Sunday, July 18, 2010

Yankees Honor The Boss, The Voice

By Lisa Olson

NEW YORK -- "Good evening ... ladies and gentlemen ... and welcome ... to Yankee Stadium."

It's not easy convincing thousands of New Yorkers to stand and remain silent for any stretch of time. But as Bob Sheppard's legendary, timeless greeting trailed into the thick Bronx air Friday night, that's exactly what the masses did for four long minutes, sweat dripping off the brow and down the back. There was a moving, sentimental video tribute to George Steinbrenner, and then came a thunder of claps, followed by dignified, curse-free cheers, and it sure didn't seem like just another normal start to the second half of the baseball season.

"The Shortstop ... number 2 ... Derek Jeter ... number 2."

Jeter slowly, purposefully strolled to a microphone near home plate. The cadence of his no-note, from-the-heart speech was simply sublime on this emotional night: clear, concise, correct. Hadn't that always been Sheppard's motto? Wouldn't Steinbrenner's chest puff like the bow to a ship if he could hear his captain's words?

"We gather here tonight to honor two men who were both shining stars in the Yankee universe," said Jeter, his eyes swelling. "Both men, Mr. George Steinbrenner and Mr. Bob Sheppard, cared deeply about their responsibilities to this organization and to our fans, and for that, will forever be remembered in baseball history and in our hearts.

"Simply put, Mr. Steinbrenner and Mr. Sheppard both left this organization in a much better place than when they first arrived. They've set the example for all employees of the New York Yankees to strive to follow.

"So now I ask everyone to join us in a moment of silence."

In every corner and cranny, from the $1,000 guarded seats to the upper decks of the new cathedral, grown men and women squeezed back tears along with Jeter. Children lucky enough to be in the house will remember this moment deep into their years. There wasn't a peep from the Bleacher Creatures, those merry band of revelers who made the unprecedented decision to halt their infamous "roll call" for this one, special night.

"Simply put, Mr. Steinbrenner and Mr. Sheppard both left this organization in a much better place than when they first arrived. They've set the example for all employees of the New York Yankees to strive to follow."
-- Derek Jeter
With flags flying at half mast, and with two long-stemmed roses wrapped in white and blue ribbon resting on home plate after they were gently laid in place by Mariano Rivera, Steinbrenner and Sheppard were honored before the Yankees' melodramatic 5-4 win over the Tampa Bay Rays -- a game played, aptly, without a public address announcer. It was the start of a series that could offer a glimpse at all sorts of interesting playoff matchups, but for a long time it didn't feel like that.

It felt like the end of an era in which old-fashioned romance and ruthless capitalism were finely mixed.

For the first time since the 1973 season, Steinbrenner's name was not atop the team masthead. He died Tuesday at age 80, of a massive heart attack on the morning of the All-Star Game, one final upstaging of the sport he forever changed. Sheppard, the Yankees' mellifluous public address announcer for 56 years (and half a century for the New York football Giants, where he worked on a handshake agreement), died two days earlier, at age 99. The Boss and The Voice of God, linked forevermore.

There will be more tributes Saturday during the 64th annual Old-Timers' Day, when the 1950 champions will be honored. Hall-of-Famer Whitey Ford is set to attend and of course Yogi Berra will be there, dropping witty gems about the "OK season" (his words) he had as the Yankees marched to their 13th World Series title. Now and then Berra can be spotted wandering around the Yankee clubhouse, whispering advice to Alex Rodriguez or letting Jeter rub his bald head, for good luck. Berra is spry and alert, but he's also 85, and this week more than ever reminds Yankee fans how life can be unbearably fleeting.

"He said, 'Maybe see you at Old Timers' Day,' " Berra was saying on the day The Boss died, recalling their final phone call on the Fourth of July, Steinbrenner's birthday. Berra said Steinbrenner sounded lucid, though he did complain about not being able to rise from his wheelchair. It was a gentle conversation between two old friends. Their bitter feud had long ago been put to rest, a nudge to all of us that slights and harsh comments can't be repaired after death.

Reggie Jackson, never without words, was without them for days after learning Steinbrenner had died; one friend of Jackson's told me he has been especially distraught. Like many in Steinbrenner's orbit, their relationship was volatile, complicated and deep. Jackson, now a Yankees special advisor, is expected Saturday, joining Goose Gossage and Graig Nettles, Mel Stottlemyre and Bucky Dent, Joe Pepitone and Bill "Moose" Skowron. Along with Ford and Berra, Jerry Coleman, Don Johnson, Duane Pillette, Charlie Silvera and Hank Workman from the 1950 team will wear special throwback uniforms.

Curt Schilling once talked, somewhat sarcastically, about the ghosts that lingered in the cracks of the old Stadium. Upon its dismantling, Aura and Mystique simply pulled up their stirrups and moved to the new joint across the parking lot, for one last championship before Steinbrenner and Sheppard died. Love or hate the Yankees, there is no denying a certain slice of American history is as embedded here as it is at Gettysburg.

One night earlier, the Red Sox held a moment of silence for both Steinbrenner and Sheppard at Fenway. Locusts are expected to descend whenever thousands of Bostonians remove their hats and zip their lips to honor anything connected with the Yankees, but they are savvy baseball fans up north, and they understood Sheppard's honorable, never-to-be-replicated role, along with Steinbrenner's enormous contributions to both baseball's greatest rivalry and the Jimmy Fund.

Thursday, before most of baseball went back to work, Sheppard was eulogized in his beloved St. Christopher's Roman Catholic Church in Baldwin, Long Island, where he had attended mass daily and read gospel accounts from the pulpit about how to live a good, decent life. More than 800 mourners -- including members of the Yankees front office, NY politicians and coaches from all sides of the court, fields and diamond -- trekked to the island in the stifling, 95-degree heat for Sheppard's funeral.

Oddly, no current Yankee was present. There was a false report about a bus carrying players to the funeral getting stuck in traffic because of a fatal auto accident on the Meadowbrook Parkway, but a team spokesperson said no buses for players were chartered and acknowledged, as far as he knew, no current players attended the service. Before Friday's game, a perplexed Jeter defended all those who spent Thursday (a team off-day) relaxing with their families, or recuperating for the season's second half.

"To be honest with you, I didn't even know his funeral was (Thursday),'' said Jeter, who has insisted a tape recording of Sheppard introducing his home at-bats be played as long as he wears the pinstripes. "Having said that, I don't necessarily think you have to go to a funeral to honor someone. I think a lot of players have honored him. It's the reason why I've recorded his voice throughout the years. I'll continue to honor him every time I go to the plate for the rest of my career. "

Manager Joe Girardi, who was in tears much of the day, told reporters, "I think there (are) a lot of ways to show respect to an individual besides going to a funeral.You can show respect by telling your children about Bob Sheppard."

Whatever their reasons, they missed an uplifting celebration of a man who never uttered a harsh word about a single human being. Sheppard spoke in a succinct, distinct tone, painstakingly enunciated lineups, pinch-hitters, batters and pitching changes -- day in and day out, for more than 4,500 Yankee games -- because he believed every person should be addressed with dignity. But that wasn't just Sheppard's behind-the-microphone demeanor: I enjoyed many a pre-game sandwich with him in the old Stadium's press dining room, and often walked away thinking I'd never meet a kinder, more gentle man.

"George Steinbrenner, I think, was a little intimidated by Bob, probably the only person on the planet. Because George was always in search of perfection and Bob was perfect," said Brian Cashman, the general manager who began his career with the Yankees as an intern in 1986. From the hollows under his eyes, Cashman clearly hadn't slept all week. He looked as if he lost his grandfather and father, his mentor and tormentor -- and in some ways, he had.

Late in life, those close to Steinbrenner say he conspicuously tried to make amends for his earlier years, for some of his criminal behavior, his bullying and cruelty. His vast charity work and unreported acts of kindness are what many now chose to remember. He died, appropriately, as owner of the defending World Series champions.

They were standing en masse nine innings and four hours after the solemn tribute, those New York lungs lubed and loud. Twice the Yankees mounted comebacks, twice they tied the game. Was anyone really in doubt how this might end? With two outs in the ninth, as this emotional, dramatic evening reached fever pitch, Nick Swisher roped a line drive to right field, scoring Curtis Granderson from second base. It stretched the Yankees' American League East lead over Tampa to three games, but far more than that, it slapped an ecstatic, poignant seal on a night that began so somber.

Overseen by all its colorful ghosts and shining stars, Yankee tradition marches on.

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