NEW YORK – The old ballpark wouldn't let go.
And so they played late into a summer evening, early into a summer morning, by then playing just to play, no sunset, no dinner bell, no mom on a front porch tapping her toe.
In a farewell of sorts, they played the 79th All-Star game to every gritty corner of Yankee Stadium.
They threw through sore arms and swung over tired legs and sweat across everything.
For nearly five hours, for 15 innings, 63 men played ball, got dirty, laughed at the absurdity of it, groaned at the tease of it, and finally slumped over at the end of it.
"Amazing," Mariano Rivera said wearily. "Just amazing. But, you know what, we won it."
The American League won again, this time by 4-3, but it wasn't the outcome that honored the occasion. In what just might be the final national event here, this was as much about the moment before the victory, about Justin Morneau at 220 pounds bracing himself against the third-base bag and trying to outrun a baseball. This was about Corey Hart jab-stepping beneath that baseball, Brian McCann setting up in front of home plate, Michael Young begging that baseball to carry a few more feet, DeMarlo Hale clearing his voice so Morneau would hear him scream, "Go! Go! Go!" above all the other screams.
The ballpark was erected for just those moments, built for the drama, brought down nightly by the result. And so nine innings clearly weren't enough. Managers Terry Francona and Clint Hurdle held the scorecards, the ballpark held the script.
The fans cheered the Yankees, and there was not a single Yankee in the game when it was decided.
They booed the Red Sox, and J.D. Drew was the MVP.
The AL had nearly as many runners thrown out at home – three – as it had cross safely. And even then, the last one managed it by an inch or three, a breath ahead of McCann's tag, three ahead of plate umpire Derryl Cousins' game-ending call.
"This city," Hurdle said, "has a flair for the dramatic and the brilliant, and it did not disappoint."
Afterward, Morneau packed his duffel bag. He'd won the Home Run Derby the night before, when Josh Hamilton was supposed to win. He'd scored the run, when Hart was supposed to throw the big lug out.
He looked up and smiled.
"That was an unbelievable night," he said.
Sweat matted orangey curls to his head.
"One of the slowest guys on the field out there, shallow fly," he recounted. "I thought I was out until I saw (McCann) reach across the plate for the ball."
He was asked if it felt like it took forever to cover those 90 feet.
He spread his arms and smiled, like, look at this body, built for power.
"It always feels like it's taking forever," he said.
Hale screamed. Morneau went.
"All right," he thought, "let's see how fast I can go."
His legs, he said, felt heavy. OK, heavier. He'd only entered the game in the sixth inning, but that was 10 innings before.
"Like I was running in quicksand," he said. "I had just enough left in the tank."
He had left behind an epic game on an epic night. They all had. New York had shouted itself hoarse, the old girl on 161st Street and River Avenue had cleaned up nice, the roll call emanating from the right-center field bleachers had held only three names: Derek Jeter, A-Rod and, sweetly, Bobby Murcer.
Murcer, a former Yankee star, died Saturday.
Later, after the second inning, an image of Murcer on the scoreboard brought a standing ovation.
Four Hall of Famers, all of them former Yankees, threw out ceremonial first pitches to four current Yankees. The baseballs were ferried to them by none other than George Steinbrenner, ferried himself from left field in a golf cart, stadium lights glistening off his aviator sunglasses.
Yankees were cheered wildly. Red Sox were met with disgust. You know, like a regular game.
Except two hours before it, Kevin Youkilis had arrived at Jeter's locker with a fistful of three baseballs, offering them with some shyness. Jeter accepted them coolly, one by one, signed them and handed them back. Then he walked away. It wasn't a totally chummy moment.
Then, one by one, they trotted to the field and trudged off. The only guy who didn't – Tim Lincecum – started the day exhausted and dehydrated, rather than ending it that way.
At one point, one of the American Leaguers announced in the dugout, "If this game goes any longer, I'm going to have to put eye-black on."
"Everybody's just crying uncle," AL reliever George Sherrill said, "waiting for it to get over."
Alas, the game wasn't on their schedule. Commissioner Bud Selig, bitten by something like it six years ago, decided there would be no tie. The players on the field would decide it, even if it meant position players pitching, pitchers playing positions, eight guys a side, whatever it took. And so they pressed onward, the game carried them onward, the ballpark insisting on it.
Until it finally let go.