Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 26, 2014

The Old-Timers Come Out To Play

It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon in the Bronx on this, the first official weekend of summer. The Yankees have a game to play later this afternoon, a divisional tilt against former New York manager Buck Showalter’s Orioles. It’s one of a pair of contests I’ll see during this, my third trip of the season down from New England to the ballpark set hard against the elevated tracks of the number 4 train. But while every game is important, this visit is about much more than seeing firsthand two more of the longest season’s matchups. Two and a half hours before game time I am in my seat, as are thousands of others in all three decks. Already The Stadium is well over half full. Our collective early arrival can mean only one thing, confirmed just now by the recording of the familiar baritone echoing across the field. From beyond the grave the stately voice of Bob Sheppard, the team’s public address announcer for more than half a century, announces the start of the ceremonies. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen; and welcome to Old-Timers’ Day.”

The Yankees are scarcely alone in honoring former players. Every franchise has some sort of Hall of Fame, as well as a display of retired uniform numbers somewhere in their ballpark. There are perhaps as many different criteria for recognizing the greats of another age as there are teams. Outside Miller Park in Milwaukee, near the statues of Hank Aaron and Robin Yount, the Brewers’ Walk of Fame commemorates heroes from both the Braves and Brewers eras. A committee of roughly 100 media members and team officials vote each year on potential additions, with rigid criteria for both eligibility and election. The frequent election of multiple former Milwaukee stars stands in contrast to the practice in Philadelphia, where the Phillies add just one plaque per year to their Wall of Fame at Citizens Bank Park.

In the Bronx permanent recognition in Monument Park out beyond the center field fence is doled out intermittently. Those in the pantheon of pinstriped greats have the stone blocks that give the area its name. Ruth and Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle, manager Miller Huggins and most recently owner George Steinbrenner. Others receive plaques set in twin rows along the back wall of the outdoor museum. And of course the most fortunate are those whose retired numbers line the low wall running the length of Monument Park. In August former manager Joe Torre will receive a plaque and see his number 6 added to that row, bringing to 18 the numerals that will never again be worn on the back of a Yankees jersey. With Derek Jeter’s number 2 certain to follow in time, current left fielder Brett Gardner, who wears number 11, has the distinction of being the current owner of the lowest uniform number ever again available to an active member of the team.

On this Old-Timers’ weekend two more plaques will be unveiled. Saturday it was Tino Martinez who basked in the roars of appreciation cascading down from the stands. Martinez arrived in New York by trade from Seattle prior to the 1996 season, and was the successor to Don Mattingly at first base. He was one of the linchpins of the Torre-led dynasty that won four titles in five years, twice stroking memorable World Series home runs that caused the old house on the other side of 161st Street to shake.

Today it will be Goose Gossage’s turn. One of the pioneers of the closer role, Gossage overwhelmed opposing batters with a 100 mile an hour fastball. In a time when pitching roles were not as sharply defined as they are now, he would often throw two or even three innings of relief. While he played with nine different teams during a career that spanned more than two decades, his one championship came in New York in 1978; and when Gossage was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2008 the cap on his Cooperstown plaque bore an interlocking N-Y.

But what is unique about this team and its Old-Timers’ Day, the 68th edition of which now gets underway with the introduction of almost 50 former Yankees, is that we fans have the opportunity to honor everyone who has ever worn pinstripes. One by one they come onto the field to line the base paths as their exploits are recalled by John Sterling and Michael Kay, the Yankees’ radio and television announcers. Even those who were never more than bit players are greeted with enthusiasm and warmth. The more recognizable are welcomed with prolonged ovations, including one for Showalter, who steps out of the visiting dugout to acknowledge the applause.  On any other day the Orioles manager would be booed, but this is Old-Timers’ Day.  The longest and loudest cheers are reserved for first time participants Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui. Finally there are the touchstones to another era, introduced to an outpouring of appreciation and respect. Here is Larsen, of the perfect game. Here is Whitey, the Chairman of the Board. Here at last is Yogi, owner of ten rings, the most beloved Yankee of them all.

Then we in the stands are treated as always to a few innings of action between those Old-Timers who choose to show that they can still swing the bat and catch the ball. There are a few pratfalls as always, but there are also plenty of reasons to cheer. There is a fine running grab by Mickey Rivers in center field, Mick the Quick bringing back memories of other catches made on a dead run. There is Damon, in his second at bat of the four inning contest, ripping a drive to right that misses going out by inches, bouncing off the very top of the outfield wall. But the biggest roar from the stands is reserved for Jessie Barfield, who played in the Bronx at the very end of his career. At age 54 Barfield stands in and sends the first pitch he sees sailing into the left field seats for an improbable Old-Timer home run. David Cone serves up the dinger, and jokes afterwards that all his fellow Old-Timers will want him to pitch from now on.

At last it is time for the grounds crew to get the field ready for the real contest, and to one last prolonged ovation, those who are living reminders of the history and heritage of our franchise leave the field. It is a day filled with its share of self-congratulation and conceit, without question. But perhaps 27 championships allow for some of that. Whether or not that’s the case, it’s also a day filled with warm memories and grand tradition. Once again Old-Timers’ Day in the Bronx serves to remind that irrespective of the sport, when a fan gives his heart to a team he does so not for a series or a season, but for the long haul; through years both rich and lean. During the former we celebrate. During the latter we peek around the corner of the calendar, certain that next year will surely bring our long-deserved return to glory.

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