By RONALD BLUM
The Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — Derek Jeter climbed the mound, surrounded by his teammates, and began the final farewell. Microphone in hand, the New York captain addressed the 54,610 fans who came to say so long to Yankee Stadium, his words booming around the old ballpark where the voices of Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle had echoed years before.
"So take the memories from this stadium, add it to the new memories that come with the new Yankee Stadium and continue to pass them on from generation to generation," he said.
The winning tradition that began with a 4-1 victory over the Boston Red Sox on April 18, 1923, ended with a 7-3 triumph over the Baltimore Orioles on Sunday night. It was a bittersweet evening in which the Yankees staved off postseason elimination rather than add another title to their vast collection.
Next April 16 they open a $1.3 billion palace nearing completion across 161st Street, which also will be called Yankee Stadium. But it will not be the same.
With a yellowish moon rising beyond left-center, Mariano Rivera scooped dirt into a clear container, then took his family out to Monument Park 40 minutes after throwing the final pitch at 11:41 p.m. The grounds crew filled dozens of white buckets with infield dirt — multimillionaire players on both teams had knelt to scoop up the famous soil from the mound and home plate area, stuffing it into their pockets.
Fans stayed around for 45 minutes, not wanting to walk through the exits one last time. Frank Sinatra's recording of "New York, New York" was heard over and over. The organist played "Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight." Two dozen mounted police galloped onto the field. The one fan who ran on the field was quickly tackled.
At 4 a.m., Yankees staff and interns were still in the infield, running the bases, throwing each other grounders, drinking beer and digging up dirt.
Hours earlier, Johnny Damon and Jose Molina homered, two final long balls in the park where Ruth hit the first on opening day, a stadium that was baseball's biggest, brightest, grandest stage. The bat that Damon used and Molina's spikes were immediately given to the Hall of Fame.
Andy Pettitte, who along with Jeter helped the Yankees win four World Series titles, got the victory.
"This is going to be right up there as far as special nights," Pettitte said.
Appropriately enough, the final Yankees player to bat in the House that Ruth Built was Jeter, whose grounder to third ended the eighth. He was removed with two outs in the ninth, took the final curtain call and started thinking about what to say.
"I was scared to death. When I was younger I used to get really, really nervous when you have to do an oral report in front of 25 people, so I guess I've come a long way," he recalled later.
Before the game, his great predecessors were remembered during a 65-minute ceremony that included 21 retired players, six of them Hall of Famers.
"I feel like I'm losing an old friend," Reggie Jackson told the crowd.
Julia Ruth Stevens, 92-year-old daughter of the Babe, threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
"I'm very, very sad to think that the Yankee Stadium is not going to be in existence any longer," she said. "I wish it could have remained as a New York landmark, but I guess like all things it has come to its final days as we all do."
Fans were allowed on the field starting at 1 p.m. and entered through the left-field seats not far from where Aaron Boone's pennant-clinching home run landed five years ago.
Glenn Bartow and his 13-year-old daughter arrived more than 12 hours before the game began at 8:36 p.m., and were the first ones into Monument Park.
"We come every Sunday," Emily Bartow said.
Visitors touched the 24 plaques and six monuments, posed next to them for family photos. Under the kind of cloudless sky that made people recall summer days of yore, they slowly circled the warning track. Those who could not walk were pushed along in wheelchairs. Parents brought strollers to make sure toddlers got to experience the great ballpark before it is dismantled.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi went onto the field early to sign autographs. Mike Mussina and Alex Rodriguez posed for photos with rooters. Joba Chamberlain even took fans' cell phones and shouted messages to their family and friends.
Bernie Williams, back at the ballpark for the first time since the Yankees cut him two years ago, had his car circle the stadium one last time before he walked in.
"All the memories that I have here, I know that I'm going to have to keep them in my head because this place is not going to be any longer," Williams said. "There is a part of me that feels very sad about watching the stadium go."
Even Yogi Berra knew this was the end. One of the game's most beloved players stood beneath the stands in a full vintage uniform. Now 83, the man who coined the phrase "It ain't over till it's over" put his own stamp on the day.
"I'm sorry to see it over, I'll tell you that," Berra said.
Bob Sheppard, the 90-something public address announcer who started in 1951, read the opening welcome. He missed this season because of illness but recorded his greeting and the introduction of the Yankees starting lineup.
The 1922 American League pennant, the first to fly in the ballpark, was unfurled in the black batter's eye beyond center field. Young men and boys were introduced representing the opening-day lineup in 1923.
Then came the living Yankees who make the stadium a standard for excellence.
Willie Randolph slid into second base when he was announced. Fan favorite Paul O'Neill pointed to the Bleacher Creatures in right field. Williams received the longest ovation, which lasted nearly 2 minutes. Don Larsen, who threw a perfect game here in the 1956 World Series, scooped up soil from the pitcher's mound in a plastic cup, assisted by Whitey Ford.
"That's just priceless," Girardi said.
No mention was made of Roger Clemens, whose legacy has been clouded by accusations he used performance-enhancing drugs. George Steinbrenner, the team owner since 1973, did not attend.
Outside, the marquee that usually has the day's start time and opponent said: "Thanks for the Memories." In the seventh, a video was played of Sheppard reading a poem:
"Farewell old Yankee Stadium, farewell/What a wonderful story you can tell/DiMaggio, Mantle, Gehrig and Ruth/A baseball cathedral in truth/Farewell."
It was 1:05 a.m. by the time the grounds crew dug up home plate. The pitching rubber came up 10 minutes later. By then a picture of the Babe, winking, was on the video board.
"See You Across the Street!!" it said.