Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 25, 2022

The Power, And Importance, Of Memory

A NOTE TO READERS: With Albert Pujols making history and Aaron Judge chasing it, the final days of the longest season are a reminder that memories, in the structured form of history, are the context for measuring greatness in all our games.  Fourteen Septembers ago, on the night of the final game at the old Yankee Stadium, a line from the iconic speech in the climactic scene of “Field of Dreams” was especially true – the memories were so thick, fans had to brush them away from their faces.  As has often been the case in the years since, the following reflection is republished to mark the anniversary of that game.

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 directly 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 batter’s box for left-handed hitters.  All 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 really matter?  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 would scarcely recognize.  Long gone are the days when the monuments were in play in that deepest of centerfields, 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 being built across the street will offer far superior creature comforts for both players and fans.  But still, we all know that tonight 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 walking into center field, or by their presence in the flesh, brings back a flood of memories of all that has happened here.  Right here, on the southwest corner of 161st Street and River Avenue in the Bronx.  Whatever form the concrete and steel around it may have taken, it all happened on this field.

It was here that the Babe homered in the very first game; and here was where he set the home run record that stood for almost two generations.  On this field 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.”

Right here in the months before America went to war, Joltin’ Joe hit, and hit, and hit again; until a record was established that still stands and 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 in a World Series and has yet to be repeated in the Fall Classic.

Across the impossible green of this outfield Mickey ranged, for more games than any other Yankee (a record broken several years later by Derek Jeter), while coming closer than anyone, even the Babe, to smashing a homer all the way over the three decks of seats, over the façade and roof, and on to distant River Avenue.

Right here, right in that left-handed batter’s box below me, Reggie flicked his wrists three times and became Mr. October.  With those three magnificent swings he brought new hope to a city rendered fearful in 1977 by the serial killer known as 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, because the ebb and flow of the Great Game is unfailing.  The visiting Orioles 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 then domination is not his style.  Pettitte is a grinder who pitches to contact and counts on being 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 leftfield to put us ahead.  So now we wait for the last home run at The Stadium.  Because it cannot come from Molina, a .215 hitter whose most recent blast was just his third homer of the year. But after more than eight decades The Stadium has its own mind; awarding Molina a place in its history to remind us that along with the stars, there were thousands of bit players without whom 26 championships would never have been won.

So it comes down to the 9th inning, which for the Yankees and their fans means but one thing.  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 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 for this ground and all that has happened right here.  Then the captain, Derek Jeter, assembles the entire team in the middle of the infield.  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 aging 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 on this side of 161st Street, it’s 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 and cantilevered decks, but of all that has happened here.  Right here.  Right here.  We stay in the stands.  They stay on the field.

It’s closing time.  But on the field and in the stands, no one is ready to leave.

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