Our final Pinch Hitter is Kerry Fitzpatrick, a 72-year-old who started following the Yankees while growing up at the Jersey shore during the late 40s. “I listened to games on the radio first,” he wrote. “And then on a small black-and-white TV, listening to Mel Allen talk about Joe, Yogi, Whitey, Casey, Mick and all those other great Yankees of that era. My first game at The House That Ruth Built was on May 30, 1956 (when Memorial Day was always the 30th). It was a doubleheader that the Yanks swept against the Senators, but what was most memorable was that Mickey almost hit one out of the park — the ball hitting the right field facade about 18 inches from the top.”
I challenge you to beat that baseball memory.
Kerry wrote that his interest drifted a little bit in the 60s. He was working in corporate finance, living in Florida and unimpressed by George Steinbrenner’s hands-on approach. It was the decision to hire Joe Torre that brought Kerry back onboard, “just in time for some great teams.”
Now retired, Kerry splits his time between Kentucky and Florida, where he lives 15 minutes from the Yankees spring training home. That background and proximity make him perfect for sending us into these next seven weeks.
How we have all waited over the winter to hear those words again. All the daily speculation about which free agents are of interest to which teams, PEDs and other rumor mongering from the ESPN talking heads is about to take a rear seat to what we most love — baseball games.
As a season ticket holder for Yankees spring training for nine years, I’ve been counting the days. Spring training games at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa are like heaven to me. Except for one trip to see what the Trop was like a few years ago (I was not impressed), I haven’t been to a regular or postseason game in decades, but spring training is a month-long stream of pleasure.
Weather in Tampa is perfect in March. Temperatures usually in the 70s, and there’s little rain. As a traditionalist, I think playing on real grass in the day is where our sport belongs. In the 11,000 seat venue, there are no seats requiring binoculars or nose bleed medications. And at $25 a pop, tickets fit what my retiree’s budget wants to spend; which is far less than regular-season tickets.
Opening Day, a day filled with optimism and laughter in every sport, always includes the introduction of former Yankee greats who are special spring training instructors. Bernie, Goose, Louisiana Lightning, Lou and Tino have all been introduced in recent years, and I’ve heard that Jorge will be there this year. Last of the introductions, always drawing the loudest and most prolonged ovation is number 8 — not as nimble as he once was, but even more respected than years ago.
From the start, we get to see the regulars — position players usually for two at bats, and pitchers for about three innings. They will increase their time on the field as the five weeks of spring training games grind through the schedule.
As I’ve long said, the price of admission is worth it just for one half inning. That’s when Mo comes in. Mo doesn’t do road games, so in March, you can only see him in Tampa. He sets his own schedule, and you won’t see him the first couple of weeks. But the last two weeks, you’ll probably see him every other day.
And Mo doesn’t do ninth innings either. The regulars know he’ll come in earlier in the game at the start of inning, they’ll start looking toward the bullpen between innings while the tourist fans are busy going to the concession stands.
The flip side of the regulars leaving the game early is that the guys fighting for roster spots and the top prospects get a lot of opportunities to play, and for many of us in attendance, that is far more interesting than watching the regulars. The younger guys often have trouble dealing with the pressure, particularly the pitchers whose ability to throw strikes can diminish rapidly. David Phelps was pretty impressive last spring and went on to a good first season in the Bronx. Brett Gardner was the best newcomer a few years ago, and I’m sure he will impress and provide a much-needed spark this year. I’m very much looking forward to seeing Gary Sanchez, Slade Heathcott and Tyler Austin in action.
Some years it becomes obvious the last week or so who will make the 25 man roster for Opening Day. Trying to figure it out is one of those great puzzles for many of us. Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman make the final call, but we are all second guessers, aren’t we?
For all those who make it down this spring, may I offer a few tips from an old timer: First, never approach the parking lot from Dale Mabry, regardless of what all the signs say. It’s always backed up. Approach on Himes, on the other side of the big football stadium, and you’ll zip right in. Second, get yourself a press guide for only $20. It’s filled with good stuff, including notes and records on virtually every player in camp and all those in the Yankees system. You’ll use it all year. Last year, the Yanks didn’t put it on sale at the ballpark until the last week of spring training, but other years it’s been earlier.
Associated Press photos