Players not immune to Opening Day awe
Yankees past and present embrace the vaunted atmosphere
For pure pageantry, few events in professional sports compare with the symbolic value of an Opening Day at Yankee Stadium. Among those who have done it, the simple act of jogging to the first-base line wearing crisp white pinstripes can still raise a goosebump or two.
In the minds of Yankees greats, past and present, part of the allure has always been knowing that they could be standing in the same positions assumed by those sepia-toned greats of Cooperstown lore: Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra, Ford.
As the final Opening Day in the history of the current Yankee Stadium approaches on March 31, so, too, does the final time that players will trot to that treasured patch of real estate -- their voices clearly and concisely dispatched to thousands of sun-starved fanatics ready to shake off a winter of snow and ice and finally embrace some baseball.
It is, as former Yankee Tino Martinez says, a place like no other.
"I've been in a lot of great places and a lot of Opening Days, but Yankee Stadium is the Opening Day of baseball," Martinez said. "Baseball season begins when Yankee Stadium opens. That's what it feels like. When you get your name introduced and the fans are there and it's cold, it's just the greatest feeling in the world."
The revelry of an Opening Day is unmistakable. The unfurling of a large American flag in center field and a flyover by military aircraft are staples, as are a ceremonial first pitch -- paging Yogi? -- and a traditionally stirring rendition of the national anthem, as approved by George M. Steinbrenner, proudly born on the Fourth of July.
The Yankees brand lends itself well to patriotism. For Mariano Rivera, a player so meticulous that he carefully swirls each letter of each signature so as to preserve its legibility, the showcase is performed correctly.
"It is home," Rivera said. "You can't wait to go to Yankee Stadium and open up there. To me, it's the best place to play baseball. It's going to be electric. It's going to be, 'Wow.' I can't wait to see that."
As the Yankees enter a transition period in pursuit of a 27th World Series title, the ranks of those who can claim to be present during the raising of a championship banner are dwindling. Youth is in, and this March 31, a sizable amount of the roster will be experiencing the Opening Day theatrics for the first time.
Some may even be getting their first glimpse of the building itself, an experience that Yankee legend Ron Guidry never forgot.
"I had never realized how big it was, but the thing that struck me most was how beautiful it was," Guidry said of first setting eyes upon the facility that would eventually honor him with a Monument Park tribute. "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."
Players age and make the transition to retirement, but in the Bronx, they are scarcely forgotten. Guidry can attest to that, claiming that he felt the same excitement walking in to Yankee Stadium each Opening Day as a pitching coach as he did when the fans were chanting for some strikeouts from Louisiana Lightning.
The roles may change, but the jitters remain the same. Manager Joe Girardi has been exposed as a player, a coach and as a broadcaster for the team's YES Network.
Given those contrasting points of view, he still expects to feel something he never has as he leads his club into the regular season, prepared to attack Game 1 of 162 on the way to the goal he has adorned on his back -- No. 27.
"I just think of the anticipation of walking through that clubhouse door down the tunnel on to the field," Girardi said. "I remember what it was like as a player, and I think it's going to be equally as magnificent as a manager."
Even for players who have garnered acceptance elsewhere, wearing the "enemy" colors of other organizations, assimilating into the Yankees culture and winning over the public can be considered a triumph.
On Opening Day, the interlocking "NY" can instantly change a reception from boos to cheers, as Johnny Damon learned two years ago.
More than once, Damon has looked back on the early days of his career and wondered what might have been if he'd spent the 1990s as a Yankee. No matter. In his mind, discovering Yankee Stadium and New York late is better than never.
"It really is just a special place to play baseball," Damon said. "There is an electricity in the seats that you can really feel. There is a reason that people think about Yankee Stadium the way they do. To play for the Yankees in that building is something that I think everybody in here appreciates in their own way."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.