Tuesday April 13th, 2010

NEW YORK -- Reality hadn't yet sunk in for Hal Steinbrenner when he saw the old Yankee Stadium in the process of being demolished four weeks ago. The grandstand had come down, but the park's shell still stood, a convincing mirage that maybe its 85 years of history weren't going anywhere.

Today, however, upon seeing just one section of the façade still standing, Steinbrenner, the team's managing general partner, said, "It finally hit me."

But the Yankees are only tearing down the old ballpark after having proved the new one could be a winner, too, which was reinforced before their home opener, as the 2009 World Series banner was raised and each member of the organization was presented with his championship ring by Hall of Famers Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford.

New York punctuated its celebratory day with a 7-5 victory over the Angels before a sellout crowd of 49,293, the largest regular season attendance in the young stadium's history.

"It's a transition," Steinbrenner said, "and this one's going as smoothly as possible."

To say the least.

Last year's season and stadium opener was a clunker of a loss, a 10-2 rout to the hapless Indians. For the season's first month the dominant conversations about the Yankees focused on the empty, overpriced seats in the first few rows -- the ones on the interior of the so-called "moat," a wide walkway separating the have-a-lots and the have-a-little-lesses -- and the overabundance of home runs, particularly to right field.

The Yankees (and New York taxpayers) had spent $3 billion -- roughly half on payroll and half on the new stadium -- since the club's last World Series title in 2000, a virtual eternity by its own lofty standards.

What a difference a year makes. Until the contracts of shortstop Derek Jeter, closer Mariano Rivera and manager Joe Girardi expire after this season, discussions about the Yankees will concern the on-field product and whether or not they can repeat, which eight of this publication's 13 experts predict will happen after they reloaded with center fielder Curtis Granderson and starter Javier Vazquez. It's noteworthy that general manager Brian Cashman stocked those two new talents via trade and supplemented their acquisitions with one-year, low-cost signings of Nick Johnson, Marcus Thames and Randy Winn at a combined $7.75 million, showing restraint when Johnny Damon sought more money than the club thought he was worth. This is in contrast to the previous offseason when New York signed free agents A.J. Burnett, CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira at a total cost of $423.5 million. It's a new era in the Bronx.

This day was entirely about the heartwarming new chapter that's been added to Yankee lore (at least until reliever David Robertson gave up a grand slam to Bobby Abreu in the ninth cutting the lead to two). Girardi and Jeter went upstairs to the owner's suite to present George Steinbrenner, whose health prevented him from going onto the field, with the first ring. Jeter, a native of Kalamazoo, Mich., joked that Steinbrenner, to make room on his hand, should remove his 1954 Ohio State football ring. Instead, the Boss responded by removing his 2000 Yankees ring, pointing at his captain and saying, "Michigan."

"Quite frankly, he was almost speechless," Hal Steinbrenner said of his father, upon the presentation from the manager and the captain.

Incidentally, after George Steinbrenner was shown on the video scoreboard prior to the bottom of the third inning, Jeter powered a home run to right-center field on the third pitch of the inning. Go Blue, indeed.

But as much as the pomp and circumstance of the day was about adding another championship notch for Steinbrenner, Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Rivera, it was also about a lot of firsts. Though the Yankee identity is still defined by those five, they are the last remaining relics of the late 1990s dynasty.

It was the first title with Steinbrenner's sons, Hal and Hank, calling the shots and the first title for superstars Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira.

It was also the first for a host of key other key contributors like Hideki Matsui, the Series MVP now with the Angels who received one of the ring ceremony's loudest ovations and was mobbed on the field by his former Yankee teammates; right fielder Nick Swisher, who proudly brought his father, Steve, a nine-year veteran of the Cubs, Cardinals and Padres who never played in a World Series, to the stadium; and Padres utility player Jerry Hairston Jr., a third-generation major leaguer who flew across the country on his offday to attend the ring ceremony.

Hairston went 1-for-2 in the Padres' home opener at 3:30 p.m. Pacific time yesterday, then took a 9:30 red-eye that landed in New York at 6 a.m. After receiving his World Series ring, he was due to get on a 6 p.m. flight back to the West Coast.

"I'm going to get tired just talking about my travel plans," Hairston said, "[but] I would love to see somebody have a better 12 hours. I'm the first in my family to win a World Series ring, so I know how rare it is."

After the game Rodriguez noted that it took 17 years of hard work from the day he was drafted to the day he received his first World Series ring, and he was thus all too happy to bring his ring to his postgame press conference and try it on before a score of photographers.

"Some guys say they're not going to wear them, that they're too cool," Rodriguez said. "I call BS on that. I'm going to wear it everyday. If they'd have let me, I was going to wear it to third [base]. I guess that would have broken the rules."

But for all the struggles the players have had in acquiring this first championship, Swisher suggested a foolproof plan for ensuring future World Series titles.

"In the first year that the old Yankee Stadium opened up [in 1923], they won a World Series," Swisher said. "In the first year of the new Yankee Stadium, we won a World Series. If they build another one, we'll win another one."

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