NEW YORK (Reuters) - Baseball said goodbye to Yankee Stadium on Sunday, ending 85 years at America's most storied sports venue with a celebration of its past and a postgame salute that players and fans didn't want to leave.
The New York Yankees defeated the Baltimore Orioles 7-3 in what was practically an inconsequential game, but a sellout crowd electrified "The House That Ruth Built."
The team will play next season in a $1.3 billion Yankee Stadium nearing completion across the street.
The Yankees won all 26 of their World Series championships since the stadium opened in 1923, and the venue has hosted Masses celebrated by three popes, great boxing matches, and a rally for Nelson Mandela shortly after his release from prison.
The stadium was gutted and renovated after the 1973 season.
Fans stood throughout the final inning, which concluded when Yankees relief star Mariano Rivera got Brian Roberts of the Orioles to ground out to first baseman Cody Ransom.
Players greeted fans who lingered after the game was over, and athletes from both teams scooped up dirt from the infield as souvenirs.
"I'm going to get a bucket," Rivera said.
Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, who will take a place among the team's legends after he retires, addressed the fans from the middle of the infield, recalling the stadium traditions and memories.
"We are relying on you to take the memories from this stadium and add them to the new memories that come with the new Yankee Stadium and continue to pass them on from generation to generation," Jeter told the crowd.
Starting pitcher Andy Pettitte was almost in a daze, saying, "It's very surreal. You can't believe this place isn't going to exist next year."
GEHRIG AND DIMAGGIO RETURN
The pregame ceremony was befitting of Broadway, conjuring up past Yankee greats.
Old-timers returned and actors in replica uniforms appeared as deceased greats including Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio.
One man dressed as Babe Ruth, the famed home run hitter who enabled the Yankees to build what was a gargantuan stadium in 1923.
Fans began pouring into the stadium seven hours before game time, and they roared when past stars such as Reggie Jackson and Yogi Berra walked onto the field, some with their gaits slowed and uniforms fitting a little tighter around the middle.
They were joined by the widow of pitching great Catfish Hunter and the sons of Thurman Munson, Billy Martin and Mickey Mantle, players representing Yankee lore or tragedy.
Ruth hit the first home run on opening day in 1923, and Jose Molina of the Yankees hit the last one, a two-run shot in the fourth inning that gave New York a 5-3 lead.
Ruth's daughter, Julia Ruth Stevens, threw out the ceremonial first pitch, saying it made her "scared to death."
"I'm very sad to see Yankee Stadium will not be in existence any longer," she told reporters. "I will always have memories of my father hitting towering home runs into the grandstands. He was very honored that the writers nicknamed it 'The House that Ruth Built.'"
Before the formal ceremony, fans were given a chance to walk the perimeter of the field and visit the shrines to past Yankee greats in Monument Park.
Some struck mock home run-robbing poses in the outfield while security guards constantly warned fans not to take any dirt or grass as souvenirs.
Brooklyn native John Restivo, 47, flew to New York from his current home in Atlanta and said the spirit of the team and the fans would smoothly relocate across the street.
"Maybe next year we christen it with a championship," he said.