Yankees see red after Castignoli's full toss


AMERICA AT LARGE:A replica David Ortiz Red Sox jersey has kicked up quite a storm in New York, writes George Kimball

AMERICA'S VERSION of the Celtic-Rangers rivalry resumed last night when the Boston Red Sox paid their first visit of the season to Yankee Stadium. The abbreviated series will conclude tonight, after which both teams will get out of town to clear the decks for the weekend's Papal Mass, which will be the last ever celebrated in "The House that Ruth Built".

Both New York baseball teams are playing their final seasons in their long-time homes, making 2008 a banner year for construction business in the Big Apple. In Queens, the new Citi Field rises from what was formerly a parking lot behind Shea Stadium. In the Bronx, the new, $1.3 billion Yankee Stadium is springing up on the adjacent grounds of what used to be McCombs Dam Park.

The original Yankee Stadium opened for business on April 18th, 1923, three years after the cash-strapped Red Sox had ignominiously sold the game's greatest player to their most despised rival. An enterprise undertaken because the Giants had evicted the suddenly-popular American League team from the Polo Grounds in Manhattan after the 1922 season, Yankee Stadium was rushed to completion in barely nine months' time. The cost of the construction was $2.5 million.

(Not terribly long ago, the bat with which Babe Ruth hit the first home run in Yankee Stadium fetched half that much - $1.265 million - at a Sotheby's auction.) With owner George Steinbrenner moaning about the dilapidated state of the 85-year-old Stadium and threatening to move across the river to New Jersey, the City of New York agreed to pick several hundred million dollars' worth of infrastructural costs, as well as to donate the land from what had heretofore been a city park, for a new Yankee Stadium that will, like Citi Field, open for play in 2009. At some point thereafter the present Yankee and Shea Stadiums will be razed.

If the old Yankee Stadium is known as "The House that Ruth Built", the new version may come to be described as "The House that Gino Castignoli Built".

Gino Castignoli is a 46-year-old cement mason, a lifelong Bronx resident and a diehard Red Sox fan. His allegiance is such that when his union, Local 780, approached him about the job, his initial reply had been "I would not go near Yankee Stadium for all the hot dogs in the world". After some consideration, he realised that view might have been a short-sighted one, and accepted the lucrative assignment. But somewhere along the way he decided to make a token gesture on behalf of Red Sox Nation.

So as the construction crews were working on the new structure, Castignoli was inspired to toss a replica Red Sox jersey bearing David Ortiz's number 34 into a batch of freshly-mixed cement as what he hoped would be a counterweight to the legendary "Curse of the Bambino" visited upon the Red Sox at the time of the 1920 Ruth sale.

"It's not like I snuck it in there," Castignoli told the Boston Herald a few days ago. "I didn't do any structural damage. I didn't put anyone in harm's way."

Indeed, the presence of the buried Ortiz jersey appears to have been an open secret among his co-workers, the subject of friendly banter between Castignoli and the Yankees supporters on his union crew.

A week ago, with the Yankees opening a weekend series at Fenway Park, one of the construction workers spilled the beans to a New York newspaper. The report of the entombed Boston shirt was aired in the New York Post last Friday, and by the weekend, irate Yankees management, pronouncing Castignoli's prank "a bad, dastardly act", had ordered a search-and-destroy mission to exhume the offending souvenir.

For five and a half hours on Sunday, at a reported cost of more than $30,000, a hard-hatted construction crew drawing overtime pay used jackhammers to break through two feet of solid concrete near the third-base line. By the time they actually located and retrieved the Red Sox jersey that afternoon, it looked like somebody had used a machine gun on it.

The Yankees said they would send the disinterred, if by now somewhat ratty, Ortiz jersey to the Jimmy Fund, a Boston-based charity for victims of children's cancer, for auction, which is just about the only rational thing anybody has done since Gino Castignoli buried the shirt in the first place.

How far back demolishing already completed work may have set the construction project remains unlearned, but, as if they didn't look silly enough already, Yankees management solemnly announced that they were contemplating preferring criminal charges against Castignoli.

"We will take appropriate action," vowed team COO Lonn Trost, who told the New York Times that he had consulted with the Bronx district attorney's office to determine whether a criminal act had in fact been committed. (We're just guessing that the response of Bronx DA Robert Johnson was to suggest to Trost that maybe he ought to, you now, get a life.) And Lonn Trost's, it should be noted, seemed the voice of reason compared to that of senior vice president Hank Steinbrenner, the bombastic Yankee owner's 41-year-old son and heir apparent.

Pronouncing the entire episode "a bunch of bullshit", Steinbrenner fils showed himself to be a chip of the old block when he indelicately added: "I hope his co-workers kick the shit out of him."

At this point, Castignoli probably hopes they do, because were that threat actually carried out now it would clearly be at Hank Steinbrenner's behest, and by the time the new Yankee Stadium opens next April, the owners of the New York Yankees might be not the Steinbrenners, but the Castignolis.