Saturday April 4th, 2009

In 1923, when Babe Ruth first stepped onto the field and surveyed the new ballpark that would come to be synonymous with his name, he is said to have taken in the vast sweep of baseball's first triple-deck stadium and gasped, "Some ball yard."

Eight-six years and 26 world championships later, a new Yankee Stadium equally deserving of such slack-jawed praise opened Friday night across the street from the fabled House That Ruth Built. Team captain Derek Jeter, every bit the signature Yankees player of this generation that Ruth was in his, was more measured but no less impressed with his palatial new digs. "It's just huge," he said.

Whether Jeter's summation follows Ruth's into the pages of history remains to be seen, but what it lacked in description, it more than made up for in accuracy. The new Yankee Stadium is, in fact, enormous -- swallowing up almost 15 acres of land in the South Bronx, covering 1.3 million square feet -- and so are the expectations for a structure that must replace its predecessor that was so revered it was known as the Cathedral of baseball.

The new stadium is decades away from being able to make a similar claim, and for all its glitz and glamour -- a Hard Rock Cafe! A Yankees museum! -- it is the baseball that will be played here, more than the bling that surrounds it, that will give the new ballpark the magic. The first game was a Yankees victory, 7-4 over the Chicago Cubs [Recap | Box Score] before 48,402 soggy fans. What began as a christening quickly devolved into the exhibition contest it was. While superstars like Jeter, Mark Teixeira and Johnny Damon started the game, footnotes like Ramiro Pena and Justin Leone finished it. Still, there was a baseball game played at Yankee Stadium on 161st St. and River Avenue in the Bronx on Friday night, and if that in itself did not make the evening demonstrably different from the thousands that have come before it over the course of 84 previous summers -- and very often, autumns -- it nevertheless marked the dawn of a new era even as it harkened back to the old one.

The famous façade that once ringed the original Yankee Stadium before being moved beyond the center-field wall during the mid-70s renovation was back in all its magisterial glory. Other changes were more subtle. The seats and the outfield walls, a rich royal blue across the street, are painted navy blue in this building. Monument Park has also been moved, from behind the left-field fence to behind the center-field wall. The most substantial difference is the gargantuan 59-by-101-foot HD screen that looms over dead center field.

Yet, at times it seemed as nothing had changed. The dimensions of the field are exactly the same. The fans in the decidedly more spacious right-field bleachers still went through the roll call of starters in the top of the first inning, Ronan Tynan still gave a drawn-out rendition of God Bless America during the seventh-inning stretch, and Frank Sinatra's New York, New York still serenaded the departing crowd after the game. Yankees closer Mariano Rivera and catcher Jorge Posada both said the new stadium felt no different than the old one. "I still had that giant N.Y. [on the grass] behind me," said Posada.

It remains a work in progress. The Yankees clubhouse was missing one of the six flat screen TVs that hang overhead. Rows of unopened boxes lined the corridor connecting the two clubhouses and there was only one elevator in service to take the hundreds of assembled media and team employees to their spacious new digs on the second level. One stadium employee said there is a second elevator but no one was sure if it worked yet. "We're still trying to work out a few bugs," he said.

There were no complaints coming from the men who will be calling the new ballpark home. The Yankees' 3,344-square foot clubhouse features several more rooms that are off-limits to the media, as well as IBM Thinkpads bolted to each players' locker. One player had used it to search YouTube for a Kings of Leon song, presumably for pregame inspiration. Teixeira looked up some PGA Tour scores, although he may be better off searching Mapquest. "I've gotten lost two days in a row coming here," he said with a grin. "I got lost leaving my house and I got lost leaving the stadium."

Players may yet get lost in the stadium. "I still haven't seen the whole thing," said Posada, who visited several times, including right before leaving for spring training, while it was under construction. "I still don't think we'll be able to go see it all for a little while."

"There's lots more things going on here than there was at the old stadium," said Jeter. "It's got everything you could think of."

Including a team worthy of such largesse. The new stadium is as much about extending the Yankees financial advantage over the rest of baseball into the foreseeable future as it is about providing the fans and players with the coolest house on the block. New stadium or not, this team will be judged a failure if it fails to match Ruth and the rest of the '23 Yankees who were able to deliver the first of 26 world championships to Yankee Stadium. Come April 16, when the new ballpark is officially christened with the regular-season opener against the Indians, it will be what the Yankees do, rather than where they do it, that will be of paramount importance. The address has changed, but the mission for the men who will call it home, never will.

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