Matsui steals show as Yanks get rings

With a gray sky overhead, they stepped to a blue table between the mound and home plate. There, Joe Girardi, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford handed each Yankees player a 2009 World Series ring.

The current Yankees were introduced in descending order based on uniform number, which -- not by accident -- made it so the last current Yankee announced was the captain, No. 2, Derek Jeter.

But the loudest cheer was not for any player in pinstripes.

Following the chants of, "Derek Jeter! Derek Jeter! Derek Jeter!", No. 55, wearing an Angels hat, jogged out from the road dugout. The crowd exploded, "MVP! MVP! MVP!" The Yankees, lined up between first and second, ran behind the mound. They looked as if they were greeting an old friend at a high school reunion.

Hideki Matsui received the honor of going last and hearing the loudest ovation.

"I really don't know what to expect," Matsui had said two hours earlier.

What he got was a final thank you note for seven years that started with a home grand slam and ended with a World Series MVP.

Finally, all the players dispersed and there were just two left on the field, embracing -- the captain and the MVP. The two basked one last time in what happened last season.

"He has been one of my favorite teammates I ever played with," Jeter said.

The ceremony wasn't just about Matsui. It was, to the Yankees, a long-overdue celebration after a ringless near-decade. They received hand-crafted rings of a natural-finished white gold. The top includes a Yankee-blue stone accented by a diamond-clustered "NY" logo rising from a diamond-lined baseball path. On the side is a picture of Yankee Stadium with the words "Tradition" and "Unity." The Yankee Stadium inaugural season logo is etched inside the ring.

The rings were distributed from a table with the world championship trophy resting on it. In the home on-deck circle, Michael Kay and John Sterling, the Yankees' lead TV and radio play-by-play voices, respectively, emceed the event from a wooden podium with an interlocking "NY" engraved on its front.

Sterling began the ceremony by welcoming Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Steinbrenner attended with his wife but was not on the field and was not shown on the huge video board in center field. Sterling then noted how the 26 flags that line the top of Yankee Stadium are now joined by a 2009 flag at the edge of the frieze in left field.

Kay introduced Ford and Berra before Girardi approached the table.

The first team employee to receive his ring was longtime trainer Gene Monahan, who is not with the team this year due to illness. He exchanged an emotional hug with Girardi. The first player to receive his ring was Andy Pettitte before warming up, and then the rest of the Yankees were introduced.

The cheers for the players ranged from loud to louder to loudest. Sergio Mitre and Jerry Hairston Jr. received nice ovations. Damaso Marte and Phil Hughes got hearty applause, too, but the loudest, besides Matsui's, was for Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Alex Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, who Girardi predicted might levitate during the ceremony, had a big smile at the dugout steps. He picked up his ring from Girardi and doffed his hat as he joined the line of teammates between first and second.

As all the players stepped up to the podium, Berra, Ford and Girardi looked like a double-play combination, relaying the jewelry boxes to each other before handing out the rings. When they gave Jeter his, it was like one legend to the next.

"We get spoiled here," Jeter said. "We have all the Yankee legends coming in and out of our clubhouse, almost on a daily basis."

The ring is something nearly all Yankees legends own. It isn't an item they necessarily wear, but it does make the cheers last forever. There are few players -- like Don Mattingly -- who can overcome a championshipless career and still be an iconic Bronx figure. What Girardi, Ford and Berra handed out were not only expensive pieces of jewelry, but also lifetime passes for Yankee Stadium cheers.

Andrew Marchand covers baseball for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.