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interview

Alex Belth on Yankee Stadium Memories and the Worst-Case Playoff Scenario

In 2008, Bronx Banter founder Alex Belth began publishing a series essays by bloggers, beat reporters, and sports columnists (among others) about soon-to-close Yankee Stadium. One of those pieces — by Bronx Banter contributor Todd Drew, whose work you can read here and here — was even selected for the Best American Sports Writing 2009 anthology. But when Drew passed away early the following year, Belth and the blog's other writers decided to expand the project into a book, in Drew's memory. The result, Lasting Yankee Stadium Memories, hits stores today, combining those essays with new ones and featuring contributions by Richard Ben Cramer, Leigh Montville, Pete Hamill, Joe Posnanski, and many others. Belth spoke with The Sports Section about the book, its contributors, and why Pat Jordan has offered to loan him a gun.

You started this project two years ago on your blog. Did you think then you'd get this much response from the writers who contributed?
No. It was a little bit of a two-part project. The first part of it was to have a series run on the site to commemorate the end of the old stadium. There was a ton of really good writers who contributed to that. And then when my colleague Todd Drew passed away, and we decided to do a book of it, I was able to get some contributions from some more heavyweights that were just for the book. Honestly, I was pretty humbled by not only the names of the people — in the case of a guy like Richard Ben Cramer, or Tom Boswell — but the fact that they were doing it for free.

Did any name in particular blow you away, that he or she would be contributing?
Well, I was surprised to get Tony Kornheiser, which I did through the help of a guy named John Schulian, who's a good friend of mine and who's a contemporary of Kornheiser. That was a surprise, but a pleasant one, obviously. Even Boswell was a surprise, but a very pleasant one. Those two guys, I was like, "Jeez, wow, this is pretty legit, man. I can't wait to read this."

You write in the introduction about the significance of the Todd Drew piece. But do you have a favorite essay besides that one?
I liked a ton of them, so it's one of those things — it's like your kids, it's hard to pick a favorite. But for instance, George Kimball wrote about covering the Red Sox in the Bill Lee game in 1976, and going out drinking with Lee later on that night. That was really great as a Yankee fan. I was too young to remember that; I was only 5. But certainly it's a famous incident, so to hear about it from a Red Sox writer's point of view was really interesting. Emma Span's was great. But the one I keep coming back to that I love is Richard Ben Cramer's, because it's so succinct. It's a short essay, and it's not about the Yankees. But it's about something so specific to New York fans that I always thought that it sort of summed up a real attitude about what that place was about.

There are quite a few entries from people who aren't Yankees fans.
That was a conscious decision. It seemed to me it would be really limiting to just talk to Yankee fans, because you can veer into sentimentality. I wanted not only Mets fans or Red Sox fans — people who hated the Yankees — but a guy like Dayn Perry, who grew up in Mississippi. For him, New York was this exotic place that he looked up in maps and in the encyclopedia. And to have that kind of perspective, to me, was really terrific. Listen, for some people, Yankee Stadium was no shakes, it was just another place. But for other people, it was either a menacing place, or full of really good memories.

Did you find the authors writing differently about the pre-renovation stadium and the post-renovation stadium?
Well, Bob Costas, for instance, prefaced his by saying, "When I talk about Yankee Stadium, I'm talking about the original Yankee Stadium." Or Luis Guzman, the actor, talks about the late sixties, walking over to the subway through the field. One of the things I wanted to do with this book — one of the nice things was a lot of the essays don't even have to do with games. They have to do with memories of being with family or friends, and I kind of like that. I didn't want people to say, "What's the greatest Yankee game?" I didn't like that comparison quality to it. Then everyone would pick Reggie Jackson's three-home-run game or whatever. As it is, a bunch of people picked that, but I liked the idea of something more subjective. What's something that you'll remember? It doesn't have to be good, bad, or indifferent.

Changing gears a bit, you wrote a piece for Deadspin about working on Ken Burns's Baseball documentary. What did you think of The Tenth Inning?
I liked The Tenth Inning, but I didn't love it. I think one of the biggest obstacles that he had to face is it was more journalistic in nature than historical, and that might not be as sure footing for him as a filmmaker. There's all sorts of complications that I think probably come along with that. There's so much more material available. But Ken's a really smart guy, so I thought it was pretty balanced overall. There's always some things to pick at: East Coast bias, "oh, they forgot this, they didn't include that." But I enjoyed it. I loved Pedro in it. I thought there was plenty of really good moments. Because it's baseball, so even at the worst, I mean, how bad is it going to be? It's gonna give you something to argue about, which to me is a compliment.

Lastly, what are your thoughts on the Yankees going into the playoffs?
I guess my gut feeling is they're not going to make it back to the World Series. That said, they've gotta be the favorites, man. You can't take a $200 million team and not make them the favorites. It's funny, because I'm a Yankee fan, but I'm also a Knicks and Jets fan, so I'm always imaging the worst-case scenario, and then I operate out of that. So to me, the worst-case scenario is Carl Pavano beating the Yankees twice. Not even losing to the Twins; it's Carl Pavano beating the Yankees twice. If they make it past that first round, I kind of like their chances to at least get back to the Series. But, man, I always get such agita with that first round. And after CC, there's a lot of question marks. They better be fucking hitting their asses off. Again Carl Pavano, worst nightmare. My friend Pat Jordan, the writer, said to me, "Hey Belth, I'm shining up my Glock 9mm automatic. You can come down here, stick it in your mouth, and pull the trigger when Carl Pavano beats you guys twice."

That was nice of him.
Hey, what would friends do? Son of a bitch bastard. He's the worst, too, because all he cares about is University of Miami Hurricanes football. It's the only sport he cares about. It's not even fun. I don't even give a shit about college football. How am I going to make fun of him back?

Alex Belth will be reading at Gelf's Varsity Letters series next Thursday, October 7.

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Photo: Courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing