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September 22, 2008
The Long Farewell
The All-Star Game was for baseball fans. Last night was for Yankee fans.
Last night was for the diehards, the people who bleed pinstripes, the people who can find their seats without a compass, who remember left-center when it was really Death Valley, who listened to Frank Messer-or Mel Allen-in their youth, who sat in the left-field bleachers at least once. Last night was a family gathering.
They threw open the gates yesterday at 1 p.m., but I couldn't bring myself to go that early. I'd known since Friday I'd be attending the final game (thank you, Ned), but I couldn't spend the whole day there. It wasn't for lack of time or love for the place. If anything, it was too much of the latter. While the day was a celebration of this place I love so dearly, it was also a farewell, and I was in no hurry to make that parting. There was no great anticipation yesterday afternoon, just mixed emotions, the thrill of imminent history and the sadness of how the night would inevitably end.
The pregame roll call of Yankee greats who played in the Stadium was an invitation to remember the better part of a century of baseball. I would speculate that the favorite Yankee of all 54,000 or so in the park last night ended up on the Diamondvision board during it, and many of those men took the field during the ceremony. Some of those who could not be there were represented by their families, and we embraced Cora Rizzuto, Michael Munson, Julia Ruth Stevens and the rest as if they were our heroes themselves. Kay Murcer and her children were treated to long, lusty cheers. Bobby's daughter, Tori, was overwhelmed by the moment.
Of course, you cannot praise 85 years of baseball players in one sitting. It's too much to handle, there are too many greats to name at once, especially given the franchise we're talking about here. Even the video clips seemed to miss a handful of significant players, and there was only so much time and space to have Yankee greats be announced and trot out to their positions. It was left to us to fill in the gaps.
So you let loose for Hideki Matsui, and hope that Rickey Henderson can hear you yell. A chant of "Paul O'Neill" fills the air, and in your heart you want Dave Winfield to feel the love as well. The crowd goes wild for Derek Jeter, and you just know that Scooter is hearing the echo, tucking into a cannoli and smiling. You can't cheer them all, so you cheer the one out loud and the rest in your heart, the ones who are there, the ones who live in your memory, and the ones who set the stage for your memories, the heroes you know by stat lines and stories and grainy black-and-white footage. You cheer, and when you try to chant, your voice catches and you realize this is all hitting you a little harder than you thought. The video board shows Chris Chambliss hitting a huge home run, and you realize this is the only chance you've had to cheer your first favorite player in more than 20 years, and you do just that, standing out among a crowd of people with no understanding of why the short guy is so excited.
Finally, the ceremony ends as a player you never had the chance to say goodbye to steps onto the field. The epitome of class, the last in a long line of players to trod the sacred ground of center field at Yankee Stadium, the cornerstone of championship teams, and the man who, more than Jeter, more than Mariano Rivera, more than anyone, represented the change in the Yankees from the Middle Steinbrenner Era to the Late Steinbrenner Era. Because of how his career ended, we never really got to say goodbye to Bernie Williams, but last night, we did. Last night, we thanked him for the grace and the speed, the power and the passion, the way he played baseball, and the way he acted while he played baseball. The line, the true line, for Yankee fans of my age runs from White through Randolph through Mattingly through Williams.
The game was an intrusion on our celebration. If anything, it was a reminder of what this season is, the end of the era, the first time since 1993 that the Yankee season will end in September. We cheered Johnny Damon and Jose Molina, and roared when Andy Pettitte left the mound, and chanted "Der-ek Je-ter" one last time in this building, being rewarded for the effort when Jeter made a nice play going to his left, almost in defiance of the end. Still, the overwhelming sense in the ballpark was celebration mixed with trepidation. When the opening chords of "Enter Sandman" hit the air a little after 11:30, we rose and cheered, no one daring to note that Mariano Rivera was coming in not to close out a close game in a pennant race, but a 7-3 victory over a bad team in a disappointing season.
That's not what I'll remember, though. I'll remember him loping towards the mound, and warming up amidst a hail of flashes, and pounding that cut fastball to a 1-2-3 inning, getting the last out at Yankee Stadium as easily as he's gotten so many other last outs in his career. It ended with a ground ball to first base, 86 years of baseball history settling in Cody Ransom's glove at 11:41 on a Sunday night, the last play on this sacred ground.
No one wanted to leave. The Yankees obliged the crowd by walking out, en masse, to the mound, gathering around Jeter as he spoke of pride and class, of continuity and humility. The players then took a lap around the park to wave to the fans. It was reminiscent of the scene after the 1996 World Series, horses and all, and as with so many things on this evening, both touching and a reminder that this it was all ending a bit too soon.
As Sinatra closed his sixth encore and launched into his seventh, I stood in Tier Reserve 36, taking some pictures, looking all around the ballpark, seeing the players digging up dirt from their positions, but mostly going inside my head for a moment. I grew up in Yankee Stadium. I've sat in every level and in most sections, and there's no place in the park that doesn't bring back some memory. The angle I had last night reminded me of a game in the 1980s when the Yankees came back from an early deficit to beat the Royals in the ninth on a Ron Hassey infield single. Looking straight across from there, I remembered the twi-night doubleheader in July that was my eighth birthday present, when we sat in the upper deck along the first-base line and left during a brutal thunderstorm that delayed the second game. I thought about attending games with my best friends in the world, and with my family and by myself, about being at the park at 10:30 a.m. for day-game batting practice and at three in the morning after the All-Star Game this summer.
I made a phone call, and wiped away a couple of tears, and turned to go down the ramp, and stopped. There was so much of me in this place that leaving it seemed wrong, like it would leave me incomplete. That's what baseball is, and that's what it does-it gets inside you and becomes a part of you and creates an attachment to a team and a building that's so intense it makes you leave some of your identity with them.
But you know, somewhere in this city, maybe even on my block or in my building, there's a six-year-old boy who'll be seven next year, one who's never been to a baseball game. Sometime next year, his mom and dad, or aunt and uncle, or grandma and grandpa will put him in a pinstriped T-shirt, and lay a navy blue hat on his head, and walk off the train at 161st Street and up the stairs to a new ballpark, and that seven-year-old will gaze, wide-eyed, at the brown dirt and the green grass, and he'll eat a hot dog and yell "Charge" and doze off during the eighth inning, and the new stadium will become a part of him the same way the old one did for me 30 years ago. That's what baseball-no, that's what Yankee baseball-is.
I wasn't ready to say goodbye in July. I'm wasn't much more ready last night, but at 12:14 a.m., from Tier Reseve 36, just outside the ramp, I whispered to this beautiful ballpark, "Thank you for everything. Goodbye."