NEW YORK -- The crowd spilled out of Gate 6 and snaked around Babe Ruth Plaza, excitedly waiting for its chance to enter Yankee Stadium more than four hours before game time. And on the other side of that gate, a stealth welcoming party sat, ready to embrace more members of the Yankees Universe.
The winningest team in baseball held a first-time event for its fan club on Tuesday, a chance for the most devoted of the New York faithful to make themselves at home at Yankee Stadium. Hundreds of fans came out for the day, supporting a good cause and cinching their own unforgettable experience.
A team of Yankees dignitaries -- including general manager Brian Cashman and broadcasters Suzyn Waldman and John Flaherty -- was on hand to greet fans upon their entrance, signing autographs and sharing a brief moment of conversation. Fan after fan left the line smiling and energized by the interaction.
"Everyone in the Yankee organization has been so friendly, from Brian Cashman to some of the other executives," said Rob Eisele of White Plains, N.Y. "The players have been really friendly, and so have the stadium personnel. I grew up as a Yankee fan. I grew up in the Bronx, and it's great to share it with my son."
And that, in and of itself, is basically the best response the Yankees could've imagined.
"To think that we've never done this before and to have people respond with such amazing excitement and energy [is gratifying]," said Debbie Tymon, the team's senior vice president of marketing. "I think they didn't know what to expect, so when they walk into the stadium and they see who's sitting at that table, they're thrilled. It's also a promotion day, so they're all going to get a Yankees T-shirt courtesy of Supercuts. You can't beat the whole experience. And it really is just a bonus event, a thank you for being part of the Yankees Universe."
Perhaps the best part of the trip was the intimacy of the moment, a chance for the average fan to walk through normally busy Yankee Stadium at a leisurely pace. And for the Yankees, it was a milestone in their rebranding of their fan club, which has existed in various incarnations over the past few decades.
"The Yankees have always had a fan club, and for many years, it was just a fan club for kids," said Tymon. "And then it became a fan club for fans of all ages. A couple of years ago, because of our relationship with Memorial Sloan-Kettering, we created the Yankees Universe T-shirt, and a percentage of the sale of every shirt goes to Memorial Sloan-Kettering. We started developing a fan club around the Yankees Universe T-shirt initiative, and then in 2011, we migrated the membership of the other fan club into the Yankees Universe.
"What we found from our fans is they were looking for something unique. They wanted to be part of a group, and they wanted to belong to something and have a unique identity as a Yankee fan. But they also wanted a stadium experience. This is the very first time that there's been an event like this."
The Yankees Universe has four different tiers of membership, starting with Explorer and working the way up through Rookie and Champion to MVP. The two highest tiers included two tickets to a game -- in addition to other amenities -- and the opportunity to attend one of four early entrances to the stadium.
Early, in this case, meant the opportunity to walk into the stadium at 2:30 p.m. ET, which would allow the fans to take a secluded tour of Monument Park or watch the home team take batting practice. The gates usually open to the public at 5 p.m., right when the Yankees are winding down and ceding the field to the visiting team.
One family -- Eric and Alex Oberman of Rockland County -- took the opportunity for all it was worth.
"I've been here for a tour, but I've never been here this early for any kind of event. You feel like you have the stadium to yourself," said the elder Oberman. "We've never experienced anything like this before. I said, 'I've never gone to Yankees' batting practice. I've always seen the other team.' Being allowed to be in the stadium early and being able to meet all the great Yankee legends just made the experience even greater."
"We're never here early enough. It's always closed by the time we get out here," added Barry Bayarin of New Jersey, who attended Monument Park with his daughter, Alana. "We're waiting for batting practice at 4. Hopefully, we'll catch a ball or maybe a ball will fall near us and we can just pick it up."
Yankees Universe was relaunched in March, and Tymon said that one of the main goals is for the team to make the experience "multigenerational" for its fans. The Yankees have also made an effort to accomodate veterans by installing a military discount package that can be found at yankees.com.
The three other event nights will take place on Aug. 23, Aug. 24 and Sept. 6.
It's important, said Tymon, to give fans something tangible that they can hold on to outside of a yearbook or a T-shirt or a ticket stub. Yankees Universe, simply put, is an effort to incorporate the fans into the same sphere as the players, to give them a chance to be a part of the team they follow so fervently.
"You can put it out and let it flounder or you can really get interested, get to know your members, why they joined and what's of value to them," said Tymon. "I think parents really have the membership for their children. It's their fan club and their goody pack, but I think there's value for all levels."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.