- which they seem to receive abundantly, while their pockets are picked.

I can only wonder what the state of the Yankees (and baseball) will be the next time I see a game in 20 years.