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Pinch hitting: Aryeh Gibber

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We’re getting close to the end of our Pinch Hitters series, but we still have a few to go, and up next is Aryeh Gibber. He’s another displaced Yankees fan, a 35-year-old who went to school in Rhode Island and worked in Virginia before settling in Michigan with his wife and four kids. He’s been there since 2008 and wrote that he’s “shivered through several unfortunate nights at Comerica Park during the last two Octobers.”

For his post, Aryeh got sentimental. That was kind of the point. He calls his post: The All-Sentimental Team.

[2]Don Mattingly. Derek Jeter. Dave Winfield. Rickey Henderson. Mariano Rivera. Robinson Cano. And the list goes on. Headline-grabbing stars and Cooperstown-bound immortals, the transcendent figures that have thrilled and captivated the Yankees fan base over the last quarter-century, and their household names roll off the tongues of even the most casual fan.

And yet isn’t it true that the roots of visceral fandom so often originate with far lesser lights of the baseball world? The bond between a baseball fan and the game he/she loves is forged by uniquely personal experiences and perspectives. Each of us has those individual players who have captured our imagination, caught our fancy and become — for one quirky reason or another — infinitely more significant to us as fans than they will ever be to the rest of the baseball establishment.

It might be a shared birthday or name, or a great catch made at the first game you ever attended. Everybody has his or her own story — a chance meeting at the airport, a signed ball tossed cheerfully to a youngster hanging precariously over a bullpen fence – and whatever the history, these often unremarkable players illustrate, and sometimes even define, our formative experiences as fans learning to love the grand old game.

With another baseball season almost upon us, I took a whimsical stroll down Memory Lane and created the (first ever?) All-Sentimental Team. No one in this lineup will find his way to Cooperstown without a map, but in two and a half decades of embracing the Yankees through the proverbial thick (The Core Four years) and thin (Wayne Tolleson, Rafael Santana and Alvaro Espinoza in the middle of the infield), these are the players who have has helped make baseball not just the national pastime, but my personal pastime as well.

C Sal Fasano — When my oldest son was 3 years old, I took him to Harbor Park in Norfolk, VA to see the Columbus Clippers (the Yankees AAA farm team at the time) do battle with the Norfolk Tides. It was his first “Yankees” game, and he looked quite the part, decked out smartly in a No. 2 jersey and fitted cap. As the game ended and we lingered near the railing, the Clippers’ veteran catcher spied my son and walked over to us. “Hey buddy, is this your first game?” As my son nodded in awe, Sal reached into the dugout for a baseball, tossed it to us and called over his shoulder, “Great to meet you little guy!” Sal Fasano’s big-league Yankees career may have consisted of only 28 games in 2006, but he’s a surefire, first-ballot All Sentimental Team Hall of Famer for me.

1B Bill Skowron — “Moose” played his last game for the Yankees 15 years before I was born, but on a warm spring night in Chicago in 1988, my father secured Golden Box tickets ($10.50!) for us to watch the visiting Yankees play the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park. A dignified older gentleman sat down next to us, and within an inning or two, suspicions in our row were confirmed — it was former stalwart, all-star first baseman for the Yankees of the 50’s and 60’s. Pleasantries were exchanged, memories shared, scorecards signed, and the crew-cut framed face I knew so well from pictures sprang vividly to life.

2B Mariano Duncan — There was Red Smith and Roger Angell, David Halberstam and George Will, Roger Kahn and Thomas Boswell, Bill James and Michael Lewis. For more than a century, great writers have tried to capture the essence of baseball in flowery prose. And then along came Mariano Duncan in 1996 to distill generations of baseball wisdom into one profound, iconic axiom while managing to crystallize the ethos of the mid-late nineties Yankees at the very same time: “We play today. We win today. Das’ it.” Mariano Duncan has spoken.

3B Mike Pagliarulo — At the age of 8, I hand-wrote a heartfelt missive expressing my avid support of the Yankees and mailed it to “Yankee Stadium, Bronx, NY 10451.” A few weeks later the mailman delivered a treasure in return: an impressive-looking letter on team stationary thanking me for my support and a black and white, autographed photo of Mike Pagliarulo. That the signature was clearly a facsimile never dawned on me. I had my first autograph! Pags ripped off consecutive seasons of 19, 28, 32 and 15 home runs (cumulative batting average of .232, but we took what we got in the moribund eighties…), and the esteem in which I held my keepsake skyrocketed. A wonderful epilogue: While a college student in Providence, RI, I met the legendary Mike Pagliarulo in person at the New England Sports and Business Expo. He turned out to be as friendly and personable as I had always imagined… and the signature I got the second time around was real!

SS Bobby Meacham — Is there another feeling quite like peeling open a brand new package of Topps? Not for a young baseball fan in the eighties, there isn’t. Who would be lurking just beneath the wax paper wrapping? Would Donnie Baseball’s determined visage and generous eye black peer back at me? Did I even dare to dream of a crouching Rickey Henderson? Nope. It was Bobby Meacham. It was always Bobby Meacham. Seemingly in every pack I bought. In fact — an early lesson in the law of diminishing returns — from 1984-1988 I am confident that I bought at least two Bobby Meacham cards for every home run he struck.

OF Mel Hall — I agonized over including Mel Hall on this team now that he has proven himself rather unsavory and indefensible as a human being. But, what can I do? I was there on Memorial Day, 1991. Perhaps one of the best things about Memory Lane is how much simpler and more pleasant everything still appears. Ensconced in the upper deck of Yankee Stadium as the Yanks and Red Sox did battle below, I watched Jeff Reardon jog to the mound with a 5-3 lead to close out what appeared to be another desultory New York loss. But Hensley Meulens singled, and so did Kevin Maas. And when Mel Hall unfurled his trademark lefty swing and drilled a 3-run, game-winning home run into the right field stands, the Stadium denizens found their collective voice and bedlam ensued.

OF Roberto Kelly — Disclaimer: I was obsessed with Rickey Henderson as a youth, possibly to an unhealthy degree. I once waited two and a half hours to have Rickey sign my copy of his autobiography (a less than stellar piece of literature which I recently re-read; remarkable how passages that once read as gallant heroism now read as stunning narcissism, but I digress…), and my binder of 250+ Rickey Henderson cards (no doubles!) remains among my most treasured, if absurd, possessions. When I heard that Rickey Henderson was moving over to left field and the hallowed grounds of center field at Yankee Stadium would be patrolled by a talented youngster Roberto Kelly… well! If Rickey was yielding to a mortal human, I could only assume this Roberto Kelly was a rare blend of Mays, Mantle and Williams. I barely made it through winter anticipating the inevitable heroics of one Roberto Kelly. Turned out he was… Roberto Kelly. A nice player on some bad teams, but ultimately most noteworthy for his role as trade bait for Paul O’Neill a few years later.

OF Jesse Barfield — Never the feared slugger with the Yankees that he briefly was with the Blue Jays, Jesse Barfield was beset by injuries and a .231 batting average in four seasons in Pinstripes. But oh, how I loved to watch Jesse Barfield throw a baseball. Even after a routine fly ball, his rifle arm would smoothly uncoil, and he would uncork a strike toward the infield the likes of which most Yankee pitchers at the time could only dream of.

DH Kevin Maas — Who can forget the summer of 1990 when rookie Kevin began belting home runs into the right field stands at a record pace and all things seemed possible? Ten homers in 72 AB’s, and for a while it was simply a matter of determining where in Monument Park the Kevin Maas plaque would ultimately reside. Oh well.

SP Tommy John — Long before the surgery that bears his name became de rigeur in baseball circles, I simply could never escape Tommy John. If I went to a Yankee game in the ’80’s, Tommy John would pitch. Every time. I hoped for Rick Rhoden, wished for Andy Hawkins, and would have settled for Chuck Cary. But no. Tommy John was to starting pitchers what Bobby Meacham was to baseball cards.

SP Melido Perez — At every game I attend, I take my seat convinced today is the day I will witness a no-hitter. It’s never happened, never even close. But the longest I ever got to wait in suspense before watching a ball land safely and having to mutter the dreaded, “There goes the no-hitter,” was when Melido Perez blanked the opposition for five innings at Yankee Stadium. I can’t remember who they played, I don’t recall anyone else being caught up in the drama, and I’m pretty sure the Yankees lost. But when I think of narrow misses, I think of Melido Perez throwing up zeroes for one glorious night in the Bronx. Well, for five innings anyway.

SP Dennis Rasmussen — With Rickey Henderson firmly entrenched as my favorite player and Don Mattingly close behind, the pint-sized purist in me was bothered by not having a favorite pitcher. I pored over my Yankee yearbook, and after a gravely serious consultation with my older sister, I settled on Dennis Rasmussen for no other reason than his impressive-sounding name. Shockingly, he rewarded my support with an 18-6, 3.88 season that came out of nowhere before returning to more routine Dennis Rasmussen-ness.

SP David Phelps — In my time following the team, there has only been one active Yankee with whom I’ve shared my birthday, October 9. It’s David Phelps. So ask all the questions you’d like: Does he have a future with the team? Rotation or long relief? Should he be dangled as trade bait? But David Phelps will always have a spot on this All-Sentimental Team’s roster.

RP Cecilio Guante — True story: In Ninth Grade my history teacher turned to me during a lesson review and said, “Mr. Gibber, the assassination of which Archduke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was the immediate cause of the outbreak of World War I?” And without hesitation I responded, “Cecilio Guante.” I can’t even really explain it, but this happened.

RP Rick Cerone — I know, I know. Rick Cerone was a workmanlike catcher who hit .249 in 7 mostly nondescript seasons with the Yankees and has no place on any team’s mound. But while on a family trip to Detroit in 1987 my father scalped outrageously overpriced tickets for the two of us to spend the afternoon obstructed by a mammoth light transformer at the old Tigers Stadium. The Yankees were mauled 15-4, and in the ninth inning ,out came Rick Cerone to give the battered Yankee bullpen a rest. 1 IP, 0 H, 1 BB, 0 R. Maybe they should have had him start.

…But enough about me, what about you? With the dawn of another Baseball New Year, why not indulge in a moment’s break from WAR calculations, injury updates, luxury tax thresholds and PED inquiries and instead share some of the moments, players and experiences that have made the fan you are today?

Associated Press photo