Piece of old Yankee Stadium worth preserving

Jeff Passan

The pictures circulating are grisly to New York Yankees fans, like shots from a crime scene that someone leaked illicitly. One, in particular, got to Richard Lillard. It was an image of the old Yankee Stadium with an enormous hole in its side that looked more to Lillard like a gaping wound.

"You keep hearing that they're going to tear it down," he said, "but it's been there for so long, you don't believe they're actually going to do it."

They are. The original Yankee Stadium being chopped up and sold in bits and pieces like a stolen car. And while that is the reality of commerce and the need to pay off debts from its newer, shinier model across the street, Lillard and a group of fellow advocates he met on the Internet are trying to do something to ensure that its lone remnant isn't akin to graffiti that says YANKEE STADIUM WAS HERE.

The group wants to preserve Gate 2 of the old stadium as an entry to the planned Heritage Park, which will include a baseball field and two softball fields once the demolition ends. Gate 2 was one of the least-adulterated parts of the stadium in its mid-'70s renovation, and its aesthetics remain: It's an imposing structure with stunning arches, the perfect gateway for fans to pay tribute to the past while looking across the street to witness the present.

The plan's beauty comes not just in its attempt to honor the stadium's history but in how it dovetails with the city's current strategy. Gate 2 would not cut into the park's green space. It would cost money to update, certainly, though not an unreasonable amount. And it would bring so much more than the hollow plaques that commemorate edifices that time forgets.

"It's all going to go away," said Mark Costello, who along with Lillard helped organize the group that aired its collective frustration on the Baseball Fever message board. "It's all going to go away, and we're going to wonder how we let it happen."

So they made a vow. They wouldn't let it happen without a fight. One poster, Richard Kaplan, used software to make three-dimensional renderings of the park with Gate 2 still standing. He added some of the famous frieze to the sides, for ornamental effect, and the visual is stunning.

The others try to spread the word. Lillard is a student at Arizona State; Costello a safety consultant from Long Island; Chris and Cindy Jones a married couple from Virginia. They all take the time because good memories yearn for a sensory attachment, and they can't stand the idea of 161st Street without a single artifact from the original Yankee Stadium.

That's the Parks and Recreation department's plan. The Gate 2 group has spoken with city workers in hopes they'll consider salvaging something, and the feedback has been positive. Only … well, this is the nation's biggest city, one that deals with more pressing matters than the preservation of a piece of a baseball stadium, no matter how important and culturally significant it may be, and on the list of priorities, it isn't high.

"We recognize that this is an 11th-hour effort," Costello said. "But if you look through history, often it's been one person or one group that's really made a difference. We think it's possible, and certainly worth the effort."

Eventually, Costello hopes, the group can get a sit-down with Yankees executives and explain to them the importance of preserving Gate 2. It may seem like nothing worth saving – just some concrete atop turnstiles. But the Yankees know better.

They are a great franchise in part because they recognize their history. They honor their stars in Monument Park and created a practical replica of their old building with the new one and treat their best living players like royalty. If any team should understand why Gate 2 needs to stand, it's the Yankees.

Either way, Heritage Park is coming, so old Yankee Stadium will not see the same fate as Hilltop Park (site of New York-Presbyterian Hospital) or Ebbets Field (apartments) or the Polo Grounds (first a parking lot, then apartments). It will be a place for families to gather and children to play and baseball to live on in the Bronx. Its spirit will remain. So should its body, in a small but consequential piece.

One that would look awfully good in pictures.