Baseball: Yankee Stadium prepares for final season
By Ben Walker
Associated PressNEW YORK ó Barry Bonds stepped out of a white stretch limousine, strolled into Yankee Stadium for the first time and basically pooh-poohed the place.
Pretty much just another ballpark, he told most anyone who would listen.
That is, until he walked onto the field and took a look around. That’s when the history hit him. Dressed in his San Francisco Giants uniform, he made a beeline to deep left-center field and asked a guard to open the gate that led to Monument Park.
“I want to see this,” Bonds said.
The grumpy future home run king became an eager little boy during that visit six years ago, standing in line with fans to study Mickey Mantle’s bronze likeness and Thurman Munson’s plaque.
Yankee Stadium tends to have that effect on people.
“I still get chill bumps every time I’m there,” newly elected Hall of Famer Rich Gossage said.
Too bad for the Goose, there isn’t much time left.
Christened by Babe Ruth with a home run on opening day in 1923, the big house in the Bronx is set for its final season.
Next year, the New York Yankees will move across the street into a slightly smaller, $1.3 billion ballpark that includes nearly 50 luxury boxes and a martini bar. The new Yankee Stadium is built for the future ó there’s even locker room space for female umpires, in case any ever get hired.
Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and the Yankees will play with specially marked baseballs this year and to the pinstripers, the only fitting farewell would come in October. The park with the famous white facade ó initial construction plans called it the “frieze” ó has hosted exactly 100 World Series games.
Don Zimmer sat in the dugout for his share. Always next to Joe Torre, ol’ Popeye was a fixture until leaving because of a feud with bombastic owner George Steinbrenner.
“How big a thrill is it to walk in a stadium and never see an empty seat? That’s thrilling,” Zimmer said.
“I’d say a lot of things made Yankee Stadium, and Steinbrenner would be one of the big reasons,” he added. “There were so many memories. One after another. One after another.”
Be it Don Larsen pitching a perfect game, Reggie Jackson hitting three home runs or Mariano Rivera closing out one of the Yankees’ 26 World Series championships, the stadium at 161st Street and River Avenue was often the site where sports and legend intersected.
Lou Gehrig calling himself the “luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Johnny Unitas winning “the greatest game ever played.” Knute Rockne urging Notre Dame to “win one for the Gipper.” Joe Louis knocking out Max Schmeling in the most politically charged fight of their era.
Muhammad Ali and Jack Dempsey boxed there, Pele got his kicks, the 1972 Miami Dolphins won on their way to a perfect season. Nebraska took the first and only Gotham Bowl.
Off the field, equally important events. Two popes celebrated Mass, the Rev. Billy Graham greeted worshippers and Nelson Mandela spoke to thousands.
The Yankees will mark the long goodbye with commemorative baseballs for every home game. They feature a logo of the stadium’s original entrance, and the Yankees will wear a patch with the same emblem on their left sleeves.
Over in Queens, the New York Mets will do a similar thing at Shea Stadium, which opened in 1964 and will close after this season.
The ready-made souvenirs will get put into play at Yankee Stadium on Monday against Toronto and be used through the finale Sept. 21 versus Baltimore. Tickets for that last game are selling for $15,000 and up on StubHub.com.
New Yankees manager Joe Girardi is eager for the final opening day.
“I don’t think you ever know how you’re going to react,” he said Friday. “I think I reacted a lot different when I walked out for the first time at Yankee Stadium than I thought I would. I think I was like, ‘Wow, this really awesome.’ As a Midwestern boy, not growing up in that area, you didn’t really understand the greatness of it until you walk in there.”
Baseball will forever be its unmistakable signature.
Late-inning comebacks. Wide-eyed rookies. Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York.”
Roger Maris’ 61st home run, Tom Seaver earning his 300th win on Phil Rizzuto Day. Casey Stengel’s inside-the-park homer in the 1923 Series, the first one the Yankees won. The ball the Mick nearly hit completely out of the stadium ó no one has ever done it, but outfielder Jesse Barfield once got upset and lobbed a ball onto the subway tracks.
“There are so many great things about Yankee Stadium. The history, the nostalgia,” said David Cone, who pitched a perfect game on that mound. “To me, it was the fans. They anticipated the flow better than anyone. Runner on second base, no out, they’re already anticipating moving him over.”
To Yogi Berra, his teammates made the park special. Remember this: When he showed up as a stubby catcher in 1946, many of the monuments were still alive.
Joe DiMaggio owned center field back then, when the original markers were in play behind him. A couple of years later, the Babe leaned on a bat and, in a hushed voice, said so long to the House that Ruth Built. After that, Mantle came along.
At his museum in Montclair, N.J., Berra keeps six nicked-up seats ó three pale green, three blue ó from the stadium before it was remodeled in 1974-75.
“They’re falling apart,” the Hall of Famer said. “They’re getting pretty old.”
Fenway Park (1912) and Wrigley Field (1914) predate Yankee Stadium, which the Yanks built out of necessity.
They’d been at Hilltop Park ó hence, the previous nickname of Highlanders ó before moving into the Polo Grounds in 1913. John McGraw and the New York Giants got tired of sharing the park, especially after Ruth and the Yankees became more popular, and told them to leave.
With a capacity of more than 80,000 and outfield distances nearing 500 feet, Yankee Stadium was so colossal that some said it was the first arena in America specifically named a “stadium.”
For many years, it was called “the Yankee Stadium.” That’s how it shows up in the 1928 silent film “Speedy,” where Ruth plays himself and ó in words printed on a panel ó tells taxi driver Harold Lloyd to take him there in a hurry.
The Yankees shifted to Shea for two years in the mid-1970s while their stadium was remodeled. The monuments to Ruth, Gehrig and Miller Huggins and the flagpole were moved out of center field. The fences were shortened, the facade was redone and plastic seats replaced wooden ones.
A year in advance, the Yankees are planning to take much of their history with them.
The empty locker where Munson’s catching gear hangs will certainly move into the new home clubhouse. And they surely want 90-something Bob Sheppard, who started the public-address duties in 1951 on the day Mantle made his debut, to man the microphone.
The city will decide what ultimately happens to the old stadium. There has been talk the upper deck and mezzanine will be demolished, and that the lower deck and field will be left intact for youth games.
Hall of Famer Bob Feller is disappointed that the wrecking ball is on its way. He pitched 32/3 scoreless innings in the 1939 All-Star game at Yankee Stadium, then threw one of his three no-hitters at the park in 1946.
“I’ll miss it. It’s too bad that they’re going to tear it down,” he said. “In Europe, they take care of historical places, turn them into monuments. And here we bulldoze them to make room for something new. I’m not sure that’s what you would call progress.”