A goodbye for an icon

The Baltimore Sun

NEW YORK - They came to the 85-year-old stadium one more time, arriving early and in droves, not only to cheer their favorite team, but also to pay their respects to a place that for so long has felt like a second home.

Of course, the end result was important. It always is for New Yorkers, who have celebrated 26 world championships in this very place. But the night was more about saying goodbye to Yankee Stadium, which will never again host a regular-season baseball game.

The last-place Orioles were a captive audience to the pomp and circumstance and unable to spoil the mood of 54,610 people, who celebrated a 7-3 New York Yankees victory that avoided playoff elimination, and the end of an era in baseball.

"It was kind of like the seventh game of the World Series, the Super Bowl, the Mardi Gras," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. "It was a little bit of everything rolled into one."

For the Yankees, the night went on exactly as planned, from the return of some of the franchise's best players in a pre-game ceremony to the first pitch being thrown by Andy Pettitte and the final one being delivered by Mariano Rivera.

The old ballpark shook one last time when Rivera entered in the top of the ninth. He threw the stadium's final pitch at 11:41 last night, and the final out was made by Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts, who grounded out to first base. And just like that, after 6,580 Yankees games and some of the most memorable moments in baseball history, the final regular-season game and the day-long celebration were over.

"I didn't want to make the last out. I figured I'd either make the last out or have a chance to get the last hit," Roberts said. "I figured I couldn't go wrong either way."

After the last out was made, the Orioles' Kevin Millar and Aubrey Huff walked onto the field with cups and grabbed some dirt. Several other Orioles followed, including a handful of pitchers, who went to the mound and took some dirt.

"I'm sure I'll remember this for more than a while, probably my whole life," Roberts said.

The Yankees stayed on the field for a while and took a victory lap, led by manager Joe Girardi and captain Derek Jeter, who addressed the crowd. Forty-five minutes after the game, the field was still filled with players and their family and friends. Former Orioles ace Mike Mussina led his kids to one final tour of Monument Park.

"There is so much history here, and the way they did it was awesome," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.

In the pre-game ceremonies, the Yankees honored the 1923 title-winning team and some of the franchise's best and most beloved players, going position by position, starting with left field and ultimately ending in center. Among the biggest ovations were those received by Reggie Jackson, Paul O'Neill, Yogi Berra, Don Larsen, Scott Brosius and Willie Randolph, who jogged onto the field and slid into second base. Center fielder Bernie Williams, who made his first return to the stadium since his playing career ended, was the last Yankee to be an announced, and he earned one of the night's loudest ovations.

"Watching Don Larsen scoop up dirt was priceless to me," Girardi said.

During the ceremony, the Orioles leaned over the top rail of the visiting dugout or sat out in front of it. Trembley, who was born in Carthage, N.Y., and attended Yankees games with his father as a kid, stood on the top step of dugout applauding some of the players he has greatly admired.

Trembley said he planned to take in as much as possible, though he had no plans to gather any keepsakes from the occasion.

"I'm the last guy on a visiting club whose managed in a game here," Trembley said. "How the hell did that happen? I can tell you one thing, there isn't anybody that appreciates this more than I do. Nobody."

The pre-game game ceremony was completed after the current Yankees were introduced in a taped recording by legendary public address announced Bob Sheppard, whose health prevented him from attending. As expected, loud cheers were showered on Jeter, the all-time hits leader at Yankee Stadium, and a smattering of boos greeting reigning Most Valuable Player Alex Rodriguez.

"I've been fortunate to play my entire career here," Jeter said. "Coming up, and being a Yankee fan growing up, I was well aware of the tradition here. This is a special place. I'm definitely going to miss it."

Julia Ruth Stevens, the daughter of Babe Ruth, who hit a three-run homer on the day the park opened April 18, 1923, threw out the ceremonial first pitch.

When Pettitte, who has made 167 career starts in the Bronx, threw a first-pitch ball to Brian Roberts at 8:36 p.m., camera flashes shot from all angles of the stadium. Roberts officially made the first out by flying out to deep right field. Nick Markakis followed with the first hit, lining a single off Pettitte to center field.

But the rest of the night was about the Yankees, as it always seems to be here. Johnny Damon hit a three-run homer off Chris Waters and Jose Molina hit a two-run shot in the fourth. A couple of more runs and a few more memories were created in the old stadium. Yankee Stadium will be officially closed in a ceremony tentatively scheduled for November. It will then be razed, though the playing field will remain and be surrounded by two more fields and 12,000 trees.

The new $1.3 billion stadium will open across the street on April 16, and it will include several aspects from the original home, ensuring that Yankee Stadium will not be forgotten.

"I think everybody knew the focus of the baseball world was here today," Trembley said.

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