The last at-bat at Yankee Stadium (cont.)
The game unfolded in a blur for Ray. He brought Todd Murcer and Munson's daughters to the Gehrig room for one last tour and then hung out in the press box for a couple of innings. He commiserated about the end of the Stadium with Goose Gossage and helped Elston Howard's daughter look for her purse. When Mariano Rivera trotted to the mound in the top of the ninth, Ray walked through the crowd on the field level to the front row, next to the TV camera stationed behind home plate. Rivera retired the Orioles in order and the game was over. It had been an uneventful game, but the Yankees won and the fans were happy. Jose Molina hit the final home run in Yankee Stadium, securing his name in trivia history. Ray stood on his chair as the crowd cheered and Frank Sinatra's rendition of New York, New York amped up the volume.
The Yankee players gathered on the field. Hundreds of cops did as well. After a few minutes Ray moved across the first aisle toward the Yankee dugout, past NYPD commissioner Raymond Kelly and finally to the end of the row, where Rudy Giuliani and his wife, Judith, smiled at him. Rudy patted Ray on the shoulder and opened a little gate so that Ray could get onto the field. Ray crossed in front of the dugout and stood with the other clubhouse employees along the railing. New York, New York played again and again. The players congregated in the middle of the field and Jeter gave a speech of appreciation. With the crowd roaring, the team took a lap around the field, saluting the fans and then leisurely drifted toward the dugout, waving to their families in the stands, Sinatra still singing. Ray hugged Abreu and said, "I'm proud of you."
Ray sat in the dugout, Jeter signing autographs just above him, dozens of photographers snapping away. Ray's phone chirped: Robbie Alomar. A compact man wearing a warm-up suit over his uniform sat down next to Ray and shook his hand. It was Caesar Prescott, a scout for the Yankees. He would be Ray's batting practice pitcher for the night.
Less than an hour later, when the reporters had finished getting their locker room quotes, Ray went into the weight room carrying a black bat, autographed by Pudge Rodriguez, sticky with pine tar.
"It will be at least 2:30 before we can get out there on the field," said Ray. "At least. I can't go out there if people are still around, especially the head of the grounds crew 'cause he'll rat me out."
Aris swung a fungo bat and Caesar tossed a small medicine ball against the wall. Ray put on warm-up pants, a pair of sneakers and two batting gloves. "The last time I took BP was in 1980," he said. "It was the year that Graig Nettles had hepatitis. The team was on the road and he was here taking batting practice one day. I was able to sneak in there and get a couple of hacks. I went up there hitting like Reggie, but from the right side. I had Reggie's stance, his whole act, down cold. I got a hold of one and hit it out. I go into my whole Reggie, trotted around the bases and everything."
Ray started peddling lightly on one of the stationary bikes.
"And as a bonus," he said, "the ball almost hit Pat Kelly, the Stadium manager, who was sleeping in the seats out there in left field. He was a mean dude. Nobody liked this guy. The ball landed right by his leg. It didn't hit him, but it woke his ass up. Right then I vowed, 'I'll never take another swing at Yankee Stadium.' It was a perfect moment. And I haven't taken another swing. Not until tonight."
Ray looked at me and said, "Do you think I can hit one out?"
"Does it matter? You'll be the last guy to take batting practice."
"You're right," said Ray. "Hear that, Aris? I should enjoy myself."
The three men went down the hall to the indoor hitting cage. Ray and Caesar stepped inside. Ray's first couple of swings were rusty. He dropped his hands and lunged at the ball. "OK," said Caesar, "here comes another one, let's go." After about 10 swings Ray started to make solid contact, yanking the ball high into the screen. Caesar said, "C'mon, attack the ball. Be aggressive. Let's go."
Ray got into one.
"Home run," he said. But it wasn't the one he wanted. He finished the round and helped Caesar pick up the balls. Then he took another round and sat on the bench as Caesar pitched to Aris. Ray closed his eyes. The security guard stuck his head in the room and said, "Ray, they are still out there. You should just go home." Ray nodded at him. Soon, he was slumped over, sound asleep, his bat in his hands.
At 3 a.m. two dozen people were still hanging out on the field. The main Stadium lights had been turned off, but the back-up lights were on, making it visible but dim on the field. A chubby kid who looked like Mickey Lolich pitched off the mound, surrounded by six packs of beer. He drained a beer and then filled the bottle with dirt. In the upper deck, Stadium workers used leaf blowers to clean the aisles and the seats, and a steady buzzing sound filled the park. It was chilly now.
As Ray napped in the hitting cage and then in the weight room, Caesar hit fly balls to Aris in the outfield. At the break of dawn, only two people were left on the field: the head of the grounds crew, a short, blond man, who stood like a weathervane on the mound, and a tall drink of water in black whose flowing hair made him look like a heavy-metal guitarist. It did not look like they were going anywhere.
Caesar was ready to surrender. "Let's go," he said to Aris. "It's over."
They returned to the weight room. Ray sat up on the massage table.
"It ain't happening," said Aris.
"They ain't leaving, Ray," said Caesar. "They're going to be here until seven in the morning."
Ray shrugged and gave a half-smile, his face puffy with sleep.
Caesar said goodbye and Ray packed his bag. A few minutes later, Ray and Aris left the weight room.
"Let's give it once last look," said Ray.
They walked down the corridor to the camera pit, up the steps and out onto the field. Other than the few dozen people left in the stands cleaning, everyone was gone. The field was empty. Ray turned to Aris.
"Even if I only get three or four swings before someone comes to kick us out, at least I made the effort," said Ray.
"Let's do it."
Aris grabbed the bucket of balls, Ray grabbed the bat and they walked back out onto the field. It was almost six in the morning. Dawn was turning the sky from dark blue to gray. Aris took the bucket of balls -- 22 in all -- to the mound and began to stretch. Ray put on his batting gloves, took a few practice swings and stepped into the batter's box. The buzz of the leaf blowers was the only sound in the park. Aris held up a ball and Ray nodded. Aris kicked his leg and delivered the pitch. Ray took an easy swing and hit a ground ball to third base. Aris held up the next ball and threw. Ray hit a pop-up into the seats by third base.
"OK, here it comes," said Aris, "Big stick."
Ray hit a line drive and grunted on his follow-through. He got under the next few and hit more pop flies. He let a pitch go by. Ray's swing was tired. Then he hit another line drive, this one with some distance.
"There you go. That's what I'm talking about," said Aris.
Ray tried to jerk everything in the air to left -- a line drive, a foul ball into the seats, a fly ball to short left.
"That's it," said Aris.
Aris had a rubber arm. He'd struck out 15 in a semi-pro game two days earlier, but he was giving Ray pitches to hit. With six balls left in the bucket, Ray hit a fly ball to deep left. "There you go, baby," said Aris.
The ball sailed toward the seats but curved foul. It cleared the fence but in foul territory.
"There it is," said Aris.
"No, no. It's got to be legit," said Ray, digging his right foot into the batter's box.
Two pitches later, Ray hit another fly to deep left. He didn't hit this one as well as the foul ball, but it traveled all the way to the wall and bounced off the Cannon sign.
"There you go, baby," said Aris. "Five extra push-ups and that's going over."
When the bucket was empty, Ray dropped his bat and walked to the outfield with Aris to gather the balls. A few minutes later, he was taking more cuts. But Ray could not hit another deep fly ball. He hit grounders and let out soft grunts after each swing. A line drive, a pop-up. With each passing swing, Ray's body began to sag. He was spent. When the bucket was empty, Ray exhaled.
"That's it, man, I'm done."
Aris said, "One more round, c'mon."
"My groin is going to give. I don't want you carrying me off this field."
"Ten more, just ten more."
"No, that's it. I'm done."
Ray kicked at the bottom of his bat and looked up at the sky.
"Ray, we can come back another day and do this," said Aris.
"Let's pick up the balls," said Ray.
"Leave them out there."
"Nah, we have to hide the evidence."
The two men walked slowly to the outfield and picked up the scattered balls. Ray moved gingerly, his head down, discouraged. He felt numb. After all his planning, after months of practice, Ray had come up short, five extra push-ups away from hitting one out. There were no witnesses. Even the cleaning crew didn't seem to notice. But he didn't hit one out, and that mattered to Ray. The Stadium was closed. The final night was over.
"It's six in the morning, Ray," said Aris. "You hit the ball good. We're dealing with old ass BP balls that have been used all season, plus they're wet with moisture. If we had been out here at two, you would have been hitting bombs."
Ray was not listening. "Damn," he said over and over.
They finally walked back to the infield. A hulking security guard moved toward them.
"Here he comes to throw us out," said Ray.
When the guard reached them, Ray and Aris stopped walking. The guard looked them over and said, "Do you think it's OK if I have one of those balls?"
Aris gave him two.
"I thought you were going to kick us out," said Ray.
"I'm not going to throw you out," the guard said. "You're Steinbrenner's guy."