Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 26, 2016

Past Beyond Compare, Present Borders On Despair

It was a lovely Sunday in Gotham two weekends ago. Some overnight showers had moved off, replaced by blue skies and brilliant sunshine. The crowd made its way to the Stadium earlier than usual, as is the case every year for this event. While still among the highest in the majors, attendance at Yankee games is off this year. But on this Sunday close to 48,000 filled all three decks of blue seats as well as the rows of metal bleachers in the outfield. For this was the day on which the Yankees celebrated their past, as they alone among the thirty big league franchises do every year. Old-Timers’ Day had returned to the Bronx.

A familiar baritone signaled the start of the ceremonies. A recording of the late Bob Sheppard, long-time public address announcer, welcoming fans to some long-ago Old-Timers’ event at the old Stadium on the other side of 161st Street is now replayed annually. Michael Kay and John Sterling, the Yankees’ television and radio play-by-play men, took turns introducing each of the retired players in attendance. More than forty returned this year, and each one got to hear his exploits in pinstripes recounted for the crowd. Some were stars while others were bit players; some spent their entire careers wearing the familiar interlocking “NY” while for others the Bronx was just one stop of many during their time in the Great Game. But on this day Hall of Famers and journeymen alike were welcomed with warmth and appreciation.

It’s now two decades since the world championship that marked the start of the most recent Yankee dynasty. After a thirteen year absence from the playoffs, New York returned to the postseason in 1995 as the AL Wild Card team, losing to Seattle in the ALDS. One year later, with a new manager in Joe Torre and a fresh-faced 21-year old rookie playing shortstop, the Yankees won ninety-two games to capture the AL East. New York defeated Texas in the Division Series, then knocked off Baltimore in the ALCS with Derek Jeter, that rookie shortstop, getting a little assist from 12-year old Jeffrey Maier on a decisive home run in the 8th inning of Game One. The Yankees dropped the first two games of the World Series at home, their offense stymied by Atlanta’s John Smoltz and Greg Maddux. But New York did not lose again that season, sweeping three games in Atlanta before clinching the franchise’s twenty-third title in front of a jubilant crowd back in the Bronx.

Members of that 1996 team received some of the loudest cheers at this Old-Timers’ Day. Closer John Wetteland, who saved all four victories and was named the World Series MVP, made his Old-Timers’ debut. Charlie Hayes, who ranged from third base into foul ground to catch a popup for the clinching out, got to recreate that moment while tending to the hot corner during the four inning exhibition that followed the introductions. When Paul O’Neill was introduced his running catch of a fly ball to right to end Game Five of the ’96 Series was shown on the massive video screen in center field. On the very first pitch of the Old-Timers’ game Mickey Rivers sent a drive to right that had O’Neill on the run. Just as he had two decades ago, the fan favorite reached up with his glove and made the grab.

While the veterans of 1996 were given special due, some of the most sustained cheers rained down on the old legends like Whitey Ford and Don Larsen and former American League president Dr. Bobby Brown, the last surviving member of the 1947 championship team. But the moment of the day came from a younger Old-Timer. Hideki Matsui, hero of New York’s most recent championship in 2009, was celebrating his 42nd birthday. With David Cone on the mound the slugger known as Godzilla turned on the second pitch he saw and sent it soaring down the right field line, where it quickly became a souvenir for a fan in the second deck.

As Matsui rounded the bases there had to be many among the thousands cheering his long home run who were wishing he’d consider putting on pinstripes for more than just Old-Timers’ Day. At 42 he is younger than the Mets’ Bartolo Colon or the Marlins’ Ichiro Suzuki. But later a laughing Matsui said “I’d probably last not even one game.”

Neither Matsui nor any of the retired Core Four of Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera are coming back to help the 2016 Yankees. It may well be that help is not coming at all. This year’s squad has sputtered along at about .500, and there is now open talk that come the trade deadline the mighty Yankees may become sellers; something that would have been unthinkable when George Steinbrenner was alive.

But his son Hal seems more realistic than his father was. Steinbrenner, GM Brian Cashman and manager Joe Girardi have seen what the current roster can do for almost half a season. The Pythagorean expectation formula suggests the team is actually over-performing. Matsui was the only player in pinstripes to homer on that Sunday two weeks ago. When the old-timers yielded the diamond to the real team, New York quietly fell to Detroit by a score of 4-1. That loss was the second in a row after the Yankees had run off five straight victories and pushed New York back below .500.

Two weeks later on another sunny Sunday afternoon the Yankees were back in the Bronx concluding a string of eleven straight games against Colorado and Minnesota. The Rockies have a losing record and the Twins have the worst record in baseball. But this Sunday Minnesota’s lineup looked like Murderer’s Row, sending six balls into the seats including three in a row off New York starter and loser Nathan Eovaldi. Meanwhile Twins’ starter Tyler Duffey took the mound with a record of 2-6 and an ERA over 6.00. But New York’s lineup apparently mistook him for Nolan Ryan, as Duffey retired the first seventeen batters he faced. In the end the Yankees managed just a 6th inning double by Aaron Hicks that broke up Duffey’s perfect game, and an 8th inning homer to right by Mark Teixeira in his second game back from the DL. By the time the final out was recorded in the 7-1 Twins victory many in the crowd, which at its peak was 10,000 less than on Old-Timers’ Day, had left to pursue other interests. The loss also meant that New York finished 6-5 in that eleven game stretch against supposedly inferior competition.

No team does a better job of recognizing and celebrating its past than the New York Yankees. This year’s Old-Timers’ Day was a grand affair, as is the case every season. Perhaps the Yankees should consider doing it more than just once a year; because the present edition of the franchise isn’t giving loyal fans much reason to cheer.

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