Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 25, 2017

Past, Present And Future Come Together In The Bronx

The 4 Train rumbles and rattles its way north, making its ever longer express runs between East Side stops. Seventeen blocks from Grand Central to 59th Street, skipping just one local station. Then twenty-seven more to 86th Street, this time bypassing two stations at which its local cousin the 6 Train pays call. Finally, the long run of thirty-nine blocks, all the way to 125th Street in Harlem. Four more local stops are but a blur as the subway charges through on the center express track. From 125th the 4 darts under the Harlem River and into the Bronx, where it becomes a local. But there are only two of those stops, under the Grand Concourse, the broad thoroughfare built more than a century ago as an artery connecting Manhattan with the northernmost neighborhoods of Gotham’s only mainland borough. Then the cars rise into the sunlight of a Sunday morning, the 4 technically a subway no more. Now it is an elevated train that screeches around a gentle right-hand turn and slows to a stop. The familiar female voice recording tells us what we already know, “this is 161st Street – Yankee Stadium.”

On the ride from 42nd Street I sit near a group of four adults and two young boys. From their matching blonde hair and nearly matching features I assume they are brothers. The younger one is perhaps eight, the older and decidedly taller sibling maybe eleven. The adults however are my age or older, suggesting this might be an outing with grandparents rather than an immediate family excursion. As the subway makes its subterranean journey the older boy plays a game on his smartphone, his younger brother peering over his shoulder, equally engrossed in whatever is happening on the tiny screen. But when the train car is suddenly bathed in sunlight the phone is put down and both boys look up, their eyes bright with excitement. Perhaps all those experts who say the Great Game is too slow and too staid to appeal to the coming generation are not entirely correct.

It is fitting that my ride to the Stadium is in a train car filled with multiple generations, for this day is the annual celebration of generations of ballplayers, combining the present with both the recent past and an older age that has begun to fade to memory. It’s the 71st edition of the Yankees’ Old Timers’ Day. Other teams celebrate their past in one way or another, and from time to time every franchise metes out its greatest honor by retiring a former player’s number. Just last Friday evening Fenway Park was full as the Boston Red Sox retired number 34 in a moving ceremony that brought tears to the eyes of slugger David Ortiz, and no doubt to many of the Red Sox faithful in the stands as well. But with twenty-seven championships and forty trips to the World Series, no franchise has so much history to celebrate nor does so with quite the combination of grandeur and self-regard. From Monument Park beyond center field to the Yankees Museum tucked away in the southeast corner of the Stadium’s Main Level, to the massive display of retired numbers behind the left field bleachers, the Yankees go all out honoring the past.

Old Timers’ Day, now into its seventh decade, is the annual party for retired players and fans alike. The attendees are introduced one by one, beginning with the widows of four New York legends, Catfish Hunter, Billy Martin, Thurman Munson and Bobby Murcer. They are followed by the former players. Some were but role players during their time in pinstripes, and not all won championships; the Yankees like every franchise have had their down years. But each is greeted warmly as his exploits are recounted by hosts John Sterling and Michael Kay, the team’s radio and television broadcasters.

The best-known players are introduced last, with first-time participant Jorge Posada walking onto the field to a deafening roar. Posada is the first of the Core Four stalwarts of recent Yankee glory to attend an Old Timers’ Day. In the stands, we are at once overjoyed to see our hero, but also reminded that the era of Yankee dominance that he and his brethren symbolize is irrevocably over.  Special recognition is also given to Tim Raines, who will enter the Hall of Fame later this summer. Raines is best known for his play with the Montreal Expos, but he spent three seasons in the Bronx from 1996 to 1998. And eight members of the 1977 championship team, led by Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, are celebrated on the 40th anniversary of the first title under the ownership of George Steinbrenner.

But on this day the loudest and most heartfelt cheers are for three players from a more distant time. Bobby Brown is the last surviving member of the 1947 championship squad. Don Larsen is more than six decades removed from his World Series perfect game. And Hall of Famer Whitey Ford, the Chairman of the Board, is the final old-timer to be introduced. The three are on either side of 90 years old, and Larsen and Ford appear especially frail. We do not hesitate to shower them with our love while we still can.

After the ceremonies, the younger retirees play four innings of exhibition ball, and as always there are a few pratfalls. But there is also some slick fielding by Willie Randolph at second, a fine running catch by Mickey Rivers in center, and a spectacular grab of a pop foul by first baseman Tino Martinez racing toward the stands.

The past yields to the present, and the current Yankees take the field for a game against the Texas Rangers. This year’s team began play at a torrid pace. In contrast, the past two weeks have been a titanic struggle. Early on today appears to be no exception to that recent theme. Starter Michael Pineda allows three runs before his offense comes to bat, and surrenders three more to Texas in the 2nd inning. By the 4th it is 7-0, and the game seems virtually out of reach.

A majority of games in the longest season remain to be played. They will determine the ultimate fate of this Yankees squad. Probably this team is not as overwhelming as its April record suggested. But likely neither is it as bad as its current rough patch implies. Whatever the final standings, the only thing that is clear is that these new look Yankees, with their preponderance of youth, have a winning and upbeat attitude. Earlier this season New York trailed Baltimore 9-1 early and 11-4 with just nine outs remaining before coming all the way back to tie the game in the 9th before scoring a walkoff win in the 10th.

Another epic comeback isn’t on tap today, but the Yankees come tantalizingly close. Aaron Judge plates New York’s first run in the 5th, and Gary Sanchez quickly adds three more with a homer to left. Ronald Torreyes lines a shot into the seats in the 7th, and a Didi Gregorius drive to the right field corner scores Judge to make it 7-6. Two innings later that becomes the final score, but shortly before it does the out-of-town scoreboard tells us that the Angels have won in Boston. The Yankees and Red Sox remain tied for the lead in the AL East.

No one predicted that during Spring Training, so we fans will take it here in late June. Whether or not it lasts we know for certain that this team is fun to watch and root for. We head for the exits remembering our franchise’s glorious past, enjoying its surprising present, and anticipating a bright future.

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