Waxman: In the Bronx, a field of memories

I never expected to find myself attending the last-ever game at Yankee Stadium.

After all, I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and, no surprise, spent my childhood rooting for the Cleveland Indians.

There was one complication, though: my grandfather, Eddie Rosenthal was — and still is — a part-owner of the New York Yankees. George Steinbrenner, the club’s famous (or infamous) majority partner, is from Cleveland too, and so my grandfather was part of the original investor pool that bought the Yankees from CBS for a mere $9 million in 1973. Parenthetically, 35 years and six World Series titles later, the Yankee empire is worth more than 100 times that much.

Being an Indians fan with a family connection to New York’s most widely loved — and hated — sports team comes with a certain uneasiness. For instance, while I would love meeting Derek Jeter in the locker room with my grandpa — or becoming the butt-end of a Bernie Williams practical joke — I could not help but think about the millions of diehard Yankees fans out there who would have appreciated the experiences even more. I felt that same mix of excitement and guilt when, to my complete surprise, my Grandpa called me late Saturday to invite me to the painfully sold-out final game at Yankee Stadium taking place the next day.

But at the final game Sunday night, no matter where you were born or for whom you rooted as a child, it was impossible not to feel the tradition in the Bronx air. One could feel the history dripping from the walls. I don’t know whether it was the dozens of Bomber greats who were in attendance, or the sold-out crowd, or the ghosts of Yankee past whose legacies still cast shadows over the outfield, but the evening was heavy with the weight of the memories and legends that had been marinating there for the better part of a century.

Yankee Stadium is arguably one of the most important and most well-known venues in all of sports. And it is, inarguably, the ultimate place to play baseball. Babe Ruth hit the park’s first home run there in 1923. Lou Gehrig delivered his famous “luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech there in 1939. Reggie Jackson earned his “Mr. October” nickname there with three home runs there during game six of 1978 series. In my lifetime alone, the stadium has played host to three World Series.

But Yankee Stadium is more than just a ballpark. It has hosted three papal visits, several championship boxing bouts, and a slew of college football games and concerts. Its most important role, though, came during the fall of 2001 in the aftermath of Sept. 11. As a city, and a country, was struggling to recover from the terrorist attacks that had taken place just seven weeks earlier, the three World Series games held at Yankee stadium brought new life to New York — and to all of us.

So as my grandfather enjoyed himself like a kid in a candy store Sunday night, reminiscing about the Yankees with old pals, I was busy forming new memories: I shook hands with most of the stars of the late-90’s world series teams (Paul O’Neill, David Cone, David Wells), got to sit in the front row of a small press conference with Derek Jeter, brushed shoulders with numerous player alums from before my time (who were there for moving a pre-game ceremony that highlighted the historic Yankee greats), and — get this — sat next to Hall-of-Famer Dave Winfield on the ride back to Manhattan. It was interesting to hear him and my grandfather talk about “George” (Steinbrenner), who, for both, proved difficult to get along with, to say the least. (Winfield’s fued with Steinbrenner resulted in the latter’s two-time expulsion from the MLB.)

In fact, many conversations that night involved gossip about the notably absent Steinbrenner, whose tyrannical — but hugely successful — reign over the franchise comes to an end after almost 35 years, as he suffers from health hurdles that left him unable to even attend the game. In the owner’s box, the other partners of the team traded stories with one other and with some of the players — about George, the Stadium, the team and the indelible memories that fell somewhere in between.

When all was said and done — the lights at Yankee Stadium dimming for a final time — it finally occurred to me what had made the evening so special. It wasn’t meeting the hall-of-famers, or seeing the nostalgic highlight reels, or witnessing the close of a key chapter in sports history, if not American history.

What really made the night so special, I realized, was the quality time I got to spend with my grandfather, whom I don’t get to see nearly enough. I knew, then, the most important reason why Yankee Stadium will be so missed: because of all the personal memories that were formed there, the least of which were made on the baseball field.

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