The last at-bat at Yankee Stadium
Yankee Stadium hosted its last game on the night of Sept. 21
Ray Negron is a former batboy who became a Yankees special advisor
Negron's goal was to hit the last home run in Yankee Stadium
It was just before one o'clock in the morning on Sept. 22, but the scoreboard clock was frozen at 12:21. The last game at Yankee Stadium was over, Sinatra had finally stopped singing New York, New York, and organist Ed Alstrom was playing Goodnight, Sweetheart. The home team had won 7-3 in a game that meant nothing in the standings but everything in a deeper, gut-felt way. The Yankees would not be going to the postseason for the first time since 1993, yet they had drawn 4.3 million fans, including another capacity-plus 54,640 on this night. And now, as the last of them drifted out of the ballpark, it felt like closing night for a hit Broadway show.
Now it was just the clean-up crew swinging into action and a select group of others clinging to the night -- players and their families, reporters, radio and TV personalities, cameramen, front office workers, the grounds crew and cops, lots of cops. People hugged and slapped hands and talked and laughed. Players scooped up dirt and grass and put them in paper cups and Ziploc bags. Grown men had their pictures taken at home plate, on the mound and sliding into second. It was like Never-Never Land -- everyone was a child. Why would anyone want to go home, knowing they were the last precious few to soak in the Stadium? They stayed, stuck between history and the wrecking ball, until the head of security announced that it was time to leave.
Ray Negron was out on the field, right where he belonged, with the players and sportswriters. Ray had seen them all -- from DiMaggio and Mantle to Reggie and A-Rod. He was there when they came to play at the Stadium and he was still there when they left.
He had started as a batboy, played briefly in the minor leagues and ended up as a team special advisor whose name doesn't appear in the media guide. He has never made much money, just enough to get by. Like so many other boys, Ray grew up dreaming of playing in Yankee Stadium. When that dream died, he improbably became a pet of George Steinbrenner's. He's one of George's guys.
"This Stadium saved my life," said Ray. "The Boss gave me a life."
Steinbrenner caught him spray-painting a stadium wall in 1973. Ray was with his two brothers and two cousins, all of whom managed to get away. Steinbrenner, however, grabbed Ray by the collar and led him off into a stadium cell normally resolved for drunks and brawlers. The ballpark cops laughed at him. But 10 minutes later the Boss returned and made him a batboy. He was going to work off his punishment. Ray's brothers and cousins took another path. His brothers were undone by heroin and later crack -- caught up in the street life. And in less than 15 years his cousins were dead, one murdered, the other a victim of a dirty needle.
"When my cousin was sick with AIDS," said Ray, "he told me, 'You were lucky you got caught.' I live with that."
Ray is long and lean and looks like a former jock. He has short, black hair and skin the color of café con leche. His large, brown eyes and long eyelashes are almost feminine; his cheeks sag -- the sign of a thin man growing older -- and lend an air of seriousness to an otherwise boyish countenance. He is not embarrassed to be known around the clubhouse as the batboy, does not find it ill-suited to a man of 52. He knows that his fairytale story isn't just his own.
"The Stadium has been my cocoon," said Ray. "I can come here late at night, work out in the weight room, or just go and sit in the dugout and clear my head. It's been here for me almost my whole life."
And this past summer, he got to share it with Ricky, his 13-year-old son, who came to live with his father for a couple months. (Since his parents divorced Ricky has lived with his mother in Michigan.) Ray rented the top room of a townhouse owned by a friend in the South Bronx, a 10-minute drive from the Stadium. Ricky stayed with him the entire summer. "You know how kids love the idea of being in the 'hood," said Ray. Ricky wanted to be close to his father and they both wanted to be close to the Stadium, where they went late at night. Ray pitched BP in the indoor cage and hit Ricky fly balls in the empty, semi-dark outfield. He had a broken left ring finger and a sore shoulder as a result. But it was worth it. It makes you wonder how he ever left in the first place.
Ray has been an actor and a sports agent, as well as an advisor and a liaison. He has been a confidante, a sounding board and a whipping boy to some of the biggest egos in the game -- Billy Martin, Reggie Jackson, Doc Gooden, Darryl Strawberry. He is the Zelig of the Yankees, a witness to some of the great events of the Steinbrenner era. When Jackson hit the third home run in Game 6 of the '77 Series, it was Negron who, with the presence of mind and crack timing of a Broadway stage manager, whispered in Jackson's ear and nudged him out of the dugout for a curtain call.
"'If I'm the King of New York,' Reggie would say to me, 'then you're the prince of the city,'" said Ray. "And I was." It is one of Ray's favorite moments.
Away from the Stadium, Ray had a walk-on in The Cotton Club and auditioned for a role in Miami Vice. He worked out of his basement representing Juan Beniquez and Jose Rijo and didn't hold a grudge when they left him for bigger agents. He moved around, was a general manager in the short-lived Senior League, then worked as a liaison with the Yomiuri Giants, escorting American players to Japan several times a year. It was good training for the years he spent watching over Gooden and Strawberry.
When the Cleveland Indians were interested in Gooden in the late 1990s, scout Tom Giordano told general manager John Hart not to sign the pitcher without Negron. "I wanted Ray almost more than I wanted Doc," said Giordano. Team psychologist Charlie Maher used Negron as a bridge to Latin players such as Manny Ramirez, Danny Baez and Robbie Alomar.
"I consider him a baseball guy," said Hart, who employed Ray in a similar capacity with the Texas Rangers. "He has a feel for baseball, a feel for people, a feel for the troubled player. There are so many dynamics in pro sports, and only a portion of it is connected with a player's talent."
Ray returned to the Yankees in 2005 and ever since he's carried the title of advisor. The role is not easily defined, like Negron himself. He has written two children's books for HarperCollins, which he brings with him on visits to hospitals and boys and girls clubs around the city. He is the star of his own reality show, giving personalized tours of Yankee Stadium to sick kids and rich kids, to executives and celebrities, a history of the place according to Ray. His favorite stop is the holding cell where the Boss sent him all those years ago.
"George was larger than life," said Ray. "Most people can't sustain that. They have moments of grandeur, maybe, but are not true forces of nature. George was relentless about building a winner. Less than one hour after the Yankees lost in the first round to the Mariners in 1995, he was on the phone with me and said, 'Meet me tomorrow morning with Doc Gooden.' Most guys feel sorry for themselves that soon after a defeat. George was already in action."
If Steinbrenner was an avuncular presence in Ray's life, the Stadium was a second home. Ray made sure to spend as much time as possible at the park this season. One night in the hitting cage, Ricky asked him, "What are we going to do next year?"
"That's when it hit me that the Stadium is really going," said Ray. "I told my son that I'm going to be the last person to hit a ball in Yankee Stadium. Then as I got in shape, I became more confident and I said, Nah, I'm going to be the last one to hit one out. I'm in denial right now about the end of Yankee Stadium. But tonight, at 2 a.m., when everyone is gone, I'm going out there on the field and hit the last home run at Yankee Stadium."