Ruth & rituals

GERRY PRINCE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 10:55 AM ET

HAWTHORNE, New York -- As a wet, grey sky hangs over the rolling hills of Westchester County, a solitary figure contemplates the massive white headstone.

Oblivious to the interloper behind him, Morgan Parker surveys Babe Ruth's grave from one side, then the other.

The 29-year-old vehicle service manager from Clifton Park, New York, had already laid a New York Yankees mini-helmet on the monument.

Three twenty-five cent pieces, all placed heads up, are the next items offered up on this drizzly Saturday morning in late April.

"The Babe wore number 3 and it's my lucky number," explained Parker, nearing the end of his ritual 30-minute reflection period. "There's no significance to leaving quarters. I suppose I could leave pennies. The first time I came here, I left quarters and I've done it ever since."

Owned by the Catholic archdiocese of New York, the sprawling Gate of Heaven Cemetery has been a routine stop on Parker's 160-mile pilgrimage downstate to Yankee Stadium the last two years.

HANDWRITTEN NOTES

Hats, bats, balls, flags, ticket stubs, beer cans, newspaper clippings, coins, cigars, hotdogs, handwritten notes and slices of pizza are among the items left by those visiting the Babe's final resting place.

Following Boston's World Series victory, which vanquished the curse of the Bambino, articles branded with a Red Sox logo left at the site are a rare commodity.

Weathered newspapers or ticket stubs and items deemed "disrespectful" by cemetery staff are routinely removed from the gravesite, while souvenir hunters further prevent the grave from being inundated.

The 2003-'04 American League Championship Series between the Yanks and Boston triggered a steady stream of visitors to Section 25 and an avalanche of offerings.

Not even souvenir hounds could help stem the tide of less-than-desirable gifts to the Babe that October.

"This is a Catholic cemetery, and we do have to maintain a level of respect for the people here, as well as their families," offered Gate of Heaven assistant superintendent Bill Lane, recalling the seven-game New York-Red Sox series in '03. "Between the beer bottles and beer cans and hotdogs - we don't want that stuff on the graves. There was a constant policing and taking of that stuff off.

"It seemed like the more we took off, the more that was put back on. That got difficult. We want people to come and visit. It is a public place, but it's not a public park.

"You can come and visit. We would never send anybody away, but we also want people to respect what it is. He and his wife are buried there. This isn't Monument Park at Yankee Stadium."

WON'T HAZARD A GUESS

How many visitors the Sultan of Swat receives each baseball season can best be judged by the condition of the turf in front the marble monument.

Lane has never tracked the number of those visiting Ruth's burial site annually. Nor will he hazard a guess when asked for a ball-park figure.

On the day of Parker's visit, the sod between the roadway below and Ruth's gravesite already bears a striking resemblance to the base paths at Yankee Stadium.

By the time the pennant races are heating up, the ground will be bare.

"During the playoffs and World Series and the beginning of the season, there's a lot more people," offered Lane, who has been employed at the Gate of Heaven for 23 years.

"It's pretty much a continuously visited grave. This year we had to reseed everything and we didn't want to block it off because people still want to come visit.

"But to get the seed to take, we almost had to tape off an area so people can't walk on it. But we didn't do that. There's certain times when it's more visited.

"Throughout the two-week period the Yankees played the Red Sox in 2003, it was non-stop from morning to night. What made it even worse was there was more media coverage of it. People were just coming and coming and coming and it snowballed."

When it was over, the grass had been worn off a strip of turf eight to 10 feet wide and roughly 40 feet in length.

Three hours and a 25-mile drive south along the scenic Sprain Brook and Sawmill Parkways after depositing the mini-helmet and quarters on Ruth's monument, Parker would watch his beloved Yankees lose to the Texas Rangers.

The following morning he would visit the grave once more and leave a Yankees jersey. deemed to be bad luck, in a plastic bag. Parker's sacrifice would net the Bronx Bombers a win.

At the end of every visit, the introspective father of a two-and-a-half-year-old scoops up a piece of mulch or, small stone from atop the grave and takes it to Yankee Stadium.

In an equally ritualistic manner, Parker places it near the Babe's plaque in Monument Park.

"It makes a connection between the two," said Parker, who lionizes Ruth and regales daughter Brianna with bedtime stories of the Babe.

"I come here because he's my hero and I feel it's necessary to pay my respects to a baseball legend. I won't not come here.

''We're coming to 10 more ball games this year, so we've got four more weekends here and we're going to a couple more odd games. It's not a trip to Yankee Stadium unless you come to see the Babe."


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