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09/22/08 12:20 AM ET

Girardi is moved by final moments

Yankees manager closes door on Stadium's legacy

NEW YORK -- Joe Girardi starts talking about saying goodbye to Yankee Stadium and has to fight off tears.

And this is from a person who grew up a devoted Chicago Cubs fan and never set foot on Yankee Stadium turf until he put on the famed pinstripes as a player in 1996.

Four hours before the final game there on Sunday night and Girardi sinks down in the deep cushion of an over-sized leather chair in his office. He's as tense as if this is the seventh game of the World Series.

"It feels like the seventh game of a World Series," the crew cut Yankees manager says. "You always have to win a seventh game. We have to win this seventh game."

Girardi's Yankees prevailed, taking down the Orioles, 7-3, and putting a bookend victory on 85-years of baseball.

The first game at Yankee Stadium was played April 18, 1923. Miller Huggins was the Yanks' manager, and Babe Ruth hit the first home run. Jose Molina, whose two-run blast gave the Yankees a 5-3 lead in the fourth, hit the last home run.

Now, Girardi, in his first year at the Yankees' helm, goes down in history at the other end of the stadium's legacy.

He insists he never ever thought about becoming the manager of the Yankees in their final game at the Stadium.

"It didn't even dawn on me when I was interviewing for the job," says Girardi. "At no point in my life did I ever think about it. It doesn't really become the last game until you get close. You never think that that point is going to get here."

A few feet outside his door, his players, who probably won't be playing October baseball for the first time since 1993, are in various stages of dress and undress, preparing for their historic game.

"I've had an extremely blessed career," Girardi says. "I got to play for my boyhood dream team, the Chicago Cubs. But when I look at my favorite times as a player it was here [1996-1999]. Not only the championships, but what we went through as a group -- all the adversity."

Girardi feels the importance of Sunday night's finale really hadn't sunk in until the countdown began several weeks ago.

"Then it began to hit me," he says. "I started thinking about all the games and people who've played here. There have been boxing matches, big football games."

Farewell Yankee Stadium

Girardi, who took over for the legendary Joe Torre, brought his son and daughter to the ballpark over the weekend and let them soak in the nostalgia of the moment.

"It may be years before they understand the importance of all this," he says.

A few days ago, Girardi, hours before a game, went to the area in the batter's box behind home plate and collected some dirt. Small portions of it have been placed in small jars -- a meaningful collector's item from that last year at Yankee Stadium.

"Somebody asked me if I wanted some from anyplace else, and I told him no," says Girardi. "That's the only place I ever played [catcher]. Home plate is special to me; I have a couple of them [home plates] from games I've caught. I wanted the dirt, and it's going to go in the kids' rooms and I'll give some to friends."

Only days ago, Girardi saw a clip of his run-scoring triple off Atlanta's Greg Maddux in Game 6 of the 1996 World Series on TV.

"That was the best game of my life," Girardi says. "To be on a World Series winner. ... Maddux made a mistake -- he doesn't usually make those kind of mistakes, but I jumped on it. Yes, it was a big hit for me."

Girardi can close his eyes and see the celebration begin after the final out in the '96 World Series.

"And I was on the bottom of the pile," he says. "And as great as it was to be celebrating, there was a point when I got scared -- on the bottom of that pile."

Yankee Stadium became important his first year after he was obtained from Colorado during the offseason. He caught Dwight Gooden's no-hitter on May 14, 1996. The Yankees re-energized his career. He batted .294 and played in 124 games.

And Sunday night, Girardi thought it was important that Andy Pettitte, who was such an integral part of Torre's championship teams, start this historic game.

"Andy was raised in this organization, went through the Minor Leagues and pitched in so many big games here," says Girardi. "This is not a playoff game, but probably one of the biggest games he'll ever pitch at Yankee Stadium."

When Pettitte fanned Ramon Hernandez in the second inning, it was strikeout No. 2,000 for the left-hander.

And when he was replaced in the sixth inning after giving up a leadoff single to Baltimore's Adam Jones, the sellout crowd of 54,610 gave him a standing ovation, chanting "Andy Pettitte, Andy Pettitte, Andy Pettitte."

That's what Girardi hoped for. Pettitte was leading, 5-3, when he left.

"When I look around and think of all the history, all the great players and events that have been here I get a tear in my eyes," Girardi repeats. "I look at the different areas of the stadium."

Pausing, he adds: "Think about what has happened here in 85 years. When you have the papal visits and Notre Dame playing here, I understand why they call it a Cathedral."

And then, during an inspiring 65-minute ceremony that lasted almost until the first pitch, the crowd was reminded of the stadium's great history. Living legends were introduced with video clips and then took the field. Some were represented posthumously by family members.

The ceremonial first pitch was delivered by Babe Ruth's daughter, 92-year-old Julia Ruth Stevens.

Next year, baseball will be played at the new $1.3 billion Yankee Stadium across 161st Street.

But it won't be the same.

"I don't think you can ever replace this place," says Girardi. "You can equal it as time goes on, but it's going to take a long time. There are zero memories over there."

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.