Texan Takes Bite Outta' Big Apple

added 5/13/2008 by Willie B. Lakey

It's the final season for the two baseball ballparks in New York and I just couldn't resist making the trip to see both Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium one more time. If you want the short version of this trip, here it is: Fantastic! If you haven't been to either park or the city, go while you still have a chance.

Now for the long version. . .

Having spent the majority of my days in Houston or its surrounding 'burbs, I'm not completely ignorant of life in large metropolitan areas. But it's still like entering a foreign land each time I go to NYC. Trust me, that's not meant to be a knock on the Big Apple or its residents. The Mrs. hails from New York, Massapequa L.I. to be exact, and her parents were Brooklyn born and raised. I love to visit the place, love to hear my paw-in-law talk about growing up near old Ebbets Field.

Having been to NYC a half-dozen times or so, I can honestly say I've never had a bad time in the Big Apple. But no matter how many times I go there, it will never cease to amaze me when I see that many people, that much traffic, all the big buildings and seemingly a bazillion languages spoken as a bazillion cultures are tossed into one place much like throwing in one ingredient after another making a pot of chili here in the Lone Star State. Hell, there are far less ingredients in a pot of chili than there are in making New York City.

Three things went wrong on this trip, and in the end they really did nothing to spoil the trip: A) Bad weather, nobody's fault, made last Wednesday's flight a bit tough, arriving nearly three hours later than planned, putting us into La Guardia a bit before midnight and leading to; B) My first cab driver was an idiot. But I'm pretty sure that's all it was, just an idiot and not trying to take me for a ride since he did turn his meter off while I was on my phone looking for the cross streets to my hotel that night, and C) Mother Nature gave us a raw day on Friday, low-50s, steady and sometimes heavy rain, and strong winds whipping around those buildings like they are prone to do. Everything else on the trip went A-OK, rooty-tooty, fine and dandy.

Thursday's Yankees-Indians game was in the early afternoon, so I got an early start changing hotels from out near the airport to the Midtown for the rest of the stay. Nice, clean gypsy cab, Ford Explorer as a matter of fact, into the city, negotiated the rate up front, and I'm the one giving directions once he got through the Bloomberg Tollbooth to remove all doubt who was in charge this time. Plus he spoke Spanish so we talked a little beisbol along the way, at least as much as my broken TexMex tongue would allow. Hearing Spanish doesn't feel so foreign to me; the other 792 languages they speak in New York often do, including English sometimes.

Anyway, the cabbie was sure the cloudy skies would hold off for the game that day, I dropped my bags at the hotel, had some coffee and a bagel real quick, bought some batteries for the camera and the doorman gave me great directions and instructions to catching the D Train up to the Bronx. In fact, it bears mentioning here that there wasn't one person I asked for directions that didn't give them up easy and pleasantly.

The train took about 30 minutes from the station starting just a few blocks north of Times Square, maybe 15-18 stops due north to the Bronx. Almost instantly I strike up a conversation with a couple of elderly ladies who get on maybe five stops after we started and one of them tells me she hates the Yankees when I ask if she's going to the game. Two 'kids' in their late 20s nearby just laugh.

It's a cloudy day, low-60s at this point when I reach The Stadium about 10:30 that morning. Catch Hideki Matsui and broadcaster Al Leiter entering the park before heading back to the first entrance that will open up behind the plate. Really want to go to Monument Park one last time and wind up listening to Ernie, a longtime Yankees fan while I wait it line for about 20 minutes before finally reaching the area. That's the problem when you're someone like me and unafraid to start a conversation. Sometimes you wind up listening to someone that is more longwinded than you.

Willie catches up with an old friend.

It's Mike Mussina for New York versus Paul Byrd for Cleveland in the 1:06 start on the stadium clock. Seated in the upper deck early on, but decide to upgrade during the top of the fourth when a light mist turns to sprinkles. I grab a dog, consume it before I reach the lower level and wind up on the field level a bit later sliding in for the next few innings. The Yanks move ahead on a pair of homers to take a 3-0 lead.

The rain doesn't last for long and neither does the 3-0 New York lead as Cleveland ties it in the top of the fifth. But the power comes back and Robinson Cano connects in the seventh to push New York to the eventual 6-3 win. I make a mad dash during the last out to leave the park and head over to 161st street to snap a couple of photos of the new park under construction (behind the present LF walls), buy a few much-cheaper mementos, and strike a deal with another gypsy cab back to Midtown, this time for $35 including tip.

We end up getting stuck in a jam around 57th and Lexington, and I walk the rest of the way back towards my hotel. Wind up at Connolly's Bar on 45th for one, then a second, pint before checking in, returning to Connolly's for a fine dry martini and shepherd's pie then a few more pints later that evening. A finer pub in New York, I cannot imagine.

Friday a.m. comes later than usual for me, though actually right on time when you factor time zone. I 'sleep in' until nearly a quarter past six (ET), get up and get moving with some work online, a quick cup of coffee and then off to meet some friends about a five-block straight line NW from my hotel. Aptly named place on Ninth Avenue called the Coffee Pot, in Hell's Kitchen and great spot for coffee and breakfast. Met a few great Mets Fans I've gotten to know over the years and then took off for a tour of the city that included the WTC and the Museum while the rain poured down outside.

It rained heavily on Friday while we visited the WTC and then ducked for cover into the trains and the big museum down on 81st on the West Side. Ended up back at my new 'local,' Connolly's on 45th between Sixth and Seventh - Hey, they gave me a free pint, I gotta' plug 'em - to catch up with some more Mets fans. You know you're drinking too much when you've been in town less than 48 hours and are already recognized as something of a regular at a pub.

We wind up down in the West Village for more beers and a game of Baseball Scrabble while ordering some Chinese take out. Please, don't ask me how this came about or how I got back up to the Times Square stop to walk back to my hotel that night.

Saturday comes early as normal, gobble the Breakfast of Champions: Pint of water, two Advil, two cups of black coffee and a bagel, lightly toasted, heavy cream cheese, plus a banana. Down to the Times Square station, and then my first ride on the infamous No. 7 Train out to Shea. Met a couple of Reds fans who are looking forward to a double dip after Friday night's rainout.

The No. 7. They did not name it after Mickey Mantle.

Back to the No. 7 Train. Quite frankly, either John Rocker was dead wrong or whoever was on Rocker's train is no longer allowed to ride that line. . . or maybe he's just never been to the East Village on a Saturday night (or any other night for that matter). Sure, you pass by some graffiti walls, just like I remember when riding trains in NYC over the past 45 years since I made my first trip. But the people? No, they aren't anything close to the scourge of life that Rocker described. It is a Goulash pot along that way, maybe the best microcosm of humanity and culture that one can find in such a condensed area.

Turns out to be a nice day on Saturday, a bit on the cool side for a South Texas boy, though comfortable for what I'm used to this time of year and what a lot of folks back home in the Lone Star State experienced. Phoned the wife while waiting to get into the park and she tells me it was 97 in the bee-yooo-tiful Texas Hill Country on Friday; it was mid-60s with a good breeze in bee-yooo-tiful Flushing last Saturday, the cloudy skies keeping some of the intermittent sun from pushing the thermometer up a bit more.

Several names belonging to the Mets and Reds remind me of their Astros days, including Moises Alou and Carlos Beltran for New York and Billy Hatcher, the first base coach for Cincinnati. Beltran and Alou play key roles in the 12-6 Mets win. Train rides later, it's great pizza at a spot called Luzo's in the East Village.

I also managed to catch a peek at the new stadiums that are going up outside the present locales, and the new Mets yard, Citi Park, gets the bigger thumbs up from what I've seen. If you do go to Shea this summer, go up to the Mezzanine level on the plate-first base side and take the quick tour of what the new park will look like; it's free and a nice production.

Getting back to the hotel late on Saturday night - one more pint at Connolly's - the trip suddenly came to an end. I caught the late West Coast Houston update on ESPN in the eighth and nodded off. As great as the trip was, one of the best parts of the trip came on the way home when I loaned my cell phone to a returning soldier with a mechanized unit from Iraq on their way home to San Antonio's Ft. Sam Houston who just found out their standby ticket was good for the next flight out, the one I was on. Hats off to American Airlines for upgrading four soldiers to first class for that final leg. Without their contribution to the equation, my weekend might not have been possible.

Get to New York sometime in your life, and if you can make it this year to see one or both old stadiums, all the better.

Willie B. Lakey writes the AstroWeek column for AstrosDaily.com.