Stadium farewell rekindles memories of times gone by
NEW YORK -- Four hours before the last game at Yankee Stadium began, I walked through the low-ceilinged innards of the place, winding past the clubhouse, finally catching the attention of a worker. I asked him if he could show me what insiders call the Gehrig room, one of the many legends that will be lost when the wrecking balls tear down 85 years of baseball history.He motioned for me to follow. "Don't tell," he says. "I'm not supposed to show you." At the end of a hallway is room BS-003, filled with broken seats, miscellaneous chair parts, paper towels and a motorized cart. Once, it had another purpose. When Lou Gehrig was dying, in his last season, he needed a sanctuary. The story goes that he, too, followed the narrow tunnels until he came here, alone, to this room. A small mural is painted on a post near where he used to sit. "Yankee Captains Forever," it says. The mural will die with the ballpark. The room will be destroyed soon. All of this will.
No place renews itself like New York, where sentiment doesn't impede commerce. Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds are both housing projects. Toots Shor's, the nightclub where Mantle and DiMaggio held court, now holds offices. An entire New York, the New York of Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Cannon, has almost vanished forever. Yankee Stadium was one of the last artifacts left.
When the game began, the crowd settled in to watch the action. The electricity would come later. High up in Tier Reserve 33, Row R, a 33-year-old woman named Elizabeth Duncan sat with her husband, Jon. The people around her had no idea, but she, too, had a special connection with this place. A few stories down, the clubhouse is named for her grandfather, Pete Sheehy. He ran the clubhouse for almost 60 years. He fixed bicarbonate sodas for Ruth, half-cups of coffee for DiMaggio, took care of Mantle and Jackson and Mattingly. It wasn't until he died that his family knew what he meant to so many legends.
Only then did it become clear what this night meant. Sinatra's "New York, New York" kicked in; it would play in a continuous loop for nearly the next half-hour. Fans didn't leave. They didn't sit down. They snapped photographs, and cheered for their favorite players. Orioles and Yankees alike began scooping up cupfuls of the dirt.Then Derek Jeter walked to the center of the field with a microphone. For the first time all day, someone with the Yankees put words to the emotions. He urged those standing in the old ballpark around him not to forget. A building was being torn down, not the events that had happened there. The love, and the joy -- all of that didn't exist in concrete, but rather deep inside a person. "The great thing about memories," he says, "is you're able to pass them along from generation to generation." The place was quiet.
The night was dead. New York had gone to bed, and the only sounds were of pressure sprayers cleaning up Sunday, getting everything ready for Monday. Crossing Sixth Avenue near Radio City Music Hall, with four or five homeless people sleeping in the doorways, I was close.Then I saw it. It was a bank now: 51 West 51st Street. A small plaque gave the story -- the original site of Toots Shor's. There were two cars parked on this side of the street. When Yankee Stadium was in its prime, this block would have been packed with taxis and limos. But that was in the past, left for stories in books and the fading memories of those old enough to have lived it. The players were all somewhere else, and the team's former hotel was a housing project, and Mick and the Clipper and Toots were all gone, and Yankee Stadium was going to be torn down. A block away, a man parked his hot-dog cart on the corner. New York was already waking up. Tomorrow had arrived. Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.