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Adios to the ‘house that Ruth built’


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It’s a bitter irony only the most embittered and unreconstructed zealots of Red Sox Nation could find delightful that has the Yankees departing their historic digs on a flat, sour and discordant note that makes them look rather foolish.

“Turnabout” is fair play, you may reasonably argue. It is not as if they haven’t spoiled more than their fair share of your Septembers. Revenge is sweet, especially in our intensely provincial little corner of the Republic. Enjoy it if you must, citizens.

Still this occasion was special; principally for the boys from the Bronx and their zealous followers, perhaps. But it also reared as a gracious moment for all of baseball with its implicit celebration of some of the game’s most fetching tradition and lore. The three venues left that could properly be described as true basilicas of the High Church of American Sport are Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, and Yankee Stadium and the greatest of these has always been the magnificent citadel in the Bronx. Momentarily there will be only two left. If they were about to tear down Fenway Park brick by brick -- neither an unthinkable scenario nor one that’s entirely undeserved -- would it only be about the bottom line, historical hang-ups, and petty vanities of the Boston Red Sox? Hardly!

It might have been rough on your blood pressure, but the best way for Yankee Stadium’s long goodbye to have concluded would have been with a barnburner of a three-game series on the last weekend of the regular season with the arch foes -- the Yanks and Red Sox -- squaring off in their customary frenzy with one of them no more than a game behind the other and everything on the line and both towns apoplectic with anticipation. Now that would have been Homeric and therefore precisely what this quaint moment richly deserved.

It’s a prospect that never had a chance. Because in yet another ridiculous utterance of the quirky Selig regime, the gang that makes out the schedule up at MLB’s chancery cleverly arranged to have the Yankees finish their last season at Yankee Stadium playing at Fenway Park. It was senseless, even dumb. Regardless of its bearing on the standings, or lack thereof, it would have regaled the country. Have they no flair for the dramatic or were they simply afraid it might have given the Yankees some sort of advantage and Bud Selig certainly can’t have that.

In the end, of course, it didn’t matter because the Yankees fouled their own nest so brilliantly they made their Last Hurrah “at the House that Ruth built” a messy footnote hardly worthy of the memory of Horace Clarke. It was hardly their intent but the schedulemakers did the House of Steinbrenner a huge favor. Consider how embarrassing it would have been for them to have the last weekend become a celebration of the Red Sox merry advance to a happy defense of their world championship while the Yankees were retreating, cowering and sorrowful, into a wretched winter that promises massive recriminations and a major overhaul. How the worm has turned! The ironies are boundless.

And so instead they get to close the place on the next to the last weekend against the innocuous and colorless Orioles who, whatever the charms of their own relatively limited history, haven’t uttered more than a whimper this century. How utterly pedestrian! But then it’s probably better this way; at least for the Yankees.

Actually, the elaborate fuss over the closing of the joint is a bit of a stretch. The truly historical Yankee Stadium -- the original, if you will -- has been gone 33 years. The extensive remodeling performed soon after George Steinbrenner bought the club cost $160 million, which was huge money at the time and it changed the stadium as much as was possible without tearing it down and rebuilding from scratch. The newer version is very different from the Gothic original, which had an overwhelming immensity about it. There have been bigger stadiums holding more people but none that had anywhere near the grandeur; all of it further enhanced by the fabulous characters who cavorted there spinning the stuff that dreams are made of.

And it is all of that glorious business, receding ever more swiftly these days it seems, that is being celebrated rather more than the mere brick and mortar and twisted steel girders of yet another work of man that has become worn and faded and not as profitable as it needs to be. Vaguely, that sentiment is what motivates this sweeping display of deep yearning for the rather dumpy place the stadium has become that is about to be torn down.

Wait until you see the new place. You will quickly understand why they have done what they have done. But will it have the majesty of the old one or its grip on our imagination or will it seem to belong to everyone, prince and pauper alike? No bloody way! Nor is that the point or the purpose. In case you haven’t noticed, the games have changed, my friend; all of them.

There’s a fancy word, increasingly in vogue. The word is “iconic” and it has to do with the near sacred quality certain images have as symbols of the system or the culture or the very way of life of a people. Other sporting bailiwicks like Fenway and Wrigley and even the old Garden or even more ancient Harvard Stadium are charming and quaint. But Yankee Stadium alone connects with people in ways that are truly “iconic.”

So much that’s become sheer grist and staple of pure Americana went down at “the Stadium.”

It is where the Babe pranced and later DiMaggio and Mantle. Where Louis whipped Schmeling as more than 100 million people listened desperately on the radio. Where Rockne delivered his immortal “Win one for the Gipper” oration at halftime of Notre Dame’s epic 1928 meeting with mighty West Point. Where the Colts in 1958 beat the Giants in overtime in what’s been called “the greatest game in NFL history.” Where Don Larsen pitched the greatest game in World Series history ending with Yogi Berra leaping into his arms. Where three Popes celebrated Mass with all the world as their stage. Where they held Babe Ruth’s wake attended by 77,000 people. Where Joe Louis defended his title 10 times and lost twice. Where, on an October night under a full moon, Reggie Jackson hit three home runs to end yet another World Series. Where Mickey Mantle hit a ball they say might have traveled 600 feet. Where Grover Alexander struck out Tony Lazzeri. Where Rocky Marciano fought his last fight. Where the Red Sox collapsed infamously to end the 1949 season. Where in 2004 the Red Sox danced deep into the night celebrating the end of “the curse” with the Steinbrenners making sure that the lights were kept on. Where Lou Gehrig stood before the entire world and confronted his own mortality with a dignity and grace that instantly transformed him into a favored son of the American Myth.

And all of that, of course, is but scratching the surface.

The Gehrig moment is my personal favorite. It endures; indeed, resonates. It speaks to the ages. It was so remarkably unrehearsed and genuine and selfless. And over the ages it has become, timeless.

Rather like Yankee Stadium.

It is a nice moment that we are brinking upon, which seems destined to be, if not largely unnoticed, certainly less than it might have been. The “Nation” will be amused. But it’s something of a pity, I would say.

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