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Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2008

Farewell Yankee Stadium

Memories of a sports landmark

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To the kid's eyes, the place was just...so...unbelievably...big: the three-level grandstand, rising on a picket line of steel pillars; the imposing facade of the roof, recalling some ancient civilization with its ornate design.

Most of all, the baseball field itself, stretching an amazing 461 feet from home plate to the centerfield wall and 457 to left-center. When they said "hit it a mile," the kid would think they really meant it at this place.

This place called Yankee Stadium.

The kid didn't have to imagine what it all looked like to the New York Yankees themselves. In those days, the late 1950s, fans could stroll through the outfield after games to reach the subway lines outside the ballpark. Along the way, the kid could gaze into the dugouts; tread the same grass Mickey Mantle had just raced across; examine the memorials to Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and others at the centerfield wall; and kick the scuffed and gouged pitching rubber while leaving through the Yankee bullpen.

Most of all, the kid could go to the "461" sign, turn around and dream of playing ball in such a vast, wonderful place.

Half a century later, the days of dreaming at "the big ballpark in the Bronx" are almost gone. The place christened by a Ruth home run in 1923, distinguished by 37 World Series and ennobled by the game's greatest players will be torn down after this season. The Yankees' final regular-season home game is Sunday night against Baltimore, and with their playoff hopes all but dead, so is their home.

In a scene Milwaukeeans remember from 1999 and 2000 at County Stadium, the Yankees' future is literally on the horizon. Looming beyond left field and across 161st Street is the structure that will inherit the name, but not the memories, of the place New Yorkers simply call "The Stadium."

 

Paying the Bills

In the all-or-nothing world of the Yankees, the transition in the Bronx had to happen. Attendance of 4 million a year is nice, but it doesn't pay all the bills for baseball's most spend-happy team. The Yankees want what an 85-year-old facility can't give them: lots more luxury suites, fancy in-house restaurants, ever more lures for the fans' money.

And in truth, the octogenarian isn't nearly as fan-friendly as youngsters like Miller Park. The concourses and bathrooms are cramped, the ramps to upper levels dank and narrow, the upper deck too steep-problems that weren't solved in a 1974-'75 renovation that significantly changed the Stadium's look. For the sky-high prices most seats carry these days, the place doesn't deliver much comfort.

But, oh, does it deliver the sense of history. Fans emerging from the B and D subway lines or descending from the No. 4 elevated train still enter a gritty, shadowy world of bars and souvenir stands under the ever-clattering tracks-just as they did when straw hats filled the stands at "The House That Ruth Built." The stern presence of the Bronx County Courthouse beyond right-center field still dominates the view from the top deck.

The outfield distances have shrunk, but you can still see the original wall and marvel that sometimes a ball would travel that far. The roof is scaled back and the faade-more accurately a frieze, but don't expect any New Yorker to call it that-is a reproduction along the wall beyond the bleachers. But you can sit in the top deck in right field and visualize Mantle's 1963 drive soaring up at you and clanging into the facade inches from the top-the closest anyone has come to hitting one out of the Stadium in a game.

Fans can't walk on the field anymore, but those who arrive early can stroll behind the wall in left-center through Monument Park, where the original few tributes have blossomed into a long row of retired Yankee numbers and a grotto of memorials to the heroes of 26 World Series championships.

And with a little imagination, the crowded, dingy ramps still carry echoes from some of the biggest days and nights in sports history. Instead of the Yankees' latest game, you and your fellow fans could just as easily be buzzing over Ruth's opening-day homer in '23; Lou Gehrig's "luckiest man" speech in '39; Don Larsen's World Series perfect game in '56; Reggie Jackson's three-homer Series game in '77; or Aaron Boone's pennant-winning homer against the despised Boston Red Sox in 2003.

You could be shuffling out in stunned disbelief after the Yankees' Game 7 loss to the Brooklyn Dodgers in '55 or that bunch of Braves from Milwaukee two years later. Or, most painfully, the 2004 playoff loss that saw the Red Sox bury the eight-decade "Curse of the Bambino" in the Yankees' own turf.

 

Return to the Past

That kid from the '50s, who wound up a journalist in Milwaukee, returned to the Stadium dozens of times over the years-even getting the view from the press box while covering the Brewers in the 1990s.

This spring and summer, the strolls down the ramps brought a lot of it back: the first game with dad in 1956 (the Washington Senators were the opponents); exploring the Stadium as an 11-year-old at a Sunday game against Boston, reaching the top row in right field just as Roger Maris hit the 33rd of his record-setting 61 homers.

The first game with the kid brother in '69 (vs. Detroit this time, with ground-level seats beyond the Yankee dugout).

Meeting the "new" Stadium in '76 at an exhibition game against the Mets. Staring in shock after seeing Oakland's Randy Velarde pull off an unassisted triple play in May of 2000-one of only 14 in Major League history. (But the Yankees won.)

Two farewell visits in August: a rain-dampened loss and a sun-baked victory against lowly Kansas City, both marked by the ragged play that probably will deny the Stadium one last October.

The details aren't really important, though. What matters are the memories of being with dad and brother, nieces and nephews, high-school classmates and visiting pals from Milwaukee. Just enjoying baseball, and life, and each other's company. All those times when Yankee Stadium helped make the best kind of history, the personal kind.

The kind that's always seen through a kid's eyes.

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