Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Yankee Stadium says goodbye with long night -- and morning

Chicago Sun-Times Columnist
July 16, 2008

NEW YORK - JULY 15: American League All-Star Derek Jeter #2 of the New York Yankees and Hall of Famers Cal Ripken Jr. and Ernie Banks look on prior to 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)

NEW YORK -- The Chicago way, of course, would be to mock the closing of Yankee Stadium, ridicule New Yorkers as insufferable louts and write that I prefer Joe Crede over drama queen Alex Rodriguez. Sorry, I must rise above those petty whims. If you care about sports, a slice of your soul dies when a baseball cathedral shuts down, even when it's located on 161st Street in the town Chicagoans are instructed to loathe out of the womb.

The wreckingball killed old Comiskey Park. It eventually will claim at least the grandstand of Wrigley Field, though anyone who touches the aestethic miracle that is the outfield panorama should be put away for life. And now, after 85 years as an American museum, the House That Ruth Built will make way for a $1.3-billion colossus that will attempt to re-create the traditional aura with, ahem, a Hard Rock Cafe, a martini lounge, $2,500 prime seats and nightly trysts between Madonna and A-Rod.

I'm making up that last part. I think.

On this historic night -- and morning -- the National Leaguers were losers again, stretching their winless streak to 12 and costing the Cubs any hope of home-field advantage in a World Series we probably shouldn't be talking about. In the longest All-Star Game ever, four hours and 50 minutes worth of good pitching and close plays at the plate, the American League continued its dominance with a 4-3 win in 15 innings.=2 0The AL won when Michael Young lifted a sacrifice fly to right field, where Corey Hart's throw to Brian McCann was too late to nail Justin Morneau. The NL succumbed amid a dreadful series of mishaps by second baseman Dan Uggla, who grounded into a double play in the 10th, then made three errors. Uggla, indeed.

Twenty-three pitchers were used. Sixty-three players were used in total. Four hundred and thirty-four pitches were thrown. If things had gone any longer, we may have had another embarrassing tie. AL manager Terry Francona, a good man, had no interest in risking damage to his last available pitcher, Tampa Bay's Scott Kazmir. He was prepared to stop using Kazmir, who pitched an inning afrer starting Sunday for the Rays. "You wait your whole life to do something like this, but the last two hours wasn't a whole lot of fun," Francona said. "Panic started to set in."

NEW YORK - JULY 15: American League All-Star Mariano Rivera #42 of the New York Yankees pitches during the 79th MLB All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium on July 15, 2008 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Same went for NL manager Clint Hurdle. "I kept seeing that Ricky Riccardo saying, `Lucy, you got some explaining to do,' " Hurdle said. "We were told the game would find a way to finish itself." Another befuddled Bud Selig sighting was avoided.

Just past 1 a.m. in the Bronx, there was a vintage Chicago matchup of dueling Carloses, Quentin vs. Marmol, which would have been the perfect conclusion in this rare, ridiculous season when the Cubs and White Sox both harbor Series hopes. But Marmol, who has struggled mightily of late, struck out Quentin20to end the 13th-inning AL uprising.

"Bull!" Quentin shouted angrily after swinging and missing.

From where I sit in right field on a breezy summer evening, a replica of the famed scalloped frieze already is visible atop the new Stadium, which rises among cranes only a few hundred feet away. For the architecturally uniitiated, the frieze is the distinctive white facade that has served as the regal trademark of this ballpark, the Yankee mystique and sports theater for nearly a century. Down on the field, as flashbulbs pop like twinkling stars, 49 of the 63 living Hall of Famers -- Ryne Sandberg, Billy Williams, Ferguson Jenkins and Luis Aparicio among them -- greet the American and National League All-Stars at their respective positions. The celebration jogs tears from my ducts, heavy with the reality dose that life is moving on. My mind flashes back to nights spent covering games here, including the 2001 World Series only days after 9/11 shook New York and this country to its terrorized core.

No, this wasn't a time to be cynical. This was an evening to appreciate what sport means to us and what these massive monuments have come to symbolize. Your father took you to a ballgame. Now, you take your son or daughter to a ballgame. In time, they will do the same. Baseball has ripped out our hearts with cheating scandals and labor strife, but more often than not, it has been a compelling passion. Yankee Stadium is where every lad in the land aspired to play, even if he didn't like the Yankees or cantankerous owner George Steinbrenner, who openly wept when he was introduced and transported onto the field in a cart. If you listened closely Tuesday night, you could hear Lou Gehrig calling himself "the luckiest man on the face of this earth" and see Nelson Mandela and various Popes delivering speeches. Ali and Louis fought here. Bono and Billy Joel serenaded here. Most of all, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Reggie Jackson and Derek Jeter played here.

Boston Red Sox's Manny Ramirez, of the American League team, ducks a pitch from Chicago Cubs' Carlos Zambrano (38), of the National League team, during the fifth inning in the Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium in New York on Tuesday, July 15, 2008.
(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

This was a night for Cubs fans and White Sox fans to enjoy stars from their first-place teams on Broadway. The best show, naturally, came courtesy of Carlos Zambrano, who pitched two scoreless innings with his usual theatrics. He opened the fourth by striking out the white-shoed A-Rod, then had some fun with Manny Ramirez. With Carlos being Carlos, he playfully threw a pitch over Ramirez's head, which drew laughter in the NL dugout from his Cubs teammate, Aramis Ramirez, and a smile from Manny. Later, when another Ramirez, shortstop Hanley, made a throwing error to prolong the fourth, Zambrano kicked some dirt on the mound, then proceeded to pick off the dozing Milton Bradley at first base. Big Z jumped over the foul line, gave a fist pump and pointed to the sky. Shockingly, he did not ask manager Clint Hurdle if he could stay in the game.

"When I was coming in from the bullpen, I was a little bit shaking," Zambrano said. "But after a pitch or two, I was OK. I wasn't really nervous, just feeling the situation."

The Z Show came after Cubs legend Ernie Banks delivered a pre-game pep talk to the NL All-Stars, whose last victory was in 1996. You don't think Banks understood the importance of the Cubs, armed with the league's best record, potentially gaining home-field advantage in the World Series with an All-Star Game win? "It's fun to win. It's time for us to do that," Banks told them. "It's an important game, and everyone is watching you -- the National League is watching you, a lot of Hall of Fame people are watching you."

In the ninth, Ryan Dempster protected a 3-3 tie by striking out the side. Other Cubs weren't as successful. Geovany Soto went 0 for 2 and allowed two stolen bases, with his too-loose catcher's mask continuing to flop around on throws. Kosuke Fukudome's slump also was noticeable on an 0-for-2 night. But the All-Stars, for once, were mere props. The Stadium was the star.

"When kids are in the backyard playing pretend games of baseball against their pretend buddies, it’s 3-2, two outs, bases loaded and they ain’t in Ted Turner Field. They're at Yankee Stadium," Atlanta star Chipper Jones said.

NEW YORK - JULY 15: American League and National League All-Stars on the field at the 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 Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

"It’s the greatest venue in the world," said Rodriguez, who claims to still enjoy the big stage despite intense coverage of his divorce proceedings and off-field meanderings.

A-Rod has become the lightning rod for why some players might rather wrestle with snakes than play in New York. To his credit, he sat for nearly an hour and answered questions about his personal life, including a Madonna reference. "Everybody has distractions," he said. "Mine are just on the front page of the papers. And I'm fine with that. You look at it as a gift and a curse. There's so much good that comes with playing here. You have to be able to take the good with the bad and not take yourself too seriously."

A possible new issue: Did he leave the ballpark after he was removed in the fifth for Crede, as reported by ESPN Radio?

No matter what happened or what was said, I just kept looking around, hour after hour. Another ballpark was dying. Had to pay my respects.

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