Sunday, September 21, 2008
After 85 years of memories, fans, players honor Yankee Stadium
NEW YORK -- The final farewell was left to Derek Jeter.
Microphone in hand, the New York captain stood on the mound and addressed the 54,610 fans who came to say so long to Yankee Stadium.
"So take the memories from this stadium, add it to the new memories that come with the new Yankee Stadium and continue to pass them on from generation to generation," he said Sunday night.
And with his words echoing throughout the 85-year-old ballpark -- eerily reminiscent of famous goodbyes from the past -- he shut the door and turned off the lights.
The winning tradition that began with a 4-1 victory over the Boston Red Sox on April 18, 1923, ended with a 7-3 triumph over the Baltimore Orioles on Sunday night, a bittersweet evening in which the Yankees staved off postseason elimination rather than add another title to their vast collection.
Next April 16 they open a $1.3 billion palace nearing completion across 161st Street, which also will be called Yankee Stadium. But it will not be the same.
With a yellowish moon rising out beyond left-center, Mariano Rivera took his family out to Monument Park 40 minutes after the final out. The grounds crew filled dozens of white buckets with infield dirt -- multimillionaire players on both teams had knelt to scoop up the famous soil from the mound and home plate area, stuffing it into their pockets, much like a few fans did on the warning track earlier in the day.
Before the game, even Yogi Berra knew this was the end. One of the game's most beloved players stood beneath the stands in a full vintage uniform. Now 83, the man who coined the phrase "It ain't over till it's over" put his own stamp on the day.
"I'm sorry to see it over, I'll tell you that," Berra said.
Fans stayed around for 45 minutes, not wanting to walk through the exits one last time. Frank Sinatra's recording on "New York, New York" boomed out over and over. The organist played "Goodnight, Sweetheat, Goodnight." Two dozen mounted police galloped onto the field after the final out. The one fan who ran on the field was quickly tackled.
Johnny Damon and Jose Molina homered, Andy Pettitte got the victory and Rivera threw the final pitch at 11:41 p.m., retiring Brian Roberts on a grounder to first baseman Cody Ransom.
Appropriately enough, the final Yankees player to bat in the House that Ruth Built was Jeter, whose grounder to third ended the eighth. He was removed with two outs in the ninth and took the final curtain call.
But first, all the greats were remembered during a 65-minute pregame ceremony that included 21 retired players, six of them Hall of Famers.
"I feel like I'm losing an old friend," Reggie Jackson told the crowd.
Bob Sheppard, the 90-something public address announcer who started in 1951, read the opening welcome. He missed this season because of illness but recorded his greeting and the introduction of the Yankees starting lineup.
The 1922 American League pennant, the first to fly in the ballpark, was unfurled in the black batter's eye beyond center field. Young men and boys were introduced representing the Opening-Day lineup in 1923.
Fans took advantage of the opportunity to roam the field before the final game at Yankee Stadium.
Then came the living Yankees who make the stadium a standard for excellence.
Willie Randolph slid into second base when he was announced. Fan favorite Paul O'Neill pointed to the Bleacher Creatures in right field. Bernie Williams, back at the ballpark for the first time since the Yankees cut him two years ago, received the longest ovation, which lasted nearly 2 minutes. Don Larsen scooped up dirt from the pitcher's mound in a plastic cup, assisted by Whitey Ford.
Accompanying them were the sons of some deceased stars: Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Billy Martin and Thurman Munson, joined by the wives of Catfish Hunter, Bobby Murcer and Phil Rizzuto, the daughter of Elston Howard and Murcer's son and daughter.
No mention was made of Roger Clemens, whose legacy has been clouded by accusations he used performance-enhancing drugs. George Steinbrenner, the team owner since 1973, did not attend.
Julia Ruth Stevens, 92-year-old daughter of the Babe, threw out the ceremonial first pitch before a crowd of 54,610 -- bringing the stadium total to 151,959,005.
"I'm very, very sad to think that the Yankee Stadium is not going to be in existence any longer," she said. "I wish it could have remained as a New York landmark, but I guess like all things it has come to its final days as we all do."
Outside the stadium, the marquee that usually has the day's start time and opponent said: "Thanks for the Memories."
When Damon hit a three-run homer in the third inning, the ball was caught by Brian Elmer, salesman from Trenton, N.J. -- and a Mets fan.
"This is my first time here," he said.
Molina put the Yankees ahead 5-3 with a two-run homer in the fourth, caught beyond the fence in left-center by a fan from Colorado who would identify himself only as Steve.
"I'm a Yankees fan, have been all my life," he said. "I just took my boys out here and my older brother who's a crazy Yankees fan and we wanted to come out here for the last game at Yankee Stadium, just like a lot of folks."
The bat that Damon used and Molina's spikes were immediately given to the Hall of Fame.
In the seventh, a video was played of Sheppard reading a poem:
"Farewell old Yankee Stadium, farewell/What a wonderful story you can tell/DiMaggio, Mantle, Gehrig and Ruth/A baseball cathedral in truth/Farewell."
Fans wore a collection of jerseys that could fill a Hall of Fame. On one subway car alone, there were shirts with Jeter's No. 2, the Babe's No. 3, Mickey Mantle's No. 7, Phil Rizzuto's No. 10 and Don Mattingly's No. 23.
The crowd was allowed on the field starting at 1 p.m. and entered through the left-field seats not far from where Aaron Boone's pennant-clinching home run landed five years ago.
Basketball coach Bob Knight and actors Matthew Modine, Richard Gere and Val Kilmer were among those spotted in the seats.
Glenn Bartow and his 13-year-old daughter arrived more than 12 hours before the game began at 8:36 p.m., and were the first ones into Monument Park.
"We come every Sunday," Emily Bartow said.
This Sunday was the very last.
Visitors touched the 24 plaques and six monuments, posed next to them for family photos. Under the kind of cloudless sky that made people recall summer days of yore, they slowly circled the warning track. Those who could not walk were pushed along in wheelchairs. Parents brought strollers to make sure toddlers got to experience the great ballpark before it is dismantled.
Jeter, likely to get a plaque of his own years from now in the new Yankee Stadium, said Saturday was the first time he looked around and tried to soak in the memories -- the three big decks filled with fans, the sign in the tunnel from the clubhouse to the field with the Joe DiMaggio quote: "I want to thank the Good Lord for making me a Yankee."
"Just driving in, I think it really starts to hit you, that this is the last time," he said. "When you take the field, you're constantly reminded of the history that's been here before you."
Yankees manager Joe Girardi went onto the field early to sign autographs. Mike Mussina and Alex Rodriguez posed for photos with rooters. Joba Chamberlain even took fans' cell phones and shouted messages to their family and friends.
Williams had his car circle the ballpark one last time before he walked in.
"All the memories that I have here, I know that I'm going to have to keep them in my head because this place is not going to be any longer," Williams said. "There is a part of me that feels very sad about watching the stadium go."
Berra, a 10-time champion often considered the greatest living Yankee, didn't really need any more souvenirs -- although he said he wouldn't mind leaving with the final home plate of the ballpark he loved.
"I hate to see it go," he said. "It will always be in my heart."