NEW YORK -- A baseball game had to be played on Friday night at Yankee Stadium, which is all anyone needs to know. Death may stop people in their tracks for a moment, but then, inexorably, life must go on.And so pitch after pitch, inning after inning, the game with no clock pushed the hands of time forward -- always moving forward -- and the Yanks defeated the Rays, 5-4, on Nick Swisher's walk-off single -- just the way George Steinbrenner would have wanted it.
"I thought the club played just like Mr. Steinbrenner expected," manager Joe Girardi said, choking back tears. "We tied the score twice, and then we won it in the end."Immediately before the game, there was a moment of silence followed by the playing of "Taps" for the dearly departed: the Yankees owner and public-address announcer Bob Sheppard, who passed away two days apart earlier this week. "The two men were shining stars in the Yankee universe," an emotional team captain Derek Jeter told the somber crowd of 47,524. Mariano Rivera laid a pair of long-stemmed red roses on the white sheen of home plate, then came back in the ninth inning to nail down the win. By then the crowd was in vintage form. "Mo, in a sense, opened it up, and he closed it out," Girardi said. "I thought the tribute was beautiful. The roses at home plate ..." Girardi's voice tailed off. After a member of the military sang the national anthem, the near-capacity crowd began to halfheartedly chant, "Let's Go Yankees!" It was time to play ball. "In life, there are a lot of very, very happy moments, and there are a lot of very, very sad moments that you experience," Girardi said. "The thing that you talk about is getting back up. You get knocked down, you get back up. You have a tough day, you get back up. This was a tough day for all of us." Out in Monument Park, a white-and-blue floral wreath flanked Sheppard's bronze plaque as fans stopped to snap photographs. At Gate 2 in the left-field corner, a portrait of Steinbrenner was set between a wreath and a white floral "NY" set on a blanket of green. Outside Gate 4, fans left flowers, lit candles and wrote messages of condolence for The Boss. During batting practice, on the giant video board beyond center field, quotes from Yankees greats rolled in a seemingly endless cycle. The public-address announcer would remain silent, the crowd was told. No introductions of players as they came to bat, came in from the bullpen or pinch-hit. At least not on Friday night. It was an evening to remember The Boss and The Voice.
"When I think of Bob Sheppard, I always thought that the voice was not coming from the press box, but it was coming from somewhere else, at a higher level," Girardi said of the Yankees announcer from 1951 to 2007, who was 99 when he died on Sunday.Except on tape, it is coming no more. A film was played marking Steinbrenner's life and times. As it rolled, the crowd remained eerily quiet. At its end, the fans rose as one in a prolonged standing ovation. Players from both teams stood in front of their dugouts and joined in the tribute. It wasn't always such. Upon Steinbrenner's death on Tuesday at the age of 80, Commissioner Bud Selig recalled different days. Selig was an owner of the Brewers, and he joined Steinbrenner at Milwaukee's old County Stadium on a night when the Yankees were playing. It just happened to be an occasion when Selig was honored at the ballpark and received a nice reception. Selig saw the frown on Steinbrenner's aggravated face and asked: "What's the matter, Georgie?" Steinbrenner responded: "You know, Buddy, I can't figure this out. You go out on the field and get an ovation. If I walked out on the field [in New York], they'd throw garbage at me. It would take two weeks to clean it all up." With winning, of course, that all changed. In his 37 years as owner, the Yankees won the World Series seven times -- five times since 1996. In comparison, the rest of the teams in the highly competitive American League East combined to win it all only five times during the same period. With all that domination came an insatiable desire for constant victory. "You felt it not only from the office above, but you felt it from the crowds as well, the crowds of New York," Girardi said. "Making the playoffs wasn't good enough. Making the World Series wasn't good enough." Steinbrenner's persona became grist for comics, too. He parodied himself once as the host of Saturday Night Live, and a few of those clips were shown on Friday night as tributes continued between each half inning. Jerry Seinfeld wove the boss into a series of episodes, with George Costanza playing the foil to Larry David's depiction of a crazed Boss, whose character is only shown from behind. The real-life Steinbrenner originally thought the George character was created just to make fun of him. In the end, George losses his job when Steinbrenner trades him for new chicken concessions at the old Yankee Stadium. In a nod to fair play, a white, pinstriped Yankees jersey with the name "COSTANZA" sewn above the numerals "00" can be purchased at Stadium concessions. In tribute to Steinbrenner, TBS is airing 10 of those episodes next Monday to Friday at 7 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
The new $1.3 billion ballpark is Steinbrenner's legacy, Jeter said."I just want future generations to know that the reason we're in this stadium is because of Mr. Steinbrenner," Jeter said. "That's all they need to know." They knew all too well on Friday night. Another ballgame, another moment of silence, broken only by the elevated No. 4 train clattering into the distance. And Saturday is Old Timers' Day, and the scenes will be played over again. "It will be tough for [the old Yankees]," Girardi said. "When you walk into the stadium, it's a reminder of The Boss."