NEW YORK — The send-offs for Yankee Stadium have been rolling out long before the 79th All-Star Game pulled into the old ballpark Tuesday night. But for the first time, it really did feel as if the countdown had begun. And it really did feel like the start of goodbye.
Part of it was the spectacle of those 49 Hall of Famers — many of them heroes here once upon a time, but gray and balding now — making the long walk in from Monument Park for pregame ceremonies.
Part of it was the sight of George Steinbrenner, in the house for his first game since Opening Day, fighting back tears like a man who might have been seeing his life flash before his eyes as he was ferried around the ballpark in a golf cart, helping out at the mound with the first pitch ceremonies. Once there, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Reggie Jackson and Goose Gossage kissed Steinbrenner gently on his cheek.
The game hadn't even started, but it was all just another reminder that this building was never just about the bricks and mortar.
It was what people did here that made this place so special. Seeing living legends who were swapping stories about playing here, or the long-gone stars who were featured in highlights on the stadium scoreboard all together again for one night felt like a palpable reminder of just how much really happened here. It wasn't just New York arrogance or Yankees hyperbole. It was real.
The reminders were all around Tuesday night. At times, there was Babe Ruth winking down from the scoreboard with that crooked grin.
There was Joe DiMaggio kicking the dirt after Al Gionfriddo's catch in the 1947 World Series. Mickey Mantle taking a heroic cut, Roger Maris tugging his cap down tight and Reggie nearly corkscrewing himself into the batter's box with one of his home run swings. There were the opposing players, many of whom spent their careers devoted to beating the Yankees, now saying they made a point to come back because this place felt like part of their lives, too.
Tony Perez, a star with the old Big Red Machine, said, "It's fun to come back to remember, and to be remembered."
Seven-time batting champion Rod Carew said the toughest part of Tuesday night would be beating back the urge to want to step back into the box and slap a single up the middle.
"How can you walk into Yankee Stadium," Carew said, "and not want to play?"
Hank Aaron, who played two World Series here as the Milwaukee Braves right fielder in 1957 and '58, was refreshingly honest when he met with reporters earlier in the day. He called Yankee Stadium "a ballpark which scared the hell out of me.
"I was told the shadows would come and I wouldn't be able to pick up the ball, or you could be up by five runs and you still felt like something would happen, like from somewhere Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig would pull the ball out of the park," Aaron laughed.
He was talking about the famous Yankees mystique, which — let's be honest — has also seemed gone for awhile around here before Tuesday night.
The three other times Yankee Stadium hosted an All-Star Game, the Yankees advanced to the World Series. But so far, this doesn't feel like one of those years.
The Stadium isn't guaranteed any more galas beyond Tuesday night. The large crane looming just beyond the rim of the left-field bleachers at the new place across the street was another reminder of that. The Stadium may go out quietly in September rather than heroically in October, dressed up again with the red-white-and-blue bunting that was rimming the upper deck Tuesday night.
So much happened here.
It will take so much to make the new place feel as timeless or special as Yankee Stadium gets when it's alive with the sort of stars and buzz and venom (rare for an All-Star Game) that was coursing through the place Tuesday night. But all of it felt familiar.
The same bleacher creatures who had been so classy with their impromptu chant of Bobby Murcer's name during their pregame roll call, knowing the former Yankees center fielder lost his battle to brain cancer Saturday, flipped on a dime when Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon entered the game in the eighth. Now they started chanting "Overrated" at Papelbon even before he promptly coughed up the go-ahead run to the National League before the AL tied the score at 3.
World Series titles move around, stadiums come and go. But some things never change.