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Legends in awe of new Cathedral

Legends in awe

Reggie Jackson experienced the full panoramic effect of the new Yankee Stadium as he ventured near the mound this month, clutching a baseball in his left hand and coaching himself not to bounce the ceremonial first pitch.

From that spot in the center of the sparkling cathedral, Mr. October could have looked up and seen it all -- the instantly recognizable frieze circling the grandstand, the manually operated outfield scoreboards, a giant video screen staring back at him. But what he saw most was The Boss.

"It's done in George Steinbrenner style -- forget the cost, do it right," Jackson said. "That's George's style. Spend the money, build it right. If the one you have doesn't work, get rid of it, get another one and get rid of the guy that built that one."

The Yankees are certainly hoping that fans will agree with Steinbrenner's vision when the gates open for Yankee Stadium's first regular-season game on Thursday afternoon, hosting the Indians in a 1:05 p.m. ET start.

Jackson made a first toss as the Yankees played two exhibition games against the Cubs earlier this month, and the Hall of Fame slugger -- now an advisor to Steinbrenner -- said that he recognized the stadium's celebration of the past and embrace of the future.

"I think it feels like the old building when you're on the field, but it's a completely new ballpark," Jackson said. "It's an unbelievable place that I can't describe. I don't have the adjectives to describe it. I feel privileged to be part of the facility, to be able to work in it, to go there every day."

David Cone said he stood outside the Gate 4 entrance behind home plate, designed with the original in mind, and attempted to make his mind travel back in time to that first day, when Model Ts rolled up on a dirt road and men in dark coats and hats saw the Babe hit one out.

"The first thing that jumps out is the limestone façade, and I try to imagine what 1923 looked like," Cone said. "It's an impressive entrance. The sightlines, I was impressed with. Every sightline seems to be wide open. It looks like a great vantage point from every angle."

Yogi Berra came away with the same impression thousands of fans did after 18 innings of exhibition baseball this month -- it will take some time to explore everything in this massive "living museum."

"When we played at the old ballpark, I thought that was big," Berra said. "This is bigger. The locker room is bigger than the old one. We thought we had a tremendous locker room when we played there. But things change.

"They've got the façade and everything up there, and brought the old scoreboard down below that we used to have. The only difference is that the [dimensions] are shorter than the old ballpark. It is a beautiful ballpark. But you need a road map to get through it."

Whitey Ford can still remember paying $3 for a World Series ticket at the pre-renovation ballpark, but said he believes the new incarnation of Yankee Stadium will be a jewel for the city -- especially if the team creates more indelible memories for fans, like the ones Ford continues to treasure.

"I started going there when I was 11, and I just loved the place," Ford said. "Every time, I sat in the bleachers, and I just looked around -- never believing that I was going to pitch there eventually. It had such different dimensions from all the other parks. You'd go to Ebbets Field and the fences there looked very close; not like Yankee Stadium.

"I saw DiMaggio hit about six fly balls in a doubleheader to left-center field, all over 400 feet, and they were all outs. I used to say to the kids I'd go to the games with, 'DiMaggio would have had six home runs in Ebbets Field!' It was a different time."

Jackson played five seasons with the Yankees at the remodeled, post-renovation facility, but his memories of the Bronx date back to the classic Yankee Stadium of Berra and Ford's era, where Death Valley ruled and power hitters really had to muscle up to earn their keep.

Because of that, the new Stadium feels small to Jackson. He wishes he could have played in it, though he might not have had as much use for the indoor batting cages that now loom adjacent to both clubhouses.

"We didn't hit as much as these guys do, and once you got in a groove, you didn't hit too much," Jackson said. "I feel that players today hit too much. The fundamentals of coaching are way better.

"We didn't have all the data and filming and all the people on the coaching staff. You went out there with a roll of tape on your wrist and a pair of sweatbands, a Snickers bar and a cup of coffee."

Yankees players will enjoy the very best in medical treatment before each home game, with whirlpools and a Swim-Ex spa installed. Jackson said that in his era, players would have just received a slap on the back and gotten back in the lineup.

"You swung, you grimaced, and you got back in the batter's box," Jackson said. "If you got a base hit, it felt good. If you swung and missed and made an out, it hurt. If you hit a homer, it felt good. That's what it was. There wasn't a whirlpool that you can put a horse in."

Indeed, everything is big -- 500,000 square feet bigger than the place the Yankees closed out last Sept. 21. Imagine how the newest Yankees callups will feel when summoned to the Bronx, as Ron Guidry first was in 1976.

"I had never realized how big it was, but the thing that struck me most was how beautiful it was," Guidry said. "How alluring it was. You strived for one thing when you were a kid -- you just wanted to go there to reach your dream. When I walked in there, I reached my dream."

The fans will have plenty to feed their fantasies as well, a major upgrade from the concessions and options available at the old Stadium. Cone toured the Hard Rock Cafe and NYY Steak restaurant during construction and said that he envisions Yankee Stadium becoming a year-round destination.

"There's so much," Cone said. "There's more than enough things to do. I like the idea that the fans can walk all around -- that's key. You don't want to get stuck in one part of the stadium where your seat is. You want to be able to be free."

Cone said that the new stadium will represent an upgrade for fans over the old building that -- while beloved -- may have outlived its time. He remembers being legitimately fearful that the shaking upper deck might collapse after Joe Girardi's World Series triple in 1996.

"I know from living in that place, as much history as was there, I saw the infrastructure crumbling," Cone said. "I knew that something had to be done, and I knew how difficult it would have been to gut and renovate that place.

"There were some times we were legitimately worried watching the upper deck shake. I was there when part of it fell down [in 1998]. Thankfully, no fans were there, but there were times when we were like, 'Whoa, something could happen here.'"

Wandering the clubhouse behind the scenes, Jackson said he was taken aback by the comforts that Yankees players will enjoy in their new building. The lockers are larger and equipped with touch-screen computers, with enormous rooms for working out and reviewing video.

"I'm a car collector, so I pay attention to restoration and detail," Jackson said. "The finish of the building is very expensive -- there were no corners cut. I notice the wallpaper, the hardware, the conveniences. It's well done."

By the time the Yankees take the field on Thursday, every bolt should have been tightened, every fixture installed. The only question that remains is how the public will embrace the stadium as their own, creating the unique home-field advantage that welcomed the pinstripers across the street.

"The fans anticipated the flow of the game so well," Cone said. "To me, they were a big part of the intimidation factor -- two-strike chants with your home pitcher on the mound going for a strikeout, the heckling against opposing teams. That remains to be seen."

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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