Memories of Munson, Murcer and My First Game

My first “in-person” baseball game was at Yankee Stadium in 1979. I went with my little league team. We were awful. I don’t think we won a game all year if memory serves. To make matters worse, I grew up a New York Mets fan, after watching Steve Henderson hit a home run on TV the moment I turned the game on. Little did I know, the Mets stunk and the Yankees were on top of the baseball world.

That was until 1979.

Thurman Munson, the team’s captain and catcher was killed in a plane crash that year. The plane was his own. He bought it to get home to Canton, Ohio to be close to his family and one night while practicing take offs and landings he lost control of the plane and it crashed.

A few days later. I attended my first game at Yankee Stadium. Controversy swooned around the stadium because that morning was Munson’s funeral. The Yankees chartered a private plane and the entire team went. The League office was upset because they had a game that night against Baltimore. What if they didn’t make it back on time for the game.

Owner George Steinbrenner put his foot down. “Tough shit. We’re going. If we don’t make it back, we forfeit.” Steinbrenner was often crazy but he had his principles and he wasn’t going to compromise on this.

I was 9 years old and Thurman was the first young person I ever heard of who had died. I had planned to root for the Orioles for weeks but then Munson’s death changed my mind.

“These guys have been through a lot,” my dad reminded me. “We should show them some respect.”

There was a small moment of silence at this game. A few days earlier Cardinal Cooke eulogized Munson at the Cathedral known as Yankee Stadium.

The Yanks had been through an emotional day. They had been to their teammates funeral and then trotted out on the field. Bobby Murcer gave one of the eulogies. Manager Billy Martin offered to sit him out for the game but Mercer told him “No, I think I need to play tonight.”

The result was astounding. Mercer homered in the 7th and then drove in the tying and winning runs in the 9th with a hot single. He had done it for his friend, in his memory. And he made me a memory that night as well.

Mercer never used that bat again. He gave it to Munson’s widow, Diana.

An amazing man mourning and amazing friend.

Mercer died not all that long ago after suffering from brain cancer. He returned to the broadcast booth (Mercer became a Yankee broadcaster after his playing days were done) and the crowd gave him a standing ovation.

When you’re a kid you don’t know the magnitude of a night like that. It was a good game. I had no real rooting interest. I didn’t realize Munson’s funeral was that morning when I went to the game but was sad by many posters and signs mourning him around the stadium. Looking back now, it was a heck of a first game for a nine year old kid.

Baseball can transcend life in that way and I hope you have some baseball memories that are just as memorable. This one is one of my favorites.

Rest in peace, Thurman and Bobby.

Guest Blogging at American Catholic

I have been remiss (since I have been traveling) to mention that because the NY Yankees beat the Reds I was given the opportunity to guest blog over at courtesy of Barbara Baker (who you know by the twitter handle @BarbaraKB). A snip:

“Click-clack, click-clack, click-click-click. Click-clack, click-clack, click-click-click.”

I looked up when I heard the sound and there he was, Yankeee first baseman Don Mattingly, taking two steps in his cleats and then skidding his spikes on the floor to create sparks.

“Cool, huh?” he said to me, a cub reporter in my first game covering the New York Yankees for WFAN radio.

I was immediately transported back to being a 15-year-old and trying to ask a girl out for the first time. That went badly. She laughed at me and then told all her friends. I thank God Facebook didn’t exist in 1985. It was bad enough with just a small group knowing, nevermind the whole school.

Read the rest and enjoy a nice summer post on baseball and discernment.

Freddy Sez: “Rest in Peace”

One of the joys of going to Yankee Stadium and one of the great highlights of my time covering the team as a reporter was simply being around a man named Freddy. Freddy Schuman was kind of an unofficial mascot at the stadium. He had a sign that he carried around with him that would say:

Freddy sez: “Opening Day 2010: Let’s make it 28!” (a reference to the number of World Series Championships the Yankees have won.)

He’d also carry around a kitchen spoon and a shamrock laden pot (more like a pan really) that would hang from his sign and he’d bang that pan with the spoon and allow fans to tap it as he walked around the stadium.

Freddy was a genius in simplicity. What many don’t know is that Freddy was not just a Yankee fan but was also a great supporter of the Bronx in general. I saw him at Fordham games often and Manhattan College games (which is strangely located in the Riverdale section of the Bronx and not Manhattan). I’d see him on the subway and he’d often take in a high school football game as well in his beloved borough. But it was indeed the Bronx Bombers that he was most in love with. Yankee jacket in tow, Freddy was an institution.

“Clang, clang, clang!” Here comes Freddy! I said it probably a thousand times and it never got old.

Sadly, Freddy, that Yankee institution, died at the age of 85 after having a heart attack on Friday night.

One of the moments that I remember from Freddy was the time that some idiot stole Freddy’s tin pan. He had been using the same one for the entire time he had been attending games–an incredible span of 22 years! About 10 years ago, the pan got stolen. The New York Daily News even ran a piece asking the thief to return the pan with no questions asked. I don’t think I ever saw Freddy sadder than when he was without that sentimental piece of his mascot-dom.

The thief did indeed return the pan to the News and when it was given back to Freddy he began to strike that pan with such pure unadulterated joy! It was a moment I will never forget.

The Yankees will have a moment of silence for Freddy tonight, but I think it would be more appropriate if the starting 9 all brought pans and spoons out to their spot on the field and filled that silence with the clanging that Freddy brought with him to the stadium each and every time. Maybe the fans could also join in although I doubt security would allow them to bring in all that metal.

Regardless, tonight, remember a nice man named Freddy who only sought to support his team, bring us all a bit of joy and bang a pot with glee.

The Voice of God…Stilled

Bob Sheppard the great Yankee public address announcer has died at the reported age of 99 after a full life filled with much joy. I place a picture of his microphone here as most people didn’t know what Bob looked like–and that was kind of the way he liked it. But you knew that voice. A perfect pronunciation of every syllable made Sheppard a standout. Derek Jeter has his voice recorded and only allows that recording to be used for his at bats.

“Now batting for the Yankees…number 2… the shortstop…Derek Jee-tuh….number 2.”

I got to interview Sheppard twice, once for a piece for BustedHalo® and again during my radio career at the stadium. (For the audio version of the Sheppard interview listen here)

The guy was the classiest man I have ever met. A daily communicant all his life, Sheppard was a big supporter of Catholic education, coaching forensics at Mary Louis Academy in Queens and teaching speech at St John’s University for dozens of years (a fact unknown by many). He inspired me to go into ministry when I was a locker room reporter for WOR and we chatted in the middle of a ballgame in his booth.

He asked my last name and I told him “Hayes.”

He replied, “Oh! Like the Cardinal! (A former Archbishop of New York–no relation).”

He then said, “Well what the heck are you doing HERE!? You should be at the seminary or something!”

Little did Bob know, I was thinking of going into ministry and you never know when you’re going to hear the Voice of God telling you exactly what you should do. I let him know about this in a brief interview and he got a real kick out of it. Again the audio is on this podcast.

Just like Yankee Shortstop Paul Zuvella. Sheppard approached him on his first day in a Yankee uniform and asked,

“Is it Zu-vell-uh or Zoovuh-la?”

Paul responded with the former pronunciation, Sheppard gave him a quick thank you and departed. Zuvella then looked at then Daily news reporter Michael Kay and asked, “Who the hell was that?”

Kay responded, “That…was God.”

Zuvella: “I don’t get it!”

Kay: “You will once you get to the plate today.”

A confused Zuvella shrugged and moved on with his pre-game ritual.

Before his first At Bat Sheppard intoned:

“Now batting for the Yankees…..number 26….The shortstop…Paul…Zu-vell-uh…..number 26.”

Zuvella looked up with the expression like “Oh! Now I get it!”

Sheppard had two loves, The Yankees and his beloved family, starting with his devoted wife, Mary who he married and always looked at her with loving eyes. Listen to the interview I did with him and you’ll hear it for yourself. Children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren were always his priority.

Imagine being a church lector and then telling people that Bob Sheppard trained you in proclaiming the Word of the Lord! That’s exactly what many people in Bob’s parish were able to say and he always took special interest in young lectors. A friend watched him sling his arm around a young lady who read at mass that day and watched him critique her quietly, lovingly.

She hung on to his every word.

Today I am sad for the Yankees and baseball but grateful for my ministry, and for a few brief moments that I spent with a sincere gentleman, kind enough to take a few moments for me. It is in gratitude for his encouragement that I celebrate today along with a ministry that was encouraged by the very Voice of God.

Memories of Mr October’s Swagger

Reggie Jackson is doing a show called October Nights on Sirius Satellite Radio these days and with the dawn of baseball’s post-season, I always think back to baseball stars of the past that I can remember. Reggie is certainly one of them.

Growing up in the 70s and 80s there were two men who I remember as just having such arrogance that their swagger and confidence always made you want to hate them but they were so good that you had to respect them as well. Muhammad Ali was one and Reggie jackson was the other.

I hated him. I was a Mets fan who was surrounded by Yankee fans in my Yonkers neighborhood, a stone’s throw from the House that Ruth Built. Reggie was a star, nay, THE star on a loaded Yankees squad that won the World Series in 1977 and 1978 when I was in first and second grade and just beginning my love affair with baseball.

Fast forward over 20 years and I was a radio beat reporter for WOR covering the Yankee Old Timers Day. Out of the dugout stepped Reggie. He still looked larger than life. And he still had that swagger, that arrogance. He stepped into the batter’s box for batting practice and crushed a pitch into the bleachers and another and another. The old man could still swing well into his 50s. Jackson finished his batting practice regimen and then came over to talk with us reporter types.

He answered easy questions on a fun day such as what the difference is in the game today as opposed to when he played. “Money” was his one word answer (and for his time, Reggie was paid handsomely but nowhere near what guys get today!).

I had my moment to ask him a question:

“Reggie, I can still see you appreciate the fans coming out to see you. You still are trying to hit those pitches out of the park. Can you tell me what the fans mean to you today as opposed to when you were playing?”

Reggie: “I love them. And hold on? What do you mean I’m TRYING to hit some out? I hit a few! I hit more than a few!”

Me: (Nervous, thinking I’ve annoyed him) No, Reggie..that’s not what I meant…”

Reggie: (now smiling) Nah man, I ain’t mad. (Slings his arm around me and pokes me in the chest playfully) I’ll tell you what..I’m gonna hit you a homer today in the Old Timer’s Game. Just for you!”

Me: Yeah, OK.

Reggie: “No, I REALLY am.”

Me: (Trying to stay professional) “OK, Reggie. Thanks.”

We departed and I went upstairs and took my seat in the press box as the Old Timer’s Game began. If you’ve never been to an Old Timer’s Game it’s hysterical. It’s the equivalent of a not-so-serious softball game, although some would say that even at their age most of these guys hate to lose and some take it more seriously than others.

Reggie got up to the plate. Dug in and awaited the pitch. Fastball belt high.

Reggie swings…


And like a bullet the ball flew high and far into the right field bleachers. Home Run.

Reggie took his home run trot and as he rounded third base he looked up to the press box and pointed to me. I simply waved back and started laughing.

Later on I ran into Reggie as he made he way to his office which was near the press box (Reggie works for the Yankees as a special assistant now). He winked at me and said “Told ya.”

Such swagger, such arrogance…but in a good way. It’s something I used to hate but now wish I would see more from today’s athletes who, as Reggie even admitted seem to be more about making money than winning baseball games. Derek Jeter may be the lone exception but even he lacks that kind of swagger that Reggie and Ali oozed at all times.

So tonight I hope that the Yankees can begin their quest for another World Championship with the swagger that demands respect, an arrogance that comes with being great.

Two stadiums and a hole in the ground

A great post today from our friends at The Mets Police:

Six and a half years ago a nightmare descended upon this city. At the time both the Mets
and Yankees had been discussing new stadia with the city. Following 9/11 those discussions were put on hold so that the city could recover and rebuild.

Recover we did – rebuild we have not.

Six and a half years later, two structures designed for a game have been designed, constructed, and now opened. Several hundred million dollars in city and state “assistance” has helped in getting these structures built.

Yet just over 9 miles away from each site there remains a big hole in the ground where two office towers once stood.

Think about that for a moment.

6 1/2 years
$2+ Billion
2 new, state-of-the-art ballparks
0 towers

Read a bit more here.

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A-Rod and Steriods

I watched Alex Rodriquez with Peter Gammons on ESPN last night. For those who don’t know, I covered baseball for over 8 years at WFAN and WOR (a lot less glamorous than it sounds–think of me as a “soundbyte gatherer” as opposed to a reporter) and had the opportunity to meet and interview A-Rod when he was with Seattle. I found him to be surprisingly nice–I say “surprisingly” because many baseball players–especially the bigger stars hate the media and are often surly. A-Rod, at least in Seattle, was one of the rare exceptions.

So keep in mind that this is a guy who I genuinely liked meeting and interacting with and a guy who I found to be an outstanding player on the field as well.

So what do i think should be done to A-Rod after he was caught and then admitted that he used steroids in 2001-2003?

I would opt that A-Rod’s contract should be void now with the Yankees and he can only re-sign with them under their terms. He should not be allowed to take on any endorsement deals and should be fined at least 40% of the value of his contract from 2001-2003.

The same punishment should also be doled out to the other 103 ballplayers on that list–that now have become public despite the baseball union’s lack of protecting these players who submitted their results for an anonymous test. It’s time for baseball to take a stand and while there were no rules in play for this type of behavior at that juncture, the bottom line is that baseball’s numbers have now been artificially inflated because of drugs.

And baseball is a numbers game. This has so much stink on it now that a good bath with tomato juice won’t clean it. We can never look at this time of baseball history again in the same way. Period. End of story.

A-Rod cited being “young and stupid” feeling pressure to perform and a host of other convenient excuses. While I’m apt to forgive people their faults and move on (we’re a forgiving church after all), I’m less apt to do so once someone gets caught and has imperfect contrition. If this report doesn’t come out–then A-Rod is still playing and not about to mention anything to anyone about his steroid use.

The worst part about it for me was when he said and I paraphrase, “I don’t even know what substance I was found guilty of taking.”

So does that mean he was possibly taking many different substances? Who knows?

While our church emphasizes forgiveness and I admit that it takes a big man to stand up and admit that these reports are true as opposed to Roger Clemens (who I suspect is still taking steroids) who will never admit it, it also demands justice.