Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 23, 2013

Yankees Honor The Past, But Could Use It Now

The recording of the familiar baritone echoes across the Stadium with its stately greeting, “Good morning, Yankee fans.” From beyond the grave it is the voice of Bob Sheppard, the Yankees’ public address announcer for more than half a century, welcoming all of us in attendance to our team’s annual rite of remembrance. For the 67th time the Yankees are celebrating Old-Timers’ Day. The clock has not yet struck noon and an early summer sun hangs directly overhead, baking the seats and every fan sitting in one. The regular game against division rival Tampa is still more than two hours away. Yet a very large crowd is already on hand. Old-Timers’ Day is an event that many fans add to their schedule each season as soon as the date is announced.

It is at once both grand and self-aggrandizing; a chance to honor the storied history of the team with the most championships in sport and an exercise in self-congratulatory excess. It is also the only such event staged on a regular basis among all the teams in the majors. That has always struck me as a bit sad; for while no other team can boast of 27 championships, there are plenty of franchises with history and former players worth celebrating. But in the end each team must proceed in its own fashion; for the Yankees, it wouldn’t be a summer without Old-Timers’ Day.

The ritual is as constant as the distance between the bases. John Sterling and Michael Kay, the radio and television voices of the team, serve as co-hosts. From a lectern set up behind home plate, they take turns introducing nearly fifty former Yankees who have come back to the Bronx on this Sunday. Sterling and Kay extol the pinstriped exploits of every retired player they introduce. In truth of course, some of those who emerge from the Yankees dugout to jog, or walk, or shuffle out to take their place along the baselines were little more than bit players in the long story of the Bronx Bombers. But on this day the contributions of each are recalled with relish, and we in the stands salute our returning heroes warmly.

There are those who show up every year, some who come intermittently, and several who are making their first appearance at Old-Timers’ Day. Of the latter group the loudest ovation is reserved for pitcher Orlando Hernandez. “El Duque,” the tall right-hander with his signature high leg kick, defected from Cuba on Christmas Day 1997. He was a key member of the starting rotation when the Yankees won three consecutive titles in 1998, 1999 and 2000. Through those three postseason runs Hernandez posted an 8-1 record with an ERA of 2.23. Today, the roars from the assembled thousands let him know that his efforts will always be remembered.

Paul O’Neill and Bernie Williams, outfielders whose hitting and defense also contributed mightily to that period of New York dominance, are also singled out for acclaim. But it is fitting that the loudest ovations are saved until the end, when the last remaining links to another era in this team’s long and proud history are introduced. Brought in on golf carts from a gate in the center field fence, here are Don Larsen and Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra. Larsen remains the only man to throw a perfect game in the postseason. Ford’s .690 winning percentage remains the highest in the modern era among pitchers with 300 or more decisions. And Berra is forever the quintessential New York Yankee, his ten championship rings a record that will surely never be matched.

The echoing roars slowly fade, and the annual exhibition game among the Old-Timers begins. Limited in duration only by the imperative of allowing the Stadium grounds crew time to ready the diamond for the game that counts, this year the contests goes four and one-half innings. El Duque, Ron Guidry, David Cone, David Wells and others all take the mound. As they do so one need but squint just a bit to picture other afternoons at the old Stadium across the street. At the plate O’Neill sends a hard line drive to right that nearly clears the wall as we in the stands scream our approval. Not to be outdone, Williams slaps a single to center. Then it is the turn of an older generation to display a bit of game. He was the MVP of the 1978 World Series, in which he hit .417. But Bucky Dent, or Bucky F’n Dent as he is still known in Boston, is best remembered for the single swing of his bat at Fenway Park that propelled the Yankees into that postseason. Now 61, he is still able to make a brisk move to his left, corral a grounder, and begin an inning-ending double play.

As the ceremonial part of the long day at the Stadium draws to a close, we fans turn our attention to the game that counts, the finale of a four-game set against the Rays. Riddled by injuries since training camp, the Yankees have relied on journeymen and castoffs from other teams throughout a season that now approaches its midpoint. Against all odds that approach worked handsomely for a time. But of late the odds have called the Yankees to account, and bats that were so improbably hot in April have turned stone cold. Veteran outfielder Vernon Wells carried the Yankees in the season’s first month. Entering the Tampa series he was hitting .107 in June. As a team New York led the league in home runs early on. By this weekend only three AL squads had a lower team slugging percentage.

On this afternoon, the hot sun finally slips behind the Stadium’s façade and a cooling breeze freshens, but the Yankees’ hitting woes continue. After plating six runs Friday night and seven Saturday afternoon, New York manages but a single tally against a starting pitcher who began the game with an ERA over 5.00. The enigmatic Ivan Nova pitches well for the Yankees, but takes the loss when consecutive bullpen moves by manager Joe Girardi in the 7th inning both backfire.

We fans make our way down the Stadium’s ramps and stairways and out onto Babe Ruth Plaza, knowing that the 3-1 defeat means our team has won but four of its last twelve games. With the return of most of the regulars still measured in weeks rather than days, concern about a season slipping away cannot help but grow. Yet despite that concern by the time play concludes on Sunday the difference between first and last place in the hotly competitive AL East is all of five games. With those standings and a bit more than half of the longest season still remaining to be played, a single move by GM Brian Cashman could make all the difference. Perhaps he need not even look far afield. After all, there was that drive by Paul O’Neill, who still looked to be in very good shape. And Bernie Williams never did officially retire. Old-Timers to the rescue!


  1. Father Time has caught up to them, but, as you point out, the season is far from over. Look for a big move or two at the trade deadline, if the Yanks are still within five games of first place.
    Another fine post,

    • Thanks Bill. Given Hal Steinbrenner’s insistence on sticking to a budget, I’m not sure they’ll make any moves this year; but we shall see. The highlight of Friday night and Sunday afternoon at the Stadium was watching the new call-up Zoilo Almonte. Not a particularly touted prospect, but since Vernon Wells was hitting 0 for June, why not give the kid a chance? In his first four games he went 7 for 12, and got a curtain call for his first major league home run Friday night. Always fun stuff!

      Thanks again, Mike

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