NEW YORK -- The Yankees' buses rumbled up E. 161st Street, braving the potholes surrounding baseball's most recognizable residence. It's a Bronx route that anyone who has been around a pinstriped uniform grows to know intimately.

However, this trip to Yankee Stadium was a little bit different. That girl next door was winking invitingly, beckoning the players and coaches to inch up, press against the glass windows and watch their glimpse of the future roll by at 25 mph.

"These guys were all on the edge of their seats, saying, 'Look at this! It's almost done!'" Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "Just seeing their eyes open wide about -- 'Holy Cow, look at this thing and how far it's come' -- that's kind of neat to see them say, 'Oh my goodness.'"

The game's cathedral will reopen its gates to begin its glorious sendoff season beginning on Monday afternoon, but there is no mistaking the finite remainder.

A new digital board installed in right-center field at the Stadium is set to count off the remaining number of home games to be played. On Sunday, as the Yankees dashed around the diamond and renewed acquaintances, the digits "81" watched on from beyond the bleachers.

It is a number that will tick down as the 2008 All-Star Summer approaches, and then one the Yankees will try to reset in small increments for playoff series that have been the ballpark's staple. Those games, of course, are not guaranteed.

It's a change that still seems too far off in some minds to be realistic.

"People ask about the new stadium, and I can't picture us going over there," Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said. "I'm sure it'll probably set in during the end of the year, I think, as the number gets smaller."

Not that the current facility doesn't still get its share of rave reviews. Joba Chamberlain held a conversation with third-base coach Bobby Meacham on Sunday, touring the clubhouse and showing him who sat where in the 1980s. But it's the new site soaking up much of the cache.

"It's amazing to see how far they've come," Chamberlain said. "Probably if we needed to, we could play in it this year -- there'd just be no fans. It's going to be exciting to see how this year plays out and how everything happens."

Farewell Yankee Stadium

Cashman described how first-base coach Tony Pena, who hadn't seen the construction site since the Yankees left New York in October, was especially taken while the buses rolled by, eyeing the majestic exterior entrance already in place and crowing about how amazing it all looked.

The new stadium design evokes the original 1923 structure, including its tall vaulted arches, the frieze above the grandstand and the main Gate 4 entrance by home plate. Upon inspection on Sunday, some of the glass work that would greet sellout crowds has already been installed, as well as the two golden eagles neighboring the gold lettering of "Yankee Stadium."

The clock really is being turned back. Sitting on the blue padded bench in the dugout, about three great Alex Rodriguez pokes from the building site, Cashman reflected on the transition period, calling it "a great experience to be a part of."

"So many wonderful things have happened in this ballpark," Cashman said, "and at the same time, every day you look across the street at what's going on over there."

"It limits the sadness of closing this place down, because that place is going to be more old school than this place -- but with all the new amenities. I look forward to seeing that thing open more than I get sad about closing this one down."

In Cashman's words, the Yankees are "trying to rock the house here for one more season" -- a goal that begins on Monday, welcoming the Blue Jays to the Bronx for Games 81, 80 and 79 in the grand countdown.

"I'm proud to be a part of it," Johnny Damon said. "The longer I spend in pinstripes, it really makes you appreciate how great an organization this is and how they do everything first class. Hopefully, we can close out this stadium with the 27th world championship."

Jeter has said that his fondest memories of Yankee Stadium have come when the club celebrated World Series titles on the field -- 1996 and '99, both vs. Atlanta -- so there seems to be little sense in asking what the ideal sendoff would be.

For the purposes of opening up the ballpark's final season, though, braving a little chill is a small price for Jeter and his club.

"Opening Day every year is special, but this year, it'll probably be emotional, being the last Opening Day at Yankee Stadium," Jeter said. "I'm sure people will let it soak in a little more.

"I really don't know what to expect, but I'm sure you'll take a look around and try to remember as many things as you can. It's going to be a special year."