NEW YORK -- They topped off the last bit of white steel, high above what will be the wrap-around scoreboard and gigundo video screen at the new Yankee Stadium this past Thursday. And around the construction site, many of the upbeat workers are wearing dark blue buttons with the name of the famous ballpark in white capital letters set above this date: Feb. 17, 2009, less than two months before Opening Day. "That's when we're turning the stadium over to the Yankees," said Harry Olsen, the project manager for the company that's overseeing the construction and site.
No question, the construction appears right on target, and the privately funded $1.1 billion stadium -- which was the brainchild of Yankees principal owner George Steinbrenner, and is still taking shape on a daily basis -- should be nothing short of spectacular when it is unveiled in 2009. For the older generation of fans who remember the Mick, Whitey, Yogi -- and those who came before them -- running around the field in pinstripes, this is the first thing you should know: the new stadium pays homage to the original edifice, which opened in 1923 on the other side of 161st Street, across the Harlem River from the Polo Grounds. The Yankees shared that old horseshoe-shaped park in Manhattan with the Giants from 1913-22 before moving into the Cathedral. Yankees officials dug up those first Yankee Stadium architectural plans, and from it, they are remaking the famous curved and striped "frieze" that hovers high above the bleachers in the renovated ballpark, putting it where it once was: running around the stadium below the lights on the fringe of the upper-deck overhang, from left field all the way around to right. Secondly, they replicated the monumental Gate 4 entrance, cast in limestone with each letter of the words "YANKEE STADIUM" set between stone emblems and chiseled in gold leaf. The limestone façade gives it a decidedly old-time texture and runs most of the way around the new ballpark. "And it's built to last for the next 50 years or more," Olsen said. For the current generation of fans whose Yanks were constituted by Reggie, Munson, Catfish, Jeter and Rivera, the second thing you should know is that, save for the white-washed walls and eventual Yankee-blue seats, it won't look much like the current stadium, which rose out of the rubble of the first and more sacred building, which reopened in 1976 after a two-year renovation.
"This new stadium is different," said Randy Levine, the team's president. "There may never be another one like it."The Yankees won the World Series 20 times in the original stadium and six more since it was renovated. And, of course, that commitment to winning won't change in the new building. It is a stone's throw to the north, hard along the subway line that rises from underground just short of the current stadium and travels on elevated tracks into the depths of the Bronx. And instead of the signature Bronx County Courthouse hovering in the distance, fans will have to get used to the obtrusion of a high-rise apartment complex. It is airy and open. The congestion in the concourses and the problems of ingress and egress in the current stadium will be left in the past. It moves Monument Park back to center field, where the original monuments to Ruth, Gehrig and Miller Huggins once stood, but this time they won't be on the field and in play, as they were in the first iteration of the stadium. It will seat 53,000, but somehow, as MLB.com learned on a recent tour that traversed almost every nook and cranny of the new facility, every one of those seats has an unencumbered view of home plate, even though the new stadium reaches about the same height as the existing one. Most are much closer to the field than the current stadium, where the catcher squats about 70 feet from the backstop. In the new park, that distance will be about 50 feet. The grade, which seems nearly flat at 35 percent in the current lower deck, has been changed to a much steeper 45 percent. That's akin to a pitcher peering down from a mound 10 feet above the ground, as opposed to a mound that's about six feet high. There are also many fewer rows in each deck. The new stadium will have a "Great Hall" outside the field concourse on the right-field side, with a 24-foot-by-36-foot video board hanging on the wall at the far end, and banners of great Yankees stars, past and present, draped in strips from a glass ceiling that will allow light to flood in during the daytime. The board will twin with the 50-by-100-foot video monster that will hover above center field. Its field dimensions will be identical to the current stadium -- 318 feet down the left-field line; 314 feet down the right-field line; 408 feet in dead center; 399 feet in left-center, and 385 in right-center. Dignitaries who have already toured the burgeoning facility have been blown away. "I was extremely impressed with the sightlines, the fan amenities and the intimacy for a 50,000-seat park," said Bob DuPuy, Major League Baseball's president and chief operating officer, who recently toured the site. "The biggest surprise to me was how when you walk into the main bowl, you feel like you are in Yankee Stadium -- with elements of the current stadium and the stadium before its renovations in the '70s." What's happening concurrently right now in the boroughs of the Bronx and Queens is the apex of a building boom in Major League Baseball. When this generation's Yankee Stadium and the Mets' Citi Field open next year, 21 new ballparks will have opened and another three renovated since what was then called Toronto's SkyDome was born in 1989. Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. was the last one to come on line this past March 30. Commissioner Bud Selig has called the wave of new stadiums nothing short of ballpark "cathedrals," and the coming Yankee Stadium could be construed as the St. Patrick's Cathedral of them all.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.