Yankee Stadium: Last call in the city that never sleeps
Under ordinary circumstances, baseball is a game played without any regard to hours, minutes and seconds. But there is a timepiece the size of Big Ben looming over the final season at Yankee Stadium, and the House That Ruth Built is officially on the clock.
So when the subway car rattles its way to the metal platform that rises above East 161st Street in the Bronx, just beyond the right-field bleachers, the crush of baseball fans on board has no time to waste. The doors slide open, and the car's riders spill out, racing for one, final, firsthand look at a place known simply as The Stadium.
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This is no ceremonial home run trot, either. We're at the stately ancestral home of such regal sluggers as Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio. But these fans are channeling their inner Chris Chambliss, charging their way to the stadium with the urgency of the stocky first baseman barreling his way through the on-field mob scene after his pennant-winning homer in the 1976 American League Championship Series.
For many, including me, this will be a final visit to the historic yard, and that last glance at Yankee Stadium certainly is worth fighting for.
The place looks precisely the way it does in all those old black-and-white movies and photographs, complete with "Yankee Stadium" etched in gold leaf on an exterior of limestone and granite. Trouble is, I'm actually staring at the old-looking "new" Yankee Stadium, which is still nearly a year from opening.
The original Yankee Stadium the one that opened in 1923 sits directly across East 161st Street, and, at 85, the place looks as if it has had a lot of work.
The mid-1970s face-lift, which literally blew the roof off the joint, left the stadium with an underwhelming profile that is neither historic nor progressive. With its modernistic, Guggenheim-inspired spiral ramp, set behind an iconic smokestack disguised as a Paul Bunyan-size Louisville Slugger, Yankee Stadium has the awkward look of an old guy trying to look young.
This isn't a gracefully aging Paul Newman; it's Sylvester Stallone.
All those establishing shots from "Seinfeld" took a toll, too. The exterior doesn't resemble the location for "The Pride of the Yankees" nearly as much as it looks like The Place Where George Costanza Worked.
But Yankee Stadium has seen a rally or two in its day, and anyone who thinks this first impression will be a lasting one probably thought Pedro Martinez had enough in the tank to close out the Yanks in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, too.
Get through the underwhelming underbelly and pass through one of the stadium's portals, and this fixer-upper suddenly becomes a cathedral, grabbing hold of you with the intensity of Billy Martin and the passion of Billy Crystal.
All eyes are inevitably drawn to that indelible white frieze known to Yankees fans as "the facade" that runs along the top of the scoreboard in the outfield. The facade has a timeless elegance that changes everything, dressing up the place like a string of pearls on a dowager.
The facade, which used to hang from the roof and was copper before being painted white in the 1960s, is the stadium's one constant visual feature.
The original was torn down when the renovation began after the 1973 season (the Yanks played the 1974 and 1975 seasons at Shea Stadium) and replaced by a replica that was moved to its current location when the Yankees moved back in for the 1976 season.
The facade has been a through-line connecting Gehrig's heartbreaking retirement speech to DiMaggio's incomparable 56-game hitting streak to Reggie Jackson's three consecutive World Series home runs.
Mickey Mantle once hit a tape-measure home run off the facade when it was located atop the third deck.
But the facade isn't the only thing here that stirs remembrances.
Marathon of memories
You don't stroll down memory lane at Yankee Stadium as much as you run a marathon through it. The place is packed with so much history that every game is a de facto doubleheader that starts with a visit to Monument Park.
At 6 p.m., in the right-field corner of the stadium's bunkerlike concourse, an usher announces last call for the shrine behind the left-field fence that honors the organization's legends.
A visit to the Yankees' baseball heaven is not only obligatory but also so awe-inspiring that it all but renders the game to be played later by mere mortals the undercard.
Like parishioners marching for Communion, a steady procession makes its way through the left-field aisle and descends the 10 steps from Section 36 of the left-field box seats to set foot on baseball's most hallowed ground. There, beneath that glorious facade, 16 former Yankees are immortalized with retired numbers.
There are 23 plaques on display in Monument Park dedicated to players and managers, owner/execs, announcers, the team insignia and papal visits.
And five former Yankees (Miller Huggins, Babe Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle) are honored with full-fledged monuments. There is also a shrine to the heroes of Sept. 11.
Up until the mid-'70s renovation, the monuments were located in the field of play, standing just inside the center-field fence (which at one time stood 490 feet from home plate) in Death Valley, so named because so many long balls died prematurely there.
Today, Death Valley is long gone. Its ethereal successor is the nearby Monument Park, a place where Yankees live on forever.
The parade of fans is so reverent that Monument Park could be a state funeral. And the monuments are so glorious, they could be headstones of world leaders. To Yankees fans, they are just that.
"Are those guys buried there?" one visitor asks while standing in wonder. They are not, but so much Americana and pop culture collides at Monument Park that it feels a lot like Graceland for baseball fans.
And like Elvis, the Bronx Bombers not only live forever but seem larger than life. Gehrig's monument proclaims that his "amazing record of 2,130 consecutive games should stand for all time."
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease that would be named after him, took Gehrig's life at the age of 37 in 1941. And Cal Ripken Jr. surpassed his consecutive games record in 1995. But nothing can touch the "Iron Horse's" monument (save for the movers who will handle it with care when they transport it to the new stadium next season).
They say there are ghosts in Yankee Stadium and almost all of them are friendly, unless, of course, you're a Red Sox fan.
• A walk through the left-field box seats summons Aaron Boone's presence.
• The right-field seats don't look quite the way they did when Mantle and Roger Maris were bombing homers to the pennant porch out there, but that part of the ballpark still conjures memories of the M&M Boys.
• The batter's eye in center field, where Jackson's third homer in the 1977 World Series landed, evokes Mr. October.
• Don Larsen and Yogi Berra forever waltz on the grass between home plate and the mound.
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