George Saluted With Yankee Classic


A night that began with som ber dignity at the Stadium ended with a pie in the face.

Mariano Rivera placed two roses on home plate to honor the memories of George Steinbrenner and Bob Sheppard before the game, and A.J. Burnett jammed a wad of shaving cream into the mug of Nick Swisher afterward.

Ultimately, the Yankees satisfied every mandate of The Boss: They won to stretch their lead over the second-place Rays. They did so before a satisfied full house. And they made great television for the team-owned network. Rest in peace, George, your team saluted you with a Yankee Classic.

For most of this night, it appeared as if the Rays were refusing to play their expected part, essentially the Washington Generals. Tampa went ahead 2-0, 3-1 and 4-3. Obviously, they had not received the script about how this was supposed to go on a memorable night at Yankee Stadium.

But destiny and clutch hitting ended up on the Yankees' side and -- as Steinbrenner would have loved -- they now lead Tampa by three games after a 5-4 victory.

"The message is still the same," Derek Jeter had said before the Yankees played their first game without Steinbrenner atop the organizational masthead since Oct. 4, 1972, "we're still expected to win."

Jeter had been the Yankee who asked the crowd for a moment of silence in honor of both Steinbrenner and Sheppard. That was the proper sound to honor both men. And then so were all the sounds of the post-game, especially for Steinbrenner, who valued winning above all else.

Swisher singled with two out to drive in Curtis Granderson from second base. That triggered a standing eruption from the crowd of 47,524. Not long after that a pre-recorded message of Sheppard's voice came on to say: "Thank you for coming to the game, now please drive carefully and arrive home safely." One more ovation and cue New York, New York.

So the Yankees are 1-0 in both the second half and post-George.

The Yankees were positioned for the ultimate fairy-tale ending on this night: Winning hit for Jeter, win for Rivera.

Rivera did his part to earn the win, pitching a scoreless top of the ninth to keep the score 4-4. Randy Choate relieved for Tampa and lefties were hitting just .162 against him. Granderson, who had struck out in his previous two at-bats to elicit some boos, fouled off two 2-2 pitches before slapping a single to right. Ramiro Pena sacrificed to bring up another lefty, Brett Gardner.

Gardner fell behind 0-2, but for the second time in this game he drew an eight-pitch walk; his tenacious at-bats remain impressive. Dan Wheeler relieved and struck out Jeter. That brought up Swisher, who had endured an interesting game.

"It was an up-and-down day," Swisher said.

He singled in a run in the third to draw the Yankees within 2-1, had Gabe Kapler rob him of a potential homer in the fifth and hit a game-tying homer in the eighth. He also dropped a flyball in the sixth and got caught off-guard when B.J. Upton went first-to-third on a Carl Crawford single that helped put Tampa ahead 4-3 a half inning after consecutive homers by Robinson Cano and Jorge Posada had tied the score. Again, the Rays were not cooperating easily with destiny.

But then Swisher hit the tying homer, delivered the winning RBI and endured a face full of shaving cream. Nevertheless, he remembered that this was not about him.

"Today was Mr. Steinbrenner's day," Swisher said. "We played that game as best we could for him. The agenda today was winning, that is what Mr. Steinbrenner always wanted us to do."

It was the kind of game that Steinbrenner would have loved.

by Joel Sherman


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