Quite a site

The Baltimore Sun

Tonight, when the fanfare is complete and the final pitch is thrown, either to or by an Oriole, the light standards towering above Yankee Stadium in the Bronx will go dark.

And 85 years of baseball - starting with Babe Ruth's three-run homer in the park's opener, April 18, 1923, and finishing with an anticlimactic regular-season contest between two American League East also-rans - will come to an end.

Tonight's Orioles-New York Yankees game is likely the last sporting event to be held in the old stadium at the corner of East 161st Street and River Avenue, a sports cathedral that also hosted legendary NFL and college football games and prizefights.

"There is a lot of history there," said former Yankees pitcher Don Larsen, whose perfect game in the 1956 World Series might be Yankee Stadium's greatest moment. "I saw football games there, and they had boxing matches, the pope visiting. I think it is too bad it is [closing]. It's a shame, but that is the way things go, I guess."

It's making way for a $1.3 billion new Yankee Stadium across the street. The new one opens April 16 and will seat about 51,000, with standing room for 2,000 more. The seating capacity is about 6,500 less than the old park, but it will have 51 luxury suites, up from 16.

Much of the old stadium will be demolished next spring to create a public park; part of the field will be preserved as a Little League diamond.

The memories created, though, won't be plowed over as easily. Not just for Yankees die-hards, but also for baseball and sports fans everywhere.

Yes, the love-them-or-hate-them Yankees won 26 World Series championships while playing there - winning their first title in its first year of operation.

But it's as much an American historic site as it is a sporting venue.

It's where Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne gave his legendary "Win one for the Gipper" halftime speech before his Fighting Irish beat Army, 12-6, in 1928.

It's where Joe Louis, an African-American, knocked out German Max Schmeling in front of 70,000, a one-round championship fight that was closely followed by Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany and is considered one of the most important sporting events of the 20th century.

It's also where Baltimore professional sports and the NFL arrived simultaneously in the national spotlight Dec. 28, 1958. In what was dubbed "The Greatest Game Ever Played," the Baltimore Colts beat the New York Giants for the NFL title on national television in the league's first sudden-death overtime.

Fifty years later, the location of that game is almost as memorable to those who played in it as its result.

"To me, to play in Yankee Stadium was one of the greatest thrills I ever had," said Colts Hall of Fame defensive end Gino Marchetti, who grew up in suburban San Francisco and followed the Yankees because of fellow San Franciscan Joe DiMaggio. "I never felt like that in my life. Never really ever felt that sentimental over a stadium. ... It was really awesome. To look back at 1958, one of the most important parts was walking in and walking around the stadium and out to center field. It was really a great feeling."

The place, because of its history, routinely reduces professional athletes to ebullient fans.

"When you are a baseball player and a baseball fan and you walk into Yankee Stadium, it is pretty amazing," said Orioles first baseman Kevin Millar, who has heard his share of Bronx cheers while playing for the Orioles and Boston Red Sox. "You know this is where Babe Ruth played, where Mickey Mantle played and Joe DiMaggio. As a baseball fan, it is hands down the best."

Orioles manager Dave Trembley remembers his father driving the family once a year to the Bronx from their home in Carthage, N.Y., so his kids could see their heroes.

Trembley will never forget witnessing Mantle blasting a homer in a driving rainstorm that gave the Yankees a victory in a game that was called 10 minutes later because of inclement weather.

Former Oriole Ken Singleton, now a Yankees broadcaster, played baseball games as a teen in a park across from Yankee Stadium, hearing the crowd's roar while "hoping I'd get in there one day."

When he did, Singleton had to deal with the renowned bleacher creatures in right field who chanted for the beloved pinstripes while taunting visiting clubs.

"I remember standing in right field one night and somebody from the stands with a voice louder than the others said, 'We'd get on you more, but you are from here and you probably know somebody we know and you could find us,' " Singleton recalled. "I thought that was pretty funny. And it was probably true."

Not all visitors were treated with such respect.

"There have been people there over the years that probably went overboard," said another former Oriole, Hall of Fame first baseman Eddie Murray. "But, still, you don't really respond. You don't listen to them. You don't acknowledge them. That's basically how you played there."

Yankees fans, despite their reputation for bravado, seemingly understand the game and its nuances as well as anyone.

"There is something deeply affecting about pitching in Yankee Stadium for the Yankees," said former Yankees left-hander Jim Abbott, who pitched a no-hitter there in 1993. "It's not the most comfortable environment. Everything is magnified. The highs are great, the lows are terrible, and that's the way it is."

Yankee Stadium has had its share of tragic moments, from the chilling tributes to Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth before their impending deaths to the day after catcher Thurman Munson was killed in a plane crash to the weeks and year after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Coincidentally, the Orioles were the second visitors to play at Yankee Stadium after the attacks and were also there for the one-year anniversary and the first game after Munson died.

"It was a very different mood that night. Very sad game," Singleton said of Aug. 3, 1979. "I was sitting in my locker that night, thinking, 'If the Yankees are going to win one game from us, let this be the one.' "

Now, the Orioles will be present again when the Yankees close the park with an evening of festivities.

"At the time, I think you're probably more wrapped up in the moment and your job you have to do," Trembley said. "I don't think you really have ample opportunity to do it justice by reflecting on it then. I think in the winter, over a nice cup of coffee, I'll think about it and go, 'Gosh, that was pretty neat.' "

The Yankees aren't revealing specifics of the pre-game ceremony, but many of the club's greats have been invited back and are expected to take their old positions on the field.

Once the celebration is over, Yankees officials will make sure that tangible parts of the club's history will be moved across the street. Monument Park, the in-stadium collection of plaques and retired numbers, will be relocated from beyond left field to beyond center in the new park.

The new building's limestone exterior will replicate the original Yankee Stadium. And a replica of the trademark copper frieze - or facade - that once famously ringed the upper deck will again be prominent in the new building.

It's billed as a modern version of the "House That Ruth Built," the most legendary of all American sports arenas.

Yet what can't be replaced or relocated are all the memories created there.

"It's just sad, you know," said Larsen, who will attend today's finale. "They have had some very successful times there.

"I mean, Yankee Stadium had a career of its own."

The finale

Tonight: Orioles

@Yankees, 8:05

TV: ESPN

Radio: 105.7 FM

Pre-game

ceremonies: 7:05

memories

Jim Palmer

When Hall of Fame pitcher and former Oriole Jim Palmer remembers his first experience at Yankee Stadium, the iconic American he thinks about isn't Mickey Mantle or Yogi Berra.

It's comedian Billy Crystal.

Because Palmer's first time walking through those hallowed tunnels in the Bronx mirrors Crystal's soliloquy in the movie City Slickers about his best day ever.

Crystal's character describes walking into the stadium at age 11 holding his father's hand and seeing baseball live and in color for the first time. He remarked about how green the grass was, that the Yankees won and Mantle homered.

"I am one of those kids," said Palmer, who lived in suburban New York City at the time. "My dad first took me to Yankee Stadium when I was 9 years old."

For Palmer, it wasn't Mantle who homered on that special day. It was Yankee outfielder Irv Noren. The Yankees won, beating the Cleveland Indians, 4-3.

And the infield grass?

"It was raining," Palmer said. "So the grass was even greener."

Jim Abbott

Although he had a lengthy major league career, left-hander Jim Abbott is particularly proud of his no-hitter against the Indians on Sept. 4, 1993.

Not only was it during a pennant race, but it was also at Yankee Stadium. And it further resonated with the home crowd because of what Abbott had overcome - he was born without a right hand but persevered and became a major leaguer.

He never really understood his imprint on Yankees history until a few years later when he was back for an old-timers' game. Afterward, he was in a club-level conference room, a place he had never visited as a player.

He was mesmerized by all the classic Yankees photos on the wall. And then Abbott was stopped in his tracks. His knees wobbled as he looked at the picture of the one-handed pitcher celebrating a no-hitter.

"I was just staggered by it," he said. "I was like, 'I can't believe that this is here, looking back at me."

Gino Marchetti

What should have been one of the most exciting moments of Gino Marchetti's illustrious football career was spent locked in a room in the bowels of Yankee Stadium.

Marchetti, the Hall of Fame defensive end, made the key tackle on the Baltimore Colts' final defensive play of regulation that forced the New York Giants to punt and eventually led to the Colts' game-tying field goal with seconds to play in "The Greatest Game Ever Played" on Dec. 28, 1958.

On the play, Marchetti broke his ankle when his teammate, Big Daddy Lipscomb, fell on him. Marchetti wanted to watch the rest of the game from the sideline on a stretcher, but when sudden-death overtime began - the first in NFL history - police said Marchetti had to be moved inside and out of harm's way.

So Marchetti, without radio or TV, listened to a constant roar above, but had no idea what was happening until Colts linebacker Bill Pellington entered.

"Pellington was the first one in and he said: "We're the world champions. And then, all of the sudden, my leg felt a lot better."

Dan Connolly

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