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The Final Game
Posted By Cliff Corcoran On September 22, 2008 @ 1:41 am In Cliff Corcoran | Comments Disabled
I spent nearly 12 hours at Yankee Stadium yesterday. What follows, believe it or not, is the short version of that experience.
On Saturday, the Yankees announced that they would allow fans to walk the perimeter of the field between 1:00 and 4:00 yesterday afternoon. Eager to take advantage of that opportunity, Becky and I arrived at the Stadium just before 1:00. As we came over the pedestrian bridge, past the smokestack bat toward Gate 4 behind home plate, we saw a significant, but not overwhelming crowd and decided that we could afford to scoot up 161st street to grab a couple of sandwiches, which would keep us from having nothing to eat but the bleachers’ limited menu of ballpark food for the ten or eleven hours we expected to be inside the Stadium. As we walked by, Gate 4 was opening for the last time on a gameday.
After getting our grub, we queued up at Gate 2 behind left field based on the thought that Gate 2 was closer to Monument Park and thus would put us closer to our eventual destination as the fans were to be let onto the field from the park. The security at Gate 2 was extremely well organized and was allowing fans to enter in large waves so as to control traffic. We entered with the third wave, no later than 1:30, and proceeded to follow the crowd past the entrance to Monument Park and up the series of ramps in the far left-field corner of the Stadium.
After following the line all the way up to the top Tier level, we followed it around the bowl of the Stadium, all the way to the far right-field corner, then down the ramp one level and back several sections before finally turning around and coming to rest at its end. The line we were on stretched all the way back up to the top right-field corner of the Stadium, back around to the left-field corner, back down the ramps to the Main Level, out into the left field stands, into Monument Park, out onto the warning track heading toward right field, and around the perimeter of the field.
By 3:00, we were just to the right-field side of home plate on the Tier level. At a bit before 4:00, we were half-way down the third baseline, still on the Tier level, and word was starting to spread that the field had been closed. Poking my head out into the stands, I confirmed that fact. Uninterested in spending another two and a half hours in line on the off chance that we’d get to see Monument Park one last time, Becky and I took off for the Main Level to walk around the lower deck.
One reason that we, as well as the thousands of others ahead and behind us on line, did not get onto the field is that the fans that did get the privilege were allowed to linger, to meander, to stop for multiple photographs, and to tour the visitors’ dugout. I still can’t decide if I would have preferred Stadium staff to hustle the fans around the field in order to give more of them the opportunity, or if I’m pleased that those that did get there early enough were allowed to soak in the experience at their own pace.
As we circled the Stadium, separated from our original destination on the field by the Main Boxes and the Stadium security which guarded the chains keeping the hoi polloi out of said Boxes, Becky and I took in the beautiful late-summer day and the beloved old ballpark. Near the visitors dugout, Joe Girardi approached the fans on the field to meet, greet and sign autographs. As we passed behind Jane Lang and Laramie , Phil Coke was doing the same in the home-plate corner of the home dugout. Word had it that Mike Mussina had also been out earlier signing for the fortunate few who did set foot on the field. Soon after, Alex Rodriguez approached the meandering fans. As the fans on the field receded, it became clear just how extensive the swarm of media in front of the Yankee dugout was. I snapped a quick photo of the “Baseball Tonight” crew during a commercial break, but otherwise paid the horde little mind.
After breathing the park in from the seating bowl, Becky and I attempted to make our way to our right field bleacher seats. The staff member guarding the right field boxes told us to head back toward Monument Park in left field where we would be led behind the park and into the bleacher section. Once there, we encountered a pair of roadblocks and were told to wait where we were by a female cop directing traffic while standing on a chair and blocking the sun from her face by holding her hat in her hand. After standing in that same sun for a bit too long, a Stadium staffer of higher authority informed us and the other bleacher-ticket holders that had assembled there that we had to go to Gate 6, back in right field, to get to our seats.
As frustrating as all of this was, it gave us an accidental tour of large swaths of the Stadium, sending us to nooks and crannies I’d never seen before, and eventually through the old Yankee bullpen in right field to get to our usual Section 37. Once we were in place, the Yankees were on the field stretching in a circle, which I assume is a formation introduced by Joe Girardi.
Jason Giambi put on the best show in batting practice, littering the upper deck in right field with abused baseballs, though a few came off his bat and others’ into our section, and Zack Hample (seen in the lower left of the above photo) managed to snag several in the nearest corner of the right field box seats, throwing on an Orioles cap and a Cal Ripken t-shirt when the Yankees departed the field and the O’s came out for BP.
After the Orioles cleared the field, the United States Army Field Band emerged from Monument Park to play a pair of John Philip Sousa marches, echoing the band led by Sousa himself before the Stadium’s first game in 1923. That was a particularly rousing beginning to a fine ceremony in which the Stadium’s original 1922 American League Championship banner was unveild on the black batters’ eye in center field, and Yankee greats from Babe Ruth to Bernie Williams were remembered in something of a alternative Old-Timers’ ceremony that first featured actors in vintage uniforms representing the original 1923 Opening Day lineup as well as past greats including Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Lefty Gomez, Red Ruffing, Bill Dickey, Joe McCarthy and Casey Stengel, then saw the more recent players themselves (or immediate family members of those who have passed) trot out in full uniform to their respective positions, concluding with center field, occupied by Mickey Mantle’s son David, Bobby Murcer’s wife and kids, and Bernie Williams in his first trip back to the Stadium since he was forcibly retired.
Willie Randolph took his position at second base by sliding into the bag, then rubbing extra dirt on his uniform. Don Larsen spent his down time on the pitchers’ mound filling a cup with the Stadium’s dirt. A recent recording made by Bob Sheppard then introduced the Yankees’ starting lineup. The Army Field Band played the National Anthem. Babe Ruth’s 92-year-old daughter threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
The game itself demanded more attention than Saturday’s almost non-existent, albeit ulimately stirring, 1-0 win. The Orioles got single runs off Andy Pettitte in the second and third to take an early lead, but Johnny Damon delivered a three-run homer to left field in the bottom of the third to give the Yankees a brief 3-2 lead. That home run would prove to be the last to land in the area once known as Ruthville. Pettitte coughed up another run in the fourth, tying the game at three all, but the Yankees answered right back in the least probable manner when Robinson Cano drew a leadoff walk and Jose Molina homered into the net above the retired numbers in left. Molina’s two-run shot put the Yankees ahead for good and stands as the last home run hit in Yankee Stadium, echoing fellow back-up catcher Duke Sims’ shot in the final game of the original Stadium in 1973.
With his team ahead 5-2, Joe Girardi pulled Andy Pettitte after Adam Jones led off the sixth with a single. Jose Veras, Phil Coke, and Joba Chamberlain kept the O’s from drawing any closer, and the Yankees padded their lead in the bottom of the seventh. Bobby Abreu led off that frame with a single, stole second, and moved to third on Alex Rodriguez’s fly out to the gap in right center. Jason Giambi then singled Abreu home and was pinch-run for by Brett Gardner. On the 2-1 pitch to Xavier Nady, Gardner took off for second base. Nady hit a sharp grounder to shortstop where utility man Brandon Fahey, who had been insterted the previous inning, booted the ball. Gardner, almost without hesitation, broke for third base as the ball rolled away from Fahey and slid safely into third base head-first. Robinson Cano then lifted a fairly shallow fly ball down the left field line, but Gardner still tagged up, easily beating a bad throw from left fielder Jay Payton to set the score at 7-3 .
With that, all that was left to do was to get the ball to Mariano Rivera. Chamberlain accomplished that with a seven-pitch eighth inning. Rivera then got a trio of groundouts to earn the save and bring an end to baseball at Yankee Stadium. The last play was a groundball to first base by Brian Roberts that Cody Ransom scooped up and took to the bag himself just ahead of Rivera, who was coming to cover.
The field was immediately swarmed by mounted police in riot gear, who guarded the field from intruding fans. As the Yankees lined up to congratulate each other on the win and on staving off elimination for one more day (the Red Sox won earlier in the day, clinching a tie for the Wild Card), one fan burst through the police line from the right field stands, spooking a horse, but was smothered by police and security in front of the bleachers. As he was led off the field, the Yankees congregated on the pitchers mound and Derek Jeter addressed the crowd, leading his teammates in a salute to the fans, then taking them on a farewell lap around the field.
When the players arrived back at the home dugout, their wives, girlfriends, children, and parents joined them on the field, as did some of the old timers now wearing suits, most prominent among them Bernie Williams, who headed back out toward center field with his family, eliciting repeated chants of his name by the bleacher creatures, each of which Bernie acknowledged enthusiastically. Several players could be seen filling cups or pockets with dirt, typically from their position on the field.
As Frank Sinatra’s version of the theme to “New York, New York” repeated over the public address system, the scene on the field morphed into an after party, as old friends and family, some in uniform, some in suits, some in casual dress, mingled, hugged, and tried to soak in as much as they could before that inevitable moment came when they had to leave the field. The scene in the stands was much the same. While some filed out, many others, including Becky and myself, remained, soaking it in, taking and posing for pictures, and simply enjoying our remaining moments in the old park and with those around us.
It still hasn’t sunk in that I’m never going back. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way.
All photographs (c) Cliff Corcoran, 2008
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