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The House that necessity built

June 03, 2007|Bill Shaikin

NEW YORK — Say the words: Yankee Stadium.

Say them slowly. Let the syllables linger, in the distinguished manner of Bob Sheppard, the public address announcer there since 1951.

The words drip with tradition, with excellence, with history. This is the House That Ruth Built, the house in which Gehrig and DiMaggio and Mantle played, the house in which Marciano and Ali fought, Rockne coached, Pele played and two popes prayed.

This is the cathedral of American sport. They don't tear down the Vatican, but they're about to tear down Yankee Stadium.

You wonder why.

"There's an aura here at Yankee Stadium, taking the field and knowing all the people that have played here before you," said Yankees captain Derek Jeter, heir to the legends in pinstripes. "You have to be here to witness it -- all the tradition, all the winning, all the great things that have happened here."

You have to be here. Get here soon. You have this summer, and next season, and then comes the wrecking ball.

You wonder why.

"Because it's an old ballpark," Yankees Manager Joe Torre said. "It's got a great museum feel."

So does Fenway Park, but the Red Sox are fixing it up for the new century. So does Wrigley Field, but the Cubs are remodeling.

The Yankees renovated their stadium in the 1970s and looked into it again this time. The repair job would have cost as much as -- if not more than -- the new ballpark, Chief Operating Officer Lonn Trost said.

The problem: too many fans, or so they say. Oy, every team should have such a problem.

Ruth homered in the inaugural game at Yankee Stadium, in 1923, when the team attracted a million fans.

George Steinbrenner, aching for a new ballpark in Manhattan a decade ago, bellowed that the Yankees never could draw 3 million to the big, bad Bronx. Now they're winning and attracting 4 million, and they're building that new ballpark across the street from the current one.

It is not, Trost insists, all about the money.

"Listen, we'll make more money over there. No question about it," he said. "But we're moving because we have to. This building has reached its limit.

"We're drawing 4 million, and we can't service them. You can't keep drawing people in here and asking them to wait on line for three innings to go to the bathroom or get concessions. We have to make it comfortable for the fans."

And so they will. The concourses will be twice as wide, with triple the number of luxury suites, 22 elevators instead of two and a martini bar with a view of the Empire State Building.

"This facility will be treated and developed like a prime five-star hotel," Trost said.

Said Jeter: "It's pretty much keeping up with the times."

The new ballpark will include an actual museum, perhaps with all 26 championship trophies. They display two now, in a cramped reception area outside the executive offices.

The new ballpark will be called Yankee Stadium, and bless the Yankees for that. They could be leaving a billion dollars on the table.

The Mets sold naming rights to their new ballpark to Citibank for $400 million, a major league record. The Yankees, presumably, could have sold their naming rights for twice that much.

"I would say you're kind of low," Trost said. "Yankee Stadium is not ABC Field. It is not XYZ Stadium. Our advertisers, our sponsors, our partners want to be associated with the Yankees and Yankee Stadium, not with Somebody's Field."

The Yankees assuredly will make up that money from those advertisers, sponsors and partners, in the ABC Club and the XYZ Pavilion.

The accountants can worry about that. The players can enjoy the creature comforts of a swanky new clubhouse, and an adjacent batting cage. And the fans can relax, in particular those fans worried that the charms of Yankee Stadium will be lost forever.

On the outside, the Yankees will reproduce the original 1923 exterior, with limestone and cathedral windows and arches atop the stands. On the inside, the Yankees will replicate the current field and its dimensions, including Monument Park in center field and the short porch in right field.

The modest differences: The Yankees will have fewer seats in the upper deck and more in the lower deck, with the best seats closer to home plate. They'll add a restaurant atop the batter's eye beyond center field. And, according to Trost, they'll move the tarp from the third-base side to the first-base side so Jeter does not injure himself by running into it.

Alas, even the most faithful reproduction is, well, a reproduction.

"You walk into an old ballpark, and you know it's an old ballpark, with a lot of history," Torre said. "That won't be the case over there."

So, if you're a devoted baseball fan, make the pilgrimage this year, or next. Even Bud Selig, who delights in celebrating the All-Star game in new ballparks, awarded the 2008 All-Star game to Yankee Stadium, for its farewell season.

And then the mystical, mythical ghosts of Yankee Stadium will be gone forever, buried under rubble.

"The ghosts are going to have to relocate," Jeter said. "They don't have to go far. It's just across the street."

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