Riding the 4-train from Grand Central to Yankee Stadium on Friday afternoon, I wasn’t really sure what to anticipate. As we all know, it was the first home game since the passing of Bob Sheppard and George Steinbrenner. Coming off a very sad couple days, including an All-Star Game loss (we’ll win in 4 or 5 anyway), I truly didn’t know what to expect. All I knew was that when the Yankees have special ceremonies before their games, they are always done the right way.
I stepped off the 4-train, walked down the steps, across the crosswalk right towards Gate 4. A huge memorial for The Boss had been set up and I could tell it was growing exponentially. There was a plethora of different items laying in front of it: Yankee hats, jerseys, flowers, lit and unlit candles, empty beer cans, cards etc. It was tremendously moving to see how many people showed their appreciation for George.
I walked back over to my usual entrance at Gate 6 and continued inside to my seats in section 201 with my best friend Evan. It seemed like any other day walking around the stadium at 6:30. However, 15 minutes later, this would all change.
"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen… Welcome to Yankee Stadium." The voice of Bob Sheppard resonated throughout the stadium. The hair on my arms immediately stood up and I was brought back to my childhood in Old Yankee Stadium. Our attention was directed at the JumboTron (or the tiny three TVs on the side for those in the bleachers) for a 4-minute tribute video to Mr. Steinbrenner. It included past and present players, coaching staff, top Yankee officials, and even medical staff reflecting on how great a man The Boss was. Following this, an extraordinary 2-minute standing ovation for George. Mariano Rivera placed two red roses on homeplate and Bob Sheppard’s voice asked Yankee fans to direct their attention to the area behind home plate. Derek Jeter gave a brief, excellent speech about the two men and how they had forever changed the franchise. The Captain asked the fans to join him in a moment of silence. "Taps" was played by a military sergeant, sending shivers up my arms reminding me of my own grandfather’s funeral at Arlington. The National Anthem was sung, and the Yankees were ready to play ball.
To say it was a somber night would be an understatement. Friday was the first night I experienced no role-call in the bleachers. Bald Vinny held a sign stating there would be no role-call in order to honor the memory of Sheppard and Steinbrenner. Paul Olden, the current PA announcer at Yankee Stadium (who does a fabulous job), was silenced Friday night out of respect for Bob Sheppard. No players were announced coming to the plate. In between innings, only player and coach reflections on Mr. Steinbrenner were put on the big screen. No montages, no Utz lucky seat or Delta seat upgrade, no Great Subway Race or Cap Game. A very eerie, quiet evening in the Bronx. It really didn’t seem as if there was a game to even play.
However, life goes on, as they say, and the Rays and Yankees were set to fight for the AL East lead. The Rays pushed across the first run of the game with a sacrifice-fly by Willy Aybar in the 2nd inning and Evan Longoria would add an RBI double in the 3rd inning to make the score 2-0. Nick Swisher hit an RBI single in response to cut the lead in half. Longoria would then ground into a double-play, scoring a run and cushioning the lead.
3-1 began to look pretty bleak in Yankee Stadium last night. A pin could have dropped and I’m convinced I would have heard it hit the ground. I’m sure The Boss wouldn’t have been pleased with the way things were going. Losing to a 2nd place team? Not even excited about the game? He would have scolded us all for mourning his death over wanting to win the game at hand. Remember; "Breathing first, winning next".
Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez had both been put down in the bottom of the 6th inning and Robinson Cano had just swung at three awful pitches, narrowly fouling the last one off. The next pitch he saw, he drilled 420 feet into Monument Park. Yankee Stadium regained some buzz as the Yankees now trailed 3-2. Then, Jorge Posada blasted a solo shot into the 2nd deck in rightfield. The stadium finally had something positive to cheer about. Thanks to a "back to back, and a belly to belly", the Yankees had come all the way back to tie the game 3-3.
The Rays would go ahead once again thanks to an RBI ground-out by Ben Zobrist. Is if the Yankees hadn’t already overcome enough obstacles over the past couple days, there was another lead to topple. To Nick Swisher, it was no problem. He clobbered a 2-1 pitch deep into the rightfield seats to tie the game. Jubilation filled the air as the fans celebrated another comeback late in the game. At this point, everyone knew that the Yankees had 6 outs to win before things would get sticky. Mariano Rivera was bound to hold down the fort in the 9th inning if the Bombers couldn’t come through in the 8th, and that would have to be the case. After BJ Upton reached base on an infield hit, Rivera proceeded to pick him off and promptly retire Crawford and Longoria.
It was the bottom of the 9th inning and I, along with the rest of Yankee Universe, wanted pie. There was not a chance in hell that Friday’s game would end in a loss. Yankees carried heavy hearts, but not heavy enough to sink their chances of winning. Curtis Granderson singled to right to open up the inning. A successful sacrifice bunt by Ramiro Pena moved Granderson to 2nd base. Brett Gardner worked a tough walk to bring up Derek Jeter. The only starter to not have experienced a walk-off hit last year had the opportunity to drive home the winning run to make The Boss and Shep proud. Unfortunately, Derek Jeter struck out swinging. This brought to the plate Nick Swisher, who was already 2-4 with 2 RBI. Again, on a 2-1 pitch, Swisher lined a ball past a diving Zobrist into rightfield. Kapler came up firing, but to no avail. Granderson’s magnificent slide avoided the tag and the Yankees emerged victorious. The Yanks ran around the infield celebrating like 10-year-old kids, and it was certainly fun to watch. Swisher received his pie, much to the delight of the fans in the stadium.
On a night that was chock full of emotion, the Yankees launched us all into euphoria. Not only were the players cheering like 10-year-olds; the fans in the bleachers were as well. What had begun as an incredibly solemn evening turned out to be the best Yankee victory of the season. As the Yankees celebrated on the field, the first thought that shot through my mind was, "I wish everyone at Pinstripe Alley could be here to experience this." It was truly a magical night in the Bronx that I will cherish for the rest of my life. You couldn't write a script better than how tonight turned out. With that being said, I will leave you with this…
There is no doubt in my mind that the ghosts of Yankee past followed us across the street to our new home. I also have no doubt that The Boss and Bob Sheppard have joined them. I don't know where they hangout, be it the clubhouse, Great Hall, or Monument Park, but I can feel their pride beaming. God Bless George Steinbrenner and Bob Sheppard, two stars that will forever shine brightly in the Yankee Universe.