Friday, April 24, 2009

Yankees New Stadium

Sports of The Times
With New Stadium, Yankees Replicate Charm, but Lose Advantage
April 16, 2009

By the middle of the seventh inning Thursday, the Yankees’ highly anticipated home opener had officially been declared a disaster. The Yankees opened a new season and christened a new stadium in the eerie shadow of the old.

The home team trailed, 10-1, after a nine-run seventh by the Cleveland Indians on the way to a 10-2 loss. And Yankees players were showered with boos in the new $1.6 billion stadium.

For most major league baseball teams, the home opener is the essence of the clean slate, the fresh start. For the Yankees, the idea of starting with a clean slate is daunting, like climbing Mount Everest. After they were pasted Thursday, the incline became a lot steeper.

This was much more than a simple home opener: This was the opening of a lavish new Yankee Stadium, built by a franchise with baseball’s highest payroll, despite the economic collapse around it — a franchise accustomed to winning championships, although it hasn’t won a World Series title since 2000. Old Yankee Stadium represented one of the greatest, or at least one of the most storied, home-field advantages in North American sports. Visiting players routinely gushed about walking into the Stadium and soaking in its history.

With a simple move across the street, that part of the Yankees’ legacy is gone and the franchise, payroll aside, is now on a level playing field with the competition.

After Thursday’s game, pitcher C. C. Sabathia was asked whether the new Stadium, with its amenities, felt as special as the one he used to visit when he was a member of the Indians.

“It still has that feel because the park still looks kind of like the old Stadium,” Sabathia said. “But it’s a weird feeling, too, going out with a clean slate and us starting a new era of Yankee baseball.”

The focus on the Yankees’ mystique tends to be baseball-centric, but what gave the old Yankee Stadium its luster were classic championship moments that cut across sports. The old Stadium was a veritable museum of American sports history:

¶ Knute Rockne’s famous “Win one for the Gipper” speech delivered at halftime of Notre Dame’s 1928 victory over Army.

¶ Joe Louis’s 1938 victory over Max Schmeling in a heavyweight title bout.

¶ The Baltimore Colts’ sudden-death victory over the Giants in 1958 in the Greatest Game Ever Played.

¶ The string of World Series appearances through the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, then from 1996 to 2003.

Before Thursday’s game, Derek Jeter, asked about the recent losses in Tampa Bay, including a 15-5 pummeling, said that a six-month baseball season was hardly over in April. Indeed, a month from now, the embarrassment in the home opener may well be a footnote.

Manager Joe Girardi said that Thursday’s game was “hard to watch,” but he added that the Yankees’ fate and the legacy of the new Stadium wouldn’t be decided on the first day.

True enough, though Thursday’s rout, three days after the rout against Tampa Bay, raises questions about how long it will take these Yankees to fill a new stadium with the sort of championship moments that made the old Stadium so special.

Soon? Longer? Never?

Before Jeter’s first plate appearance Thursday, a bat was placed across home plate. The bat, we were told, was used by Babe Ruth on opening day 1923, for the opening of the old Yankee Stadium. Ruth homered that day and the Yankees swept the opening four-game series against the Red Sox, then cruised to the pennant and the World Series title.

On Thursday, Jeter flied out and the Yankees were pummeled.

Asked what he would miss about the old Stadium, Jeter said, “You’re going to miss everything about it.”

On its own merits, the new Stadium is a gem. Every effort was made to duplicate and, in many instances extend, the charm of the old Stadium. The signature frieze at the top of the stadium bowl is back, the manually operated auxiliary scoreboard is replicated, and a gap between the bleachers and right field allows us to get a peek at the No. 4 elevated train.

But some crucial things did not make the trip across the street — and they never will.

Mystiques are created by championships and championship moments: title fights, football classics and World Series victories. The old mystique is gone. You can argue that the mystique began to fade seasons ago.

What will that legacy be? Who will be the first group to win a championship in the new Yankee Stadium?

How the Yankees transfer that mystique from the old building, now gray and dark and awaiting its demise, to the new is Girardi’s challenge.

The questions may not be answered for years.

The architects and the Yankee organization did a great job of moving as much memory as they could into the new Stadium.

Sadly for these Yankees, some spirits just don’t travel that well.


A version of this article appeared in print on April 17, 2009, on page B15 of the New York edition.

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