Wednesday, July 16, 2008

King George Gets His Salute

By Thomas Boswell
The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 16, 2008; E01

NEW YORK - JULY 15: Yankee team owner George Steinbrenner is driven on the field before the 79th MLB All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium on July 15, 2008 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

The All-Star Game here Tuesday was supposed to commemorate the last season of Yankee Stadium. Instead, it was transformed into a far more topical and touching evening -- a farewell to the third-of-a-century Yankee dynasty of George Steinbrenner III, the man whose wallet and will revived the most important franchise in the game.

When Steinbrenner, who seldom appears in public and never speaks when he does, rode a golf cart from the Yankees bullpen to the pitcher's mound on this evening, the symbolism pulled the whole night together. He brought with him four baseballs, one each for Yankees Hall of Famers Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Goose Gossage and Reggie Jackson, who threw out simultaneous first pitches. Only four? The ranks are thinning fast.

For months, this town has prepared an enormous baseball celebration for this day. Yet ironically, no one here seemed to understand the true focus of the night until it arrived. The Steinbrenner Era probably has run its course in the last seven seasons of incredibly expensive and disappointing postseason defeats. So the time was right, disguised as a Goodbye Ballpark affair, to pay respects to a man who spent decades being mocked across America while being grudgingly appreciated or amusingly endured here.

Signs of the time were everywhere. When Yankees Manager Joe Girardi was introduced, the mix of boos was a referendum on the 50-45 record of the man who replaced beloved Joe Torre. Every time an all-star of the first-place Red Sox -- seven in all -- was introduced, the stadium shook with boos, just as it roared for the mere three Yankee stars. However, the telling moment came when three Tampa Bay Rays were introduced and booed like arch enemies. Of course, the perennially pathetic Rays lead the Yanks for the wild card by 5 1/2 games. But then the Twins and A's lead the Yanks, too. Who doesn't?

The whole game, finally won 4-3 by the AL in 15 innings, had a touch of dynasty-in-distress spite at its edges. Yankees fans booed those Red Sox who failed, like Jonathan Papelbon, who gave up an eighth-inning run to give the National League a 3-2 lead, with more enthusiasm than any deed -- good or bad -- by an NL player. And when Yankees captain Derek Jeter snuffed two innings with a double-play grounder and a weak tap back to the mound, the silence was funereal.

New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez (13) chats with Reggie Jackson, while Yankees manager Joe Girardi (27) talks to Yogi Berra during opening ceremonies for the Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium in New York on Tuesday, July 15, 2008. At top right, Mariano Rivera embraces Rich "Goose" Gossage and at top left Whitey Ford embraces Derek Jeter.
(AP Photo/Ed Betz)

While an elegiac fall-of-the-Yankees mood often hung over the park, especially in this season when son Hank Steinbrenner often seemed buffoonish, the issue of the great ballpark itself also was on every mind.

They claim they're tearing down the Big Ballpark and moving everything, including Ruth and Gehrig's monuments, 100 yards away to a new American coliseum at a cost of $1.3 billion. However, that doesn't count the price of the basketball courts and green fields for Bronx kids that got plowed under to make 161st Street safe for $1,500 luxury tickets and $50 bleacher seats. That's the true Steinbrenner legacy. If you command the back pages of the tabloids for decades and dominate talk radio, you can eventually get a new park, not even in a better location, that makes the Taj Mahal blush.

However, for some of us, this park isn't really Yankee Stadium at all. This is merely a version of the Big Ballpark, actually called "New Yankee Stadium" when it opened in '76 after a three-year near-gut renovation. That transformation, at least esthetically, didn't help the place much. So we aren't in mourning, just nostalgic.

The original Yankee Stadium was truly the House That Ruth Built and which Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle inherited. That was one long distinct era -- imperial, rich, but fairly classy. Ruth would not recognize this place. There are no more majestic white facades all around the upper-deck rim. Now they're just in part of the outfield. Nor is this the same mammoth yard that robbed DiMaggio of perhaps 100 homers with its insane 457-foot sign in left field to mark Death Valley.

Millions saw that old park in black-and-white on TV in October and then made a pilgrimage as soon as they could. A hundred pillars obstructed views. The gray exterior, stark but beautiful with towering vertical skylights, evoked a cathedral that had been converted into a penitentiary.

NEW YORK - JULY 15: All-Star Game Hall of Fame Honorees walk off the field during the 79th MLB All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium on July 15, 2008 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

What we see on River Avenue now is the Yankee Stadium of George III and his Bronx Zoo, a cast that reached its first World Series in '76, the "new" park's first year. Fittingly, the Yanks played in their last postseason with George in active charge in '07. A perfect coincidence of dates. This rebuilt park, a blue symbol of greenback power, was always and foremost the Boss's office, the place where pennants came to be bought.

Now we have arrived at a time for summations and reconciliation. When Steinbrenner arrived at the mound, he never left his golf cart. Yogi Berra, who feuded with the Boss for years and wouldn't come to old-timers' games for a while, hugged the legendary owner and kissed him on the cheek. Ford, Gossage (who enters Cooperstown this year) and Jackson also clustered protectively around the owner.

All around the field were assembled 49 Hall of Famers as well as both all-star teams, more than 100 of the best players of this or any time. If George's famous checkbook had been in his coat pocket, it might have spontaneously combusted.

Few could miss the parallel between George's trip to the mound and Ted Williams's similar journey at Fenway Park before the '99 All-Star Game. There, Williams was surrounded by players, some of whom cried as they met him.

No one needs to tear up for the Boss. But all forms of appreciation are deserved. Sometimes, hindsight is kind. In '76, when New Yankee Stadium opened, free agency began to bloom. Without Steinbrenner's bottomless budget, the offseason auctions that fueled a generation of hot-stove debate never would have been half as intense. Without his Yanks to hate in public but grudgingly respect in private, the game would not have mushroomed to its current popularity, especially in New York.

NEW YORK - JULY 15: Current and former All-Stars stand on the field during the National Anthem prior to start of the 79th MLB All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium on July 15, 2008 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Michael Heiman/Getty Images)

The third and most opulent iteration of Yankee Stadium that opens next season will not be the only new ballpark that has the stamp of Steinbrenner and his Yanks on it. For a third of a century, and an extremely healthy one, this team has energized and enriched the game. To compete with them, you had to get smarter, build bigger, spend more, think larger. Or George would crush you and laugh as he did it.

Here in the venue that always will be associated with his success, Steinbrenner probably took his valedictory lap. On the same stage where the greatest Yankees have gotten their biggest ovations, no one forgot to stand and cheer for the Boss.

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