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RALLYING POINT <br> WHEN THE YANKEES RETURN TO NEW YORK CITY FOR THEIR WORLD SERIES GAME AGAINST ARIZONA TONIGHT, THEY WILL GIVE THE CITY A MUCH-NEEDED BOOST

A city desperate for diversion will get some tonight when the World Series returns to Yankee Stadium.

Although the 78-year-old shrine on 161st Street and River Avenue in the Bronx has staged some of the great moments in baseball history, it has rarely seen the kind of emotion displayed during the last seven weeks.

Since the Sept. 11 attack that destroyed the World Trade Center and covered lower Manhattan in a cloud of ash, the stadium has become one of the biggest gathering spots for New Yorkers.

More than 20,000 attended a memorial service there a few days after the attack. And all 56,000 seats have been filled for each of the Yankees' first six postseason bashes, producing a decibel level far above past Octobers.

To avid Yankees fans like Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, the team's bid for a fourth straight World Series title has provided a tremendous rallying point for the city.

"We need this at this point in our history," Giuliani said last week. "The Yankees are a bunch of winners, and we want to show the world what New Yorkers are made of."

"The World Series in New York City is going to be a fantastic thing," said Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Curt Schilling, who beat the Yankees in Game One on Saturday night in Phoenix. "But we know only for what it's worth as a game. You're not going to erase memories. You're not going to erase the anguish and the pain that's gone on for the last five or six weeks."

That pain lingers. Tourists and curiosity-seekers still line the sidewalks of West Broadway nine and 10 deep near the crumpled, smoldering remains at ground zero. Smoke still rises from the site, and the stench remains strong. On a cool, windy day like Monday afternoon, the smell is overpowering as
you climb the steps from the Wall Street subway station, just a block away.

The 24-hour-a-day work going on there won't be far from anyone's mind tonight. President Bush, known in baseball circles as the former owner of the Texas Rangers, has announced he will attend the game. "The Star Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America" will be performed by the son of New York's fire commissioner and a New York police officer, respectively.

With Bush in the house, the tightest security ever seen at a professional sporting event is expected for Game Three of the series between the Yankees and Diamondbacks, who won the first two games over the weekend in Phoenix. More than 1,000 police officers are expected to be on hand.

Last week, the New York Bomb Squad, Hazardous Materials Team and K-9 Corps were all stationed outside the stadium for the American League Championship Series. So were 3-foot-high blue concrete barricades.

Asked their purpose, one police officer termed them "additional security measures." He then added, "That's all I'm saying, but you can say what they're for."

They're to prevent suicide car bombers.

Reporters covering the first two games at Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix were subject to security measures never seen in baseball. All computer and photography equipment was checked at the gate, and reporters were allowed access to the stadium only by showing photo identification in addition to their media credential.

Outside the stadium, bomb-sniffing dogs were at work, manhole covers were welded shut (something never done in Phoenix except for presidential visits), and streets adjacent to the ballpark were closed to vehicular traffic.

Inside, fans saw military helicopters hovering overhead and keeping watch as a no-fly zone was established for all commercial aircraft. Reporters trying to access clubhouses for postgame interviews again had to show ID and had their names and media affiliations logged.

It's likely to be more of the same in New York. To accommodate the unprecedented security, stadium gates will open for fans at 5 p.m. -- more than three hours before the first pitch and an hour earlier than normal. Fans are being asked to take subways and buses rather than drive, because cars heading into parking ramps adjacent to the ballpark are expected to be searched. SUVs and minivans won't be allowed in the ramps.

Fans are also not allowed to bring any kind of containers into the ballpark. Businessmen have to leave attache cases at their offices if they're coming from work.

Reporters, who normally come to Series games three to four before the first pitch to work on early-edition stories and attend pregame news conferences, are expected to start showing up five to six hours early tonight.

And to add to the heady atmosphere, the Yankees-Diamondbacks game won't be the only supercharged event in New York tonight. At Madison Square Garden in midtown Manhattan, Michael Jordan makes his return to the NBA from a three-year retirement as the Washington Wizards meet the New York Knicks in the opening game of the regular season. "Michael Jordan is just flat-out electric, so it's really going to be an exciting night," said Yankees manager Joe Torre. "You can just feel it in the city. There's so much to do in normal times. And especially since Sept. 11, it's nice to see people getting enthusiastic again about the entertainment portion of what's going on out there."

The fans' passion for the 2001 Yankees has been fueled in part by the fact it didn't look like the team would even get to this point. When the Yankees lost the first two games of their best-of-five opening-round series at home against Oakland, it looked like their run was history. But New York persevered to win both games at Oakland and came home for the decisive Game Five.

The stadium was wild that night as the Yankees became the first team ever to win a five-game series after losing the first two at home.

"The crowd in that Game Five was louder than I have ever heard it in my six years here, no question," Torre said. "There are a lot of things wrapped up there. It was the fact that we came back from down 0-2, but mostly the city I think just needing to run somewhere and scream."

It was more of the same against Seattle. Longtime observers were stunned to see the supports holding the screen behind home plate vibrating from all the noise.

Reporters in the main press box on the loge level behind home plate even felt the booth, which is suspended from the underside of the upper deck, vibrating as fans celebrated a home run by rookie second baseman Alfonso Soriano in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game Four.

"The fans of New York are, without a doubt, the most passionate, obsessive, obnoxious, loyal, demeaning, vulgar, loving fans on the face on the earth," Schilling said. "They are on you from the minute everything starts, and it's an atmosphere you have to cherish as a player. They are going to make you remember this for the rest of your life."

Pregame ceremonies should also be memorable. Look for Challenger the Bald Eagle to swoop into the stadium at the end of the national anthem. It will be performed by Max Von Essen, the son of New York City Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen. "God Bless America" will be performed during the seventh-inning stretch by Officer Daniel Rodriguez of the NYPD.

Von Essen and Rodriguez have both received prolonged ovations after performing at games earlier this month; opera star Placido Domingo has been so taken by Rodriguez that he's been giving the cop voice lessons.

"It's pretty incredible to be in Yankee Stadium with the configuration of the ballpark where everybody is pretty much on top of you," Torre said. "You just feel the energy. Especially the last three games we have played there, it has been incredible. It's a special place."

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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