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Yanks, fans revere legend

Although few knew DiMaggio, tributes pile up at Yankees game for hero.

Peter Mastrobuono, 86, of Zephyrhills, pays his respects to Joe DiMaggio at the garden of Yankee greats outside Legends Field in Tampa on Monday. [AP photo: Kathy Willens]

By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 9, 1999


TAMPA -- Thousands stood as the tribute to Joe DiMaggio played on the Legends Field video scoreboard Monday night.

The clip was a simple montage of highlights set to a piano score. It was short on words, elegant in its simplicity. In other words, it was a perfect fit for the man it honored.

Statistics may measure the athlete, but they did not define the man, according to players and fans alike at Legends Field.

DiMaggio's legacy endured nearly a half-century after his retirement because of the grace with which he carried himself.

"He had a dignity and elegance about him that nobody can match in today's game. He was one of a kind," Yankees pitcher David Cone said. "He had more presence than anyone I've met. You knew when he was around because there was a buzz in the clubhouse. Joe D. you treated with reverence. There was a royalty about him. He was larger than life."

His passing was not unexpected, although that did not make the moment any less meaningful.

Small groups of fans began showing up at Legends Field at mid-morning, stopping at the monument of retired uniform numbers in front of the stadium.

Flowers began showing up in front of DiMaggio's plaque. Later, the Yankees placed a large painting of DiMaggio beside the plaque and a massive display of roses and lilies in front of it. Soon, Yankees batting helmets were laid out, too.

A woman from New Jersey brought her 11-year-old son and flowers to Legends. She said DiMaggio represented the essence of the game. A man from upstate New York said he used to go to Yankee Stadium as a child to see DiMaggio play. No one, he said, could match the Yankee Clipper as a complete ballplayer.

By the time New York players began arriving around 2:30 p.m., the uniforms in their lockers already had a black No. 5 sewn on the left sleeve. They will remain for the rest of the season.

None of the players had seen DiMaggio play. Indeed, most of their parents also missed his career. Yet they all knew his legacy as if it had been gently passed from generation to generation.

"There was a mystique about him, the way he carried himself on and off the field," shortstop Derek Jeter said. "You didn't have to be a Yankee fan to appreciate what he stood for, just a baseball fan."

DiMaggio visited Yankee Stadium once or twice a year, showing up for Opening Day or old-timers games or the post-season.

Players said they were thrilled to meet him but intimidated by his aura. Few, if any, ever asked for an autograph. Cone said he went to a collector to purchase a dozen balls autographed by DiMaggio, because he didn't want to bother the man himself.

"He definitely was one of the guys who was way above the game," outfielder Darryl Strawberry said. "Him and Mickey Mantle, you put them at the top as the guys you truly admired and recognized as great performers."

DiMaggio's death follows Mantle's by several years. They were Yankees centerfielders of succeeding generations, and their memories will live on for generations to come.

"It's sad," Yankees catcher Joe Girardi said. "A lot of great Yankees legends have passed on the last few years. You wish they could last forever, but God has a time for all of us."

 

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