"The Things We Forget" is a chronicle of 2008 in sports. It is presented in 11 parts. This is Part 10, on Thurman Munson's old locker in Yankee Stadium. At the bottom of this piece, you can navigate to the other 10 parts.
That final night in the Bronx, all I could think about was Thurman Munson's locker.
It had sat empty in the clubhouse since his plane crashed in his hometown of Canton, Ohio, nearly 30 years ago. I was 5 when he died, and I can remember his death. I hadn't had a chance to meet Munson—to this day, I can only imagine what he would have looked like in the flesh, baboon-assed and glowering—but I felt as though I knew him, and I had believed he was immortal. When you're 5, life is one long beginning; endings are reserved for adults.
I had stood in front of his locker on that September night, peering into the mirror that still hung on the back wall above the blue bench coated with a thin layer of white dust. I could see Munson in that mirror, and I could see myself as a boy. A few hours earlier, his son, Michael, had walked onto the field in his father's stead, in his father's pinstripes. I wanted to know what he remembered and whether he had once believed, the way we all did, that his father was immortal. So after the stadium lights had been extinguished, I pointed my car west into a driving rain, toward Canton.
Thurman Munson came up short of the runway while practicing takeoffs and landings at Canton-Akron Airport on Aug. 2, 1979. He died instantly. At the spot, there is no commemoration, no cross or marker, just a field surrounded by a chain-link fence and a "No Trespassing" sign. Air traffic control pylons whistle a little in the wind.
Some places are made sacred by the people and events that graced them. On that day in 1979, the worlds of many boys were rocked by the impact of a small plane crashing into a tree stump off Greensburg Road. But now the stump has been pulled, and there's nothing sacred about the place where Thurman Munson died. It's just forgettable grass.
Michael Munson is 33 years old. He owns a bar in town called Munson's Home Plate. He wasn't there when I sat down at the bar. "Death in the family," the bartender said. The walls were covered with photographs of Thurman. He was everywhere, including on the menu. The specialty of the house is a cheeseburger they call the Captain. It comes with a knife stuck in the top.
I had just finished mine when Michael walked in. He's a vending machine of a man, with close-cropped red hair and a goatee. A catcher like his father, he played four seasons in the minors for the Yankees and Giants. He looked as though he'd be hard to bowl over.
He dug a bottle of beer from behind his bar and sat down. I didn't mention my trip to the airport, but one of the first things he said was, "I don't want my father to be remembered for a plane crash." The sacred places, the son said, are the places his father lived.
One of them was Yankee Stadium. "The other night, when the announcer said, 'Representing his father, Thurman Munson…' I couldn't hear anything else," he said. "Someone had to push me to run to home plate." After the pregame ceremony, he changed out of his father's uniform and asked Ron Guidry, the former pitcher, to sneak him into the clubhouse. Michael wanted to see his dad's locker one last time.
Memories of his father are vague: a dark figure in the hallway, the outline of a smiling face, a shape against the wall. "It's almost like a shadow," he said. In that way, Michael was like all those other boys when his father died: Thurman Munson was an idea to him, too.
Over time, he colored inside the lines. He tapped into the memories of his mother, his sisters, his father's teammates. "Their memories became my memories," he said. The picture became clearer still when he would visit his dad's locker and the circle of dirt around home plate. Eventually, he tried to summon his father's swing and the way he planted his feet when he threw to second. When he played baseball, Michael heard fans yell terrible things: You're nothing like your dad, or Your father would be ashamed of you. The insults hurt deeply, but in time he learned to turn them into tributes, like the way he wore No. 51, his dad's number reversed.
Now the younger Munson stood in the stillness of the empty clubhouse, peering into the mirror, feeling like himself as a mop-topped little boy. He began to talk to his dad, and he heard his dad talk back. For 15 minutes, they communed in that gooseflesh place, the long-dead father and his only son. "There were some things I had to say," Michael said. "It was now or never." Tears came then, because he was sad about a lot of things. But mostly he was sad that one of the last reminders of his father would be gone after that night, the locker moved to a museum across the street.
"I wish they didn't have to do it," Munson said. "It breaks my heart, to be honest." Closing Yankee Stadium meant his dad was no longer living history. He had been reduced to an artifact. It wouldn't be long before someone parked his car where Thurman Munson had once pulled on his uniform, before walking to a new stadium with new grass and new lockers and a new home plate. Michael Munson said goodbye to a locker that night, and he said goodbye to his dad. He dried his eyes and walked back out to the sound of more cheers. "Some of my memories of that night may fade," he said. "But those few minutes in front of his locker, that's burned into my mind. That night I felt as close to my father as I ever have."
I asked him if he took home a souvenir—if, like Rivera, he pocketed some dirt or blades of grass. "I don't need a jar of dirt to remember who my father was," he said. "I know who my father was."
We said goodbye. He had a baby daughter waiting at home. I imagined him telling her stories about her grandfather one day, and how in those stories, Thurman Munson would be great again.
Later that night I drove through West Virginia, and I thought about Michael Munson. I thought too about my own boys and how I hoped they would remember me. I did not think about Mexico. Normally, West Virginia at night is darker than the dark, but the rain had moved out, and there was a full moon, impossibly bright, and the mountains rose up beyond the shoulders, impossibly tall. I rounded a bend, and the road stretched in front of me, dark and empty—not like death, but like life, waiting to begin again.
Other Parts of "The Things We Forget"
Part 1: The Closing of Yankee Stadium
Part 2: Michael Phelps
Part 3: Lance Armstrong and David Tyree
Part 4: Annika Sorenstam
Part 5: Josh Hamilton
Part 6: Venus and Serena Williams
Part 7: The Boston Celtics
Part 8: Rocco Mediate and Tiger Woods
Part 9: Sidney Crosby
Part 11: The 2008 World Series
Bonus: See the author's receipts from putting together this story.