Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 5, 2012

Sunday Forecast In The Bronx: Hazy, Hot, And Heroes

A merciless sun, the only feature in a humid blue sky, beats down on the South Bronx. While there is the promise of cloud cover later in the afternoon, here in late morning on the hottest Sunday of the year, the only escape from the furnace is to retreat from the exposed seats in the bowl of the Stadium to the covered concourses. Yet the temperature does nothing to dissuade we fans from arriving early and, as soon as the ceremonies begin, rushing to our seats. For this day has been circled on our calendar since the season’s schedule was first announced. The 66th edition of Old Timer’s Day has arrived.

It begins with a voice from beyond the grave that never fails to bring a full Stadium to reverential silence. A recording of the late Bob Sheppard, the Yankees’ public address announcer for more than five decades, blares out over the Stadium speakers. “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen….and welcome….to Old Timer’s Day,” intones the stately and deliberate baritone that Reggie Jackson likened to the voice of god. The sudden silence engendered by the sound of the familiar voice is followed by a rush of applause and cheers; even as the recording continues with Sheppard’s introduction of the co-emcees of this event every year, the team’s radio and television voices, WCBS’s John Sterling and the Yes Network’s Michael Kay.

Though the program is the same every year, for a devoted Yankees fan it never grows old. The principal order of business is the introduction of the former players who have returned to 161st Street and River Avenue to once again bask in the acclaim of the fans. They run the gamut from role players to Hall of Famer’s, from lifelong Yankees to those who wore the pinstripes only briefly. Yet as they take turns making the introductions, Sterling and Kay are able to find true highlights in the New York career of each player.

They do so with Charlie Hayes, one of the first to come out of the dugout and onto the sun-drenched infield. A living definition of “journeyman,” Hayes had a career batting average of just .262 while playing for eight different teams, including two stints each with the Giants, Phillies, and Yankees, during fourteen years as a major league third baseman. Traded from Pittsburgh for his second turn in pinstripes late in the 1996 season, Hayes was added to the post-season roster despite appearing in just twenty regular season games for the Yankees. So it was that he was playing third base in the 9th inning of Game 6 of the World Series when, with two out, Atlanta’s Mark Lemke lifted a popup into foul ground. Hayes drifted to his right and squeezed his glove around the ball, setting off a wild celebration as the Yankees ended their longest drought between championships. It also marked the beginning of the team’s most recent dynasty, as manager Joe Torre led the club to four championships in five years. It may have been a routine play that an itinerant third baseman executed countless times in his career; but on this day, as the video of the moment plays on the big screen in center field and Hayes jogs out to take his place along the foul line, the catch by Hayes is the stuff of legend.

One by one they come, generations of our heroes, as Sterling and Kay recount a story for each of them. Some are as obscure as Hayes, but these are the Yankees, and most of the stories are immediately recognizable, so cheers and applause repeatedly drown out the announcers. Here is 82-year old Don Larsen, more than five decades removed from the only perfect game in World Series history. Here is Bobby Richardson, the bantam second baseman from the Yankees of my childhood. Roy White and Joe Pepitone are present, veterans of the years in the 1960’s and early 1970’s when the team did well to finish at .500. “Louisiana Lightning” is introduced to a sustained ovation; Ron Guidry, whose 25-3 record, 1.73 ERA and nine shutouts in 1978 remains one of the most dominating seasons by any pitcher in the Game’s modern era. Then come the beloved veterans of the more recent past, Bernie Williams, Paul O’Neil, and Tino Martinez, cornerstones of the championship teams of the Torre years. Next comes Torre himself, and we are all on our feet and cheering the manager who took our team to the post-season twelve years in a row.

With nearly fifty former Yankees lining the first and third base paths, three oversized golf carts enter the field through a gate in the center field wall and proceed slowly along the warning track. They carry former Yankees who are also members of the Hall of Fame. All are greeted loudly and warmly, but the greatest ovation of the day is reserved for the two octogenarians in the last cart. They need no introduction; they do not even need last names. It’s Yogi and Whitey, legends of the game and living symbols of the glory and the greatness that is the permanent legacy of the interlocking N-Y. They are frail now, Yogi especially so; but the adoration of the fans and of all the other Yankees past and present put smiles on their lined faces and color in their weathered cheeks.

Now as always a group of Yankees widows are introduced, and the names of all members of the Yankees’ family who have passed away in the last twelve months are read. There is a video tribute to the recently departed Moose Skowron, who played for both the champion Yankees and the lowly expansion Washington Senators, the other team I cheered on as a child. Before the moment can grow maudlin, there is a call for one last round of applause for all the old timers, and the field is cleared so that the younger former Yankees can amuse us with a quick three inning exhibition. Amuse is the operative word, for there are certainly pratfalls and comic moments, products of aging bodies and expanding waistlines. But there is also Mickey Rivers hitting a sharp single and then racing on to second, reminding us that he was once Mick the Quick; and there is Rickey Henderson making a fine running catch in center field. Even as the game concludes, memories abound.

The current Yankees still have a game to play, and they will honor their elders and please us in the stands by stifling the White Sox 4-2. Phil Hughes surrenders two runs in the 1st, but then settles down to pitch eight strong innings, striking out eight while allowing just six hits, and only three after his 1st inning adventure. Eric Chavez hits a two-run homer in the 2nd to tie the game, and Robinson Cano matches that with a blast in the 3rd to complete the scoring. When Rafael Soriano fans Alexei Ramirez on three pitches for the final out, another Old Timer’s Day comes to a close.

It is the only such annual celebration left in the majors; and it is a grand day, but it is of course also thoroughly self-aggrandizing. It honors the past even while smugly reminding every other franchise that this team has a far greater past to honor than does any other. In short, Old Timer’s Day in the Bronx is the quintessential symbol of the New York Yankees.

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Responses

  1. Great piece on America’s pastime for the Fourth of July. Yankee fan or not, how can it not bring back childhood memories if you’re from New England? I always thought Guidry was kinda like one of my team’s aces, Koufax—both, like the jazz great, Charlie Parker, greased the pan, lit the fire, and then cooked.


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