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NBC Correspondent’s Memories of Yankee Stadium Go Beyond Upper Deck

DFratangelo_9.22.jpgIn a moving tribute, NBC News correspondent Dawn Fratangelo writes about the special significance yesterday’s final game at Yankee Stadium held for her. Fratangelo and her husband, NBC News senior producer Eric Wishnie, had season tickets at Yankee stadium for 10 years – “the front row, upper deck, behind home plate,” Fratangelo wrote in an essay first published on her Facebook page.

“Love Nest Above Home Plate” is tribute to Wishnie, who died last summer. Fratangelo describes the friends who made up “our Yankee neighborhood,” and how she and Eric got their nickname:

…we were known as the “kissy couple.” I don’t know how it started but we began a ritual of standing, clapping as the player or players rounded the bases during a home run and winding up into a double high five that came sliding into to a full-on hard kiss.

Fratangelo writes about being “torn as to what to do” with Eric’s ticket to Sunday’s game. His seat remained empty, save for his Yankees jacket, brought along by his still-grieving widow. “Instead,” she writes, “I invite folks to drop by for a visit and chat. And if any are so inclined, pledge to donate to a scholarship in Eric’s name that will reward other wondrous, talented journalism students like him.”

This afternoon, Fratangelo told TVNewser she’s finished the paperwork to have that scholarship set up at Eric’s Alma Mater, the University of Florida.

Dawn gave us permission to publish the tribute. You can read it after the jump…


LOVE NEST ABOVE HOME PLATE
by Dawn Fratangelo
Today at 12:43am

I am wistful about the front row, upper deck, behind home plate. For ten years it is where you could find my husband, Eric Wishnie, and I on most every Sunday home game at Yankee Stadium. And it is there we would sit, cheer, sing, sway, boo, hug, and, at every Yankee home run, high five and kiss.

Little did we know that in our Yankee neighborhood – that’s Section 603 to the rest of you – we were known as the “kissy couple.” I don’t know how it started but we began a ritual of standing, clapping as the player or players rounded the bases during a home run and winding up into a double high five that came sliding into to a full-on hard kiss. There might also be a sweet or sexy stare into the eyes that followed. It was a good ritual. In fact, we considered our Yankee Sunday home package one of the most romantic things of our relationship and marriage. It was, for us, the perfect date.

And it had killer atmosphere. When we first arrived to our new neighborhood in the 603, we disappointingly thought “nosebleed territory.” Oh, ye of little faith. We soon felt like we could reach out and touch heaven. Down the steep, precarious steps, a tingly feeling came over us and we found love. High above home plate, right above the L and D in World, Championships to be exact, the entire field stretched out before us. Our seats are #1 and #2. Eric was on the aisle; I had what would technically be the center or window-just as we liked to sit on airplanes. They were perfect. Easy access to the bathrooms, foul balls and with a contortionist’s twist-a view into George Steinbrenner’s luxury box. “Trump. I see Regis, I see Crystal” Eric would shout back as he doubled his body over the railing practically teetering on the edge, shouting the names of guests. I would first hold his belt and then, sometimes his entire waist for fear he’d fall. Yet he never seemed afraid to throw himself over to have a look, never afraid of teetering on the edge. Perhaps I should have taken it as a sign of what was to come but I didn’t. Not here, this was our love nest. “I don’t see Tom.” That would be Tom Brokaw, Eric’s former boss. Eric found himself in that box with Tom during the Game 4 of the ACLS against the Mariners in 2001 when Alfonso Soriano hit the walk-off home run to win the game. Suddenly Steinbrenner was hugging everyone, including Eric.

Back to our Sundays in the 603, our games were filled with hotdogs, beer, the Sunday papers, peanuts and long conversations about the rational and insane statistics baseball can come up with. I threatened to write a book, “Silly Things My Wife Asks Me About Baseball.” Like – why is it after an out-like a pop up fly caught by the shortstop, for example, the infielders don’t include the first baseman when they toss the ball about seemingly in celebration? I’ve never gotten a straight answer on that one.

This place, this section was so much an extension of us, one season, the stadium seats changed from a different type of blue plastic. It wasn’t long before Eric pulled out his Sharpie pen-the kind with indelible ink. “What are you doing?” I asked. “Making our mark again,” he answered. “They took the seats away so I have to sign the news ones. So they know they’re ours.” He carefully wrote E HEART D (heart emblem in the middle here) and traced over it a number of times so it was bold and fat but hidden in the middle, under the seat so as not to make too much of a statement and be painted over.

It was like lovers carving initials into an oak tree in the backyard. And that’s what this was-a home, a neighborhood with a cast of characters who became our accidental family, of sorts.

Stretching Man had the two seats on the aisle across from us. He would come with his son and flex and bend his legs to let the section know he was an avid runner. It bugged Eric to no end. What got him more was on opening day the year the Yankees acquired El Duque. Stretching Man’s young son beat Eric out of not one, but two foul balls off the new pitcher lobbed right into our territory. Seething is how best to describe Eric’s mood that day. Foul balls were elusive to my man Wish. It wasn’t for a lack of trying. I remember once in another venerable ballpark – Wrigley Field – Eric went for a home run ball with the other enthusiastic bleachers creatures only to be propelled head first into the stands about ten rows below. All we saw of him were his fabulously muscled legs with Nike hiking shoes sticking straight in the air. Yes, it turns out Eric had much better legs than Stretching Man. And the only time Eric ran was when he was late for a ball game or trying to make air for the nightly news program.

I, on the other hand, got lucky playing the diminutive type and had my one “catch” in 603. It was more like a “lapper.” Jeff Nelson threw one to Jermaine Dye whose bat cracked a pop up foul straight back toward us. Eric went high. I stayed low. The ball bounced and literally landed in my lap. No fool, though, my ballpark reaction was quick. I cupped it in my hands, felt my face go red and held it aloft for the cheer. The next day, my major league husband presented me with the square, plastic cube to place it in.

To the right of us were Alec and his Dad from New Rochelle. Alec was a real enthusiastic-yelling out for Jeter or Tino to make something happen. We never asked any questions but we had watched as Alec bore the many scars of surgery on his face and head, apparently from complications caused from tumors that formed on the skull. On opening day a few years back, Alec and his Dad were not there. Alec, according to someone using the seats told me, had died. My heart sunk. I leaned over and whispered to Eric. Soon, tears were rolling down his cheeks. “It’s so not right, so, so sad.” It was then, I think, we realized — that bound by baseball and Yankee Stadium — these people were truly members of our collective family.

And we had a real, live one sitting right behind us all ten years. The Cohen’s: Mom, Dad, young son and daughter and, the hefty bags of chips, sandwiches, sticky stuff, you name that would wind up embedded in my hoodie, Eric’s hair, down our backs. One home opener it was raw and pouring buckets. Dad, behind us, asked if we could lose the umbrella already stuck to our heads. “You’ve got to be kidding,” we asked. As he would say later, “It’s not like this is the opera!” Then something happened. We all gradually began to realize these Sunday outings held the same meaning-an intra-connection to life and love of a game and, between each other. We started talking baseball. We watched as Will grew into an impressive ballplayer himself and headed to college and, as Kate matured with a penchant for volunteerism. And when Rick and Elizabeth Cohen paid their respects at Eric’s memorial service last August, I about dropped to my knees. That’s the kind of love and family that awes and sustains you.

We have a guy we call Cliff – who knows everything about nothing. His running commentary is a Farrelly Brothers movie. The CHAAARGE guy who can hold a guttural staccato note when the stadium jumbo-tron beckons the call. His voice is like the Lion King on steroids. And so many others.

On Sunday (today, September 21, 2008), I will attend my last Yankee Game in the seats I shared with my husband Eric for ten years. I had been so torn as to what to do with his ticket. I had hoped to be organized enough to have a scholarship set up to use the ticket as a charity item to raise money. It’s in the works with his Alma Mater, The University of Florida. It is just awaiting paperwork and a tax ID number. And yes, Eric was a Gator, a Yankee and a diehard loyalist to both.

Progress has been hard for me because all this season I’ve been on the DL list — sidelined with a stubborn illness that has kept me in my home dugout and away from Yankee Stadium except for one game the beginning of September.

After more thought – it’s perhaps more appropriate Eric’s seat stay empty this last game. Instead, I invite folks to drop by for a visit and chat. And if any are so inclined, pledge to donate to a scholarship in Eric’s name that will reward other wondrous, talented journalism students like him. Or just come on by for a bit, check out who’s in Steinbrenner’s box and enjoy the slice of heaven that expands before you like a comfortable green meadow.

During that one visit to Yankee Stadium this year, I waited after the game for the folks to thin so that I could leave without having to maneuver the crowds. As my dear friend got up from Eric’s seat to help me, the seat snapped up and there it was, our mark. E HEART D. Still there. My eyes welled with tears and soft sobs rose through my chest. Oh God, I thought. Oh, God. It was if I had happened upon that old oak that held my true love’s pledge. E HEART D. And D HEART E. And our hearts will always lie in the front row, upper deck, behind home plate.

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