By Bill Spadea
New York is a great town. Everything from nightlife to casual dining to neighborhood coffee. But one thing often overlooked by visitors and even residents is the rich baseball history that goes back more than one hundred years. Baseball season brings a lot of excitement to New York. Last month marked the beginning of a new season as it has every year since the New York Highlanders played their first game at Hilltop Park in 1903. The ballpark was an all-wooden structure taking its name from being located on one of the highest spots in Manhattan on 168th street and Broadway. The fledgling American League Franchise that eventually became the New York Yankees has certainly come a long way over 115 seasons in the Big Apple.
I’ve been a baseball fan since I was a little kid. Growing up outside of Philadelphia as a Phillies fan, I got to know the intensity of baseball fans. Then I married a die-hard Boston Red Sox fan from Rhode Island, and now I’ve got a marital obligation to pull for the Red Sox. In fact, a few years ago, as a Mother’s Day gift for my wife and mother-in-law, I bought tickets for two great seats at Yankee Stadium for a much anticipated weekend series with the Red Sox.
Growing up attending Phillies games at the old Veterans Stadium in South Philly, I know just how crazy die-hard fans can get and how they treat rival fans. This is New York City, and the Boston Red Sox are about as reviled as any team who visits the Bronx. My ticket gift came with simple instructions: Tone down the cheering, blend in, no reason to be decked out in all red.
One of the reasons my wife Jodi and I have been married for more than 22 years is that she’s smart and capable and has a good sense knowing when it’s appropriate to ignore my advice. This was one of those times. I drove them into the city that day from our home on the Jersey side. My mother-in-law Maureen and her noticeable New England accent (you know it—“car” is “caah) led the fanfare with a Red Sox hat, jacket, T-shirt—and even red socks. Oh boy. All I’m hoping for is that the Yankees win and my Bosox fans go unnoticed. I dropped them at the gate and headed into midtown to visit the USS Intrepid and grab lunch with my son and father-in-law. Driving through Manhattan is another of my favorite activities, but that’s for a later article.
FANS WITH HEART
Nomar Garciaparra was the Red Sox shortstop and although injured at the time, a real fan favorite. I don’t remember whether he was out of rehab and played that game or even what the final score was but when I returned a few hours later to pick up my Bosox fans, the story was not what I expected. Polite, knowledgeable, respectful--true baseball fans who love the game! All words used by Jodi to describe the fans in surrounding seats, the vending staff, the ushers. They knew the extent and prognosis of Nomar’s injuries, his stats and the stats of every hitter approaching the plate. I was relieved, to say the least.
But in my years of working in and around New York City, I should say I was not surprised. Baseball fans are an unusual breed for sure. Feeling the anxiety and stress of each pitch, every out, every pitcher’s glance to first and every stolen base. All of that stress goes to the next level when a serious rivalry is involved. The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees rivalry is one of the best and most well known in any sport between any two franchises. But regardless of the tension created when the teams play, Yankees fans step up in a way that residents of other cities may not expect when visiting. They love the game and respect the opposing fans. What they don’t respect are the neutrals! For us or against us, take a stand and defend your position. Had my wife and mother-in-law been sheepish and tried to blend in the plan may have backfired. A couple of Sox fans caught cheering for a Big Papi home run could’ve resulted in ridicule from Yankees fans...“You’re here from Boston and didn’t have the courage to show the flag?...Shame.”
Thanks to some diehard Yankees fans, a valuable lesson was learned. First, Yankees fans are classy and represent some of the best of our American pastime. Second, if you’re going to take a stand, make one. As they say “go big or go home.” And third, if you’re my wife, definitely grab my advice with a grain of salt.
THE THUNDER ROLLS
As we enter one of my favorite seasons of the year, I’m hoping to take in a few games. But there’s another option for serious Yankees fans wanting to get the ballpark experience for a bit less money than a typical game in the Bronx. This is on my particular list this season. This little-known option is about an hour down the turnpike on the Jersey side in Trenton. The Trenton Thunder are the official New York Yankees Double-A club, and they’ve had greats like Jeter and A-Rod take the field while going through rehab before rejoining the club in the Bronx. My friend Jeff Hurley is the General Manager of the team. Together with my Chasing News colleague, Jessica Nutt, we’ve thrown out first pitches, participated in “Pork Roll” eating contests (yes, I took on world famous eating champion Joey Chestnut, and that’s quite a story for another day) and received pitching ‘lessons’ from the pitching staff. It’s an easy trip from the Turnpike to Route 195 which almost leads right to the ballpark. Easy parking, inexpensive tickets and future and current New York Yankees stars all within earshot of your seat in one of the league’s nicest and most fan-friendly minor league parks. We’ll be back this year at the park to enjoy another great season of baseball.
When you get to the park, ask for Jeff and tell him you heard about the “Thunder Dog” from me. It’s a ballpark specialty that really should make its way to Yankee Stadium. Oversized hot dog on a sub roll, melted cheese, and slices of Trenton’s own fried pork roll. It’s delicious and filling. And in Trenton, it won’t break the bank.
Of course, you don’t ever have to leave the Big Apple to enjoy a great season of baseball, but the AA affiliates can provide you with a great afternoon getaway. Then you’re back on the turnpike to the comfort of the greatest city in the world.
Bill Spadea is the top-rated morning drive host in New Jersey on NJ 101.5 FM as well as the Ringleader/Host on Chasing News which airs weeknights on FOX 5 and My9 in New York. Before he got into TV and radio, he was a successful real estate executive, political strategist and served in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves. Spadea graduated Boston University and has been married to his wife Jodi for 22 years. They have two kids and live in Princeton, NJ.