It’s the week of the year that baseball fans across the city welcome the stench of bleach.
Industrial cleaning fluid was splashed liberally on Babe Ruth Plaza Thursday afternoon, while street cleaners in Yankees caps jet blasted cigarette butts from the crevices of the “Bambino’s” pavement slabs, and the tips of the steel bollards that line River Avenue were polished to a shine.
With less than four days before the opening day of the Major League Baseball season, Yankee Stadium in the Bronx is getting a spring-cleaning for the 50,291 guests that will call the “House that Ruth Built” a home for the next 180 days.
The Yankees recently topped Forbes’ list of the most valuable Major League Baseball franchises for the 18th year in a row. Roughly a fifth of the team’s half billion dollar revenue stream is comprised of local television rights payments and merchandise.
The myriad stores and bars that are dotted around the periphery of the stadium in the Bronx live for the baseball season, the lifeblood of their business, only days away.
Randy Garcia, 33-year-old hospital employee, estimates he’s personally spent $10,000 on Bronx Bombers paraphernalia in over three decades of living in the shadow of the stadium.
“We’re talking hats, jackets, socks, t-shirts, pendants, sweaters, posters. You name it, anything New York, I’ve got it,” Garcia said. “There’s no other way to go about life.”
Garcia says the new campaign is “a whole new beginning”. “I’ve been bored out of my mind since the season ended last year,” Garcia said. “It’s like one big party whenever the Yankees are in town. When the baseball’s on, nothing else matters.”
It’s a little after midday and Garcia is perched under a ceiling fan at the bar of Yankee Tavern nursing a Grey Goose vodka and cranberry. The family-owned watering hole has stood on the corner of Gerard Avenue and 161st Street since 1923. The walls heave with posters, placards, signed shirts and ticket stubs. A spray-painted mural of Yogi Berra and Elston Howard adorns the north-facing wall and inside, the blue and white tiled floor stretches back a good hundred feet.
Stacks of sweaters and t-shirts line shelves behind the bar, selling for between $18 and $26. But the real money-spinner is in pressurized kegs waiting in the basement. Tonight is Back to Baseball night where DJ Victor will be pumping out R ‘n’ B and Soul from 5 p.m. for a “mainly mature crowd” according to the bar manager. It’s a welcome home booze-up bash ahead of the big day, Monday.
“Wow. Opening day is wild. You can’t get in this bar,” said Arthie Beal, a regular of the tavern for 40 years. It’s a glorious 63-degree spring day outside but there’s nowhere Beal would rather be, who is starting early with a Coors Light. However packed it gets, you’ll know where to find Beal. “I’m here everyday,” Beal said. “I’m part of the furniture.”
While Beal, who has lived across the street from the stadium for 15 years, remains a fixture, the new season brings new faces for the Bronx Bombers. It will be the first start without Yankees stalwart Derek Jeter for 20 seasons. But the 40-year-olds’ departure appears to have had little dent in his selling capacity.
“Everything Jeter is going to be hot this year,” said Mike Hong, manager of D and J Variety Store, two doors up from Yankee Tavern. “Everyone still misses him.” D and J spills over with accouterments from Yankee-emblazoned golf balls to baby bibs to leather steering wheel covers to a golden bust of The Sultan of Swat, whose hands grip the upturned neck of a wine bottle.
Hong wasn’t a fan when he first started working the floor of the knick-knack purveyor over 20 years ago but before long the sheer mass of regalia infected him with the Yankee spirit and he hasn’t looked back. Hong says it’s his ephemerals that sell best, like the opening day pin, dated 6th April.
“The start of the season is like Christmas,” said Christine Martucci, general manager of Stan’s World of Sports, a world that despite its title revolves exclusively around Yankees garb. A “born and bred” Yankees’ fan, Martucci landed her job after she started dating the son of the store’s eponymous Stan in 1981, who used to snap up neighborhood kids. “Monday will be very busy. You get crazy customers that gottta have, gotta have.”
With the spring sun beating down on the River Avenue storefront, a new shipment of scarves lies open but otherwise untouched in the center of the floor. Martucci’s eldest daughter and a colleague are pricing and piling caps onto rails. “Oh Gosh, we’ve got a lot,” Martucci said. “At least 30 custom fitted hats, snap backs, adjustables, the Derek Jeter retirement hat.”
Martucci’s excitement for the new season is tempered with apprehension: “you never know what to expect, you know?” One thing is certain. “It’s crunch time.”