12/26/08 10:00 AM EST
Stadium salute softens sweet sorrow
Ruth's house gets grand goodbye, but 12-year playoff run ends
By Bryan Hoch / MLB.com
With a new manager at the helm in former catcher and broadcaster Joe Girardi, change was in the air from the first days of Spring Training.
Although the Yankees were ultimately done in by injuries and inconsistency, limited to just 89 wins and a third-place finish in the American League East, they were buoyed by the optimism of playing some of their best baseball down the stretch.
Following the disappointment of the club's first missed postseason since 1993, the Yankees vowed to make a return to their commitment of fielding a championship-caliber club by any means necessary.
That pursuit helped them land CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira, the three most coveted prizes of the winter free-agent market.
That trio of stunning signings not only created final events for the old Yankee Stadium to host, but renewed the organization's spirit heading into the new year.
The year opened with the Yankees still on the periphery of a trade for Johan Santana, with co-chairman Hank Steinbrenner openly pining for the Twins ace and stating his club's offer was "best."
But by the end of January, the Yankees had decided their pursuit of Santana was over, unwilling to part with a package of young players that could have included Phil Hughes, Melky Cabrera, Ian Kennedy and others. Santana instead went to the Mets, signing a six-year, $137.5 million contract extension, as the Yankees mulled other options.
The month was also marked by former Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens' continuing legal troubles, as he was called to testify before a House subcommittee regarding Major League Baseball's Mitchell Report. Steinbrenner said that the Yankees would not sign Clemens for the 2008 season.
Spring Training opened with renewal for the Yankees, with Girardi lending an atmosphere of change to the camp at Legends Field. The style differed from Joe Torre in several noticeable aspects -- conditioning was now an emphasis, and Girardi could be seen moving as quickly as his players. Said Girardi: "I am just going to be who I am."
Rising star Robinson Cano signed a four-year, $30 million contract extension on Feb. 7, but the Yankees celebrated winning an arbitration case against Chien-Ming Wang, paying the right-hander $4 million instead of $4.6 million.
A decision was made for Joba Chamberlain -- he'd start the year in the bullpen before transitioning to the rotation in midseason. Reliever Kyle Farnsworth revealed he'd suffered a frightening staph infection in his right leg during the offseason. And Alex Rodriguez proclaimed that Derek Jeter would win the Most Valuable Player Award.
Andy Pettitte reported behind the rest of the pitchers and catchers, excused because of his participation in the Mitchell Report hearings. Upon his arrival, Pettitte apologized for the "embarrassment" of having used human growth hormone earlier in his career in an effort to combat elbow injuries.
With Grapefruit League games underway, Hank Steinbrenner sent a barb up Boston's way, proclaiming, "This is a Yankee country. We're going to put the Yankees back on top and restore the universe to order." But that would be difficult to accomplish in a month when the games do not count.
There was a five-inning, rain-shortened no-hitter involving Kei Igawa, and plenty of talk about Hughes popping the glove with great velocity. Mike Mussina, looking for a rebound year, spoke about searching for his command. The Yankees had a poignant trip for an exhibition game at Virginia Tech on March 18: "It was definitely moving to be in the process of healing," Jason Giambi said.
Tempers flared between the Rays and Yankees, polarizing the AL East rivals. Rays infielder Elliot Johnson plowed over Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli on March 8, and four days later, Shelley Duncan set off a benches-clearing incident with a hard slide into second baseman Akinori Iwamura.
Hideki Matsui snuck off to New York for a mystery marriage ceremony, and for some reason, the Yankees signed comedian Billy Crystal to a one-day contract. Crystal hit a foul ball before striking out against the Pirates' Paul Maholm, calling it "unbelievable and the greatest moment of my life."
The final season at Yankee Stadium opened a day late due to rain, with New York besting Toronto, 3-2. Girardi missed two of his first five games as manager with a respiratory illness, and Chamberlain defended his right to celebrate on the mound. Girardi got his first taste of the New York second-guess, leaving Mussina in to be punished by Manny Ramirez in a game at Fenway Park.
In a bad sign, injuries cropped up. Jeter strained a left quadriceps, and Jorge Posada battled right shoulder pain before hitting the disabled list. Wilson Betemit missed time with a corneal ulcer, and Rodriguez lost three weeks to a strained right quadriceps. Brian Bruney was sidelined until August with a right foot injury, and Hughes suffered a fractured rib.
The Yankees made a preemptive strike against a future curse in unearthing a David Ortiz jersey from the new Yankee Stadium construction site, then auctioned it off to charity for $175,100. While on the road, they also lent their home to Pope Benedict XVI for a Sunday mass at Yankee Stadium, which attracted more than 60,000.
Steinbrenner simmered, frustrated with the Yankees' slow start, and the Yankees tried to shuffle the deck as they reeled from early injuries. Winless Kennedy was optioned to Triple-A, but Darrell Rasner showed signs of being this year's Aaron Small when he started 3-0, and other contributors stepped to the forefront.
Still, the Yankees performed sluggishly at times, as Girardi aired out the club in a closed-door meeting on May 14. Help was on the way, as A-Rod rejoined the lineup, and Chamberlain began to increase his pitch count with an eye toward eventually starting.
Maybe the changing fortunes were somehow related to facial hair: Giambi sprouted a 1970s-style mustache that seemed to help, as the Yankees bobbed above .500 to close the month at 28-27.
The Yankees found a savior of sorts in Mussina, who thought he might be lifted from the rotation in April. Instead, Moose found a strong run, going 9-1 over 11 starts through June 14 and running off wins at a pace that surprised even him. Chamberlain made his first Major League start, albeit a brief and wild one, and joined the rotation.
But there was a crushing loss in Houston, as Wang suffered a Lisfranc injury to his right foot while running the bases June 15 and was lost for the season. The right-hander had started 8-2, and the Yankees would scramble to replace him for the rest of the year. Texas Rangers castoff Sidney Ponson signed a Minor League deal, and the Yankees took a look at solid callup Dan Giese.
Yankee Stadium took center stage by hosting the July 15 All-Star Game, with New York playing the role of gracious host. The FanFest at the Javits Center was a hit, and few will forget Josh Hamilton's 28-homer barrage in the Home Run Derby. The Stadium kept the honors as long as possible, showcasing a 15-inning affair won by the American League.
In hopes of being named to the All-Star team, Giambi campaigned fans to "Support the 'Stache" and the Yankees played along, passing out 20,000 fake mustaches. He didn't make the squad, but Jeter, A-Rod and Mariano Rivera did.
A baseball rolled atop the wall in a Stadium blooper -- Johnny Damon would have laughed, but he wound up on the disabled list. Girardi ripped his club behind closed doors after a sluggish loss to Boston, but rookie Brett Gardner lent a spark, knocking a game-winning single to topple Jonathan Papelbon on July 7.
Posada opted to have season-ending surgery, but general manager Brian Cashman did his best to ensure help could arrive for efforts at a late-season run. Xavier Nady, Damaso Marte and Ivan Rodriguez were acquired by the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline.
The month was also marked by the passing of former Yankees player and broadcaster Bobby Murcer, who lost his valiant battle with brain cancer July 12. The club would don a black armband on their uniforms for the remainder of the season.
With their roster reinforced, the Yankees began to think optimistically about a second-half push that would end in the playoffs, much like under Torre in 2007. Nady proved to be an early contributor, winning an AL Player of the Week Award, but losing Chamberlain to a stiff right shoulder hurt.
The Yankees delivered a wakeup call to slumping Cabrera, optioning him to Triple-A, and Pettitte began a second-half decline that would see him go 2-7 over his final 11 starts. Kennedy was nonchalant after an Aug. 9 loss and soon was shipped to the Minors as well, and the team's treading water over a 10-game road trip didn't help make up any ground. The Yankees were a season-low 12 1/2 games behind the first-place Rays on Aug. 31.
Despite the struggles, August brought one extremely memorable moment. Willie Randolph, dismissed by the Mets in June, brought down the house at the final Yankee Stadium Old-Timers' Day.
Hoping to avoid their first dark postseason since Spike Owen was shortstop, the Yankees played their best baseball, running off wins at a .654 clip to finish 89-73. It wasn't enough to overcome the tough Rays and Red Sox in the AL East, but Girardi was encouraged by the fact the Yankees had so much success against teams still in the playoff hunt.
The season ended with a grand sendoff for Yankee Stadium, as fans streamed in early on Sept. 21 for the final game held at the old Cathedral.
Pettitte was the winning pitcher as the Yankees defeated the Orioles, 7-3, in a game where Rivera recorded the final out and Jose Molina clubbed the last home run. Jeter got the last word, telling the fans about the honor and tradition of wearing the uniform.
On the final day of the campaign, Mussina defeated the Red Sox to log his long-awaited 20th victory, the 270th and final of his big league career. A-Rod was involved in the first home run upheld by instant replay on Sept. 4 at Tropicana Field, while Ivan Rodriguez and the Angels' Torii Hunter scuffled on Sept. 9 at Anaheim.
Cano was benched, then saw a late surge after hitting coach Kevin Long tweaked his stance. And Jeter set a record that can never be broken, passing Lou Gehrig for the most all-time hits at Yankee Stadium.
With Cashman retained through 2011 as New York's general manager, the front office began to work through what figured to be a busy offseason. Gone would be Abreu, Giambi, Pavano, Pudge and others, with more decisions to be made.
Rivera had arthroscopic shoulder surgery early in the month, and the club decided not to retain third-base coach Bobby Meacham. Chamberlain apologized for a DUI arrest in Nebraska, and the Yankees began discussing playing an exhibition series against the Cubs at the new Yankee Stadium.
The Yankees jumped at Sabathia with a six-year, $140 million offer on Nov. 14, the first day they could do so, leaving little question about their winter intentions. They'd later improve that offer to seven years and $161 million. As they waited, Cashman triggered a trade with the White Sox to acquire first baseman and outfielder Nick Swisher, while dealing Rasner to a club in Japan's Central League.
Pettitte told the Yankees he plans to pitch in 2009, and Mussina announced his retirement, walking away with what many believe is a Hall of Fame resume. There was a transition ceremony at the new Yankee Stadium, where members of the '98 Yankees helped move dirt across 161st Street.
Yankee Stadium held a sendoff gala, as the white message board proclaimed, "Let's Play Two: CC & A.J." on Dec. 18. The Yankees introduced the first prizes of their winter work, trotting out both Sabathia and A.J. Burnett in a dual press conference that showcased $243.5 million in contractual commitments.
But they weren't done. On Dec. 23, the Yankees swooped in at the last minute and outbid the Red Sox by more than $10 million for Teixeira, landing the sweet-swinging switch-hitter with an eight-year, $180 million deal that led some to peg New York as next year's World Series favorites.
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.