Monday, September 22, 2008

2008: last game in original Yankee Stadium

It happened Sunday night in the Bronx, when Yankee Stadium hosted a baseball game for the last time. It went out the way it opened, with a victory, this one by 7-3 over the Baltimore Orioles. Babe Ruth hit the first home run, in 1923, and José Molina hit the last, a two-run shot to left that broke a tie in the fourth inning.

The Yankees held off elimination with the victory, the eighth in their final nine games at Yankee Stadium. Andy Pettitte, the winning pitcher, worked into the sixth inning, waving his cap to the fans, who never stopped cheering until he took a curtain call.

“The way I feel emotionally right now, and just physically so drained, it feels like a huge postseason win for us,” Pettitte said, standing on the infield grass after the game. “I kind of feel embarrassed saying that, because unless a miracle happens, we’re not going to the postseason. But it was special.”

Manager Joe Girardi compared it to the seventh game of the World Series, because the Yankees could not afford to lose, and it felt that way for many reasons. From the bunting along the upper deck, to the United States Army Field Band, to the mix of excitement and anxiety bubbling up in the guts of the uniformed Yankees, there was no doubt this night would be special.

“I feel as nervous as I was before a playoff game,” said Bernie Williams, back in pinstripes at last, one of more than 20 former Yankees who returned for the pregame ceremonies.

The Yankees opened the gates seven hours early, allowing fans to stroll the warming track for one last walk in the park. Closer to game time, the team unveiled the American League championship flag that was raised on the first opening day, in 1923.

Bob Sheppard recorded an introduction, promising to be there to christen the new Yankee Stadium next April 16. A team of stand-ins, dressed in old-time uniforms, marched into center field, representing some of the late Yankees legends.

One by one, the living greats took their positions, all to heartfelt cheers. The children of other standouts — Randy Maris, Michael Munson, David Mantle and others — took their fathers’ places.

Willie Randolph slid into his position, second base, and rubbed dirt on his jersey, reveling in his return to the Yankees. Whitey Ford pretended to lift out the pitcher’s rubber. The fans reprised chants that rang through the walls years ago — “Bob-by Mur-cer!” “Ti-no! Ti-no!” and so on.

Many of the stars not there were shown on the video board in right-center field — Rickey Henderson and Chuck Knoblauch, Sparky Lyle and Orlando Hernández. No mention of Roger Clemens.

The bench was so stuffed that some of the Yankees sat on the dugout roof to watch. Jorge Posada stood on the field, taking photos with a digital camera, just another fan with rich memories of a stadium that always seemed to give his team an edge.

“Especially in 2001,” Posada said. “We were helped by Yankee Stadium, the fans coming here, playing for something more meaningful.”

The former players mingled in the clubhouse before the game, in full uniform, right down to Yogi Berra’s stirrups. Current Yankees scurried around collecting snapshots and autographs.

“It’s remarkable,” said Phil Coke, a rookie pitcher with three weeks in the majors. “Totally and completely blows my mind. I turn around and look over and see Goose Gossage walking around our clubhouse. Wow.”

Derek Jeter said he would miss the walk from the clubhouse to the dugout — down a tunnel, with the Joe DiMaggio sign hanging above. “I want to thank the good Lord for making me a Yankee,” it says, and Jeter tapped it before every game. Jeter would not say, but there seems to be a strong chance the sign will be his.

On Saturday night, Jeter said, he spoke with Jackson about their shared emotions. Both built their legends at Yankee Stadium, but they agreed they would be filled not with sadness, but with pride for having been a part of history. “Make sure you enjoy this,” Jeter said his parents told him recently. “You don’t want to look back and wish you’d done something different.”

Jeter’s parents and sister joined him on the field before the first pitch, as two of George Steinbrenner’s children presented him with a crystal bat for breaking Gehrig’s record for hits at the Stadium. Jeter would get no more hits on Sunday, going 0 for 5, but he went down as the last Yankee ever to bat at Yankee Stadium.

It was Jeter who had the memorable line in 2006, when the Yankees broke ground on the new $1.3 billion Yankee Stadium, saying that the ghosts from the old place would simply move across the street.

There was a sense of sadness and loss amid the celebration. Berra, who had dismissed the renovated Stadium as nothing like the original, nearly broke down at a pregame news conference as he invoked the names of former teammates who have died.

He made jokes, too, saying he wanted to take home plate, and complaining that the yellowed, wool uniform he was given did not quite feel authentic. But Berra, born two years after the Stadium opened, seemed to feel he was losing a part of himself. “It will always be in my heart, it will,” he said, adding later, “I’m sorry to see it over, I tell you that.”

The ceremonial first pitch was thrown by Julia Ruth Stevens, the daughter of the Babe, who beamed as she bounced her toss to Posada. “To Be Continued ...” it said on the scoreboard, beneath a photo of a winking Bambino.

In Ruthian style, the Yankees went ahead twice on home runs. Johnny Damon hit the first, a three-run shot in the third inning that erased a 2-0 Baltimore lead.

When the Orioles tied it in the fourth, Molina came up in the bottom of the inning with a man on second and one out. He had just two homers in 259 at-bats, but he lifted his third onto the netting above the retired numbers, pumping his fists as he put the Yankees ahead, 5-3, with the last homer the Stadium will ever see.

“Nobody thought it was going to be me,” Molina said. “We have A-Rod, we have Abreu, we have Giambi, we have so many guys that can hit home runs, and look who it was — the guy that probably nobody expected.”

As horses carried police onto the field, several Yankees and Orioles gathered at the mound to scoop dirt as souvenirs. Soon, all of the Yankees converged there. Jeter took the microphone, praising the fans as the greatest in the world.

“And we are relying on you to take the memories from this stadium, add them to the new memories to come at the new Yankee Stadium, and continue to pass them on from generation to generation,” Jeter told the crowd.

Then all of the Yankees lifted their caps to the crowd and took a final lap around the field, waving all the way, to the sounds of Sinatra. Not much has gone according to plan for the Yankees this season, but that worked just right.

“It was more the people than the stadium,” Williams said. “You talk about the magic and the aura, but what really made the Stadium was the fans. Concrete doesn’t talk back to you. Chairs don’t talk back to you. It’s the people that are there, that root for you day in and day out. That’s what makes this place magical.”

The legacy of Yankee Stadium, it turns out, was never the title fights or the N.F.L. championships, the papal visits or the World Series. It was the fans. In its final season, the Yankees set a record for attendance, 4,298,543. At the end, the fans were drawn to Ruth’s house in ways he never could have dreamed. (info from The New York Times)

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