This is another personal favorite from our Pinch Hitters series. Mark Boynton is a 44-year-old who says he discovered baseball and the Yankees when his family moved to New York from Colorado in 1975. Mark’s wife is from Trinidad, and they live in Winston-Salem, N.C., but Mark wrote that some of their happiest memories have come from the Yankees.
“In the first game my wife ever saw, Johnny Damon went 6-for-6 and beat the Royals in the bottom of the 9th,” Mark wrote. “We won the auction for the Belt in 2009, and then we saw Jeter hit 3,000. As a Yankees fan, you just have to feel blessed by all that! And these days we just feel so amazingly fortunate ‘to be there’ that everything else is gravy.”
There’s not much I can write as an introduction to this one. You just have to read it.
HIT BY A PITCH
In the summer of 1978, in my first little league at-bat, I stood too far from the plate because I was terrified of the ball that sounded like a gunshot when it hit the catcher’s mitt. I was very fast but had no skills. Coach Mottola’s mantra was, “Just get on base kid! Then anything can happen!” The next pitch smashed into my left forearm, and as Coach jogged me to first base I moaned, “But it hurts bad!”
“Yeah, sure,” Coach told me. “But you’re on base, kid! Now run! Anything can happen!”
So, I stole second, then third, and scored on a sac fly. I did not appreciate the life lesson.
Derek Jeter was three years old.
October 10, 2010 was one of the happiest days of my life. I married my wife in Central Park. The Yankees had just swept the Twins. Pure joy comes rarely, but I felt it that day. It did not last. The Yankees lost to the Rangers, Cliff Lee snubbed us and criticisms of the Captain multiplied.
On March 21, 2011 my wife suffered a stroke while driving home. When I reached the hospital her face had collapsed and she could not speak or use her right arm, hand or leg. A clot had blocked her left carotid artery, the doctors could not use clot busters. I was told she might survive, but the damage was likely permanent. Hours slipped away as the doctors debated what to do. It is difficult to explain the mixture of terror, confusion and rage.
The medical team ultimately performed a mechanical thrombectomy, but the clot showered, blocking a cerebral artery and blinding her left eye. When she woke up, my wife looked at me, and when I told her I loved her, she tried to smile. In that moment I decided we would beat this thing. Every day we worked and she improved. My mother scolded my wife that she had better be walking in time to watch Derek Jeter play on the 4th of July. I reminded Mom the Yankees would be away. She scowled and said, “Fine! We’ll just go see the next game!”
April, May and June were consumed with therapies. OT, PT, speech, neuropsych. We did not quit. When friends offered sympathy or shared their wonder at how we could “do it,” I offered my favorite baseball-is-like-life analogy: You don’t get to pick the pitches, you only get to decide whether or not to swing. If you don’t want to be in the batter’s box, then you’re not in the game.
One friend told me I had to admit that we had been hit-by-pitch this time.
By July, we were walking without assistance, speaking and learning to write. The Yankees were in first place, but Jeter was the target of unbridled criticism. Even the “faithful” began to whisper. Jeter returned to the team on July 4 needing six hits for 3,000, but the team lost to Cleveland and Jete went 0-4. One writer wondered if the Bombers were “too good in the absence of Derek Jeter” and that “maybe the Yankees [were] better off without the Captain,” but Mr. Bauman was merely writing what many already thought. It was agony to watch Jeter struggle and limp toward history.
We needed a break from therapy and decided to visit my folks in New York. We arrived on July 7. The Yanks lost to the Rays, and Jeter went 1-5, now just two hits away. My mother hoped he got a “really good hit” for number 3,000, then she teased me by saying, “Wouldn’t you love to be there?” I laughed out loud. You would need a bunch of cash and the stars to align to pick the right game at this point.
She proudly produced tickets for July 9 against the Rays. She had bought them weeks beforehand. I was dumbfounded, but I wasn’t sure my wife could handle the environment. We had learned the hard way that, when her senses became overwhelmed, her body reacted almost like it was having another stroke.
Friday’s game was rained out, but July 9 was summer perfection; a brilliant blue sky, blazing sun and puffy white clouds. When I got downstairs my wife and mother stared at me. “Why aren’t you dressed? We have to leave now!” The women had decided we’re going to a game!
We did not speak much as my dad drove into town. We’re baseball fans. We’re superstitious. But after Derek smacked his first hit we all began to hope brazenly! I was torn between watching the game and keeping track of my wife, just wanting nothing to go wrong, just immensely grateful to be there, with her, with my folks.
When Derek came to the plate in the bottom of the third you literally could feel the electricity. The stadium bulged with excitement. The organist got the entire crowd in unison chanting “DER-EK JE-TER!!!” And then, it happened. David Price, determined not to be a trivia question answer, uncorked a 3-2 curveball. On cue, the Captain miraculously crushed it and launched a no-doubt bomb into deep left.
I could not believe what had just happened. I felt like crying. Then I turned to look at my wife and my parents. They were hugging, shouting, smiling, my wife was actually jumping up and down. And for the first time since March 21, we felt joy again.
Jeter went on to go 5-for-5 and batted in the go-ahead and winning runs in a 5-4 thriller that will live on as one of his greatest games and one of the greatest moments in Yankees and baseball history. We did not think about strokes, blood clots, aphasia, rehab or anything else. Just pure joy to have been lucky enough to have been there. On the ride home it hit me.
Hell yes, we were hit-by-pitch. But now we’re on base, and we are dangerous runners. Anything can happen!
Associated Press photos