Yankee Stadium the biggest All-Star of all

July 15, 2008 2:45:27 PM PDT
The star of the All-Star game doesn't swing a bat, throw a pitch or wear a glove.It has 56,000-plus blue seats, a famous field and history. Lots of history.

Slated for extinction, Yankee Stadium gets perhaps its final moment in the national spotlight, hosting the All-Star game Tuesday night as part of its grand send-off.

"I catch myself actually looking up at seats where I sat as a kid and saying, 'Wow, that's pretty cool that, you know, I actually watched the game from there and now I'm down here and somebody else is watching us," Minnesota Twins closer Joe Nathan said.

Major League Baseball is taking a year off from showcasing the sport's shiny new emporiums and toasting the House that Ruth Built, DiMaggio won over and Reggie conquered.

Albert Pujols set some goals, and for a change they didn't involve home runs.

"Maybe tear up the grass a little bit and put it in the back of my pocket and take it with me," the St. Louis Cardinals slugger said.

The American League enters 10-0-1 since the NL's last victory in 1996 and is trying to win for the sixth straight time since the All-Stars began deciding home-field advantage in the World Series.

Players sat on the hallowed grass to watch the Texas' Josh Hamilton put on a percussive power display in the Home Run Derby following Monday's workout. He thrilled the crowd of 53,716 by hitting a single-round record of 28 homers in his first time up, including one that clanked off the wall behind the right-field bleachers and another that sailed an estimated 518 feet. But then the pooped slugger lost to Minnesota's Justin Morneau 5-3 in the final.

Yankee Stadium is the place where Lou Gehrig said goodbye, where Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali boxed, where popes celebrated mass. But most of all, it's remembered for the 26 World Series titles the New York Yankees have won since the Stadium opened its doors in 1923.

No other team in baseball can match the tradition.

No other place can equal the aura.

"If you stand toe to toe with the beast and you can conquer this stage, then you've reached the apex," Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. "I think walking through that dark, dingy tunnel into the dugout - I don't think there's any player that's ever done it that hasn't gotten chill bumps. ... It's the biggest stage in baseball. If you can't get fired up to take those three steps up the dugout steps and onto that field, man, you don't have a pulse."

He called it a huge coliseum. Right next door, an even bigger one is under construction, 63 percent larger, to be filled with restaurants, bars and seats costing up to $2,500 a game next year.

The new Yankee Stadium will look much like this one - before the 1974-75 reconstruction - but it won't be the same.

"I'm really going to miss those guys down in the bullpen throwing AA batteries at me," Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon said. "I'm really going to miss the people yelling at me. They'll probably just move right across the street."

Papelbon knows the ballpark from all those Red Sox-Yankees games. Tim Lincecum was ready to be a tourist. The San Francisco Giants pitcher, who is 24 but looks like one of the Beatles at age 14, wasn't sure exactly what he wanted to see.

"Babe Ruth and his head out there in - I don't know exactly where it is, because I've never been there, but I've seen people touch it," he said.

For one night only, players on the home team walked onto the field in numbers long retired, with Evan Longoria wearing Ruth's No. 3, Ian Kinsler in Joe DiMaggio's No. 5, and J.D. Drew and Joe Mauer in Mickey Mantle's No. 7. Red Sox roamed the Yankees clubhouse, allowed a rare peek into the pinstripes' inner sanctum.

"You don't want to take anything away from any All-Star game, but this is something that's pretty special," Yankees captain Derek Jeter said. "This is the one All-Star game that I wanted to play in."

Ernie Banks and Frank Robinson chatted outside the NL clubhouse.

Reggie Jackson held court behind the batting cage, as only Reggie can. The commissioner's office prepared to honor more than 40 Hall of Famers during pregame ceremonies.

Boston's Terry Francona, the AL manager, spent the day sidestepping what appeared to be the biggest question: If his team has a slim lead entering the ninth inning, would he hand the ball to Papelbon or Mariano Rivera, a revered Yankees hero?

"I have a feeling, knowing Francona," Rivera said. "I have a feeling that he will put me there if we have the opportunity to close the game."

Starters were cleared up Monday, with Cleveland's Cliff Lee opening for the AL and Milwaukee's Ben Sheets for the NL. Sheets, like Lincecum, was visiting the ballpark for the first time.

Young and old alike, they all sounded awed.

"It's weird to know that you're walking through the same, you know, hallways and tunnels as the greats," Longoria said.

More than most years, sometimes jaded major leaguers seemed pumped up. After all, there never will be another All-Star game at Yankee Stadium. At least in this one.

"Something will happen in this game that people will probably talk about for a long time," Francona said.