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Tony Morante's connection to Yankee Stadium not to mention its bases, fences, and ropes goes back further than that of most sportswriters, or even any of the resident team's owners. Greeting a tour group at the press gate, Morante launches into a Stadium history that extends over a quarter-century. As the director of the Stadium tours and the dispenser of its lore, Morante speaks reverently of the ballpark's grounds, inner sanctums, and many legends.
But for all his loyalty to the Big Ballyard and the Yankee organization, it is Morante's overriding devotion to his home borough the Bronx, where he has spent his entire life that comforts him when talk of the Yankees leaving the Stadium inevitably arises.
Morante began coming to Yankee Stadium in 1948 at the age of six, accompanying his father, who moonlighted for 40 years as an usher, and whose uniform is now in Cooperstown. At 16 Morante became an usher as well, eventually working his way up to group sales, which he helped turn into a million-dollar venture. In 1979, with the encouragement of Gary Hermalyn, executive director of the Bronx Historical Society, "and with a bit of my own braggadocio," Morante designed the Stadium tour, which is now a Yankee institution.
Morante walks his group toward the ballpark and takes them back to another time and place. "It's April 18, 1923, and 'Stars and Stripes Forever' is playing. Along with John Philip Sousa's marching band two others are on the field. Governor Alfred Smith, Mayor Vincent O'Dwyer, and other dignitaries are looking on," he says as the group stands straighter. Morante has his audience's rapt attention now. He then re-creates a picture of the Stadium's original appearance, right down to the type of cement, which was invented by Thomas Edison.
The group then heads to Monument Park, beyond center field, where the commemorative plaques, retired numbers, and marble headstones form a virtual museum. It's a place of worship for fans who pay homage to Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, DiMaggio, Scooter, and Reggie. Joltin' Joe's monument receives a moment of silence. Morante gently corrects those who mistakenly believe the legends are actually buried under their tombstone-like monuments.
The monument area is a treasure trove of trivia: three ex-Cardinals Pope Paul VI, John Paul II, and Roger Maris have plaques there. Roger Clemens, in a ritual he started when he played for Boston, wipes some of his own sweat on Babe Ruth's monument before each start. And former Red Sox outfielder Jimmy Piersall sought shade there during pitching changes in the 1950s.
Each morning, after tea and fruit and a three-mile walk on the Pelham Parkway, Morante drives through Belmont to the Stadium. Each afternoon he returns to the old neighborhood for lunch at one of the Italian restaurants where he is always greeted with, "We haven't seen you in so long, Tony."
Morante recently returned to Mt. Carmel Church on 187th Street, erected six years before Yankee Stadium was built. "Places I took for granted in my youth I am giving back to," says Morante, who converted to community service after a near-fatal car accident in 1974. He has since spent time arranging for players to visit Bronx schools and hospitals, promoting the Belmont Theater, and serving as a member of Community School Board 11. While giving tours of the New York Botanical Gardens he met his future wife, Marcia. Their wedding party was at Mario's on Arthur Avenue.
"This is precious," says Morante, holding up David Cone's uniform in the home clubhouse. He explains the evolution of the uniform down to the pinstripes and interlocking "NY" insignia, which was adopted in 1877 from a Medal of Honor for the first New York City police officer shot in the line of duty.
One locker in the clubhouse has not been used since August 2, 1979. It belonged to beloved team captain Thurman Munson and remains untouched. As he moves through the lockers, Morante tries to give equal mention to all the Yankees. But the teenage girls, who need reminding who number 3 was, are adamant about seeing where number 2, Derek Jeter, puts on his uniform. On the way out the group passes Ramiro Mendoza's long johns, "El Duque" 's family photos, and Bernie Williams's classical guitar.
If Morante feels as though time at Yankee Stadium is running out, he doesn't show it. He lives in the richness of memories and he shares them with his eager listeners. "I preach these tours because this is the greatest cathedral of outdoor professional sports. You have to think the Yankees will be here forever and you are going to do your best to make this the best tour of its kind. I have to do 100 percent to educate the public on the history of this stadium."
It is Morante's good friend Lloyd Ultan who suggests the Bronx has taken its lumps during the controversy over the Stadium. Says the Bronx historian and Fairleigh Dickinson professor, "The images of the Bronx burning never came from the vicinity of Yankee Stadium. The area called the South Bronx has been rebuilt with single-, two-, and three-family homes and now has more home ownership than colonial times." The buildings erected near the Stadium in the '20s and '30s have changed little, says Ultan. "The only difference is that instead of Jewish families they are Hispanic families with the same values."
Consistent home crowds of near 50,000 do little to support the misconception that bothers Ultan that the location of the stadium discourages attendance. This year, attendance has already shot past the 2.5 million mark. "I fully expect by October well over 3 million people will have come to Yankee Stadium," says Ultan.
On the way to the dugout, adults become wide-eyed kids recalling Mantle's towering home runs. Kids with mouthfuls of statistics impressively recall the '96 and '98 world championships. Morante's own recollections include the Mantle home run on May 22, 1963, that came within 18 inches of leaving the Stadium, and the Giants' win over the Colts in sudden death in the first televised professional football game on December 28, 1958. As a baseball devotee, a writer for Yankeesmagazine, and columnist for the Bronx Times Reporter, Morante is a compendium of baseball lore.
From inside the dugout, the slopes of the infield obscure the third base line. Morante points out where in 1961 the "suicide squad" he was a part of would escort Mickey Mantle off the grounds before the crowds got to him. Rushing to second base after the ninth inning, Morante would assist the frequently injured hero to the clubhouse. "Do you know what it's like to help protect your boyhood idol?" he says to his rapt listeners.
Remarkably, Morante doesn't see George Steinbrenner as Nero, fiddling while Rome burns. If the Yankees abandon the Stadium, it will leave an open wound that no amount of luxury boxes could possibly heal. For Morante, the possibility means that the sentimental journey he takes with his visitors is becoming more urgent each passing day. "I personally don't want to see it happen; there is a part of me here. The Stadium is in my heart, but it will have been a good run."
After a visit to the press box the last stop is at loge level. Morante points toward Coogan's Bluff at 155th Street over the Macomb's Dam Bridge, where the Polo Grounds once stood. The sight is an eerie one, and one wonders whether someday such a group will be standing in a different Yankee ballpark, looking to where this group now lingers. Maybe there will be a dry cleaner, a bodega, or a Yankee Stadium housing project.
Throughout the tour, the group hears about the professional boxing cards, Pro Football games, NASL soccer events, and Negro League contests that have made the Stadium the "Outdoor Mecca of Sports." But Morante's closing remarks are about the Yankees. He quotes writer Donald Honig: "There is only one team in professional sports that sustained an image so long, resisting the caprices of time, and that team became a legend that team is the New York Yankees." A team, it is hoped, that will keep resisting at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx for a long time to come.