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One last Sunday at the ballpark

One last day at the Cathedral

NEW YORK -- They arrived early on a cloudless Sunday afternoon, lining 161st Street armed with cameras. It was a perfect opportunity: With one slight movement, you could point to the present, soon to be the past, and take a breathtaking view toward the future.

A deep fly ball from where it used to "get late early out there" in Yankee Stadium's left field, as Yogi Berra would say, the 12-foot-high blue letters spelling out the new home of the Yankees stood out against the perfect blue sky.

It was absolutely worth a look. But this was a day for nostalgia and history, two things no place is better synonymous with than Yankee Stadium. They lined up in pinstriped jerseys outside Gate 4 in reverse succession, Derek Jeter's No. 2, Babe Ruth's No. 3, Lou Gehrig's No. 4.

"The great thing about being part of this and being in New York is that people understand what this is about," manager Joe Girardi said. "They understand the history of this stadium. What this building has meant to the city, to baseball and all the other events that happened here -- NFL championships, college football, boxing matches, papal visits.

"This has been a big part of our history, not just of baseball, but of our country."

Thousands waited to take a final stroll through Monument Park and around the warning track, ringing the field and bending over to tie their shoes, in an attempt to hide a swift collecting of treasured soil.

Perhaps home plate is not in the exact same location where Ruth connected for a home run to christen the building in 1923 -- the 1974-75 renovation actually moved the batter's box about 10 feet -- but the concrete was deemed strong enough to continue standing. The walls have still seen so much.

"It's the same building here," Berra said on Sunday. "They did a little remodeling on it, but it's still Yankee Stadium. Everyone, when they come to New York -- even my friends -- want to see Yankee Stadium. It will always be in my heart. It will."

It seemed worth the slow procession through the darkened concrete concourses, a pathway that will not exist after passing through the gates next year -- when each fan purchasing a commemorative program will have a clear and unhindered view of the playing field.

On this day, the final programs were $10 -- pencils, as always, were free. The DiamondVision screen in right-center field focused on the bronze profile of Lou Gehrig, displaying in large blue letters, "Thank You, Fans."

Many of the players stayed late on Saturday, enjoying the field one last time. Girardi threw batting practice to his 6-year-old son, Dante, while Joba Chamberlain, Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi each showed family members around the darkened field.

The youngest Yankees were the first to arrive on Sunday, with Phil Coke and Cody Ransom standing outside the press entrance, looking up at the quotation attributed to Joe DiMaggio: "I'd like to thank the good Lord for making me a Yankee."

They would disappear down the small, narrow blue staircase, guarded by the forbearing sign: "Players and Press Only." They followed a blue line along walls that had been stripped bare.

Farewell Yankee Stadium

Photographs of Ruth, Gehrig, Mickey Mantle and other legends had been removed earlier in the week so, as Andy Pettitte explained, "they wouldn't start walking off." Pettitte admitted he had his eye on bringing a Whitey Ford lithograph back to Texas.

Making one final walk around the stadium on a game day, fans pressed against a chain-link fence in left-center field, aiming their cameras past the waiting ambulance to catch a fleeting glimpse of the empty ballpark.

A few feet away, fans lined five deep to meet Harlan Chamberlain, the father to the Yankees' Joba. The souvenir tables and beer taps were busy at Stan's Sports Bar on River Avenue, and the sound of Yankee Stadium's organ playing a Herman's Hermits tune spilled onto the street.

Those not grasping tickets tried mightily to scour some, calling out. One fan scrawled a cardboard sign reading, "Need one ticket." At the will-call window, rows ranged in the dozens of those crowding to pick up their ducats.

A radio broadcast of the Giants' NFL game crackled on a personal radio, but no one paid much mind. It was an afternoon for baseball. A pregame ceremony at the current stadium began at 7:05 p.m. ET, and encompassed the chronology of Yankees greats who played in the field's expanses.

Among the distinguished alumni scheduled to take part in the festivities were Berra, Ford, Goose Gossage, Ron Guidry, Graig Nettles and Bobby Richardson. Bernie Williams spoke to the media earlier in the day and said it was like old times coming back, with fans begging for autographs as he entered the players' entrance.

For at least a day, he was playing again, and said -- a few hours before he is expected to jog out to center field and bring the house down -- "I think there's no question in my mind that I have to be here."

The ceremony is also expected to feature representatives from the families of deceased Yankees greats Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Thurman Munson and Phil Rizzuto, among numerous others.

Two longtime icons of the Yankees organization, George Steinbrenner and public-address announcer Bob Sheppard, are not expected to attend, though the club's ownership will be represented by Steinbrenner's sons, Hank and Hal, and daughters, Jennifer and Jessica.

The game will be televised nationally on ESPN, with first pitch scheduled for approximately 8:15 p.m. ET, and coverage of all Yankee Stadium-related ceremonies can be viewed on the YES Network.

"A historic artifact from the Yankees' past will also be unveiled," the team said, urging fans to be in their seats by 6:50 p.m.

It is likely that Sunday starter Pettitte will be removed mid-inning so the Yankee Stadium crowd is able to offer him a similar ovation to the one Mike Mussina received on Friday.

Win or lose, Girardi intends to ensure the last Yankees pitcher throwing a ninth inning at the stadium will be Mariano Rivera. Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are likely to play all nine innings, and Girardi said he would start Hideki Matsui at designated hitter.

"I think there's a lot of thought that goes into it, because you want to feel that you did it the right way, and the way that honors the organization and the stadium the most," Girardi said.

Those intending to obtain souvenirs of Yankee Stadium on their own are strongly urged to reconsider. Damaging or theft of stadium property is a crime, and the New York Police Department, Major League Baseball and several federal and state agencies have joined in the effort to safeguard against any unlawful activity.

"Numerous law enforcement agencies will be on hand for the final game to ensure a safe and enjoyable fan experience," the team said. "Violators will be prosecuted by the Bronx District Attorney's Office to the fullest extent of the law."

The Yankees confirmed that Sunday's game will not be the final event at Yankee Stadium. It was reported earlier this week that a Nov. 9 ceremony and concert will be held to celebrate the stadium, though the club has not confirmed that date or accompanying details.

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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