The sun sets behind Yankee Stadium before Major League Baseball action between the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles Sunday, Sept. 21, 2008 at Yankee Stadium in New York. The game will likely be the last baseball game played at the stadium. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
W YORK - Even Yogi Berra knew this was the end. As baseball said farewell to Yankee Stadium, one of the game's most beloved players stood beneath the stands in a full vintage uniform. Now 83, the man who coined the phrase "it ain't over till it's over" put his own stamp on the day. "I'm sorry to see it over, I'll tell you that," Berra said.
The goodbye completed an 85-year-old run for the home of baseball's most famous team. What began with a Babe Ruth home run on an April afternoon in 1923 was likely to end with Mariano Rivera pitching on a September night.
All the greats were remembered during a 65-minute pregame ceremony that included 21 retired players, six of them Hall of Famers.
"I feel like I'm losing an old friend," Reggie Jackson said.
Bob Sheppard, the 90-something public address announcer who started in 1951, read the opening greeting. He missed this season because of illness but recorded his announcement and introduction of the Yankees starting lineup.
The 1922 American League pennant, the first to fly in the ballpark, was unfurled in the black batter's eye beyond center field. Young men and boys were introduced representing the opening-day lineup in 1923.
Then came the living Yankees who make the stadium a standard for excellence.
Willie Randolph slid into second base when he was announced. Fan favorite Paul O'Neill pointed to the Bleacher Creatures in right field. Bernie Williams, back at the ballpark for the first time since the Yankees cut him two years ago, received the longest ovation, which lasted nearly 2 minutes.
No mention was made of Roger Clemens, whose legacy has been clouded by accusations he used performance-enhancing drugs.
Julia Ruth Stevens, 92-year-old daughter of the Babe, threw out the ceremonial first pitch. Derek Jeter received a crystal bat for breaking Lou Gehrig's record for hits at Yankee Stadium earlier in the week. There were so many cameras popping when Andy Pettitte threw the real first pitch, Brian Roberts seemed startled and didn't even try to swing.
Outside the stadium, the marquee that usually has the day's start time and opponent said: "Thanks for the Memories."
Fans wore a collection of jerseys that could fill a Hall of Fame. On one subway car alone, there were shirts with Jeter's No. 2, the Babe's No. 3, Mickey Mantle's No. 7, Phil Rizzuto's No. 10 and Don Mattingly's No. 23.
Fans were allowed on the field starting at 1 p.m. and entered through the left-field seats not far from where Aaron Boone's home run landed five years ago.
Glenn Bartow and his 13-year-old daughter arrived more than 12 hours before New York played Baltimore in a game that began at 8:36 p.m., and were the first ones into Monument Park.
"We come every Sunday," Emily Bartow said.
This Sunday was the very last.
Visitors touched the 24 plaques and six monuments, posed next to them for family photos. Under the kind of cloudless sky that made people recall summer days of yore, they slowly circled the warning track.
Some posed along the 318-foot sign in the left-field corner of the pockmarked fence, raising baseball gloves along the top of the blue-padded wall as if they were making leaping catches. Others stood alongside the 408 sign in center. Some covered their hands with dirt and put their hand prints on an advertisement with a black background.
Those who could not walk were pushed along in wheelchairs. Parents brought strollers to make sure toddlers got to experience the great ballpark before it is dismantled.
Moses Del Rio, a 32-year-old from Brooklyn, held his 11-month-old son, Ryan, who started walking only in the past week.
"I brought him here to take pictures of him in the stadium," the father said.
Jeter, likely to get a plaque of his own years from now in the new Yankee Stadium, said Saturday was the first time he looked around and tried to soak in the memories — the three big decks filled with fans, the sign in the tunnel from the clubhouse to the field with the Joe DiMaggio quote: "I want to thank the Good Lord for making me a Yankee."
"Just driving in, I think it really starts to hit you, that this is the last time," he said. "When you take the field, you're constantly reminded of the history that's been here before you."
With the Yankees nearly out postseason contention for the first time since making the playoffs in 1995, there was plenty of time to join the crowd.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi went onto the field to sign autographs. Mike Mussina and Alex Rodriguez posed for photos with rooters. Joba Chamberlain even took fans' cell phones and shouted messages to their family and friends.
Don Larsen, David Wells and David Cone — the three pitchers who threw perfect games in Yankee Stadium — stood on the mound during the ceremony. Larsen, whose gem was the only one thrown in a World Series, thought about his former teammates.
"I'm missing a lot of the guys who are gone and not able to join us," he said.
Williams had his car circle the ballpark one last time before he walked in.
"All the memories that I have here, I know that I'm going to have to keep them in my head because this place is not going to be any longer," Williams said. "There is a part of me that feels very sad about watching the stadium go."
New York didn't plan it this way as it prepared to move next year to a new Yankee Stadium, a $1.3 billion sports palace rising across 161st Street that will be filled with $2,500 seats, a martini bar, steak house and art gallery. The Yankees won 26 World Series championships after moving into their big ballyard in the Bronx, and had hoped to close the Stadium with another title.
Thousands of police and security filled the worn aisles to ensure the fans didn't walk away with the ballpark's guts — which will be sold piece by piece to collectors. Many fans have been arrested and screwdrivers confiscated during the past week.
"I'd like to try and get two seats," said Bartow, the early-arriving fan. "They're going for a couple thousand dollars. It's going to be tough, but I may have to do it because, you know, we have to."
The Bartows lingered on the field for 1 hour, 15 minutes, taking pictures they're certain to cherish. When it was time to climb the steps back to the stands, father and daughter turned to exchange a final-day kiss.
Berra, a 10-time champion often considered the greatest living Yankee, didn't really need any more souvenirs — although he said he wouldn't mind leaving with the final home plate of the ballpark he loved.
"I hate to see it go," he said. "It will always be in my heart."