• Image about Tony Morante
Beth Perkins
Morante is a walking history lesson, flush with tales about nonbaseball events that were held at the stadium, like the 1958 NFL championship/so-called “Greatest Game Ever Played” between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts (“Unitas, what a leader”) and a post-9/11 memorial service on September 23, 2001, for the victims of the terrorist attacks of that year (“It just felt like the right place for everybody to be that day”). He commends President Bush for the right-down-the-middle ceremonial first pitch he threw at a World Series game a month later. “I remember thinking, ‘This might be the highlight of his presidency,’ ” Morante quips.

Mostly, though, Morante cherishes his memories of the people who have plied their trade between the first- and third-base lines. Entering the dingy, narrow tunnel that connects the home dugout with the clubhouse, he singles out Catfish Hunter, Lou Piniella, and Yogi Berra as his favorites from yesteryear. “Class acts,” he says, nodding his head.

Berra, for his part, shares a similar sense of awe, even after having called the stadium home for a sizable chunk of his adult life. He first saw Yankee Stadium while stationed in Groton, Connecticut, at the Naval Submarine Base New London during World War II. While on a pass, he visited his future workplace and was rendered “speechless,” he says. “It was huge compared with Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, where I grew up watching the Cardinals.”

That sense of awe is shared by just about every other player upon his first entry into the building. Longtime Yankee center fielder and broadcaster Bobby Murcer recalls “looking up at those massive tiers and the monuments in center field and the flagpole, and thinking ‘How am I ever going to catch a fly ball in this place?’ ” even as he was “hovering a foot and a half above the ground, because I couldn’t believe I was there.” Current Yankee Phil Hughes, coming off his rookie season, agrees. “It’s not easy to describe. You realize how many people have come before you and played on the same field. The crowd feels so much bigger and louder than anywhere else.”

For Morante, memories of Berra’s dynastic Yankee generation come pouring back every time he enters the clubhouse. Even devoid of players, it feels more alive than any other part of the building, owing perhaps to the still-full lockers. Phil Hughes has a Wiffle ball or two lying around, while Mariano Rivera’s elder-statesmen corner spot teems with what appears to be a season’s worth of aftershave. Morante moves by them briskly, settling in a back corner where Joe DiMaggio used to hold court.

“It was strictly business back then,” Morante recalls. “Joe would sit down, light up a Lucky Strike, and call out to [longtime clubhouse attendant Pete] Sheehy, ‘Hey, Pete, gimme a cup of Joe.’ Nobody got too close.” Things perked up years later with the arrival of Sparky Lyle. “There were shenanigans all over the place, really bad stuff,” Morante continues. When asked for specifics, he simply shakes his head and rolls his eyes.

The 2008 season promises to be a nostalgia fest at Yankee Stadium -- not to mention somewhat of a zoo, courtesy of the expected 4.3 million fans passing through the gates and the arrival of the All-Star Game for the first time since 1977. Morante, however, doesn’t seem inclined to wallow in memories of days gone by.

For one thing, he’s too busy: Even on this desolate December day, he expects 600 fans to show up for a tour of the ole ball yard (for those counting at home, that’s not too far behind the average number in attendance at a Florida Marlins home game). Also, he has already mourned Yankee Stadium once before, when its first iteration was given a major face-lift in the form of lights, new seats, and a lowering of the playing field during 1974 and 1975. “I had to go watch them play at Shea Stadium,” Morante says, his voice dripping with something akin to disgust.

Largely, he agrees with Berra, who says, “I will be sad when the stadium is torn down, but I’m sure the Yankee tradition will be built into the new one as well.” The team is taking several steps to that end, making plans for a museum and for the relocation of the current stadium’s Monument Park.

Morante won’t repeat a mistake he made right before the first renovation. For reasons he can’t recall, he was put in charge of dispensing with 6,000 seats. Even after giving a bunch to season-ticket holders, 2,000 remained -- only to be tossed away. It is not lost on him how much money those chairs would be worth today.

“I never forget, not for one minute, that I’ve been very, very privileged. I mean, I was in one of the ticker-tape parades,” he says, pausing for just an instant. “But, yeah, that still stings a little.” He lets out a big guffaw and then adds, “Come on, there’s still a lot more to see.”