NEW YORK – And so, before they turned out the lights a final time on Yankee Stadium, they asked Derek Jeter to be equal to the big stage one more time. Not with his glove or his bat, but with a hand-held microphone.
"I was scared to death," Jeter said of standing in front of the mound, surrounded by his teammates and addressing the throng of 54,610 that had come to bid farewell to Yankee Stadium. "When I was younger, I used to get really, really nervous when you have to do an oral report in front of 25 people.
"I guess I've come a long way."
It was unscripted – Jeter did not write down a word beforehand, he said. He wasn't even sure he would speak until club officials, who had approached him with the idea a couple of days earlier, came to him just before the game and said they were proceeding with their plan.
"I didn't know what to expect," he said. "I really didn't know what I was going to say. I had an idea. Specifics, I didn't know."
Last week, Jeter had distinguished himself by surpassing Lou Gehrig for the most hits in Yankee Stadium. Sunday night, when so many Yankees past and present took a final pinstriped curtain call – Yogi and Whitey, Reggie and the Goose, A-Rod and Mo (but oddly, barely a mention of George Steinbrenner or Joe Torre) – there were distant echoes of a dying Gehrig, standing in front of another Yankee Stadium crowd and declaring himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.
"For all of us here," Jeter said in the aftermath of a 7-3 New York Yankees win over the Baltimore Orioles in the last of 6,580 games played here, "it's a huge honor for us to put this uniform on and come out here and play every day.
"There's a lot of tradition, a lot of history and a lot of memories. The great thing about those memories, you're able to pass them along from generation to generation. And while a lot of things are going to change – we're moving across the street – there are a few things that aren't going to change. That's pride, tradition, and most of all, we know we have the greatest fans in the world.
"We want to have you take the memories of this field, add them to the new memories that will come at the new Yankee Stadium and continue to pass them on from generation to generation. We just want to take this moment to salute you, the greatest fans in the world."
And then, to the accompaniment of Sinatra's "New York, New York," Jeter led his teammates – Andy Pettitte, who started and won the last game here, Johnny Damon, who hit a three-run home run to erase an early 2-0 deficit, light-hitting catcher Jose Molina, who will go down as the last Yankee to homer here – in a long, slow lap around the field.
On deck, the wrecking ball.
The sign that can be seen from the Major Deegan Expressway, the one that announces when and whom the Yankees play next, bore a different message Sunday.
"Thanks for the memories," it said.
Across 161st Street, atop the shiny billion-dollar palace still under construction, a new sign had been set in place a couple of days earlier. "Yankee Stadium," it proclaimed in 10-foot letters.
Sunday night, the old hardball cathedral, proclaimed at birth 85 years ago as The House That Ruth Built, was given last rites. Julia Ruth Stevens, Babe's 92-year-old daughter and self-proclaimed Red Sox fan (a conversion caused by years of living in New Hampshire), helped pronounce benediction with the ceremonial first pitch.
"I said the other day that playing in Yankee Stadium is sort of like performing on Broadway," said Jeter, who was presented a Waterford crystal bat by Steinbrenner's son, Hal, for his record-setting hit.
"I've never performed on Broadway," Jeter said. "But it seems like every time you play at Yankee Stadium the lights are a little bit stronger here, just like you're performing on stage. I always dreamt of doing it, but it's been above and beyond anything I've ever dreamt of. You just don't realize how special this place is."
Unlike so many other autumns for a team that has won 26 World Series, 39 American League pennants, and made 47 postseason appearances, much of the drama had to be manufactured in the final game. The Yankees were trying to avoid the embarrassment of elimination from playoff contention on the same night they were closing the Stadium. The Red Sox had won earlier in the day; a loss and the Yankees officially would be out of the wild-card race.
(Not that Yankee fans had lost any of their native insouciance. The garment of choice for one spectator Sunday night was a sweatshirt that read, "Hey Red Sox fans, there never was a curse, your team just sucked.")
So the Yankees trotted out stars, past and present, decked out in the uniforms they wore when they played, or at least that was the idea. "They said this was an authentic uniform," said 83-year-old Yogi Berra, who has played on more World Series winners (10) than anybody. "I don't know. We had woolen uniforms, but nothing like this."
Bob Sheppard, the public address announcer who for more than 50 years made it sound like God speaking when he moved his lips, was unable to attend because of the bronchial illness that had sidelined him all season. But he sent pretaped messages, including one in which he recited the Yankees starting lineup. "They've offered me a car service," Sheppard told the New York Daily News. "They would probably send an ambulance or maybe a hearse, if that's what was required. I just don't think it would be prudent."
The M and M boys, Mantle and Maris, both deceased, were represented by their sons, David Mantle and Randy Maris, both of whom bear startling resemblances to their dads.
Billy Martin Jr. was there for his father, as was Michael Munson for his. Cheryl Howard, the daughter of Yankees catcher Elston Howard, stood at home plate with Berra and Joe Girardi, the former Yankees catcher and current manager. Kate Murcer, hand in hand with her children Todd and Tori, strolled out to center field as the crowd watched highlights of Bobby Murcer, the Yankees outfielder and broadcaster who died in July of brain cancer. Helen Hunter, widow of Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter, was embraced by Ford and Larsen and Hunter's old teammate, Ron Guidry, while Rivera escorted Phil Rizzuto's widow, Cora, to shortstop.
Willie Randolph, fired by the Mets as manager in June, returned here, where he had served as captain and coach, to a roar of approval, which grew louder when he slid into second base, nearly upending a TV cameraman.
Berra, asked what he'd like to keep as a memento, didn't hesitate. "Home plate," he said.
Pettitte said he hoped to buy the pitching rubber. Jason Giambi said he planned to take his locker, first base, and hopefully a few seats from the upper deck. "I hit a few balls up there," he said. Don Larsen, who threw a perfect game in the 1956 World Series, a singular accomplishment, scooped dirt from the pitching mound into a plastic cup with the help of the Chairman of the Board, Whitey Ford. Mariano Rivera, who fittingly closed out the Orioles, Brian Roberts rolling out to first baseman Cody Ransom for the final out, said, when asked if he planned to claim any dirt for himself, said: "I'm going to get a bucket."
Damon, who called the day "kind of nerve-wracking" because of the pressure not to lose the finale, had grander designs for a souvenir. "I'm still hoping the foul poles end up in my yard," he said. "Unfortunately, that may be a couple of years, but I don't think too many people would know what to do with them. But I've got a perfect spot for them."
Bids for the demolition of the stadium reportedly are not scheduled to be accepted until after the first of the year; the city doesn't expect to finish tearing it down until spring, after the new stadium opens. The city and the team plan to sell mementos – fans were warned they'd be prosecuted if they tried to take anything, though officials overlooked the fans chipping yellow paint off the foul poles.
The demand for keepsakes was far less pronounced in 1973, when Yankee Stadium underwent an extensive two-year renovation. One man, author-historian Bert Randolph Sugar, reportedly hauled away 17 U-Hauls worth of stuff, including Ruth's old bat bag, underwear still inside.
"I think it was more the people, not the stadium," said Bernie Williams, who returned from a self-imposed two-year exile to take part in the pregame ceremonies and received one of the night's biggest ovations. "You can talk a lot about the magic, the aura, but what really made the stadium was the fans.
"Concrete doesn't talk back to you. Chairs don't talk back to you. It's the people who were there that root for you, day in, day out, that makes this place magic."
Hideki Matsui put off knee surgery so he could play.
"Today, I was just trying to imprint everything on my heart," said Matsui, adding that George Steinbrenner's absence had registered with him in a significant way.
"It's very sad," he said. "This is his team, and in a way, this is his stadium. It was kind of sad he wasn't able to make it."
Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson said he did his crying a night earlier.
"I was sitting alone in the black, in the center-field bleachers," said Jackson of his visit to the place where he'd hit the last of his epic three home runs in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series. "I went over there with security. That's where I had my tears.
"I had my 'feeling sorry about things,' if you will. They weren't sad tears; they weren't happy tears. They were tears of joyous emotion of having had the opportunity to have played here, to have been in the Stadium, done things in the Stadium, that I was able to do because I played for the Yankees, and because George Steinbrenner brought me here.
"I looked at the ballpark, I looked at the field. I appreciated it. I respected it."
Williams, a skilled guitarist, was asked what music he would have chosen for the occasion.
"I would probably say, 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame,' " he said. "A very sad rendition of 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame.' "
- Yankee Stadium
- George Steinbrenner
- Yogi Berra