• Sal Maiorana

Yankees abandon crumbling Stadium and beat Angels at Shea

NEW YORK (April 15, 1998) – After years of haggling with New York City officials about building a new stadium, George Steinbrenner now had quite a bargaining chip to wield around, some honest to goodness leverage in his back pocket.

A 350-pound bargaining chip, as it were.

Yankee Stadium, originally built in the early 1920s and opened in 1923, then remodeled in the mid-1970s, was literally crumbling. Four hours before the scheduled first pitch of the Yankees April 13 game against the Angels, an 18-inch, 350-pound piece of concrete and steel broke loose from underneath the upper deck on the third-base side and crashed to the ground in the loge level of seats. It was an incredible and merciful stroke of luck that the incident occurred before the stadium turnstiles had been opened, a point made by Mayor Rudy Giuliani who said, “You could see that if someone were sitting there at the time that the beam came down, that person would now be dead. So, we can’t take a risk that something like that is going to happen.” The day before this happened, the Yankees had put the finishing touches on a home-opening three-game weekend sweep of the A’s with a 7-5 afternoon victory. Joe Torre just shook his head in wonder and said, “It’s just fortunate that it happened here today instead of yesterday.” The Yankees postponed two games against Anaheim because of the structural problem so that city engineers could inspect the entire ballpark and decide whether it was safe to re-open. Then, details were worked out to get one game of the series with Anaheim played as the Yankees asked for, and received, permission from the crosstown Mets to use Shea Stadium.

They played at 12:05 and the Mets came in later in the evening to host their scheduled game against the Cubs, meaning this was the first time in the 20th century one ballpark had hosted a doubleheader featuring four different teams. Prior to 1997 when interleague play came to the major leagues and the Yankees and Mets played games in each other’s stadium, the only time the Yankees had ever played in Shea during the regular season was in 1974 and 1975 when it was their home ballpark while Yankee Stadium underwent its renovation. And now, there was this game against the Angels, which the Yankees won 6-3 to keep their sudden turnaround from the 1-4 start rolling. This was their sixth straight victory in what became an eight-game winning streak. The weird day began with the Yankees dressing in their own clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, then getting on a bus at 7 a.m. that transported them over the Triborough Bridge and into Queens.

“I haven’t traveled on a bus with my uniform on since high school,” said Paul O’Neill. The Angels had it worse. They had to leave their hotel at 6:30 a.m., bus to Yankee Stadium to dress, then continue on to Shea. “That’s not a good excuse for what happened,” said losing pitcher Ken Hill. “But it put us in the hole early.” Actually, what put the Angels in the hole was Hill’s rough first inning. Chuck Knoblauch led off with a single, moved to second on Derek Jeter’s sacrifice, and came home on O’Neill’s single. After O’Neill stole second and Bernie Williams walked, Tino Martinez ripped an RBI double for a quick 2-0 lead which lit up the crowd of more than 40,000, many of whom using tickets from the originally scheduled game in the Bronx that were honored at the gate.

Martinez tacked on a second RBI double in the third, and the lead ballooned to 5-0 in the fourth when Jorge Posada led off with a double and later scored on a Hill wild pitch, and O’Neill plated Jeter with an RBI triple. Finally, longtime Mets star Darryl Strawberry, back where he had enjoyed his greatest days, blasted a long solo home run in the fifth, part of a 3-for-4 day. “Shea Stadium has always been a place where I’ve had a lot of success,” said Strawberry, who remains today as the Mets all-time home run leader. “There’ve been a lot of times where I’ve trotted around those bases.” Torre loved how his team rose above the strange situation. “Oh, yeah, they were very crisp,” Torre said. “But I sensed they would be, just the way we worked out the last couple of days. It was like they were taking this thing in stride.” Sitting in the crowd just behind the Yankee dugout was none other than Steinbrenner, with noted Yankee fan Giuliani by his side. How much a new stadium was discussed is unknown, but the Boss was certainly in a good mood when the day was over. “I couldn’t believe how much support we got,” said Steinbrenner, who probably chuckled the next day when he learned that only 16,000 had shown up for the Mets game. “We had 40,000 people for a noon game, a makeup game in there. I’m proud of the way our guys played.” Ultimately, the April 17-19 series against the Tigers was moved to Detroit, and a week later, with the teams scheduled to play at Tiger Stadium, that series was moved to the Bronx as the stadium was re-opened on April 24. As for the effect this had on the Yankees? By the time the April 26 game against Detroit was rained out, the Yankees had won 13 of 14 games since their 1-4 start and with a 14-5 record were just a half-game behind Boston in the AL East.

NEXT POST on July 9: Tino Martinez caps wild night by walking off the Mariners.