As a new Yankee Stadium rises, will the spirit live on?

NEW YORK (Reuters) - For Andrew Heffler, Yankee Stadium is hallowed ground not just because baseball immortals such as Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle played there but because mere mortals like his father and grandfather took him there to see games.

Fans react after the national anthem is performed at the New York Yankees opening day MLB American League baseball game with the Toronto Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium in New York April 1, 2008. REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine

One cherished memory was of Mantle hitting two homers into the third deck a few seats from where he and his dad sat in 1964, he said. Another was the 1991 Father’s Day gift of game tickets his children gave their granddad, who spoiled them with hot dogs, soda and Cracker Jacks.

Heffler and other longtime Yankee fans who say outings at “The Stadium” are touchstones of family life now face a difficult decision: when the famous ballpark closes for good after this season, do they follow the Yanks to their new home across the street or cut their allegiance out of loyalty to family memories and traditions?

“What’s the difference between another team that wins and the New York Yankees? The New York Yankees play at Yankee Stadium,” Heffler said.

“Players come and players go and the only tradition is the uniform and the place where you play,” he said. “This is the common bond throughout the generations.”

Heffler, a human resources manager from Scotch Plains, New Jersey, remembers how his grandfather, a Yankee fan since 1903, dropped the team flat in 1964 when it fired popular play-by-play man Mel Allen -- a key lesson he learned in personal loyalty.

When his father-in-law bought his son a New York Mets jacket, for instance, he made him take it back. A defection to the Yanks’ cross-town rivals “was not going to happen on my watch,” he said before a game last month.

As the Major Leagues prepare for the July 15 all-star game being played at Yankee Stadium to honor its last year, work continues on a new $1.3-billion ballpark in the New York borough of the Bronx in time for next spring’s opening day.

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Architects’ drawings show the new Yankee Stadium will be a magnificent park, paying homage to the old one’s famous frieze, and it will have monuments to the team’s greatest players.

Yet the old stadium inspired more than personal ties. Its arched windows and limestone facade lent it an air of grandeur. Because of the Yankees’ consistent excellence, it became a metaphor for the American Century, a landmark of New York’s emergence in the 1920s among the world’s great cities and a focal point for the city’s social life.

When it opened in 1923, the stadium became known as “The House that Ruth Built” after the game’s biggest hero, Babe Ruth, a larger-than-life personality recognizable to the world.

For the next eight decades, the Yanks were led by such names as Ruth and Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mantle, Reggie Jackson and Derek Jeter. The stadium was the showplace for America’s national pastime as the Yanks hosted 37 World Series, winning 26.

It also hosted prize fights and three popes celebrated Mass there, the last in April by Pope Benedict.

Critics say they will not miss the old stadium’s outmoded bathrooms and dingy confines. Others say its character was altered irretrievably by a 1970s renovation when the frieze was replaced with a replica atop the outfield bleachers, and the playing dimensions and seating capacity were reduced.

Yet even after the renovation, sports and cultural history continued to be made there.

The team’s owner, George Steinbrenner, has long craved a new ballpark and threatened to move the club to Manhattan or New Jersey. The impatient owner, who fired managers frequently and dressed down players openly, complained in the 1990s that the stadium’s age and Bronx location suppressed ticket sales, often below two million a season.

For the last several years the Yanks have hosted more than four million, tops in baseball.


It surely was not lost on Steinbrenner that most of the other teams were building beautiful new parks.

Philip DePaolo is another lifelong fan who says outings with relatives to the stadium helped to define them as a family. Later, as an adult, he attended 30 games a year, he said. But now he is boycotting the team because it is abandoning the stadium.

“When you go to the new stadium, are you going to feel the ghosts of the past and that spiritual energy the current stadium has, of Babe Ruth and Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali and the popes? The presence you feel. There aren’t many places where you still get that.

“When people see the wrecking ball, it will be like a part of your life being torn apart,” he said.

Fans are pleased that Steinbrenner chose to build right across the street. During the off-season the team’s equipment will be taken to the new home, and one can imagine the ghosts of Yankee greats, still in their iconic pinstripe uniforms, passing over to the new monument park.

Heffler said he was glad Steinbrenner was trying to make the new stadium a great place.

“But it’s just not the same. It’s a facsimile,” he said. “Like when you go to Disney World or Las Vegas and they have icons of New York. Those are facsimiles. This is the real thing.”

Will he remain a die-hard Yankee fan? “I’m not sure,” Heffler said. “Loyalty’s a funny thing.”

Editing by Clare Fallon