Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 21, 2015

A Search For Heroes Finds A Sports Family

Not long ago Bill Miller, author of the highly recommended The On Deck Circle blog, asked me to identify my favorite Yankee of all time. I didn’t answer at the time, not because I was being impolite; though it occurs to me now that Bill may have understandably thought differently. Rather the question is not as simple as it seems, and its difficulty is not for the obvious reason one might assume. Given their long history of success the Bronx Bombers have produced a pantheon of heroes, more than enough to fill Monument Park out beyond the center field wall at the Stadium. Is it Mantle or Berra, Mattingly or Jeter, Ford or Mussina or Rivera? That’s not to mention the many immortals who played before my time.

But on this score a long-time Yankee fan is no different from anyone who has pledged his sporting heart to a single team over many years. Every franchise in every league has its stars whose names are familiar to followers of other teams and sometimes, if their shine is sufficiently bright, even to those who care little about the sport in question. But the loyal fan also knows of the hard work and accomplishments of those in the supporting cast, and inevitably develops attachments to them as well.

Growing up my first sports idol was Mickey Mantle, or, as the excited announcer in a decades old recording that is played at some point during every game at the Stadium puts it, “The Great! Number 7!” But even while thrilling to the exploits of Mickey and Yogi and Whitey, I developed special admiration for the Yankees middle infield combination of the late 50s and early 60s. Second baseman Bobby Richardson and shortstop Tony Kubek had matching career batting averages of just .266, hardly the stuff of Cooperstown. But Richardson saved the 1962 World Series by snaring a hot liner off the bat of Willie McCovey in Game 7. He won five consecutive Gold Glove Awards from 1961 to 1965. It was 45 years before another Yankee second baseman won the award. Kubek was the AL Rookie of the Year in 1957, a 4-time All Star, and set the team record for doubles in a season by a shortstop that stood until a kid named Jeter came along.

So it’s been over the decades. The facts that Catfish Hunter’s career was moving into its latter stages and that he was often injured during his time with the Yankees made him no less appealing to me than the bright lights of Reggie and Thurman. Don Mattingly was the face of the never quite good enough Yankee clubs of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, but I will always have a soft spot for the resilient pitcher Dave Righetti, who pitched a no-hitter as a starter one season and helped create the new role of closer the next. The Core Four defined the most recent New York dynasty, but who couldn’t also admire the fluid grace of center fielder Bernie Williams? For that matter while of course devoted to each of Jeter, Rivera, Posada and Pettitte, my personal favorite was the left-handed starting pitcher. In that role Andy Pettitte’s contributions came no more frequently than once every five days, but no player ever displayed such grit and determination.

The complexity of Bill’s question was on my mind over a weekend spent in the Bronx, watching the 2015 Yankees win three straight. My club blew open tight games against the Marlins and Tigers in the later innings Thursday and Friday night, then trounced Detroit with an early barrage Saturday evening. But on this trip the real story wasn’t about the final score of the three contests. Alex Rodriguez, a player still loved by some but loathed by many around baseball, began Thursday’s game with 2,997 career hits. Playing almost exclusively as the designated hitter this year after serving out his PEDs-related full season suspension in 2014, A-Rod at the plate has given the Yankees more than they could have hoped for so far.

With two men on in the bottom of the 1st, Rodriguez sent a slider from Marlins’ pitcher Mat Latos back up the middle to score Brett Gardner. Four innings later he grounded another Latos offering through the left side of the infield for another single. The two hits moved him to the threshold of joining 28 other players with 3,000 career hits. The Yankees haven’t quite known what to do with A-Rod this year. They are disputing a $6 million payment due him for matching Willie Mays with 660 career home runs. The team contends that the contract defines this and several more milestone payments as marketing bonuses and that A-Rod is no longer marketable. So in turn there was no official notice at the Stadium about hits number 2,998 or 2,999.

But what fans everywhere want is for their team to win, and so far at least, A-Rod is helping the Yankees do that this season. On Opening Day there were more cheers than boos when he was introduced, but both were noticeably present. On Thursday when he came to bat in the 6th inning the boos were long gone and we in the stands came to our feet as a single living organism.

Those attending only that game went home disappointed, because A-Rod’s at-bat in the 6th produced a soft fly out to right and in his final appearance in the 8th he was walked on four pitches all high and inside, far closer to Rodriguez’s head than the strike zone. Now that produced wave upon wave of boos, directed at Marlins pitcher Sam Dyson.

I was back one night later, and standing again along with everyone else in the bottom of the first as the player in the pinstriped uniform with the number 13 on the back faced Detroit’s Justin Verlander. The first pitch was a 95 mile per hour four-seam fastball, and A-Rod quickly ended any suspense by drilling it into the stands in right field, joining Wade Boggs and Derek Jeter as the only players to hit a home run for their 3,000th hit.

As he rounded the bases and his teammates poured out of the dugout to congratulate him, we fans roared our approval and appreciation. Our cheers were not a function of sudden amnesia. A-Rod’s transgressions are known across the Great Game; but they are seared into the minds of Yankee fans; forever a part of our team’s history as well as his personal legacy. But the game, like life, goes on; and the goal of winning remains the same.

Prior to Saturday’s game the Yankees celebrated their 69th edition of Old Timers’ Day. It is the annual grand celebration of our team’s history to which all former players and coaches are invited. We cheer the Hall of Famers and World Series winners who return, but we also cheer the bit players and those from teams who never made it to the playoffs. None was perfect on the diamond, though many had some perfect days. Off the field paths have varied greatly, but when each is introduced we at the Stadium are not judges of character or Hall of Fame voters, but merely fans of the Great Game and our team.

Part of the ubiquitous marketing of Derek Jeter’s final season was the slogan “RESPECT,” with the “S” reversed so it became a “2,” the captain’s uniform number. On the way into Thursday night’s game, I passed another fan wearing a tee-shirt emblazoned with the word “FORGIVE.” In this case the “I” had been replaced by the numeral “1” and the “E” reversed so it became a “3.” Forgive number 13? Most in the Great Game never will, and that is certainly understandable. But like a family that welcomes all of its kin, it became clear this weekend that at some future Old Timers’ Day, when A-Rod’s name is called the cheers will echo across the Stadium in the Bronx.

Which brings me back to Bill Miller’s question. As a child I never knew what I now know as an adult. I never knew, because in that time it was never reported, that for all of his achievements on the field my idol was squandering his talents in a dissolute lifestyle of booze and infidelity. Now of course sports stars, like all celebrities, must assume that every part of their life will be part of the public record, often instantaneously. Perhaps that is progress, or perhaps not. As great as he was, how much greater could Mickey have been? As impressive as A-Rod’s numbers are, how much are they inflated? As fans we can dwell on unanswerable questions like those, or we can move on and enjoy the games we love. Hey Bill, the answer is the same as when I was 8 years old. The Great! Number 7! Mickey Mantle!

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Responses

  1. Oddly enough, I rather agree you; he was my hero, too.

  2. Mussina was a Yankee?

    I still keep a Washington Post picture of Mussina in pinstripes with the caption “Out of place ace”.

    • He had to go to NY to win 20! Thanks Esther, hope you and Rob are well.
      M-

  3. Mike, thanks so much for creating an entire post out of my unoriginal question 🙂 I suppose The Mick holds a place in every Yankee fans heart, at least those who got to see him play.
    BTW, although you know I’m not a Yankees fan, my favorite Yankee of all time would have to be Graig Nettles.
    Thanks again,
    -Bill

    • Thank Bill,

      Graig Nettles (or Craig Nettles as he was once misidentified on a baseball card) was a great contributor. Don’t know if you are aware that he’s one of 20 Yankees whose much larger-than-life images hang on banners in the main entry hall at the Stadium. The 10 banners have sepia-toned pictures of greats from the Babe through the teams of the early ‘60s on one side, and color images of stars from the ‘70s through the ’90s on the other. A shot of Nettles at third base has pride of place as the first in the row.

      Thanks again,

      Mike

      • I believe Nettles is 6th All-Time in homers by a 3rd baseman, and with a career WAR of 68.0, there is a legitimate argument that maybe he belongs in the HOF. I just noticed today that he didn’t retire until he was 43-years old!


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