Growing up, it was always a treat to go to Yankee Stadium. I grew up in Rockland County, New York as a child, about 45 minutes away. When I was 12-years-old, we moved further up north to Orange County. Despite the distance, our family would make a trip every now and then to the Bronx. It wasn’t an annual tradition, but it felt like we were there enough to know our way around the stadium, and just the right amount to make it feel special.
I was lucky to have a father who would allow us to skip school to go to Opening Day, to go to the occasional weeknight game, and to get the best seats a family of five could afford. While we were never in the box seats or anything, we always managed to have a good view and have a great time. We only had one rule in the Armida house when it came to Yankee games: you never leave early. That rule would lead to some pretty long lines getting out of the parking garage (and my grandfather one time directing traffic to speed things up). This rule reinforced the idea that going to the stadium was special; why would you leave early?
Just once, I had the good fortune to sit in the front row at Yankee Stadium. That one game, I was literally able to put my feet up on the Yankees’ dugout roof. It was a special day in so many ways. I got to go with my younger brother. Over the years, we’ve gone to a handful of games with him, arriving early and never getting up from our seats for the entire game.
Obviously, the seat was amazing, the single best seat I’ve ever had. I was 19-years-old and was working at shoe store; the owner had season tickets—front row season tickets—and would regularly hand them out to the people working for him. I got them for the first and only time on August 11, 1994. It was a day that I would never forget.
It was a day that all Yankees fans of that era would never forget it either. It was the final game of the 1994 season, the day before Major League Baseball shut down. It was the day Don Mattingly’s best chance at a World Series title died.
As a 19-year-old baseball fan, I had enough naiveté to believe that the players and owners would come to a last-minute deal. I remember walking into the stadium with my brother saying that there would be no way the season would be shutdown. It seem inconceivable that Mattingly would be robbed of finally getting to the playoffs. We watched Mattingly win his batting title, his MVP, be the best player in the sport for a period of time, his back injury sap his power, and see the man finish a career that oozed with dignity and pride.
Looking back, there was definitely an ominous feeling that juxtaposed the beautiful August afternoon; everyone wondered if this would actually be the last game. The “rich guys” in the front row blamed the players for their greed; irony at its finest. At worst, my brother and I thought there would be a short stoppage and then they would pick up the schedule and begin the playoffs. For the first time in nearly a decade, the Yankees were a bona fide World Series contender.
The Yankees came in with 70 wins and just 42 losses, the best record in the American League and just four games behind the Expos for the overall best record. With a 6.5-game lead in the division, October felt inevitable. Finally, Mattingly would make it.
The game began with Yankees starter Mélido Pérez and Blue Jays starter Pat Hentgen both exchanging perfect innings. Pérez got in trouble in the second after giving up a one-out single to John Olerud and then walking Mike Huff. After striking out Darnell Coles, Ed Sprague tripled to knock in the two baserunners.
Our section was not bothered. Nobody in the entire stadium was. We were all accustomed to this team coming back, as it was that type of year. In the bottom of the second, Mattingly singled up the middle. We didn’t know it at the time, but that was his last hit of the 1994 season.
The Yankees broke through in the third with a Pat Kelly bunt single and a Luis Polonia double. Wade Boggs hit a sacrifice fly to score the first run. After a Paul O’Neill walk, Danny Tartabull hit a three-run home run to give the Yankees a 4-2 lead.
The stadium was electric as always. The cockiness of our fandom had us feeling that the Yankees would cruise to another win. It stayed that way until the sixth, when Pérez gave up a single to future Hall of Famer, Paul Molitor. Pérez struck out Joe Carter, but it would fall apart from there as he walked Olerud and then gave up a double to Mike Huff and a sacrifice fly to Coles. Another run scored on a Luis Polonia throwing error to put the Blue Jays ahead 5-4 heading into the bottom of the sixth.
Everyone knew the Yankees would answer.
They did in the home half with a two-out rally that culminated with a Pat Kelly two-run single to put the Yankees up 6-5. It would remain that way until the top of the, eighth when reliever Bob Wickman gave up a ground-rule double to Coles to tie the game. That’s how it remained after nine innings.
With the potential strike looming, the 1994 Yankees were heading into extra innings. My brother and I couldn’t believe it—front row seats and extra innings? For a moment, the whole stadium forgot the strike.
We just wanted one more win.
In the top of the 12th, Steve Howe gave up a home run to Joe Carter. We still had the feeling: the Yankees would come back. They did with a Polonia double and a Boggs single that led to O’Neill bouncing into a double play. But, Polonia scored. The season was still alive.
The very next inning, Ed Sprague homered off of Joe Ausanio to give the Blue Jays the lead. We still had hope. The stadium was loud. In my mind’s eye, I remember the stadium still being full. That could be the romanticism kicking in.
Mattingly led off the bottom of the 13th with a walk. Gerald Williams came on to pinch run. I’ll remember this forever: Mattingly jogged off the field a little slower than usual. He seemed to take in the ovation, at least to my 19-year-old self. I remember sitting there a bit sad, thinking this could be the last time I see him play in person. It was, as I didn’t make it to a game in 1995. Looking back, how incredibly lucky was I to be sitting there that close to see the expression of my favorite player?
With two outs, Matt Nokes pinch-hit for Mike Gallego. He swung at the first pitch. The ball flew off his bat, deep to the right-center field wall. We all leapt up, players were out of the dugout. In that moment we all thought that they did it again. Like the season, it just wasn’t meant to be. Huff caught the ball on the track to end the game and the season.
I didn’t realize at the time just how special that game, that seat, that moment really was. I was privileged to watch one of the best games I’ve ever seen in person from the best seat and with one of my favorite people. At the time, we knew the game was great. Now, I look back and appreciate that the last game of that magical, yet tragically “just short” season, went 13 innings as if Yankees were trying to avoid the reality of the strike. We all were.
I’ll most likely never sit in the front row again and that’s alright. Despite the loss, it was a perfect Thursday afternoon in August in the perfect seat. It’s something I can still see all these years later. It’s a memory only baseball could give. It was a season cut too early, much like Mattingly’s back injury cut his dominant career. We’ll never truly know if the Yankees would’ve gone on to the World Series in 1994. But, I do know that I was damn lucky to be there that day to see the end.