The Babe would approve of house he didn't build

The Babe would probably recognize the new house, and not just because it's across the street from the one he built. Give him a bat and he'd feel right at home swatting a few toward the short right-field porch as an elevated train rumbled by in the gap between the bleacher seats.

The Babe would also delight in the amenities, though he would surely be puzzled by the swim spa in the lavish clubhouse and the laptop computers in front of every locker. No need to wolf down hot dogs in the dugout when there's a deli just a few steps away and porterhouse cuts sizzling on the grill at a steak joint.

Indeed, there's a lot to like about the soaring edifice that officially opens for business Thursday, but the best thing about the new Yankee Stadium may be that it remains in the Bronx. The Babe would like that, too, because the Yankees made memories there since the day in April 1923 when he christened The House That Ruth Built with one, big swat.

It was there that Lou Gehrig told the nation he was the luckiest man on Earth, and where Don Larsen was perfect on the biggest stage of his life. It was home base for DiMaggio's hitting streak, and the place where Ruth set the home run record that was supposed to last forever, but fell to Roger Maris.

The original Yankee Stadium lived for 85 years and still had plenty of life left in it when they started dreaming up ways to build its successor. A remodeling in the mid-1970s stripped away some of its charm, but it was plenty functional and probably could have lasted another 85 years if it weren't for the need of the Steinbrenner family to make even more money off the most prized franchise in American sports.

Like most owners, they went hat in hand to local politicians to get them to fund a good chunk of the deal with government-backed bonds that lowered interest payments and infrastructure improvements. Like most owners, they used the new palace to jack up ticket prices to levels that seemed staggering even before the economy collapsed and it became unfashionable to gouge.

But, really, what's $2,625 a ticket when the seat comes padded and all the hot dogs are free? Take the subway to the stadium and a family of four could take in a weekday game against the Royals for under $11,000, assuming they don't buy too many Yankees caps.

"I think if anybody in any business had known where this economy was going to go, they would have done things differently," Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner said recently. "Look, there's no doubt small amounts of our tickets might be overpriced."

That won't stop fans from filling every one of the 52,325 seats (down from more than 57,000 in the previous stadium) for the opener against the Indians. And while the average ticket will run $72.97, according to the Team Marketing Report survey, some will be able to attend for little more than the cost of a soda if they don't mind bleacher seats with only a partial view of the field.

They will be a part of history in a stadium that has a chance to become every bit as iconic as the original if only because New York is New York and the Yankees are the Yankees. Like its predecessor, the stadium soars as an outsized monument to the game and the hallowed names who once ran onto the field in pinstripes.

It helps that the stadium has borrowed from the past, from the replica of the frieze lining the original ballpark's roof to the monuments that will now be behind the center-field wall. And the Babe would certainly appreciate that his giant likeness joins that of other famous Yankees towering above fans in the stadium's Great Hall.

The similarities don't end there. Both stadiums were built during swelling economic bubbles driven by Wall Street greed and fraud, both were the most expensive of their times, and both were constructed to make statements as well as money.

And what a statement the old stadium made.

No one had ever seen anything like the original ballpark when it opened on a beautiful April day 86 years ago at a cost of $2.5 million. Accounts of the day said 74,200 people managed to pack their way into the stadium, another 25,000 were turned away. The New York Times called it the skyscraper of stadiums and said people in the third deck set altitude records for spectators.

The Babe said he would sacrifice a year of his life if he could hit one out in the first game. He did, a three-run shot off a slow ball by Howard Ehmke in the third inning that led to a 4-1 Yankees win over the Boston Red Sox. Fans were so excited that they swarmed from the grandstands and surrounded him in the outfield late in the game, forcing it to be interrupted so the field could be cleared.

Moments that followed over the next eight decades will forever be a part of Yankee lore, but there wasn't a big outpouring of sentimentality about losing the place. That's partly because so much of its character was altered when the city renovated it in the '70s, and partly because fans had simply tired of cramped seats, crowded hallways and overflowing bathrooms.

The new park takes care of all that. The seats are comfortable, toilets are everywhere, and the concourses are filled with so many varieties of food that the Babe would surely have a perpetual stomach ache if he were still around. The place even gets a perfect mark for handicapped seating, which wasn't in play when the original stadium opened.

Fans who attended the opening exhibition game against the Chicago Cubs liked the fact that the field looked much like the original, there was still a short porch in right, and the monuments to past greats were still intact. They liked the nostalgic Yankees pictures that lined the halls, and the feel that while everything had changed, a lot remained the same.

What's missing? No amusement rides past the outfield fence. No trees in the bullpens. No mascots dancing on the dugout.

More importantly, no naming rights. Yankee Stadium will always be Yankee Stadium, or so we can only hope.

It opens Thursday on what is supposed to be a sunny spring day in New York.

Fans will dig deeper into their pockets to pay for tickets, but they will come because, even if this isn't the house the Babe built, it is a mighty fine replacement as the house the Boss built.

They will come with rich memories of the past, but with a longing to cherish moments born in the new palace. With a price tag of $1.5 billion, there better be plenty of them.

The old stadium was the cathedral of baseball, a magical place that spawned heroes and stars. The new one has a long way to go to live up to that, a task that seems impossible today even by Ruthian standards.

Still, you have to think the Babe would have approved.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org

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