Sunday, September 21, 2008

Last Call at the Cathedral

Among many other things the site of the first papal Mass on the American continent -- a role it starred in three times, more than any other venue -- tonight Yankee Stadium ends its 85-year run as the great temple of Stateside sport.

Of course, the hallowed turf in the South Bronx played host to one final Eucharist in April (video)... and whether it had anything to do with the absence of pinstripes from the postseason for the first time in 13 years is anyone's guess. On Friday, the letters were hoisted into place over the Bombers' $1.3 billion soon-to-be home across the street; in deference to its predecessor, the place is forever destined to be known as New Yankee Stadium.

Regardless, tonight's final game against the Baltimore Orioles will find two pillars of the House that Ruth Built absent: Yankee owner George Steinbrenner remains in convalescence in Florida, and Bob Sheppard, the Stadium's announcer since 1951, is continuing his recovery from an extended illness that's kept him away from the booth all season.

BustedHalo profiled Sheppard as this final season dawned, and now at its close, the Times checked in with the "Voice of God" -- who, as it turns out, had an even more important event on-deck earlier today... even if tickets weren't being scalped into the high four figures:
Since early spring, Sheppard has been well enough to take daily communion at the church a few blocks from his home in Baldwin, N.Y. During the terrible winter, when he struggled to raise his weight from 103 pounds, Sheppard could not venture outside the hospital or his home.

“Mary gave me communion every day,” he said, referring to the practice of administering the sacrament to the housebound.

“Mary is my angel,” Sheppard said Friday over the telephone, praising his wife for nursing him with food, vitamins, rest, advice, orders — and love.

Then he amended her rank.

“There are three Archangels — Michael, Gabriel and Raphael,” he said, his voice as crisp and clear as when he announced DiMaggio or Mantle or Jackson. “I have elevated her to the first female Archangel.”

Mary Sheppard made sure her husband gained weight after he had what has been described as bronchitis last fall. His weight has climbed to 140 ½ pounds as of Friday, Sheppard said, but he and his doctor do not feel he has the strength for even a cameo performance as the Yankees’ public-address announcer for the Stadium’s final game Sunday night.

“The Yankees have been very gracious,” Sheppard said as he was awaiting a visit from club officials who would tape a message from him for this weekend. The Yankees offered a limousine and a seat in George M. Steinbrenner’s box, and maybe a few words if he felt up to it.

The Boss, who long ago revived the glory of this franchise, is not coming up from Florida this weekend. The two old lions, two decades apart in age, have this much in common: a sense of pride, not wanting special attention.

“I don’t have my best stuff,” Sheppard said, sounding like a pitcher whose fastball has lost some zip. But he still has his wits, to say nothing of the elocution that has graced Yankee Stadium since April 17, 1951, opening day....

Essentially, Sheppard is a simple man, as some poets and clerics and teachers can be termed simple. He never sought the company of the athletes. He had his own niche in life, and he still does, giving thanks that he can attend church each morning, go shopping, and in good weather walk the garden behind his home, always with Mary.

They are the most handsome couple in the world. I used to see them walking the shoreline at Jones Beach State Park in the summer of 1961, but what I did not know was that they were newlyweds. When I sat in their living room a few months ago, they told me how they met, at church, of course, after Sheppard’s first wife died of a brain tumor, leaving him with four children. He invited Mary Hoffman to the beach, where they swam and played pitch-and-putt golf, and, when he was ready, he proposed.

Bob has not resumed serving as a lector at Mass, but Mary reads from the scripture many mornings — “the best female lector I have ever heard,” he said Friday, as if he were saying “No. 2, Derek JEE-tah.”

The Sheppards resisted the Yankees’ kind offer of a limousine for Sunday night, but they do go out.

“You know how old I am?” Sheppard asked. “My daughter, Mary, is celebrating her 50th year in the convent. Can you imagine? And she is still young and beautiful.”

Sister Mary has arranged for a guest room for Bob and Mary Sheppard so they can rest between the breakfast and the Mass at the Josephites’ convent on Long Island. Sheppard would not miss this celebration. As for the Yankees’ opener next April, this man for many seasons says he just needs to gain a few more pounds, and he just might be there.
...and, lest anyone not know what "JEE-tah" sounds like, the Voice doing the Yankee intros:

Not to be forgotten is the other farewell taking place across Gotham; this is also the final season for Shea Stadium, home of the NL East runner-up Mets.

Repeat: NL East runner-up.

Anyways, in the interest of fair (interleague) play, the newly-elected John Paul II said Mass at both Yankee and Shea on his first US tour in 1979. The church's foreshadowing of the "Subway Series" was never repeated.

PHOTO: Richard Perry/The New York Times