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)
NEW YORK —After all those championships in this celebrated place, all those unforgettable moments, the New York Yankees weren’t about to be knocked out of the playoff race on a night like this.
Mariano Rivera finished what Babe Ruth started 85 years ago, and New York bid farewell to fabled Yankee Stadium with a 7-3 victory over Baltimore on Sunday night that prevented postseason elimination—at least for a day.
Derek Jeter was pulled with two outs in the ninth inning and jogged off the field to a raucous cheer before coming out for a curtain call. When the game was over, he walked to the mound and addressed the crowd while surrounded by his teammates.
“We just want to take this moment to salute you, the greatest fans in the world,” Jeter said.
Then the Yankees took a lap around the field, waving their caps to the fans as Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” blared over the sound system one last time in this park.
Security officers got busy, too, with police on horseback lining the field to make sure treasured artifacts didn’t start disappearing before the ballpark does.
A loss would have officially ended New York’s run of 13 straight playoff appearances, and a Boston win Monday night against Cleveland would still do the trick. But on a beautiful Bronx night dripping with history and nostalgia, the Yankees refused to ruin the grand festivities.
Johnny Damon and Jose Molina homered to back Andy Pettitte (14-14), a fitting winner after he helped pitch New York to four World Series titles and six AL pennants from 1996-2003.
Joba Chamberlain worked 1 2-3 hitless innings and Rivera closed out the final regular-season home game before New York moves next year into a $1.3 billion palace rising across the street.
So it ended as it should have, after the Babe opened the ballpark on April 18, 1923, with a home run in a 4-1 victory over the Red Sox that sent the Yankees on their way to the first of a record 26 World Series championships.
New York finished 4,133-2,430-17 at Yankee Stadium, originally built in 284 days for $2.5 million. It was the first sports venue to be called a stadium, the team noted.
“I feel like I’m losing an old friend,” Reggie Jackson said. “I’m glad I was here.”
Perhaps the only person missing was 78-year-old owner George Steinbrenner, who stayed in Florida to watch on television.
After a major remodeling in the mid-1970s, Yankee Stadium looks much different than it did when Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio linked one dynasty to another decades ago.
But it’s the same field, on the same ground—and history has a heartbeat here.
“I think it was more the people than the stadium,” former Yankees star Bernie Williams said. “People talk a lot about the magic and the aura, but what really made the stadium was the fans. Concrete doesn’t talk back to you. Chairs don’t talk back to you. It’s the people that are there, that root for you day in and day out, that’s what makes this place magical.”
Fans were encouraged to stay in their seats for a postgame celebration.
The 65-minute pregame ceremony began with a recorded message from longtime public address announcer Bob Sheppard, who has missed this season while recuperating from illness. Sheppard, who took the job in 1951, said he hopes to return next year at the new ballpark.
Players from both teams stood on the top step of the dugout to watch as Yankees stars from yesteryear were introduced one by one. They took their positions, donning old-style, off-white uniforms made of genuine wool and baseball flannel, the tags said.
Yogi Berra was fully dressed by 5:30 p.m., belt fastened and stirrups showing.
“They said this was the kind of uniform we played in. I don’t remember getting this one,” he said, drawing laughs.
Berra was one of six Hall of Famers on the field. Family members stood in for the greats who are gone, such as Phil Rizzuto, Thurman Munson, Elston Howard and Roger Maris.
Don Larsen, who pitched a perfect game here in the 1956 World Series, scooped dirt from the mound into a plastic cup, assisted by Whitey Ford.
It was one of many nostalgic scenes on this night, only possible at Yankee Stadium.
Center field was the finale. The Mick, Bobby Murcer, a huge roar for Williams—back at Yankee Stadium for the first time since the team let him go after the 2006 season.
Then the Yankees starters from Sunday night joined the former stars at their positions. Julia Ruth Stevens, 92-year-old daughter of the Babe, threw out the ceremonial first pitch to injured catcher Jorge Posada. Berra voiced over a salute to the old ballyard and it was finally time to play ball.
“Only this time when it’s over, it’s over,” Berra said.
Much like this season, the Yankees started slowly.
After one last roll call by the Bleacher Creatures in this spot, Baltimore jumped ahead of Pettitte 2-0 before Damon’s three-run shot to right in the third — not far from where he hit his grand slam for Boston in Game 7 of the 2004 AL championship series.
Molina, filling in for Posada and batting ninth, added a two-run shot off rookie Chris Waters (3-4) in the fourth to give New York a 5-3 lead.
Struggling through an extremely disappointing second half, Pettitte snapped a five-start losing streak. He left to a standing ovation in the sixth, waved his cap and came out for a curtain call.