- The Washington Times - Monday, September 22, 2008


NEW YORK – As 20 former pinstriped stars jogged or walked onto baseball’s most famous field, the people roared and clicked digital cameras nonstop for favorites ranging from Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford to Paul O’Neill and Willie Randolph.

Maybe Sunday night’s final game at Yankee Stadium shouldn’t have been such a big deal. After all, the current facility isn’t the real Stadium. The last game at that one was played in September 1973, before the place was subjected to renovation and downsizing. And a glittering new ballyard, complete with luxury boxes and outrageous ticket prices, is arising across 161st Street in the Bronx.

Nonetheless, the Yankees‘ grand finale against the Orioles was indeed a big deal. Tickets sold out months ago, and fans were allowed to trod the hallowed turf - or at least the warning track - for three hours before the game while some 2,000 security personnel made sure they didn’t rip off memorabilia items.

This wasn’t just another old ballpark biting the dust, you see. This was Yankee Stadium, the nation’s most famous sports palace, where 37 pinstriped pennant winners have pranced and 21 percent of all World Series games have been played.

The closing ceremonies at this olympian playpen required more than a hour as the Yankees’ alumni took bows. Accompanying them were family members of those no longer with us: Mickey Mantle, Phil Rizzuto, Thurman Munson, Roger Maris and Elston Howard.

During the proceedings, emotion - and likely a few tears - flowed through the audience. Casual observers must been surprised when loyalists appeared to be hooting the mere mention of some past and contemporary stars. Turned out they were merely rendering such affectionate nicknames as “G-o-o-o-s-e” (Gossage), “M-o-o-o-s-e” (Mike Mussina) and “L-o-o-o-u” (Piniella).

“When you take the field here, there’s a constant reminder of what has gone before,” shortstop Derek Jeter said several hours before game time. “Playing here is like playing on Broadway.”

A man inquired, “What would it take for you not to play tonight?”

Jeter smiled and replied, “A rainout.”

Joe Girardi, a former Yankees catcher who is finishing a disappointing first season as the manager, said he would just “soak it all in.” It could have been a bittersweet night for his third-place club, which faced imminent elimination from any postseason fun and games.

“You realize that you’re blessed to be here,” Girardi said. “I think eventually there will be the same atmosphere at the new stadium, but you create that by winning. So we have to come out next season and show that it’s hard [for a visiting team] to win there.”

Dozens of former Yankees stars were on hand, Berra pre-eminent among them, but there was sadness because of too many heroic absentees. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy and Casey Stengel. Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and Reggie Jackson.

Ailing owner George Steinbrenner, who for better or worse personified the Yankees to many, was not able to pay his respects either. Also missing was longtime P.A. man Bob Sheppard, 97, although he delivered a recorded message and introduced the Yankees’ starting lineup via the scoreboard video screen.

The ceremonial first pitch was tossed by the Babe’s daughter, Julia Ruth Stevens, a nice finishing touch at a building long known as “the House That Ruth Built.”

What happens now? There will be an “official” closing ceremony in November, and then workmen will spend three months taking apart (rather than imploding) Yankee Stadium. When they are through, the playing field will remain. Two others will be added, plus 12,000 trees, to create a recreational complex the Bronx surely can use.

The new Yankee Stadium will open in April to much applause, but it won’t be quite the same. For a while anyway, it will be a stadium rather than the Stadium.

Jeter might have had said it best about being a Yankee and playing in the old one: “What will I remember most? Just walking from the clubhouse through the tunnel to the dugout and seeing that DiMaggio sign …”

The sign bears the Clipper’s memorable quote when he was honored on Joe DiMaggio Day during the final weekend of the 1949 season: “I thank the Good Lord for making me a Yankee.”

Heck, it even beat being married to Marilyn Monroe.

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