Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 18, 2011

Reprise: Final Night At The Old Cathedral

A note to readers: The post below was written following the final game played at the old Yankee Stadium on September 21, 2008. It is republished annually to commemorate the anniversary of that event.

One more Sunday in the Bronx. One more ride on the 4 train from Midtown Manhattan up to the 161st Street station. One more winding one’s way up the ramps and along the narrow passageways of The Stadium. One more walk up the entryway behind home plate, and at last out into the open of the Tier, the upper deck with its vertigo-inducing pitch. Down the steep steps of Section 607 to Row A, Seat 16. Second row on the aisle, looking down on the left-handed batter’s box. All of the ballpark is once again spread out before me; from the huge interlocked NY in foul ground behind home plate, out to Monument Park. It is the same routine as at all the many previous games this season, and in seasons past. It is the same, but of course it is entirely different; because this Sunday evening, it’s closing time.

Why should it matter really? The Stadium is ancient. They’ve played the Great Game here for nearly 90 years. The mid-70’s renovation made it an entirely different place that the old heroes might well not recognize. Long gone are the days when the monuments were in play in that deepest of center fields, while the right field foul pole seemed but a pop fly away from home plate. It’s only concrete and steel. And the new stadium across 161st Street will offer far superior creature comforts for both players and fans. But still, we all know that it’s closing time.

What does it matter? The pre-game ceremonies serve to remind. The introduction of a pantheon of heroes, whether by video, by actors, or by their presence in the flesh, brings back a flood of memories of all that has happened here. Here. At this location. Whatever form the concrete and steel around it may have taken, it all happened here. Right here.

Here was where the Babe homered in the very first game. Here was where he set the home run record that stood for almost two generations. And here was where Roger broke it on an October afternoon in 1961.

At this location a still-young hero, cut down by an insidious disease, stared death in the face and pronounced himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

At this location in the months before America went to war, Jolting’ Joe hit, and hit, and hit again; until a record was established that may well defy the maxim that they are all made to be broken.

In this infield, along the first baseline, Yogi leapt into Larsen’s arms to celebrate something that had never been done before, and may never be done again.

Across the impossible green of this outfield Mickey ranged, for more games than any other Yankee.

Years later, right here, right in that left-handed batter’s box below me, Reggie flicked his wrists three times and became Mr. October. And in the process brought new hope to a city obsessed with the Son of Sam.

And here too it was that a previously unsuccessful manager was given one more chance, and found a way to lead a team to phenomenal and repeated success, as an old century ended and a new one began. We are reminded of all of that as prelude, and still we have a game to play.

That game unfolds like so many others. The ebb and flow of the sport is unfailing. They take the early lead, then we come back; but the question of who leads at the end is somehow more important this time. Because it is the last time. Tonight it’s closing time.

Andy Pettitte is not dominant, but perhaps he is good enough to win. After we trail early Johnny Damon homers to bring us back. And then Jose Molina homers into the visitors’ bullpen in left field to put us ahead. And so we wait for the last home run at The Stadium. Because it cannot come from Jose Molina, a .215 hitter whose most recent blast was just his third of the year. But The Stadium has its own mind, and it wants to remind us that along with the pantheon of heroes, there were thousands of bit players without whom 26 championships would never have been won.

So it comes down to the late innings. Which gives us, at the very end, a double dose of joy. First, the joy of glimpsing an aspiring hope for the Yankees’ future; as the passionate 22 year old Joba Chamberlain trots in with one out in the seventh, and proceeds to retire five Orioles on 14 pitches.

And then at last the joy and calming presence of the Yankees’ present and recent past. The bullpen gate opens, he walks through a step or two before pausing a moment on the outfield warning track as always; and then Mariano Rivera, the last active player wearing number 42, begins his jog in to the mound. We fans erupt, and in doing so relax; for we know that victory is at hand. Mo faces three batters, throws eleven pitches, and the final game is won.

And so, at last, it really is closing time.

But we stay. We stay and cheer. Cheer for this place, right here. And then the captain assembles the entire team in the middle of the infield, and setting aside his usual reticence, he acknowledges the history, the tradition, the excellence, and most of all, the fans. He invites us to bring our memories across the street, and by so doing wed them to new memories as yet uncreated and pass the whole history on to the next generation. Then he leads his team around the field in appreciation of us, all four million of us who have walked the ramps and passageways this final year. We are grateful for the latter, and we will of course do the former. But as the clock strikes the beginning of a new day we all know, players and fans alike, that it is closing time.

But still we stay. We cheer. We take pictures. We stand silently. We gaze at the immaculate swath of green and brown through eyes moistened by a flood of remembrances. We are in awe, fans and players alike; not of each other nor of the cement and steel, but of what has happened here. Right here. On this spot. At this location. We stay in the stands. They stay on the field.

It’s closing time. But no one wants to leave.

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