Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 27, 2019

The Sandman Makes His Old Timer’s Debut

The day is sunny and warm, with a freshening breeze out of the west. Summer is officially barely forty-eight hours old, and after a wet and often chilly spring it is starting at long last to feel like the season. Many fans making their way across Babe Ruth Plaza pause for a moment to bask under the bright rays before heading into the Stadium. There they swarm through the Great Hall and head either directly out to the field level or up the ramps to the second and third decks. As is the case at many sports venues, seats in the Bronx often don’t fill up until well after the first pitch has been thrown, with many fans taking a decidedly leisurely approach to arriving for the game. But the start of today’s contest against the Houston Astros is still two hours away and already the crowd is swelling. For once the main attraction is not the current roster, which has managed to fight its way to the top of the AL East standings despite a long list of injuries. Rather fans have come out today to revel in the memories of past glory. For the 73rd year, the Yankees and their fans are celebrating Old Timer’s Day.

They can all give thanks to Larry McPhail, a former general manager and part-owner of the New York franchise, who conceived of the first gathering of retired stars – in that instance from all around the majors – in 1947. McPhail, who filled front office positions not just with the Yankees but also with the Reds, Dodgers, and several minor league teams, thought the idea would be a one-time gathering to raise money for the Babe Ruth Foundation. By then terminally ill, the greatest Yankee and most famous ballplayer of all time had established the charity for the purpose of aiding underprivileged children just months earlier. That first event proved so popular that the Yankees quickly moved to make it a part of each year’s schedule by inviting former team members for the chance to be recognized by fans and to play a short exhibition contest.

Over the decades since, the day has produced its share of memorable moments. In 1973, at the last such event held at the old Stadium before it underwent major renovations, Mickey Mantle hit a home run on a carefully grooved pitch from Whitey Ford. Five years later, Billy Martin was given pride of place as the last person to receive an introduction, during which it was revealed he would return as New York’s manager in 1980. The announcement prompted a lengthy standing ovation by fans who had been incensed by owner George Steinbrenner’s decision to force Martin to resign a mere five days before. In 1998 the Yankees honored their World Series confrontations against the Dodgers from 1977, 1978 and 1981 by inviting not just former New York players but several from Los Angeles as well. Pitcher Tommy John filled both roles, having worn Dodger blue in the first two of those matchups and pinstripes in the third. John may have enjoyed Old Timer’s Day more than any of the Series, since he had the dubious distinction of playing for the losing side in all three.

In the past few years the day has begun to see the return of Yankees from the franchise’s most recent championship seasons, including the dynastic run of four titles in five years from 1996 through 2000 as well as the 2009 team. Outfielder Paul O’Neill and first baseman Tino Martinez are now regular attendees guaranteed to receive boisterous welcomes. Three years ago, Hideki Matsui wowed the crowd during the game with a long home run into the second deck off David Cone. Last year the redoubtable Andy Pettitte made his first appearance, to the delight of all those in the stands.

But no Old Timer’s Day in recent memory has been quite the celebration of a single former star as is the case this year, and that is surely part of the reason for the crowd that now fills all three decks as the introductions begin. From role players to All-Stars to Hall of Famers, each attendee makes his way from the first base dugout to rows of chairs set up in the infield as cheers rain down. Special ovations are given to the two oldest former players in attendance, 89-year-old Don Larsen and 94-year-old Bobby Brown. At first it looks like Larsen will be forced to remain in a wheelchair, but at the first base line he rises and, with the aid of a walker, slowly makes the trek out to his seat. Minutes later Brown, the last surviving member of the 1947 championship team and a former American League president after his playing days with the Yankees, climbs the steps of the dugout and unassisted, walks slowly but determinedly out to join Larsen and the other former players.

This year though, even honoring the oldest in attendance is but prelude. For the loudest and longest cheers are reserved for the final former player to have his name called. Five and a half years after throwing his final pitch and just over a month before he becomes the first player ever to be inducted in the Hall of Fame on a unanimous vote, Mariano Rivera’s name can scarcely be heard over the Stadium speakers, drowned out by the roars from thousands of throats. The repetitive chanting of Rivera’s first name, broken into its four distinct syllables, washes from the stands across the field and echoes back upon itself as the all-time major league saves leader acknowledges the adulation.

Were that the limit of his role on this day it would be enough to sate the fans, but the little exhibition contest could not have been scripted any better for both Rivera and his fans. As his signature introductory song “Enter Sandman” blares from the speakers, he emerges from the dugout to relieve David Cone in the 1st inning and needs just a single pitch to induce a double-play grounder by O’Neill to end the frame. Rivera will pitch again in the 4th and final inning, recording a save – of course – and in between his two mound visits he patrols center field, fulfilling a dream from his playing days. There he makes a nice running catch of a fly ball hit by Luis Sojo. Then he steps to the plate and laces a line drive into right center field. The shot into the gap skips by both outfielders and rolls all the way to the fence. By the time it is retrieved and relayed back into the infield, Rivera has rounded third and is well on his way to home. He crosses the plate standing up with that rarest of batting feats, an inside-the-park home run, and fans in every section are on their feet screaming their approval.

Next summer will bring another Old Timer’s Day, and this celebration that is as much a part of the Yankees’ schedule as Opening Day will surely continue for many years to come. But for those who were there on Sunday, little more than a month before the unveiling of his Cooperstown plaque, this year’s event will always be remembered as Mariano’s day.

Advertisements

Responses

  1. A nice tribute, Mike—yours and the fans.
    Ω

    • Thanks very much Allan. I was happy that I had the chance to be there.

      M-


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Categories

%d bloggers like this: