Commentary

Stadium farewell rekindles memories of times gone by

Updated: September 22, 2008, 3:04 PM ET
By Wright Thompson | ESPN.com

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.

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Rob Tringali for ESPN.comFans, most armed with digital cameras, get one last tour of Monument Park.
"There are so many people who get that we've lost something very valuable," says Kristi Jacobson, moviemaker and granddaughter of Shor, the famous saloonkeeper. "I don't think people have ever gotten over those losses."

The classy hotel where the Yankees stayed in the Bronx, the Concourse Plaza -- built the same year as Yankee Stadium -- was abandoned and is now a housing project for the elderly. It is where Don Larsen lived when he threw his perfect game in the World Series. FDR and JFK campaigned here. Now, the grand ballroom has been gutted and turned into a courtyard.

On Sunday afternoon, old men played dominoes where they could see the blue seats of the ballpark.

Nearby, resident Gene Williams stood in the vestibule, where celebrities once walked after stepping out of limousines. He would hang out across the street from the hotel and stare. "Marilyn Monroe slept upstairs," he says. "'The House That Ruth Built' brought 'em all. Mink shawls. Mrs. Ruth herself. Oh, those were the good days. Those were the good days."

That, of course, was why everyone came out Sunday. To remember a time gone by. Fans arrived early, turning the few blocks around the stadium into a zoo. Scalpers congregated on the corner of East 161st Street and River Avenue. A policeman walked through them, putting his arm theatrically over his eyes. The scalpers laughed. So did the cop. On this day, dogs and cats were friends.

A car circled the stadium, the man inside taking it all in. It was Bernie Williams, a Bronx legend who hadn't been back to the park since the team told him he was no longer wanted two years ago. On Sunday, he returned home. Before going inside, he wanted to see and remember. "Concrete doesn't talk back to you," Williams says. "Chairs don't talk to you. It's the people. That's what makes this place magical."

On this day, the fans finally got something in return: pregame access to the warning track and area near the green grass of the field. Dusty handprints covered the outfield wall as people pressed their palms up against it. Richard Gere posed for a photo with Paul O'Neill. A father and son stood in Monument Park, trying to take a picture by the DiMaggio marker. The dad, old and nearing the end, used the granite to steady himself as he slowly inched himself around. Then both men grinned like neither had a care in the world.

Near Gate 6, Rob Kerr walked with his brother toward the entrance. Rob proposed to his wife 22 years ago in parking lot 13.

"This will be the last time that we go in this place," he says. "I may cry tonight."

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Rob Tringali for ESPN.comWillie Randolph raises his hands, but it was a triumphant return for all of the former Yankees.
Beneath the stadium, former players came back one last time. Inside the clubhouse, Goose Gossage talked to Carl Pavano. Hideki Matsui looked up from an autograph he was signing to find Williams standing at his locker. Matsui was genuinely thrilled, putting down the baseball, rising and grinning. Williams bowed. Matsui gave his old friend a hug. Reggie Jackson wandered around. So did Don Larsen, and Whitey Ford, and Dave Winfield.

Some of those who are no longer here were represented by family members. During the pregame ceremony, with the full-throated tribute of the crowd, David Mantle trotted to center field, where he was joined by Kay Murcer, the widow of Yankee great Bobby Murcer, who died two months ago of brain cancer at 62. The fans understood that this was a moment when they could show a grieving family how much it was loved. It began to chant "Bob-by Mur-cer," over and over, louder and louder, until the old ballpark was shaking. David Mantle pulled Kay close and the two hugged. The crowd went nuts.

As the first pitch approached, everyone was emotional. Yogi Berra, wearing his old flannel uniform, seemed to tear up. He's one of the few left. Mantle's gone. Drank himself to death. Billy Martin died in a pickup truck crash. DiMaggio's dead. Maris is, too. So many of Yogi's friends are. This was a place where he could commune with them. Now that's gone, too.

"I'm sorry to see it go," he says. "I really do."

The woman who threw out that first pitch perhaps summed up the mood best. Julia Ruth Stevens is 92 years old, and a hip broken several years ago keeps her in a wheelchair a lot of the time. But she walked out to the field and bounced one to Jorge Posada, connecting with one throw the breadth of Yankee history. To her, Babe Ruth wasn't a fictional character or the genesis of an adjective. To her, he was Dad, and even now, she misses him. Seeing this ballpark torn down is personal to her but, after nine decades, she understands a thing or two about mortality. Nothing lasts forever.

"I guess like all things," she says, "it has come to its final days, as we all do."

*****

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.

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Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesMariano Rivera collects dirt from the mound, where he was part of many memorable moments.
At the funeral Duncan sat next to Billy Martin, who wept the entire time. DiMaggio himself came. In the years that followed, when they'd need a little Yankee magic, she and her sister would call on Pete, whispering "Come on, Grandpa, save us."

"I can definitely feel his presence," she says.

I ask if she thinks his presence will follow the team across the street.

"I hope so," she says.

She doesn't sound convinced.

She returned to her seat, and the action flew by. It seemed like the game had just started when the sound system began to play "Enter Sandman" for the final time, ushering Mariano Rivera in. He made quick work of the Orioles, and at 11:41 p.m. ET, the final game at Yankee Stadium ended.

*****

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.

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Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesDerek Jeter and the rest of the Yankees saluted the crowd and bid a fond farewell to the stadium.
"There are a few things about the New York Yankees that will never change," he says.

That's when one lone fan screamed in response: "Boston sucks!"

When Jeter finished addressing the crowd, he led the team on a lap around the stadium, waving to the fans. Everyone seemed to realize this was really the end, and -- as if regressing to the first time they fell in love with Yankee Stadium -- turned into children again.

Mariano Rivera dug a big scoopful of dirt from the mound. He gathered his entire family for a photo atop it.

"I will miss this mound," he says.

Bernie Williams walked with his family toward center field. He's missed it out there, too: the way the grass feels, the way the crowd chants your name. The Bleacher Creatures didn't disappoint. "Ber-nie Will-iams." Over and over again. He waved and pumped his fist. His family didn't stop smiling. They were all there, together, finally. Bernie, like most of the Yankees, took a cup of dirt, too.

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Rob Tringali for ESPN.comThe Bleacher Creatures were still hanging around, not wanting to go home an hour after the game.
More than a half-hour after the last out, the public-address system crackled to life once more, asking everyone to leave. Few people moved. Again, the voice boomed out over the stadium.

There have been many, many words spoken in Yankee Stadium. Rockne may or may not have said "Win one for The Gipper." Gehrig said he was the luckiest man on the face of the earth. A sick Ruth broke down after giving his farewell speech and wept in front of a friend, saying "I'm gone." Nelson Mandela stood here after being released from prison and said "I am a Yankee." But after 85 years, these were the last words: "Once again, ladies and gentlemen, please clear the stands. Arrive home safely. We'll see you in the new Yankee Stadium. Good night."

About an hour later, as the Major League Baseball authenticators placed holograms on home plate, the pitching rubber and the final ball, and New York City cops put dirt in popcorn bags and pretended to pitch from the mound, the lights began to go off, row by row, a popping noise accompanying each advancing beachhead of darkness.

*****

Three hours after the last game at Yankee Stadium ended, I walked through the 3 a.m. New York streets. There was one more place I wanted to see. It didn't take long to arrive at West 51st, the sky getting brighter the closer I got to Times Square.

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 wrightespn@gmail.com.

Wright Thompson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Wright Thompson (@wrightthompson) is a senior writer for ESPN.com and The Magazine. He has been featured in seven editions of Best American Sports Writing and lives in Oxford, Mississippi.

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