Yanks bring 'October' to home opener
Jackson honored to throw out first pitch during ceremony
NEW YORK -- Perhaps it was that Tuesday's rain turned Opening Day into Opening Night or that there was no pennant of any kind to rise aloft or that Bob Sheppard's voice was absent, but the first day of the last season of Yankee Stadium was relatively subdued before the Yankees and the Blue Jays finally got the 2008 season started.
Few places in baseball handle ceremony better than the ritualistic-loving Yankees, who are bidding farewell to "The House That Ruth Built" after 85 years, the last 32 following a renovation. Across 161st Street, a brand new Yankee Stadium is under construction. A crowd anxious to get the regular season under way after a day and a half of waiting were accommodated by the Yankees' tasteful and brief pregame ceremony.
Reggie Jackson, accompanied to the mound by fellow Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, got the fans to their feet by throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. "Mr. October," seldom in awe of his surroundings, was moved by the moment. His eyes were still moist as he spoke after the ceremony.
"While I'm sad and will shed a tear when it's gone," Jackson said of the old Stadium's eventual passing, "I'll remember this warmly."
Jackson's shining moment at the Stadium, of course, was Game 6 of the 1977 World Series when he hit three home runs off three pitches from three pitchers to complete the Yankees' first championship season in 15 years.
"That night was special, I had family here, my father was in the crowd," Jackson said. "I also remember the day the Yankees retired my uniform number , and my daughter [Kimberley] walked me out to the field. That was very emotional. This moment was like that. I'll keep the ball and hat and jacket in a special place at home."
Jackson, who wore a blue suit and black fedora to the Stadium, changed into a Yankees warmup jacket and cap before taking the field.
"I wanted Yogi there with me, that's why I asked him," Jackson said. "When he asked me why I wanted him, I said, 'Because you know the way.' As we were walking to the mound, Yogi said, 'Don't get too close to the dirt, because you might not be able to get the ball all the way home.' I was nervous. I wondered where the ball would go. A little 'Mr. October' took over."
The April 1 opener was the earliest a game had been played at Yankee Stadium. The first March game in Stadium history was to have been Monday, but it was postponed due to rain. It was raining steadily enough before Tuesday night's game that the tarpaulin was put on the infield. That eliminated on-field batting practice, thereby removing one of the most popular elements for fans, particularly for the first game.
The field was wet, but in excellent condition. Above the line score on the scoreboard was the logo for the All-Star Game, which will be at the Stadium this year. Also on the board was a sign for counting down games with the number 81 that was to click to 80 after the final out.
For the first time since 1951 -- the last year Joe DiMaggio played for the Yankees -- Sheppard did not announce the Opening Day lineups. Sheppard is recovering from a severe bout of laryngitis and hopes to be back by midsummer. Jim Hall, his long-time backup, handled the pinch-hitting duties with a similar sense of reverence.
Yankees fans gave the loudest cheers to shortstop Derek Jeter and relief pitchers Mariano Rivera and Joba Chamberlain, the latter already a folk hero after only one month in pinstripes. Another relative newcomer, first baseman Shelley Duncan, was also well-received, as were pitchers Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes, catcher Jorge Posada, third baseman Alex Rodriguez and new manager Joe Girardi.
Watching from the owner's box was a Steinbrenner -- Hank, not George, who remained in his office. The younger Steinbrenner was able to take in the opener after flying to New York from Tampa earlier in the day.
Prior to the ceremonial first pitch, the West Point Cadet Color Guard presented the colors, and 40 cadets from up the Hudson River unfurled a giant American flag in center field. After Stadium organist Ed Alstrom performed "O, Canada," Patrick Henshaw, soloist of the United States Military Academy Glee Club, sang the national anthem. He hit one sour note, which amused the crowd, but finished strongly.
The rest was up to Reggie. He may have seemed an odd choice for the assignment, but Jackson's five seasons with the Yankees began the year after the renovated Stadium was opened.
"When the Yankees do a ceremony, there is usually some kind of connection," Jackson said.
Asked if he felt he was the greatest living Yankee, Jackson said, "I see Yogi and Whitey [Ford] as tied. And there's Don Mattingly and now Goose [Gossage] is in the Hall of Fame. I'm in that group."
Jackson would like to add one more -- George Steinbrenner.
"I realize that I'm prejudiced, but as much as he has done for the game he's a Hall of Famer in my mind," Jackson said. "I'll be lobbying for the Boss to get in."
Jack O'Connell is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.