Old Timers gather at the Cathedral
Greats get day in the sun before tradition moves with Yankees
NEW YORK -- As centuries of combined playing experience slung their arms over the padded dugout railing, the rosters emerged one by one onto the storied playing field -- one more afternoon of glory in the sun for Yankees of days gone by, whose baseball cards were long lost to bicycle spokes and mothers on spring cleaning missions.
Seventy-two former Yankees greats were in attendance on Saturday for the 62nd Old-Timers' Day at Yankee Stadium, marking the final time that the festivities will take place at the current facility before the club moves into the new Yankee Stadium across 161st Street in 2009.
The afternoon opened with gray skies and heavy downpours, but as surprise guest Willie Randolph said, peeking at the sky from underneath a concrete overhang, "I'm not going to let this put a damper on my day."
Neither would the weather, as it turned out -- by 1:40 p.m. ET, the storms were chased away and the tarp was being pulled off, drawing the living snapshots past Joe DiMaggio's quotation once more -- "I'd like to thank the Good Lord for making me a Yankee" -- and onto the infield grass.
Their names called by emcees John Sterling and Michael Kay, they charged out of the dugout -- some slower than others -- and doffed their caps, exposing bald spots and more contemporary haircuts that weren't present when those old snapshots for the Topps company were taken.
"Really, the best part is the introductions, beforehand," David Cone said. "The game is the game and whatever happens during the game is kind of fun. It's not taken too seriously and it's kind of a light nature. The introductions before mean a lot, especially to some of the old-time players who didn't get the recognition as we do now with television coverage and the Internet."
Reggie Jackson threw on his old-school stirrups and slapped a hand across Derek Jeter's back, wandering the rows of current Yankees lockers. Down the hall, the slick-fielding Bobby Richardson grabbed up Dr. Bobby Brown and Jerry Coleman, holding a conversation about the good old days and catching up on what has transpired since the last class reunion.
Cone looked around the auxiliary locker room, realizing he was once more in the company of David Wells and Don Larsen, a trio of living perfection. Larsen scoffed at someone who asked if he had any plans on taking the mound once more, saying, "My arm is tofu. You know what that is? It's a soft rice bean cake." Among the 18 first-time Old Timers were seven members of the 1996 World Series club, helping to lend a younger touch to the scene. With at least one player from each of the last 16 world championship teams in attendance, no matter which Yankees team was your team, it was represented.
"It's exciting, you know?" Rickey Henderson said. "This is my first one and it's something different -- to be able to play with all of your teammates and enjoy a special day. This is the last time I'll ever play in this ballpark and this is one of the oldest ballparks that I'll ever play in, so it's an honor to be invited back."
There was Wells -- as recently as three months ago looking for work in the Major Leagues -- admitting that his career has run its course. As tough as it was to swallow, Wells said he accepted that he now belonged in the cramped auxiliary locker room with the other retired players, where elbow room quickly grew as scarce as the available cold cuts on the buffet table.
"You know the day is going to come, but you want them to kick you out," Wells said. "I guess they did."
Yet Wells' control was still there -- at least, sharp enough not to disrupt a conversation between Don Baylor and Dave Winfield during pregame warmups, who chatted amiably while Wells and Al Leiter geared up with soft tosses. On the field level, the conversations ruled the show.
"It's so great to see guys," Jim Abbott said. "You play baseball together and you grow so close. I remember walking in the tunnel as an opposing player for the first time and you see the rich history. To pitch here in front of the fans, you never know what's going to happen. I still love it."
The fans had plenty of time to cheer in a ceremony that lasted more than one hour: Henderson got a loud ovation, and they stood for Wells. As usual, Paul O'Neill brought the house down with chants, and Randolph proved that you can go home again, twirling by home plate and waving his cap to the upper tier.
Yogi Berra was the final honored guest out of the dugout, leaving all of the assembled Yankees clapping from the baselines. Yogi tucked his thumbs into his belt loops and grinned, as only Yogi can.
"These men still have pride to wear pinstripes in this day and age," O'Neill said. "You can only clap for the fans, because they've been such a huge part of it through the years. There's been so much history here that even when this place closes, I don't know if there will ever be a ballpark that has the memories that this place has right here."
There was a one-inning exhibition, one in which the final score was irrelevant. It was more about the memories and honoring history: when else could you see a double play turned from Richardson to Randolph to Tino Martinez, or see Al Downing come in to face Darryl Strawberry in relief?
Mike Torrez and Bucky Dent reprised their memorable 1978 meeting at Fenway Park; unlike then, when Dent crushed a three-run homer that would give the Yankees the pennant and become ingrained in everyone's fuzzy memory banks, this at-bat ended in a sharp ground ball deftly handled by shortstop Tony Fernandez.
The Old-Timers' Day festivities took on a poignant note with the remembrance of Yankees captain Thurman Munson, who died in a plane crash on this date in 1979.
His widow, Diana Munson, was among a group of five Yankees ladies invited to take part in the pregame introductions, joining Arlene Howard, widow of Elston Howard; Helen Hunter, widow of Jim "Catfish" Hunter; Jill Martin, widow of Billy Martin; and Cora Rizzuto, the widow of Phil Rizzuto.
"It's a sad day -- I always get sad every year when I remember the date," said Graig Nettles, a teammate of Munson's that fateful season. "We didn't get through it. I know we had to finish the season, but we had been talking about how we were going to make a comeback like we did in '78. When we lost Thurman, it took it out of us."
Some spoke about the new facility rising across the street, and much the way Berra speaks of the current Yankee Stadium by saying, "I didn't play there," there were mixed feelings. Henderson said he rode a bus to the Bronx on Saturday and leaned over to Martinez, asking if the former first baseman had seen the inside of the $1.3 billion structure.
When Martinez shook his head, Henderson winced, saying, "It won't be the same."
Others, like Strawberry, were more receptive to change: "I have great memories of this ballpark, but it's time to move on," he said. "They're moving on to a bigger and better place. New York isn't like anywhere else and they deserve it for their fans."
The ceremony was large, and deservedly so. It is to be the last of its kind on the patch of land where Larsen was perfect, where Reggie hit his three World Series home runs, where Ron Guidry fanned 18 California Angels and where Wade Boggs rode a NYPD horse on the warning track.
All of those events were acknowledged on Saturday, and in a way, with six dozen former Yankees jogging to the baselines, the Stadium received its own trip down memory lane. Most importantly, the old ballpark got one more day in the sun.
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.