This morning’s Pinch Hitter is Pete Colgan, a soon-to-be 50-year-old who went to the same high school as Joe Girardi and has lived in central Illinois all of his life. “I’ve been told many times over the years that being a fan of a faraway team makes no sense,” Pete wrote. “While probably a fair assessment, it just never worked for me and I couldn’t be happier.”
Pete still remembers seeing Roberto Clemente play in nearby St. Louis, but his heart and loyalty have always been in the Bronx. For his post, Pete looked back at a half decade in distant pinstripes.
This summer will mark fifty years for me as a fan of the New York Yankees. I consider myself somewhat of an atypical fan having lived in the Midwest all these years, yet I know there are many Yankees fans across America (also abroad) just like me. So in reflecting on such a personal milestone I have to ask myself what really stands out from my half century journey?
Of course I can reminisce about all the Yankee championships or my favorite players over the years, but one of the most memorable moments came on the weekend of August 23-25, 1968. It was all about challenging my loyalties to the Yankees. I suppose there are more important loyalties in life than which team a person chooses to follow, but I consider it a lesson learned.
That weekend I went to see live baseball, but it wasn’t the Yankees. I was in St Louis watching the Cardinals and Pirates with my dad and brother, both Cardinals fans. The Cardinals were defending World Champions, in first place again and had stars like Gibson, Brock and Cepeda (and a favorite of mine: Roger Maris). They played three hours away from my home, in a brand new stadium, had what many said were the best announcers in baseball in Harry Caray and Jack Buck and were on the local radio station for every game. That weekend, the Yankees — who at that time were struggling to reach .500 — were at home playing the Tigers, the best team in the American League. So, while watching a live game in St Louis, I kept a constant watch on the out-of-town scoreboard for Yankees updates.
The Cardinals had everything going for them, so if ever my loyalties would be challenged it would be then.
The weekend was incredible, both at Busch Stadium and at the faraway Yankee Stadium. The Yankees were scheduled to play a Friday doubleheader with single games on Saturday and Sunday. When Cardinal reserve Phil Gagliano tripled in Mike Shannon for a Cardinal win in the 11th inning Friday night, the Yankees had already won Game One 2-1 behind rookie Stan Bahnsen’s six-hit, complete game and a Tom Tresh home run and were well into Game Two. Back at the hotel I listened to St Louis radio station KMOX for updates on the second Yankees game, which had gone long into extra innings. In those days the American League had a curfew that allowed no inning to start after 1 a.m. local time. Shortly after midnight St Louis time the game was called with a 3-3 tie after the 19th inning. The Yankees top relief pitcher (aka closer by today’s standards) Lindy McDaniel had pitched seven innings of relief and the radio report was that it was seven PERFECT innings. Another strange rule in baseball at the time mandated all suspended games to be replayed from the start, so the makeup game would be a part of another doubleheader on Sunday. Nineteen innings counted in the stats but were simply wasted and the pitching staffs of both teams were extended.
The next day, Saturday, the Cardinal game featured the great Bob Gibson (of 1.12 ERA fame in ’68) and he didn’t disappoint. Back in New York it was a pair of aces: Denny McLain (31 game winner in 68) against the Yankees Mel Stottlemyre. We had barely settled into our seats at Busch in the pregame when the scoreboard posted a two-run first for the Yankees. With the Yanks up 2-0, the game in front of me played on as Gibson was busy fanning one Pirate after another. In the fourth inning I went under the stands at Busch where the game broadcast could be heard. Jack Buck was giving the scoreboard and he said the two Yankees runs came on a Roy White home run and the Tiger’s Willie Horton hit a solo homer in the seventh inning making the Yankees lead 2-1. The score held up and the Yankees won, Stottlemyre besting McLain in a classic duel. In St Louis, the Pirates Willie Stargell tagged Gibson for a three-run home run in the middle innings and some bad defense late did in Gibson as the Cardinals lost 6-4. Gibson, who fanned 15 that day, took the loss snapping a personal 15-game winning streak.
Returning home Sunday, still enamored by the Cardinal experience, I listened to their broadcast that day. The scoreboard portion of the broadcast provided the most intrigue. With a depleted pitching staff the Yankees slogged their way through a doubleheader, ultimately winning both games to complete a four-game sweep of the first-place Tigers. Former Tiger and Indian slugger Rocky Colavito was the Yankee hero that day, hitting a game-tying homer in one game and pitching 2 2/3 scoreless innings becoming the winning pitcher in the other game. A Yankee rally was aided by a home run by their third baseman Bobby Cox, who would be one day be better known for his managing days in Toronto and Atlanta.
Along the way there have been many other memories of the last half century of Yankee baseball.
A few really stand out because of the lessons learned. For one, I was in New York in August 1979 for the home stand that followed Thurman Munson’s tragic death. Even though New York paused to reflect on the tragedy, life went on as usual. The point was made evident one evening by the familiar sight of Orioles manager Earl Weaver carrying on a prolonged argument with umpires in order to “freeze” Catfish Hunter’s ailing shoulder. Business as usual, you bet. Another memory which I witnessed a year later, again at Yankee Stadium, stuck with me. It was 1980 and Reggie Jackson was having one of his best seasons and people were beginning to speculate on whether Reggie was a future Hall of Famer. Like many, I didn’t think Reggie’s stats to that point supported his induction. In a game against the Twins pitcher Goeff Zahn dusted Reggie with a high and tight pitch sending Reggie to the dirt to avoid a beaning. The very next pitch was driven into the right field stands by Reggie, which demonstrated the man’s uncanny ability to rise to the occasion when challenged. I saw greatness that night whether the stats fully supported it or not, Right then I changed my thinking that this guy may really be a Hall of Famer.
A final memory I’ll mention occurred after the strike shortened season of 1994. I had decided that baseball didn’t really matter anymore, and that I was not particularly anxious for it to return. One day a copy of Baseball America arrived at my house with a picture of the 1994 Minor League Player of the Year on the cover– a young fellow named Derek Jeter. It occurred to me that one day baseball would return and that Jeter guy could be something special and there was a lot of great baseball ahead. I just had to warm up to it again which I eventually did. .
How right I was about Derek Jeter and the Yankees. More than 3,000 hits later, that Jeter guy WAS something special and baseball, especially Yankee baseball, has been nothing but great. Memories and the lessons learned have been many over the years, but I will always remember that weekend in St Louis watching the Cardinals. Despite the greatness and close proximity of the Cardinals, I maintained my loyalty to the Yankees. The Yankees reached .500 that weekend for the first time that late in a season since 1964. The Cardinals would go on to another pennant before losing the seventh game of the World Series to the same Tigers the Yankees swept in late August.
That improbable sweep of the Tigers certainly didn’t hurt, but as I look back on it all, and thinking about how I had watched the out of town scoreboard that weekend, it told me what I probably already knew — the real lesson was my loyalties were always going to be with the Yankees no matter what.
Associated Press photo