By ELLIOTT DENMAN
“Promise made, promise kept.”
When the New York Yankees moved their “home of champions” to the north side of 161st Street and River Avenue, they took away the Joseph Yancey Track and Field area at Macombs Dam Park with them.
For nearly two years, denizens of and visitors to the Southwest Bronx vicinity needed to find alternate locations to run, to walk, to train, to compete, to be fit.
As the “Bronx Bombers” moved north to their new palace of the bat-and-ball arts.
Bronxites of lesser renown - the ordinary folks of the city - were left to their own devices.
Sure, a Yankee Park Replacement Program - complete with a $195 million price tag - was in place, but there were many who harbored serious doubts that the sketches of its visionary design elements would ever be translated into the real thing.
“Folks are frustrated,” said Jose Rodriguez, district manager for Community Board 4,
at one point, as delays mounted and the ranks of the doubters grew.
But, amazing just amazing, most so to those who’ve spent lifetimes agonizing over the often painful pace of governmental action of all sorts, the frustrations are now over.
As of just past noon on Friday, April 9th, when the formal ribbon-cutting ceremony
took place, there really is a new Joseph Yancey Track and Field Area. As dignitary after dignitary said at the grand opening gala, this really was a dream come true.
The Joe Yancey Track and Field Area is destined to be the centerpiece of a park area to include basketball and handball courts, an adult fitness area, passive recreation space, picnic tables, and (soon as the old Yankee Stadium is completely razed) the Heritage Field area and its three baseball fields.
Even the skies, darkened by the morning rain clouds that covered much of the Metropolitan area, lightened up for the event.
“This is a wonderful day in the Bronx,” said Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr.
“This is a facility we all can be proud of,” said Jason Wright, Chief Financial Officer of New York’s Economic Development Corporation. “We now have an extraordinary park in a stunning location.”
Fact is that “new” Yancey site far outstrips its predecessor.
“This is not just a track, it’s a Mondo track,” said Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe.
Mondo, of course, is the Cadillac of all track surfaces, the best of the best, the fastest of the fast.
The track won’t have its lane lines and stripes and relay zones put in until May. But, eventually, the new Yancey facility will have hurdles and jumping pits and vaulting areas, and - hopefully, in a nearby area, zones for devotees of the throwing events. The old Yancey track had no such luxuries.
And many hope it’s the scene of the first Joe Yancey Memorial Track and Field Meet, perhaps in the summer of 2011, perhaps even sponsored by the Yankees, whose principal owner, George M. Steinbrenner III, has long been known as a track and field fan and Olympic-sport devotee, as well as a past U.S. Olympic Committee executive.
Oh, and did you know that ex-Yankee Bernie Williams was once a member of the Puerto Rico’s junior national track team, and that ex-teammate Ron Guidry was once one of Louisiana’s top high school triple jumpers?
When it’s not being used for track and field, the area and its artificially-turfed infield will be home to soccer players and football players, and more.
Its location is utilitarian, too - it’s built on the rooftop of the partially below-grade, two-story Ruppert Plaza parking garage.
Maintaining a heavily-used facility in the heart of the big city is always a chore, but the Parks Department is determined to keep it in first-class condition the year round.
To members of the New York Pioneer Club, whose coach was the cherished Joe Yancey, who gathered for the grand opening , it was a very special and emotional event.
“Joe Yancey became my second father,” said Harry Bright, who had been one the nation’s finest middle distance runners - anything from the 400 meters to 1,000 yards, with the 400-meter hurdles thrown in - under Yancey’s tutelage.
It was Yancey who helped Bright win a scholarship to Seton Hall University. And it’s estimated Coach Yancey was able to send a thousand more Pioneers off to colleges around the nation.
One Pioneer, Hector Aponte, trained under Yancey and eventually earned a scholarship to the University of Puerto Rico. Today, he’s the Parks Department’s Borough Commissioner for the Bronx.
“When I was coming up, these guys (the Pioneer stars of the day) were my heroes,” he said. “Mr. Yancey, he trained our minds and our bodies to be better athletes. But, most important, he trained us all to be men.”
As a youngster growing up in a nearby area of the south Bronx, Gordon McKenzie discovered the old Macombs Dam Park track - later renamed the Yancey Track - to be the perfect place to run the countless intervals needed to be a champion distance runner. And, sure enough, McKenzie became just that, starring first at New York University, then as the USA’s fastest Olympic 10,000-meter runner in 1956 at Melbourne, then as an Olympic marathoner at Rome in 1960. At other times, he was a National cross country champion and a leading American at the Boston Marathon.
But, always, he was a proud Pioneer.
“I can’t tell you how many laps I ran around that old (Macombs Dam) track,” said McKenzie. “Thousands and thousands, probably.”
And almost all of them in solitude, often on his lunch-hour breaks from his Bronx County engineering office job just a few blocks away. That’s what Pioneers did - whatever it took.
The Pioneers, of course, were democracy personified. Their membership rolls included young men of all races and religions, all creeds, all ethnicities. And they began in 1936, a decade-plus before Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson began bringing the same form of enlightenment to that other sport, the one that is often - but not always accurately - termed “America’s National Pastime.
Even with his status as one of the nation’s finest track and field coaches - a reputation that would see him elected to the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1984 - Yancey was not named to a USA Olympic coaching position. Perhaps some didn’t care for his outspoken stance on the injustices he saw and fought. Perhaps it was his refusal to compromise his ethics, while some others around hm were compromising theirs.
But other nations gave him the warmest of welcomes.
It was Yancey who first coached Jamaica athletes to the heights of the Olympic world, in 1948 (London), in 1952 (Helsinki) and in 1956 (Melbourne.) Perhaps his greatest moment at the Jamaica team’s helm came in the concluding 4x400 relay at the 1952 Games - the Jamaica team of Arthur Wint, Leslie Laing, Herb McKenley and George Rhoden (who had already won the individual 400 meters) defeated the vaunted USA team and set a world record of 3:03.9 in the process.
New Yorker - and Pioneer - Byron LaBeach was a reserve on that Jamaica team and a witness to Yancey’s coaching magic.
And, as he put it, the island of Jamaica has never relented in its passion for the footracing sport in the years since. Would there be a Usain Bolt to snare global headlines in 2010 if the Yancey-coached team hadn’t built Jamaica’s gold-medal foundation nearly six decades earlier? A very good guess: “No.”
At later Olympic Games, Yancey coached the teams of Bahamas, the then-British Guiana (now Guyana) and U.S. Virgin Islands. An ambassador - but forever without portfolio - he traveled the world as the emissary of his team (the Pioneers), his sport (track and field) and the forever concept of dignity inherent in all honest competitions.
Coach Yancey left us in 1991. His widow, Mrs. Josephine Yancey, 93 now lives in Bergen County, just over the George Washington Bridge, but was unable to attend the ceremony.
Speaking for the Yancey family was granddaughter Yvonne Floyd-Mayers.
With no major sponsors, certainly no corporate angels willing to pick up their tab for travel to the major national events of the day, the Pioneers somehow supported themselves with modest dues payments, an annual raffle, and other low-key fund-raising efforts.
More often than not, however, Joe Yancey would dig into his never-deep pockets to make up any deficits.
Of course, the real Yancey family had its legitimate complaints about this arrangement. Then again, the extended Yancey family - all the young men, all the “gentlemen” he took under his wing, all the Pioneers, they were winners, too.
By ELLIOTT DENMAN