The things we forget: Part I
Closing Yankee Stadium was one of the biggest stories of the year
This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's Dec. 15, 2008, issue. Subscribe today!
"The Things We Forget" is a chronicle of 2008 in sports. It is presented in 11 parts. This is Part 1, on the closing of Yankee Stadium. At the bottom of this piece, you can navigate to the other 10 parts.
BEFORE THE LAST game at Yankee Stadium, Derek Jeter sat in his sock feet.
The story behind the story
I've long been obsessed with memory -- why I can remember innocuous snippets from my long-ago youth but my wedding is kind of a blur -- or the way memories are "jogged." Could we really remember everything we've ever done if only we could find the right key? So when The Magazine asked me to write about the year in sports in 2008 -- an amazing and eventful year, from David Tyree's Super Bowl catch to the last game at old Yankee Stadium -- I got stuck on the idea of what we would remember and what we would forget. The strange thing is (or maybe it's the perfectly logical thing), rereading the story now reminded me of how much of that epic reporting trip I had forgotten. It was crazy and rainy and blurry, and I ate horribly and didn't sleep very much, but you'd think I'd remember talking to Michael Phelps or Josh Hamilton. I don't really.
I remember the smaller things. I don't remember much of my conversation with Annika Sorenstam, for instance, but I remember that we saw deer during it. I remember the knife stuck into my cheeseburger at Michael Munson's restaurant in Canton, Ohio. (I'm pretty sure I can remember every cheeseburger I've ever eaten, in fact.) I remember standing with ESPN's Wright Thompson on the field at Yankee Stadium, the stands empty, the lights still shining, watching them dig home plate out of the red earth. And just now, writing that sentence, I remember that I have a dollar bill somewhere, folded into a square, that I'd filled with that same red dust. I did that so years later, I'd have the right key, but damned if I know where I put it.
Maybe the trouble with getting older isn't that you don't remember anything. Maybe it's that you remember everything. You have so many keys and so many locks, and only occasionally and randomly do you manage to make a match -- and you open a door and find deer or cheeseburgers or Wright Thompson waiting for you.
I think I'm going to go back to bed. -- Chris Jones
Teammates had filled the space in front of his locker with baseballs, jerseys, photographs and lineup cards, and he was making treasures out of ordinary objects by writing his name on them. That night, even the heroes in the room had given themselves permission to believe in the things they used to believe in, to be kids again.
The first time I visited Yankee Stadium was on a family trip from Ontario. I was a kid, 14 or so, and I don't remember much. My only genuine memory is of a food vendor; I wanted one of those big pretzels.
"I got one," the vendor said, "but it's not hot hot."
To me that meant it was warm, which was fine. I gave him my money. He gave me a frozen pretzel.
"I don't want this," I said.
"You touched it," he said. "It's yours."
That was the end of our negotiation. I sulked in my blue plastic seat and sucked on my pretzicle. It remains the single worst food item I've ever eaten, and I was pretty upset about it at the time. But that pretzel is the only reason I remember my first time at the Stadium. It's the only ticket stub I have from that night.
The last game at Yankee Stadium was different. Everyone who was there will keep some small part of Sunday, Sept. 21, 2008, in their head or heart for the rest of their life. They might not remember the trivia of it: that the Yankees beat the Orioles 7-3; that Jose Molina hit the park's final home run; that it was over when Brian Roberts grounded to first. But they'll remember how it felt to be there. They'll remember it the way we remember people and places that meant something to us but now are gone -- as a collage of sights and sounds and smells that our brain has decided is worth keeping and that we have no power to edit or erase. The only universal truth about memories is that we're all younger in them than we are now. Memories were.
Before the game, the Yankees brought Yogi Berra to sit in front of reporters and share his stories. Yogi is 83 years old -- Yankee Stadium was two when he was born -- and he looked all of it. A yellowed, vintage uniform didn't help. "They say this was the kind of uniform we played in," he said, pinching the front of the baggy jersey between thick fingers. "I don't remember this one. We had wool uniforms, but nothing like this." Everybody laughed. Truth is, Berra doesn't remember himself in sepia. What we've seen in black-and-white, he remembers in color. "I think of all the teammates I had…" he said, leaving the thought unfinished because it could end only with those friends in the ground and Yankee Stadium -- Yankee Stadium! -- about to be trucked to a landfill.
"Sorry to see it go," Berra said, with one final Yogism. "I really do."
Sitting at my desk now, I remember how alive I felt that night, how in focus it all seemed. I remember the pregame ceremony that introduced the legends in attendance and those represented by their families. I remember especially Thurman Munson's son, Michael, wearing his father's uniform, standing at home and receiving a slap on the ass from Berra. I don't remember much about the game, but I do remember that Jeter gave a speech after and that I walked out onto the field. I remember what Yankee Stadium looked like from the grass, its grandstands impossibly tall, lights impossibly bright. I remember Mariano Rivera saying, "I'll miss this mound," and scooping up a jug of red earth. I remember a groundskeeper digging up home plate. I remember the sound the lights made when they went out for the final time, pops like flashbulbs in a gangster movie, and I remember what Yankee Stadium looked like when it was dark and empty -- not like death, but like life, waiting to begin again.
But this is what I'll remember most: In the press box that night, everybody talked about the time Wade Boggs rode that cop's horse around the warning track after the Yankees won the Series in 1996. It made me wonder what happened to the horse. Nearly 12 years had passed; I figured the horse was dead.
After the game, I saw a long row of cops on horseback in rightfield. Just maybe. It was a long shot, but what's great about sports is that sometimes long shots come through. Caught up in the night's floodlit optimism, I asked the first cop in line if he knew what happened to Boggs' horse.
"You mean Beau," he replied.
My heart jumped. "Beau?"
"Yeah, Beau. He's retired. Living on a farm upstate."
"Yeah, he's lovin' life."
"Wow. What about the cop?"
"Lieutenant Jimmy Higgins," he said with a smirk. "He's retired too. Sorta."
"He's working security or something?"
"Nah, nothin' like that." The cop was quiet for a long time. "I think he's a nurse," he said. "But don't tell nobody."
A lot can happen in a year. A lot more can happen in 12, or in 85. On a night when it was so hard to tell the beginning from the end, I discovered that Beau the horse is living out his days in a New York pasture and Lieutenant Jimmy Higgins is a nurse.
I'll remember that.
Other Parts of "The Things We Forget"
Part 3: Lance Armstrong and David Tyree
Part 4: Annika Sorenstam
Part 5: Josh Hamilton
Part 6: Venus and Serena Williams
Part 7: The Boston Celtics
Part 8: Rocco Mediate and Tiger Woods
Part 9: Sidney Crosby
Part 10: Thurman Munson's old locker at Yankee Stadium
Part 11: The 2008 World Series
Bonus: See the author's receipts from putting together this story.