Sunday, July 08, 2007

Old Timers' Rock 'n' Roll

Old Timers' Day is always big with me and mine. It's probably the memories from darker days at the Stadium, when Old Timers' was the highlight of some ugly seasons. I mean, the Bombers were dead in seventh place from mid-May 'til the end of the 1990 season, but it was pretty hard to hang your head on Old Timers' Day, when Joe Dimaggio was walking on the Yankee Stadium grass--even if he 75 years old and not even picking up a bat on a bet. Once a year the baseball heroes of yesterday would take over the field for an afternoon--just a small bit of the afternoon, actually--and remind us that there had been better times in this ballpark, maybe make us dream of better days to come.

Those years Old Timers' Day issues seemed almost as vital as real ballclub issues--when the big question is whether or not to bring Jim Walewander up from Columbus, you're more likely to get wrapped up in the mini-drama of when (or if) Yogi Berra would ever return to the Stadium for Old Timers' Day. Berra boycotted Yankee Stadium between 1988 and and 1999, because of bad blood with George Steinbrenner stemming from Steinbrenner firing Yogi just 16 games into the 1985 season, and during that decade, Old Timers Day never passed without Berra's absence being noted.

By the time Berra and the Boss kissed and made up, Old Timers' had lost a little bit of its appeal. It was 1999, and the Yankees were in the middle of three straight championship seasons. The day Berra returned to Yankee Stadium, David Cone threw a perfect game against the Montreal Expos. In part it seemed like a moving tribute, specially since one of the other two Yankees to ever throw a perfect game, Don Larsen, was honored along with Berra. But there was another message in Cone's effort--that what was happening on the field those days consistently trumped the nostalgia. Seeing great players in the lineup every day somewhat blunted the need to see the giants of yesteryear. Old Timers' was still fun, and still well-attended, it just wasn't as important as it had been.

It's been at least a decade since the Old Timers came into the House that Ruth Built to find a sub-.500 Yankees ballclub waiting for them there. The date for Old Timers' Day changes every year, but 1995 is the last time the Yanks were under .500 in the late June-early August window where the Yanks usually bring the oldsters in (the Bombers didn't break over .500 for good until September 8th of that strike-shortened season). While we're not yet in the state of despondency that overtook the franchise in the late-80s/early-90s, a question lingered over Old Timers' Day, 2007--have the scales between the past and the present re-aligned themselves again, putting nostalgia for Yankee yesterday above optimism for Yankee tomorrow?

Brother T and I weren't in such a meditative mood when we got to the Stadium this afternoon, but close to seven hours later, on the way home after watching the Yanks blow their latest chance to reach .500 by committing five errors in a 2-1, 13-inning loss, thoughts like these started churning through my mind. This year's Old Timers' festivities featured a number of players from the late 90s dynasty, making their first old-timer appearances: Paul O'Neill, Scott Brosius...and Homer Bush. Another player from that era (but not an Old Timers' Day newbie) Darryl Strawberry was also playing in the game. Although this Old Timers' Day was supposed to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the 1977 World Champs, the nostalgia wafting through the Stadium was more for Yankee baseball of the 1998 Vintage.

The reaction to O'Neill, in particular, was interesting. The biggest crowd response during the introduction of the Old-Timers usually comes when the crowd greets Don Mattingly, or one of the guys with Hall of Fame plaques. This time out, O'Neill blew everyone away. The nyuck-nyuck laugh line that Old Timers' emcees Michael Kay and John Sterling usually trot out is that a player looks so good that he could probably suit up with the current Yankees--well, O'Neill did actually look that good in his uni today. Heck, three strikeouts into a five-strikeout game, I was hoping that Torre would send O'Neill in to pinch-hit for Melky Cabrera, for real.

And there it is--nostalgia overwhelming the present. In the late-afternoon game, Roger Clemens and John Lackey locked horns in a pitcher's duel. Clemens was fine but not dominant--one walk and only three strikeouts in eight one-run innings. Aside from a rough spot in the second inning, Lackey owned the Yankees--11 strikeouts, no walks in eight innings of his own. The Yankees kept chasing Lackey--and later Scot Shields and Francisco Rodriguez--out of the zone. It's a familiar story from this season--the Yankees, despite being a very veteran team and having a couple of walk machines (Bobby Abreu and Jorge Posada) in the lineup, aren't working opposing pitchers the way they used to.

In the 13th inning, after eight innings of Clemens, two of Rivera, one of Blockhead Kyle Farnsworth, and on the second inning of Luis Vizcaino, the Angels broke through, thanks to some weak defense from Miguel Cairo (three errors on the day). The bottom of the inning may well wind up being symbolic of the first half, and maybe the whole season. With one out, Cairo singles, then takes advantage of F-Rod's mistakes: first stealing second base, then advancing to third on a wild pitch. And suddenly the Stadium's alive again. Man on third, one out, the top of the lineup up. Johnny Damon walks and we're ecstatic. The crowd--still pretty large given the pregame festivities and the extra innings--is on their feet, cheering like crazy. All it takes is a good fly ball to tie the game, and we're feeling it, we're feeling the comeback.

Then Melky Cabrera strikes out, for the fifth time in six plate appearances. Then the Captain grounds out to end the game. So much for getting over .500 before the All-Star Break...


The pitch Cabrera struck out on in the thirteenth was a diabolical breaking ball. It seemed to fall straight down onto the middle of the plate and just stay there. The movement on that ball was so strange that everybody in my section was convinced that Melky must have fouled it off--but he just walked away toward the dugout.

This year's obscure Yankee Old-Timer: Mickey Klutts. Klutts was a (f)utility infielder who came up for cups of coffee with the Yanks in 1976, 1977 and 1978, before he was traded with Dell Alston for Gary Thomasson. From there, Klutts had a five-year run as a spare part with Oakland and Toronto. All told, Klutts had more plate appearances against the Yankees (34, plus another 7 in the 1981 ALCS) than he had for them (24) in his career.

This year's weakest bit of puffery: Kay and Sterling try to make every old-timer sound like a vital cog in Yankee history, but the best Kay could come up with for Eli Grba was "...won eight games over two seasons." He didn't mention that Grba had nine losses to go with those eight wins, or a 4.74 ERA, more than one run above the league average. In an odd bit of serendipity, the Yanks lost Grba in the 1960 expansion the franchise they played after the Old Timers' Game, the Los Angeles Angels.

Odd sight: Paul O'Neill in short left field, shadowed by a camera man during the game.

Odder sight: In-game short left field interview with Paul O'Neill, by Bobby Murcer.

All of those 1998 Yankee Old-Timers, with the exception of Strawberry, were younger than the starter for the Yankees' non-exhibition game, Clemens (Darryl's five months older than the Rocket). Worse than that, at the age of 34, old-timer Homer Bush is 18 months younger than I am!

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