Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 30, 2011

Sports Winningest Family Has Its Annual Reunion

Last Sunday in the Bronx, on the north side of 161st Street, it was time once again for the annual family reunion. For the 65th time they came, All-Stars and role players, winners of multiple championships and players from the lean years, Hall of Famers and those who were always happy just to have the chance to play. On a warm and sunny afternoon, it was once again Old-Timers’ Day at the Stadium.

There is nothing else quite like it in the Great Game, certainly nothing that occurs with its annual regularity. But then there is no other franchise with quite the history to celebrate as the Yankees. Forty times they have represented the American League in the World Series. Twenty-seven of those times they have emerged as champions. So every year they come, on a mid-season Sunday, to remember and be remembered, to honor and be honored.

The script is always the same, though no less enjoyable for that fact. Dressed once again in their noble pinstripes, they gather around the batting cage for warm-ups. The hair may be grayer and the waists thicker, but the old numbers on their backs and the still-familiar visages make them instantly recognizable to the fans who pour into the grand new park a couple of hours earlier than usual. Those that want to take a turn at the plate, while others are content to renew old acquaintances and once again share the oft told war stories of seasons and exploits past.

When the formal ceremonies are about to begin, the big crowd in the stands is momentarily stunned into silence. From the loudspeakers comes that familiar baritone, speaking as always in a slow and stately cadence. A recording of the late Bob Sheppard, the Yankees’ public address announcer for more than half a century, intones “Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen; and welcome to Old-Timers’ Day.” The first of what will become an uncountable number of roars washes down onto the field.

The current New York radio and television play-by-play announcers, John Sterling and Michael Kay, as always serve as joint emcees. One by one each of the former players is introduced, with Sterling and Kay reminding fans of each individual’s contributions to all of the history that has been made on both sides of 161st Street. On the massive screen in center field video clips of each player in action are shown even as the aging heroes jog, or walk, or shuffle out to line the first and third base lines.

Each is greeted with cheers of course, but inevitably there are some for whom special ovations are reserved. The 81-year old Don Larsen is the first to be so greeted. A majority of those in the stands were not even born when Larsen achieved perfection in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series; but all know that it remains a unique event. Reggie Jackson, Mister October of another era is likewise showered with adulation. The final two former players introduced are the “Chairman of the Board,” the Hall of Fame left hander Whitey Ford, and his long-time battery mate Yogi Berra. No former Yankee is as respected as Whitey; none is more loved than Yogi. The applause for each feels like it might not stop.

But as is often the case at Old-Timers’ Day, it is some first-time participants who receive the loudest and longest greetings. This year three such “rookies” stand out. First there is Lou Piniella, finally able to come back to the Stadium for this event after ending his long managerial career. Sweet Lou roamed left field for eleven years as a Yankee player, and added stints as hitting coach, manager and general manager after his playing days ended.

Then there is the classy center fielder Bernie Williams, still not officially retired. Williams and team management became estranged when general manager Brian Cashman refused to offer the then 38-year old a guaranteed contract prior to the 2007 season. But the passage of time can heal many wounds, and on this day Bernie returns. Surely the decibel level of the ovation reminds both he and Cashman just how much Williams was always loved by the Yankees’ faithful.

Yet at this Old-Timers’ Day the longest and loudest cheers are reserved for a 70-year old first-time participant whose playing career included not a single game in pinstripes. But in twelve years as their manager, Joe Torre led his team to the playoffs every season. In half of those years October featured World Series games in the Bronx. Four of those Series added to New York’s long list of championships. Like Williams, Torre’s departure from New York was mishandled by management. Like Piniella, he has now ended his managing career and is thus not otherwise engaged on this summer Sunday. Almost his entire introduction is lost in the sea of sound coming from the throats of more than 46,000 standing fans. As the ovation continues, Torre stands near home plate, turning to each part of the park, patting his heart in an expression of the mutual love that is on display.

With the introductions complete, the fans are reminded that this event honors not just those who once played the game. A special ceremony salutes Gene Monahan, the Yankees head trainer who has announced that he is retiring at the end of the season after 49 years with the team.

Then at last it is time for the game, a chance for those who wish to once more take the field or stride to the plate at the Stadium they once called home. The quick exhibition usually goes a couple of innings and is generally good for a few laughs, but on this day it produces genuine cheers. In the top of the first Bernie Williams delights the crowd with a fine running catch of a drive to center. Then in the bottom of the inning he lines a shot to the base of the fence in left, easily gliding into second with a double. Then Tino Martinez, the much-admired first baseman on the four Yankee championship teams of the Torre era drills an offering from David Cone into the right field seats for a rare Old-Timer’s Game home run.

Now at last the grounds crew must ready the field for the day’s scheduled real game, between New York and visiting Colorado. As the retired players leave the field, the current members of the franchise can be seen in the dugout. Many have been there throughout the ceremonies and the exhibition game, making the most of this opportunity to mingle with generations of greatness. For the current players Old-Timers’ Day is both a pleasant reminder that one day they too will be invited to return home and be honored, and a stark display of the history that fans not only expect, but demand, they continue. It is in equal parts elegant and arrogant, as moving as it is self-congratulatory. It is in short, the quintessence of the New York Yankees.

Advertisements

Responses

  1. Well played. Your writing is superb–precise, with a unique touch of sports humanism.

    BK

    I know I’m totally delinquent on the golf front, what with the B Hill membership and all—-kinda crazy summer so far, with few opportunities–keep thinking we’ll do a Sunday morning soon.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: