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On Ballparks and Ice Rinks, the Boys of Summer and the Winter Classic

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As one Texas temple shuts its doors after 25 years, the Stars are approaching two decades in American Airlines Center

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MLB: JUL 17 Diamondbacks at Rangers
Ben Bishop’s BP
Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

And the people played their crazy game

With a joy I’d never seen

***

Over the weekend, I had the fresh privilege of attending my first Stars game since moving (back) to Dallas. The next day, I had the bittersweet joy of attending the final game at Globe Life Park in Arlington—or The Ballpark, as we will probably all remember it decades from now.

Both games shared the ignoble quality of being meaningless, in terms of a sports team’s annual objective. Preseason hockey games are effectively warm-ups or tryouts at best, while the smattering of fans at a 94-degree September game for a bad Rangers team against an opponent preparing for the playoffs would, on most days, perfectly exemplify the need for the cranes dominating the skyline of Texas Live!

So, by normal standards, game 162 for Texas was infinitely less important than another Ballpark game against those same Yankees almost—can this be right?—a decade ago.

As I sat there on Sunday, I kept looking at the archways, the Nolan Ryan statue, the jet stream dampeners, and Greene’s Hill, trying to see if time had left its mark in here the way it had in my life over the two and a half decades since I heard about this place. I guess I was looking for something like annual rings.

But of course, this same Ballpark that held our hot, sticky tears on Sunday was the same one whose passing will be most remembered for its lack of rings, for other tears over what could have been and never was. Seeing Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz stand together on a pitcher’s mound was an almost sacred experience for me—I still remember catching a Feliz game in his rookie year, with that rocking-chair delivery that made 100 miles per hour look like punching a timecard.

But amid all the glory-days fanfare, I couldn’t escape the reverberating echoes of unfinished business as mayors and owners paraded home plate out of the Ballpark. This gorgeous place still had legs, even if they tended to wilt in the heat. But the team is moving on, and the fans will hope to hang that elusive World Series banner in a place that, one suspects, will be far less iconic than symbolic—of the changes in the sport, in our country, and the team itself.

***

Joe Sakic was in town Saturday evening, but he was at a far more important Avalanche game in Dallas over 20 years ago; one that my brother and I desperately tried to go to when our family happened to be visiting Dallas from our home in California on a month-long vacation. But this was also back when two teenagers trying to get Reunion Arena tickets on the day of a WCF game seven was about as feasible as my walking into a skate shop to buy a cool board in 1992. Even if you had the resources, you would find some sinister barriers standing in your way.

In fact, the one seller my brother managed to find wouldn’t budge from his sky-high price. I remember my brother asking him, “Well, what if you don’t sell the tickets?” His response: “I guess I’ll just go to the game myself.”

Well, fair enough.

On that same 1999 trip, we stopped by the Ballpark in Arlington for the first time. The Rangers were out of town, but we went into the center field gift shop, and the staff kindly let us walk out onto the concourse. Somewhere my dad still has a picture of all of us in front of that Nolan Ryan statue, with 13-year-old Robert wearing a Star Wars: Episode 1 hat that I got from redeeming cereal box coupons. (NB: I was really into cereal prizes as a kid, including Tale Spin figurines and die-cast Thomas the Tank Engine models. I sent away for the mildly rare Oliver, but like most of my childhood, it’s no longer in any condition for modern appraisal.)

If this seems like a devolution into saccharine nostalgia, that’s because it is. Sports trade on that as much as any industry, and perhaps moreso than most when they have billion-dollar interests in keeping you coming back even when they change the address. “This means something,” said the thrum of the marching band as they filed past the hole where Dean Palmer and I-Rod used to step on home plate. “Flags fly forever. We’ll always have the memories.”

Truth in advertising, absolutely. And one of the great things about going to games at American Airlines Center is that you can usually find a lot of people who remember Reunion Arena. The history still lives on in a new home, just as the Rangers’ history will perpetuate itself across the street. But the Ballpark is very truly gone now. The Temple is now an ignominious tabernacle, a mausoleum that will see cut-rate football within its confines until the league folds for a second time. It was appropriate that Sunday’s parade ended by burying something in a hole in the dirt. We’ve been here before.

***

American Airlines Center is, like most hockey arenas nowadays, flexible. Workers had just finished covering the ice when I left Saturday night, but that burial was just an intermission, a precursor to another long season of fresh ice, blue lines, and victory green. Normally we hope for many more than 41 games in that building, but this year, we’re anticipating the thrill of the AAC seeing only 40. The Cotton Bowl, itself a half-deserted shrine, will house relocated worshipers once again on New Year’s Day. The Dallas Stars might well have better games to look forward to when April arrives, but this game is for certain. Hockey will bring its biggest and most Bacchic rituals into a Texas football field that lost its eponymous bowl game to another one of those brilliantine-smelling stadiums not too far from the Ballpark. It will be weird and wonderful to watch hockey without a giant screen hanging over the ice. Hopefully it will be just cold enough.

Seeing Jamie Benn step below the faceoff dot and tie the game late on Saturday reminded me of the first hockey game I saw at the AAC, also with my brother. It was April 2007, and the Stars were playing the Ducks—a matchup we had seen many times before, but in Anaheim—in what I think was Dallas’s final home game of the season. My brother and I were in Dallas on the sort of trip brothers plan at 20 and 25 years old. We saw a Stars practice in Frisco, and we also watched the one-time rotation king Kevin Millwood lead the Rangers past the Boston Red Sox from the high left field seats the afternoon before the Stars played the Ducks.

I remember walking through the AAC with awe, or at least trying to muster it. Yes, it was wonderful to finally go to a game and not get dirty looks or petty comments for wearing Stars gear, but the similarities to a place like Staples Center were pretty striking. The AAC wasn’t exactly the cookie-cutter multipurpose stadiums of the 1980s, don’t get me wrong. But going from The Ballpark to the AAC on the same day was like moving out of your childhood home and into a new condo that still smelled of paint and drywall. The advantages were obvious, and you could look forward to making it your own. But the soul of the place was a good bit tougher to find.

Maybe it was the presence of the Stars Havoc Fanatics section, with its deadening drumbeats for nothing in particular coming from the upper corner. Maybe it was the then-meager Mavericks banners reminding you of the building’s diverse loyalties. Maybe it was just the cavernous arena itself. Whatever it was, that game, while wonderful, didn’t leave quite as indelible a mark in my life as so many other ballparks and ice rinks have managed to do. Maybe I just got too old, too fast. Don’t we always?

***

The game was a good one, for all that. The Stars were battling San Jose and those same Ducks for the Pacific Division title late in 2007, with Dallas sporting the recently acquired Ladislav Nagy (a deadline rental who cost the Stars a first-round pick that the Coyotes later flipped to Edmonton, I think, but don’t hold me to that). The Ducks were holding a 1-0 lead down the stretch in that game, and my brother and I were sharing a creeping fear that this would be a repeat of the time we ponied up for glass seats at Staples Center only to see the Kings beat Dallas 1-0 in one of the most boring games you could imagine, even from right behind the glass.

But this was 2007, when the old Stars gods still walked among us, and Brenden Morrow wasn’t about to let that happen. Nagy threw a puck into traffic with just six seconds remaining and Marty Turco on the bench, and the puck banked in off Morrow’s shinpad. After an interminable-seeming review, the officials decided that the goal would stand (unlike a couple of other Morrow goals that were absurdly revoked in later playoff series).

The AAC went berserk. I heard that goal horn, and Bill Oellermann announced that Brenden Morrow had officially tied the game. I high-fived a couple of random Stars fans, and the place started to feel just a bit more special than it had a minute before.

Jamie Benn’s goal on Saturday was far prettier, and infinitely less meaningful. But those two goals will forever be connected in my mind, beautiful bookends to some tenuous mental sports library containing Ballpark memories and AAC novelty. Rangers games will never be the same, and I can already feel Stars games turning into something else, too. Watching games at 33 just isn’t what it was. Maybe that’s just preseason malaise, though. I hope so. I really do.

Back in 2007, overtime came and went, and then it was Ladislav Nagy, of all people, who ended up sealing the win after Jussi Jokinen, Sergei Zubov and Mike Modano all failed to beat Ilya Bryzgalov. Marty Turco, meanwhile, stopped all three Ducks he faced, including a 21-year-old winger named Corey Perry. Turco’s shootout dominance in those early days never got its due while standing in Jokinen’s shadow, but I hope I will still be able to revel in memories of his poke checks in another 12 years. The stupid trapezoid is as much his fault as Brodeur’s, but I wonder if that’s already being forgotten. You can feel collective memory evaporate just a bit more every season. ("Which lockout do you mean?")

But I remember seeing Bryzgalov get a piece of Nagy’s shootout attempt with his glove, and I remember the puck still managing to trickle over the goal line. I remember Bryzgalov slamming the corner glass with his stick as he left the ice amid jubilation and bear hugs (which he was certainly glad to miss), and I remember thinking that it was too bad I couldn’t have seen a Mike Modano goal, even in the shootout. But hey, a win is a win. Or, I guess, two points are two points. That’s really what it’s all about. Preseason, Saturday reminded me, offers no points. But still we cheer, and grumble, and hope.

The Stars, by the way, would finish the 2006-07 season with 107 points for third in the stacked Pacific Division. For their troubles, they would end up facing Vancouver, who won the Northwest Division with 105 points, in the first round of the playoffs. Despite finishing with fewer points than Dallas, the Canucks would end up with home-ice advantage thanks to the Very Logical Rules of the post-lockout NHL that gave Division Winners automatic home ice. And the Canucks would beat Dallas on home ice in a travesty of a game seven, one in which Vancouver was awarded 10 power plays. I can’t help but wonder if 2007 goes differently in American Airlines Center. It was still so new back then, aching for a real playoff run, and it would get it next year. Such as it was.

The Canucks that year would go on to lose to the Ducks when Roberto Luongo famously lobbied for an offside call right before the puck went by him in overtime to end the series. Corey Perry would get his Stanley Cup ring before I was even allowed to buy a beer. The Canucks had even greater success and heartbreak awaiting them in 2011 in a game I watched at a Red Robin in Whittier, California. (Red Robin just isn’t the same anymore, either.)

***

I can draw a line through so much of my life that passes through The Ballpark and the AAC. The retired numbers hanging in the rafters inside the Victory Park monument remind me of what has changed just as much as what hasn’t. Like Joe Sakic, Mike Modano is still around the league, recently reunited with Bill Guerin in Minnesota. That state got another hockey team, and has had it for decades now, even if they do seem to spend an awful lot of time pining for the one they lost.

The Winter Classic is shaping up to be a lot more about Dallas hockey than about the earliest days of the Stars franchise, and I think that’s probably okay. It’s the team’s prerogative, after all. Just as the Ballpark’s All-Time Team on Sunday involved a few more players we remember wearing the current millennium’s blue Rangers jerseys than the mid-nineties red ones, so also will the Dallas Stars continue to carve out a name—or nowadays, I guess we should say a brand—that can transcend one memorable star-patterned sweater, or even one wonderful goal scored in upstate New York in June of 1999.

Where a team plays is inseparable from how you learn to love it, even if you never go there in person. But it’s in the team’s best interest to form that bond only so long as they plan to be there. When it’s time to move on, you can only hope they work as hard to put on a beautiful farewell while they tear out the roots as the Texas Rangers did on Sunday. Tearful goodbyes are, if nothing else, at least a concrete catharsis. If I felt like I attended a funeral on Sunday, it’s because I did; but I won’t really understand the entirety of what was buried until I see the new place.

When the Stars left Reunion Arena for the AAC, there was a definite sense of loss, I have been told by those who remember. The deafening thrill of “Eddie’s Better!” could never sound quite the same anywhere else. I can’t know quite what that was like, anymore than the next generation can know what a thunderous “NA-PO-LI!” chant felt like within and without your chest, spilling out and over the rolling green hills, the tiny little youth baseball field that used to be outside the home plate gate, and even into the houses that still stand nearby.

I’m hopeful that American Airlines Center can continue to be a beautiful place with even more beautiful memories. I do love the walls, outside and in, and Victory Green really does light up the building in a special way that the old color scheme (or lack thereof, at times) never quite did. I’m learning to love it in all of its multifaceted utility.

Maybe it was the knowledge that the game wasn’t being televised on Saturday, that this experience was cloistered in a way that most sporting events aren’t anymore. Even through most of the sloppy, careless hockey that took place for the first 40 minutes, I felt a different-yet-familiar thrill shoot through me when John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen were on the ice last Saturday. Even in the preseason.

When Jamie Benn found Tyler Seguin alone in front of the net for the Stars’ first goal, I let a pppssh escape my lips. It was that wry sort of noise you make when you somatically know just how impossibly effortless Seguin made a world-class deke look, in the preseason. Of course this meant nothing; sports mean nothing, in and of themselves. But so many wonderful things do seem to run through them at one time or another, and we can treasure the location of those precious things right alongside the Things Themselves. Even when the location isn’t where it used to be, it’s worth remembering that heart transplants are more successful now than ever before. Sometimes, we are stronger than we wish we were.