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The Last Goodbye

Yankee Stadium deserved a better sendoff than this. The final game played in the greatest playground in sports history has to share the spotlight with Football Night in America. But don’t blame the NFL, or baseball’s schedule makers. Blame the hosts. Yankee Stadium’s finale was determined by over $200 million of excuses, inconsistency, and failed expectations. Instead of an October homecoming–a rite of passage for a team with 26 World Championships, 39 pennants and 13 straight postseason appearances–the last contest for the House That Ruth Built will be how much money the Yankees will plunder from the city after gutting the place and selling the pieces. No matter how the season would end, the stadium would inevitably be treated like a brothel in its final hours. But it was it’s team’s job of putting that off until AFTER October. Sure, if there’s any team that should be able to script the way it says goodbye to one of the few remaining plots of sacred ground left in America, it’s the Yankees. And Sunday’s contest will be adorned with the same elements that enveloped this year’s All-Star Game.For example, if there’s any pitcher the Bronx Bombers want pitching this last game, it’s their ultimate gamer, Andy Pettitte. The Boss, and the remaining Yankee legends should all be there. But, while the Yankees set the standard for baseball tradition, it’s the franchise’s postseason accomplishments that made the canvas for honoring those who best symbolize pinstriped pride. It would be fitting that the Yankees close the stadium on a cool October night to be announced instead of an otherwise meaningless game against the hapless Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles do have their places in Yankee history. It was Baltimore who purposely threw knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm out of the bullpen to face Roger Maris on a windy Maryland night in the final inning of Game 154 (September 20, 1961) to deny Maris one last blast to tie Babe Ruth’s single season home run record. It was the Orioles whom Bobby Murcer drove-in five runs against only hours after he buried his good friend, Yankee catcher and captain Thurman Munson. It was Orioles’ shortstop Cal Ripken, Jr. who passed the Iron Horse, and it was Baltimore right fielder Tony Tarasco who was robbed by Jeffrey Maier in Game One of the 1996 ALCS, which started the Yankees on their last dynasty. Those footnotes don’t hold a curveball to the history between the Yanks and Red Sox. Like anything else in sports, the right to play that final game should have been earned instead of created. And the only reason Baltimore gets the honors is because its scheduled opponents didn’t play this year like they have the previous 13. Yankee fans, quit blaming injuries. This was a total team effort–or lack thereof. For every Chien-Ming Wang injury, there’s a Curt Schilling chatting on a shelf in Boston. For every win by pitchers Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy, there are losses by Johan Santana for the Mets since the All-Star break. (Hint: zero.) And for every team in the American League East who’ll be playing in October, there’s a Yankee owner in his first season kicking himself for saying goodbye to Joe Torre last offseason. And if you disagree, for every dollar the Steinbrenners spent putting the team together, there is a Yankee hater laughing at you and your pathetic rationale. Need more reasons for a bad year? Here they are in no particular order: 742 runs scored (as of Saturday) versus 968 and 930 each of the previous two seasons. For more perspective, this season the “Bombers” outscored their opponents by only 44 runs thus far, whereas the previous three seasons they beat their rivals by 106, 163 and 191 runs in 2005, ‘06 and ‘07 respectively. That’s just to start. Here’s a few more: Robinson Cano’s lazy letdown; Melky Cabrera’s free-swinging; the Tampa Bay Rays; Andy Pettitte’s “off” season after a tumultuous off-season; Jason Giambi hitting 31 home runs, while doing little else; Hughes and Kennedy; Mariano Rivera’s failing to maintain five different tie ballgames; jumbling Joba Chamberlain from the bullpen to the rotation, to the disabled list, back to the bullpen; Alex Rodriguez’s inflated homer total and a pitiful .268 average with runners in scoring position; Madonna; Ivan Rodriguez’s .228 and three RBIs since joining the Yankees; Hank Steinbrenner; a rotation filled with castoffs and unknowns with last names such as Giese, Ponson, Pavano, Aceves (don’t get your hopes up), Rasner and Igawa; the failure of Brian Cashman and Damon Oppenheimer to develop that young talent they’ve stumped the last two years; Joe Torre managing in Chavez Ravine instead of The Bronx; an overrated bullpen; losing records against sub-.500 teams such as Cleveland, Detroit, Texas, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh while splitting ten games with the lowly Kansas City Royals and getting owned by Toronto and Boston. And finally: they’re just too (darn) old. Here are their core veterans from youngest-to-oldest:  A-Rod is the baby at 33; Derek Jeter, Bobby Abreu, Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui are 34; the battery of Pettitte and I-Rod are 36; Giambi and the injured clubhouse cop Jorge Posada are 37; the most conistent Yankee, the ageless Mariano Rivera is 38, and the rotation’s biggest surprise, Mike Mussina, is 39. In all fairness, nobody knows if Joe Torre could have done a better job than Joe Girardi this season. But all reports from Los Angeles say the clubhouse is in the best mood its been in years–with an aloof Manny Ramirez who was shipped out of Boston. There were too many problems for the pinstripers to blame on a perfect storm. Every team has injuries, but not every team can Band-Aid them the way the Yankees are accustomed to doing. This year, not even the Yankees could buy enough boxes. The fact is, this writer told you back in April if there was a year to bet against the Yankees (paging Mr. Rose?) this would be it. It would be apropos for baseball if Alex Rodriguez hits the final home run in the same place Babe Ruth hit the first, if the future Hall-of-Famer does eventually set the game’s all-time home run record. But his Yankee Stadium legacy will leave behind demons instead of those famous ghosts Derek Jeter assures us will travel next door. It’s curtains for the ‘ole ballpark. The living legends will take their bows and wave their goodbyes, before they head next door next year to christen the House That YOU Built (credit: the New York Daily News). Yes, the remaining heroes of Yankee yesteryear planned on meeting at the corner of 161st Street and River Avenue tonight as soon as the 2008 schedule was printed. But those same favorite all-time Yankees must have expected curtain calls for an October return. Heck, they made October baseball a Yankee pastime. Instead, this is it. From those of us who sat in those sky blue seats, toured Monument Park, lost track of the ball from the upper deck as it neared either foul pole, watched countless Yankee games and championships on TV, and on behalf of those ghosts who may make one last inconspicuous appearance tomorrow, but aren’t physically here to say goodbye, thank you for all those Octobers. And thank you to all those who brought us to our first Yankee game. Thank you to all those great Yankee teams and legends, whom without, tonight would just be a formality. And sure, there are Yankee haters out there who want to thank those teams who beat the Yankees on the game’s greatest stage. Well, here you all go. Yankee Stadium has given its fans everything any group of one team’s loyalists could ask for, except for the one thing its team of millionaires couldn’t give it back: One more October.



 
09/21/2008 7:09PM
The Last Goodbye
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