Thursday, September 25, 2014

Farewell to the Captain & the Voice of God

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball.
 America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. 
It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. 
But baseball has marked the time. 
This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. 
It reminds of us of all that once was good
 and it could be again.
- Terence Mann "Field of Dreams" 

Forty-six years ago today, on September 25, 1968, Mickey Mantle played his final home game as a member of the New York Yankees.  The '68 Yankees were a dreadful team and had long been eliminated from contention by the time the season's final home date, which was a 2:00 PM matinee against the Cleveland Indians, arrived on the calendar.  Perhaps had Mantle announced in Spring Training 1968 that the '68 season was going to be his last, then the stands would have been filled.  He waited until Spring Training 1969 to make that announcement.  Thus, with fewer than six thousand spectators in attendance, The Mick's final game in pinstripes featured him getting the Bombers' only hit in a 3-0 shutout loss to the Indians and their 21-year-old sensation, Luis Tiant.   

In 1968, the 25th of September was a Wednesday.  Three days later, on Saturday September 28 at Fenway Park in Boston, Mantle played his final game.  He popped out to shallow left field in the top of the first inning - against Jim Lonborg.  Mantle manned his post at first base in the bottom of the inning but both he and Yankees manager Ralph Houk knew he was not planning on staying there.  Once the Fenway Park P.A. announcer called the name of the first Red Sox hitter, Houk called time.  Andy Kosco emerged from the Yankees dugout to replace Mantle, who limped off of the field to a nice ovation from the Boston crowd, down the steps into the clubhouse and, immediately thereafter, to Logan Airport and a flight home to Dallas.  

This evening, Thursday, September 25, 2014, one fraught with quite a lot more fanfare and emotion for those in attendance, this generation's Mickey Mantle shall wear Yankees pinstripes one final time.  Derek Jeter plays his final home game as a member of the Yankees.  Well, he does so as long as Mother Nature, who sometimes wears the scowl of a cantankerous old broad, permits him to do so (The sight of three llamas at the Bronx Zoo playing "Rock Paper Scissors" for the two spots on Russell Crowe's luxury liner is less than encouraging).  Three days from now - in Fenway Park - his remarkable career comes to its conclusion.  The symmetry between the final acts of Mantle's career and Jeter's is eerily appropriate.  The starkly different manner in which each approached his final season, including of course his final days, cannot be overstated.  

Whenever Derek Jeter's final at-bat occurs tonight, those lucky enough to be in the Stadium, listening on radio or watching on television shall hear "the Voice of God" announce Jeter's arrival into the batter's box for the last time.  The late, great Bob Sheppard recorded an introduction for Jeter - at Jeter's behest - shortly after illness deprived him of his ability to come to the Stadium on a daily basis.  Sheppard's voice is the only voice that has ever introduced Jeter at the Stadium.   In view of the fact that Bob Sheppard arrived at Yankee Stadium the same year as Joe DiMaggio, it strikes me as eerily appropriate that his exit from the Stadium shall coincide with Jeter's.  He arrived in the company of another all-time great.  He shall depart in the same manner. 

It was thirteen Autumns ago that Jeter and the Yankees lost the greatest World Series I have been alive to watch when Arizona bested them in seven games, winning Game Seven with a one-out hit in the bottom of the ninth inning.  That year, the people of these United States - and in particular those of us who lived in the New York Metropolitan area - endured the longest Autumn of our lives.  September 11, 2001 was a day that lasted far longer than its allotted twenty-four hours.  

One of the things that kept me going - and kept us going in our house - was the post-season run of the Yankees.  They rallied from a 2-0 deficit in the Best-of-Five ALDS to the Oakland A's to win the American League pennant and earn the right to compete in their fourth consecutive World Series. And in the middle of it all was Jeter, from "the flip" in Game Three of the ALDS in Oakland... the extra-inning, game-winning home run in Game Four of the World Series that earned him the sobriquet "Mr. November".

If one needs reminding that among the things that makes sports compelling is that it is real-life, unscripted drama, then one needs to look no further than this final season of Derek Jeter's "Made-for-Hollywood" career.   In the hands of Spielberg or Disney, the retiring superstar leads his rag-tag team to victory in his final World Series.  Here in the real world, no such happy ending awaits.  At day's end - at a career's end - perhaps it matters not at all.   For it is the way in which Jeter's race has been run that shall be remembered long after tonight's game ends.  

And long after this season ends as well.  Farewell #2.  Thank you for the memories you created for me.  More importantly, thank you for the memories you have created for my son, which memories Rob shall be able to one day share with his son should he be so fortunate as to have a son.

It is, as the song says, time for the final curtain.  Take a decadently long bow.  You have most assuredly earned it...


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