Jays have many memories at Stadium
Several Toronto coaches have long histories in the Bronx
NEW YORK -- When stepping out of the main stairwell that winds its way down to the tunnel underneath Yankee Stadium, there are a pair of painted lines that welcome those arriving to the lower level.
The red stripe weaves its way to the left, leading to the visitor's clubhouse, where the Blue Jays are temporarily housed for this season-opening series against the Yankees. A stripe of blue heads to the right of the stairs, showing the way to New York's clubhouse, which has been home to some of the great figures in baseball history.
For a few members of Toronto's coaching staff, that blue line was the one they followed earlier in their careers. It's small details like that one that stick with those who have spent time in Yankee Stadium, which will close its doors for the final time after this season, giving way to the state-of-the-art park that's rising across the street.
On Tuesday, the Blue Jays are guests for the final Opening Day in the stadium's storied history, bringing memories flooding back as this season begins. Toronto hitting coach Gary Denbo, pitching coach Brad Arnsberg and bench coach Brian Butterfield each have personal ties to the old ballpark, which opened its gates in 1923.
"I'm a little saddened by the fact that they're going to tear this place down," said Blue Jays hitting coach Gary Denbo, who filled the same role for the Yankees in 2001. "You walk down the stairs and you walk toward the Yankees' clubhouse -- you follow the blue lines -- and the ceilings are so low.
"That's the size people were when they built this place. To think that Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and Mickey Mantle and all of those great players and great managers and coaches came through that hallway, that's really something special."
Denbo can't help but smile when talking about the historic park, where he helped the Yankees reach the 2001 World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks -- considered to be one of the greatest Fall Classics. The memory that sticks out the most to Denbo came three years before that seven-game Series.
Denbo, who served a variety of roles within the New York organization for parts of 14 years, was in the stands for Game 1 of the 1998 World Series, which featured the Yankees and Padres. Denbo was the roving hitting coordinator for the Yankees at the time and he was watching the game from a luxury suite just beyond the right-field foul pole.
In the second inning of that game, Ricky Ledee -- a player who Denbo helped instruct for years leading up to that moment -- doubled off San Diego pitcher Kevin Brown to score the first two runs of the Series. Chills ran through Denbo as the stadium literally shook with the riotous reaction from the fans.
"When he hit that double, I got goosebumps," Denbo recalled with a grin. "But after that, we were in the box beneath the upper deck, and the whole stadium was shaking. Beer was falling everywhere, and confetti, and people were going nuts. It was a great moment. It was a little scary, because the whole building was shaking."
Arnsberg was originally selected by the Yankees in the 1983 First-Year Player Draft, and he found himself on New York's pitching staff late in the 1986 season. On Sept. 15, Arnsberg was given the opportunity to make his first start in the Major Leagues -- an outing that took place at Yankee Stadium.
Taking the mound inside one of the most famous stadiums in the world was pressure enough, but nerves became an even larger factor when Arnsberg learned that his mother and wife were making a cross-country trip to see him pitch in the Bronx. He worked through five innings and allowed one run in a no-decision, but the Yankees walked away with a 5-3 victory.
"I had no idea they were coming," Arnsberg said. "Then, about 15 minutes before I left my buddy's house, they pulled up with the brother-in-law of the guy I was living with in a limousine. I remember the pressure that that put on me.
"Not only was I in Yankee Stadium, now my mother and my wife had flown out from Oregon clear across the country to see me start."
On Aug. 8, 2004, John Gibbons was named the interim manager of the Blue Jays. His first game at the helm happened to come against New York at Yankee Stadium, where he picked up his first managerial win. That memory is a special one for Gibbons, who also spent many years in the New York Mets' organization.
"Those are the kinds of things you never forget," Gibbons said. "It's an honor to just be a part of the final Opening Day here. There's so much history here. That new place will create its own history over time, but to finish here, I'd like to get some pictures of it."
Butterfield's history with the Yankees dates back to his father, Jack Butterfield, who served as the vice president of player development and scouting for New York in the late 1970s. Brian Butterfield signed with the Yankees in 1979, and he spent four years playing within the team's farm system.
|"Opening Day is always special. But I've never seen anything come close to resemble what it is here with the passion and the electricity."|
|-- Toronto bench coach Brian Butterfield|
Butterfield never made it to the Major Leagues as a player, but he finally joined the Yankees as a first-base coach in 1994, following more than a decade spent as a coach and instructor in the organization. Opening Day of that 1994 season was a great moment for Butterfield, who felt proud to hear his name called by New York's longtime public address announcer.
"I remember being introduced by Bob Sheppard and running out on the chalk line," Butterfield said. "That was a thrill. It was really emotional and it was a time when I had wished my dad was there to see it. That was tremendous. It's made me reflect back, and I also feel blessed to be here on the last Opening Day as an opponent."
As much as Yankee Stadium will be missed, the Blue Jays are looking forward to seeing what's in store for them at the new ballpark. There's plenty of history at the corner of E. 161st St. and River Ave., but more memories will surely be made in the new Yankee Stadium, which is quickly resembling New York's current home.
"The accommodations are going to be better for the players on both sides," Butterfield said. "And I think it'll be better for the fans. As much as we love history and tradition, and there's no greater history in sports than what the Yankees have done, I still think it's going to be a great thing, having the new ballpark."
Until then, the Jays will enjoy their remaining visits to the House that Ruth Built, beginning with Opening Day.
"Opening Day is always special," Butterfield said. "But I've never seen anything come close to resemble what it is here with the passion and the electricity."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.