Former Yanks help lay dirt in Stadium

Former Yanks help lay dirt in Stadium

NEW YORK -- Paul O'Neill strode down a flight of concourse stairs at the new Yankee Stadium on Saturday, set his feet on the warning track -- a rough, dirt expanse, still studded with rocks and a few small puddles -- and took an exhaustive look around.

"Look at this joint, huh?" he said.

Out before him lay a baseball field, albeit an incomplete one, properly proportioned to match the dimensions of the old Yankee Stadium. Sod, with seams still showing, filled much of the area, and a large blue sign shouted the words "YANKEE STADIUM" from above center field. Waves of dark blue seats down the left-field line dumped into a still-unfinished section behind home plate, where metal supports hinted at where more seats are still to come.

And on the mound, roughly 60 area children helped cram some dirt from the old Yankee Stadium into the new one.

"You know that the Yankees are going to do everything in a first-class manner, and this is a pretty impressive place," said former third baseman Scott Brosius. "It's kind of cool to see it now, and it will be really cool to see it when it's all completed and ready to go."

That, of course, coming from a man who had already soaked in some of the best of what the old Yankee Stadium had to offer. So imagine how the children of local youth groups in the Bronx felt when the Yankees invited them to a symbolic ceremony on Saturday to transfer home plate, the pitching rubber and buckets of dirt from the old Yankee Stadium to the new one.

Brosius, O'Neill, David Cone and Jeff Nelson joined members of Youth Force 2020 and the ACE Mentor Program in the ceremony, using shovels to dig up dirt and then set it back down across the street -- all in the midst of a driving rain.

"I almost think it was more fun because of the rain," said Jennifer Steinbrenner Swindal, the daughter of Yankees principal owner George Steinbrenner. "A sunny day, you can have every day. But everybody was so excited. These children, you could see the look in their eyes."

Members of both Bronx-based youth groups had been participating for some time in team-sponsored after-school programs relating to the construction and engineering of the new Yankee Stadium. The groups were designed to give children guidance and support in pursuing careers in the construction, architecture or engineering industries.

And their efforts came to a tangible fruition Saturday, when the children, decked out in Yankees hard hats and clutching shovels, spent the ceremony mingling with players from the 1998 World Series champion team.

"It means a lot," Cone said. "It's a great symbolic gesture to be able to take the actual home plate and pitcher's rubber from the old Yankee Stadium and bring it over here. It was a great gesture, and to actually get kids in the Bronx involved with it, I thought was a really good thing to do."

Cone, like Brosius, spent a fair amount of time gazing up at the new stadium, which at once looks quite similar to and strikingly different from the old one. Set to open when the new baseball season begins in April, the structure has been rising up in the shadow of its predecessor for more than two years.

It should increase revenues for the Yankees and could potentially become a drawing card for players -- chief operating officer Lonn Trost even joked that he had already sent cell phone pictures to every free agent in baseball.

"There's a little twinge of jealousy, that's for sure, when you see this facility and how beautiful it's going to be," Cone said. "But then again, I was at the right place at the right time."

And Saturday, he was back, a full decade later. Cone, O'Neill, Brosius and Nelson were all in town this weekend for former Yankees manager Joe Torre's Safe at Home Foundation Gala, a fundraiser that honored the 10-year anniversary of the 1998 World Series champions.

They reminisced briefly about that season, which saw them win 125 games between the regular season and the playoffs and garner acclaim as one of the greatest teams in Major League history. But mostly, they focused on the future, if for no other reason than the fact that they were standing squarely in the middle of it.

"This new Yankee Stadium has got a lot to live up to," Cone said, lounging in a concrete lean-to that will soon become the home dugout. "There are so many great memories, so many championships across the street, that anything you can bring over here -- any sort of memories you can bring with you -- it's a good thing to do to get this place off to the right start."

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