World Series right at home in New York

The Cincinnati Enquirer

NEW YORK- Chipper Jones was fielding ground balls and feeling goose bumps. When a ballplayer walks into Yankee Stadium for the first time, his basic instinct is to bow.

The corner of 161st Street and River Avenue remains hallowed ground in the hardball business. The Atlanta Braves arrived at The House That Ruth Built for their World Series workout Friday night after two hours in the air and three hours aboard busses, and they were still awestruck after this punishing pilgrimage.

''That Ruth guy,'' Jones said, ''sure was a pretty good architect.''

Yankee Stadium is not America's most beautiful ballpark, but it is the one that most stirs the soul and ignites the imagination. This is the Yankees' 34th World Series, the 32nd on this site. ''The Cathedral of Baseball,'' as Atlanta pitcher John Smoltz called it.

''It is the Mecca, isn't it?'' said Braves shortstop Jeff Blauser. ''The epitome of American sports.''

Baseball's best stage

The World Series opener was washed out Saturday night, and the forecast is for continued clouds and cold. To some, this might seem an argument for moving the proceedings to a warm neutral site, or to some stadium enclosed from the elements.

Yet Yankee Stadium remains baseball's best stage, home to so much of its history and heroism. If a World Series here can not rekindle America's romance with baseball, it ought to be given up for dead.

''You talk about the World Series, you talk about New York,'' said Yankees pitcher David Weathers. ''You talk about legends. You're talking about Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Babe Ruth, and it seems like they're all Yankees.

''I don't care what anybody says, if you haven't played or seen a playoff game here, you haven't seen anything.''

The World Series last stopped at Yankee Stadium in 1981, at the end of the Reggie Jackson era, and it is entirely possible that this will be its last visit. George Steinbrenner's lease expires in 2002, and the Yankees' principal owner never tires of complaining about the dangers and decay of his neighborhood, the difficulties of access, and their impact on his turnstile count.

Despite occupying the largest market in America, and fielding a first-place team, the Yankees ranked 11th in home attendance among baseball's 28 teams during the regular season.

The numbers are slightly deceiving in that many Yankee fans prefer to pay for a cable television package that nets Steinbrenner $40 million per year. Still, the team would surely stand to make more money at a new stadium in Manhattan or New Jersey.

Future in doubt

Tradition is not the selling point it once was. Boston Garden is gone, and the Montreal Canadiens have fled the Forum. Sport's most famous facilities have become antiquated by the lure of luxury boxes and modern amenities. Yankee Stadium survives, but its future is as fuzzy as its past is proud.

''You look around and you see the history and the monuments, it's pretty amazing,'' said New York catcher Joe Girardi. ''You don't have that in any other ballpark . . . It's not that it takes a while to adjust to it. It's just kind of a thrill to play in this ballpark. It's a privilege.''

Braves manager Bobby Cox played two seasons for the Yankees in the late 1960s. He returns as the man in charge of baseball's World Champions, and he has seen a boyish excitement in his most seasoned players.

''It really means a lot to everyone,'' Cox said. ''Only a few of our guys have played here. I'd love to play the Series anywhere. But it's something special here.

''Baltimore has a beautiful ballpark, but I think it was pretty much unanimous that everybody really wanted to come to New York and play in Yankee Stadium.''

It is, after all, The Cathedral of Baseball, The House That Ruth Built, The World Series' home base.

''There are a lot of great halls,'' says Reggie Jackson, ''and then there's Carnegie Hall.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Oct. 20, 1996.