- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 16, 2009

NEW YORK | The giant letters hovering above the home plate entrance say this is Yankee Stadium. The monuments, plaques and retired numbers beyond the center-field fence say this is Yankee Stadium. The trademark steel frieze that hangs from the upper deck says this is Yankee Stadium.

The New York Yankees took great pains and spent gobs of money to make their new home look almost exactly like their famed old ballpark. Those who walk into this $1.5 billion palace marvel at the luxury and history incorporated into this place, but they can’t help but draw the same conclusion.

This isn’t really Yankee Stadium.

Sure, it bears a striking resemblance to the edifice that has stood just across 161st Street in the Bronx for 86 years. But where is the charm of the old place? The mystique and aura palpable when walking through its tunnels? The sights, the sounds, even the smells of a building well past its prime but nonetheless sacred to all those who spent time within its walls?

As one longtime Yankees observer who didn’t want to be named puts it: “It’s like Disney World tried to build a Yankee Stadium set. They want you to think it’s the real thing, but you know it’s not the real thing.”

Twenty-one other major league ballparks have opened in the past 20 years, but none has been met with as much scrutiny as the new home of the sport’s most famed and successful franchise. The Yankees certainly needed a new stadium. For all its history, the old Yankee Stadium was crumbling. It wasn’t structurally sound anymore. It was far too cramped and outdated for today’s purposes. It featured none of the modern amenities that fans have come to expect from sporting venues.

But fan reaction to the new Yankee Stadium, which will host the Washington Nationals for a three-game series beginning Tuesday, has been mixed.

“People, when they first walk in, they’re in awe of the beauty of the new stadium. Because it’s the first time they see it, you know?” says Frank Milanesi, a longtime stadium tour guide who grew up in the neighborhood and has been coming to games for more than 50 years. “People of my age who grew up around the old stadium, they like it. But they always tell you, ‘This is great, but…’ The mystique is hard to forget.”

Not that the franchise didn’t try to incorporate that into this gleaming edifice. Every nook and cranny, every corridor and concourse is a shrine to the 26-time World Series champions. It’s there in the Yankee Hall of Fame and museum behind right field, complete with Lou Gehrig’s uniform, Babe Ruth’s bat, Thurman Munson’s locker and 628 autographed balls. (The grand plan is to get every living ex-Yankees player to sign a ball.) It’s there in the Great Hall that greets visitors on the first-base line, a 1 million-square-foot gathering place that is seven stories high and boasts huge banners of past and present Yankees legends.

And it’s certainly there in the new Monument Park behind the center-field fence, complete with all the old retired numbers, plaques and monuments from the previous stadium.

All of that leaves fans nearly speechless when they enter for the first time.

“I remember walking into the old Yankee Stadium when Michael was a little guy,” says Manny Pece, who joined his son Mike on a ballpark tour before a recent game. “I purposely let him walk ahead of me down the corridor, where at the end you come out and see the field. And I remember Michael’s reaction. He just went, ‘Wow.’ That was my reaction today when I walked in here.”

But these homages to the past - the stadium was made to look more like the original Yankee Stadium from the 1920s than the park that got a face-lift in the 1970s - are tempered by the countless modern additions that have become necessary at every new ballpark but seem to have been done to excess here. There’s a Hard Rock Cafe, plus an upscale steak house, in right field. The Mohegan Sun Sports Bar in center field. An exclusive restaurant for club-level patrons in left field. A martini bar behind the plate. An art gallery and a collectibles store on the main level.

And, of course, there is the controversial “Legends Suite,” the first eight rows of the lower level that are cordoned off to all other fans. Average ticket price: $510. Most expensive seat: $2,600.

It would be one thing if those sections were filled every night with well-off-but-passionate fans. But the seats have been largely empty since Opening Day, some fans choosing not to attend and some seats simply not sold.

“That does amaze me,” says Tom Mantovi, a Long Island native who purchased $75 second-deck seats, marked up to $100 online, to attend a game earlier this month. “I love baseball. That’s my game. I was weaned on it, but I’m not going to pay $800 for a ticket.”

Controversy has abounded as well with regards to the ballpark’s dimensions and propensity to give up home runs in staggering amounts. Through 32 games there this season, the Yankees and their opponents have combined to hit 115 homers. At this rate, the stadium will surrender 291 home runs this season, 12 shy of the big league record set in 1999 at Coors Field in Denver. Last season, only 160 homers were hit at the old Yankee Stadium.

Theories vary as to the disparity. Some believe there is a wind tunnel that blows out to right field, helping carry balls over the fence. A recent study by AccuWeather, though, determined the home run surge is a result of new outfield dimensions. Though the right-field fence is labeled the same as the old park - 314 feet to the corner, 385 feet to the gap - the study said the new stadium features a straight fence as opposed to the old curved one, shortening the distance by as much as nine feet in places.

Not that the players are complaining.

“Sometimes this stadium gives you homers; sometimes it takes them away,” Yankees outfielder Johnny Damon said earlier this month. “Yesterday, I felt like I got one. The week before, I felt like it took one from me.”

Like all of his teammates, Damon fell in love with his new home the moment he walked in for an exhibition game against the Chicago Cubs in early April. It’s easy to understand why. The Yankees’ new clubhouse measures 30,000 square feet - 2 1/2 times larger than the old one - and boasts touch-screen laptops at every locker.

Visiting players, though, don’t seem to walk into the place with the same sense of awe. As much as they despised playing in the old stadium - with its cramped dugout, smelly walkways and small clubhouse - they appreciated its unmistakable sense of history.

Like so many others who have entered this palace in the past two months, they can’t help but feel a twinge for the old Yankee Stadium.

“You don’t really get to feel the ghosts of the past here,” Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria said. “I mean, you go into the old Yankee Stadium, there’s just that feeling. When you walk down that hallway, you know that Ruth and our forefathers of the game walked down that same tunnel. That was a cool feeling.

“This place is - don’t get me wrong, it’s an unbelievable ballpark. They did a great job on it, but it’s not the same.”

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