Last innings for Yankee Stadium

'The House That Ruth Built,' closing at the end of the season, hosts the All-Star Game on Tuesday.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When the players take the diamond for baseball's 79th All-Star Game on Tuesday, the talk is more likely to be about the venue – Yankee Stadium – than the game itself.

This is the last season for the stadium, the playground for some of the game's most colorful personalities – Casey Stengel, Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio, and, of course, Babe Ruth. Only a line drive away from the current stadium, the Yankees are building a $1 billion stadium with more corporate suites, more retail space, and probably higher ticket prices.

Yet the old stadium – complete with a haven of manicured green grass, high-decibel fans, and its Monument Park to remember past Yankee greats – holds a special place for the national pastime. That's in large part because, like Fenway Park in Boston and Wrigley Field in Chicago, it dates back to the first part of the 20th century, when baseball became an important part of the national psyche. The Yankees have 26 World Series championships, the most for any team.

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"Love them or hate them, everyone wants to visit Yankee Stadium at least once," says Rick Eckstein, a sports stadium expert and a professor at Villanova University in suburban Philadelphia.

The stadium has also been important for the Bronx, the only city borough on the mainland.

"It put us on the world stage, really," says Adolfo Carrion Jr., Bronx Borough president. "Everyone knew this was a magical team from New York in the Bronx."

Of course, not all the memories are sweet. In the 1970s, arsonists burned down buildings that landlords owed taxes on. The torching came to America's attention during the 1977 World Series when sportscaster Howard Cosell, watching the image of a five-alarm fire, said, "There it is, ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning."

The moment prompted a book and an ESPN miniseries. Ironically, the last All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium was in 1977.

The Yankees themselves haven't always wanted to be in the Bronx. They threatened to move to New Jersey in the 1990s. Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor who was often seen sporting a Yankees cap, wanted to move them to Manhattan's West Side.

"But we kept them here," says Fernando Ferrer, former Bronx Borough president. "I said, 'No chance they are moving to New Jersey.' "

At the new stadium, the Yankees are trying to upgrade some of the Bronx experience. They have announced that the Hard Rock Cafe will be one of the restaurants there.

"When you're bringing in a big name like that, it gives the Bronx a new image," says Lenny Caro, president of the Bronx Chamber of Commerce. "It helps because, mentally, people still see 1977 when the Bronx was burning."

The Bronx hasn't done much better in the eyes of Hollywood producers. In 1981, Paul Newman starred in the movie "Fort Apache the Bronx," a tale of crime, corruption, and a police station that seemed under siege.

Those national images still haunt some residents. Anna Vincenty, who likes to travel, often suggests that people visit her in the Bronx. But she says they reply, "Fort Apache, Fort Apache."

Ms. Vincenty, assistant director at Nos Quedamos, a housing and health advocacy group, answers, "We don't live in Fort Apache."

Indeed, her organization (whose name in English means "We're remaining") has battled for funds to rebuild the neighborhood. Today, she gives visitors from around the world tours of the attractive multifamily housing units. "We have a lot of pride in the Bronx," she says. "We're no longer a blight on the world."

City officials are hoping to use the All-Star Game to further change perceptions. They're organizing to take tourists from Manhattan in historic trolley buses to see the neighborhoods around the stadium. Music buffs can see the birthplace of hip-hop with a tour led by Grandmaster Caz, a pioneer of the genre.

The city hopes that the new Yankee Stadium, which looks fairly similar to the old one, will help to provide economic stimulus. "It's an important anchor, an important base," says Robert Lieber, deputy mayor for economic development for the city.

According to the city, since 2002 an ongoing South Bronx Initiative has resulted in about $1.5 billion in new investment.

The Bronx Terminal Market, which used to be an eyesore, is now being rebuilt as the Bronx Gateway, a $300 million retail center with Home Depot, BJ's Wholesale Club, and Target. Scores of new small-scale residential buildings are also rising.

Even though Yankee Stadium attracts 4 million visitors a season, stadium experts such as Mr. Eckstein say it does not do much for economic development. "Instead, people come, visit, and leave," he says.

But on Tuesday night, the focus will be all baseball. During the game, there are bound to be vignettes of great moments in the stadium. It might be the only thing anyone remembers from the evening, Eckstein says: "Other than that, I don't think anyone will remember a single thing. [All-Star Games] are usually not very memorable."

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