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Observations From Cooperstown–Old-Timers Day

I’ll never get tired of Old-Timers Day. In fact, as I work my way into my early forties, I only appreciate this wondrous day more and more. It boggles the mind that the Yankees are the last team to hold the fort on Old-Timers Day—of the 30 clubs, they’re the only team that bothers to stage this event any more—but that’s a subject for another day. Rather than focus on what other teams are losing out on—hey, it’s their loss, not the loss of Yankee fans—let’s take a look at some of the more memorable moments from the latest gathering of legends at Yankee Stadium.

*I was amazed at the loudness of the ovation for Scott Brosius, who was one of several former Yankees participating in his first Old-Timers Day at the Stadium. Although mostly a journeyman player during his big league career, Brosius enjoyed a career year in pinstripes in 1998 and then hit that nail-in-the-coffin home run against Trevor Hoffman in the World Series. Those accomplishments, coupled with the relative recentness of Brosius’ time in New York, have made him one of the most popular of the ex-Yankees. (Imagine if Brosius had played for the Yankees in the 1980s; he likely wouldn’t even be invited to Old-Timers Day.) I guess Brosius’ cult status shouldn’t come as that surprising given how many fans lament for the hard-nosed players of the recent dynasty. The three names that fans always mention are Paul "The Warrior" O’Neill, Tino Martinez, and—of course, Scott Brosius.

*Other than Brosius, several former Yankees made their inaugural appearances at Old-Timers Day. O’Neill, the recipient of some loud chanting at the Stadium on Saturday, was the most prominent. Even into his sixth year of retirement, he looks to be in the same kind of playing shape today and rifled a line drive single into right-enter field. (Former Yankee GM Gene Michael says O’Neill retired way too early, giving up three our four more potentially productive seasons.) Given the struggles of the every-passive Bobby Abreu, maybe the Yankees should give O’Neill an audition. Well, let’s not get that desperate… On a more realistic front, I wonder why we don’t hear more talk about O’Neill becoming a manager. (After all, there have been whispers about O’Neill becoming the Reds bench coach in 2008.) Fiery and intelligent, O’Neill was often mentioned as a future managerial candidate at the tail end of his playing career. I know that O’Neill is concerned about spending large chunks of time away from his young children, but perhaps he’ll take a page out of Don Mattingly’s book and begin to pursue a coaching career once his children get older. O’Neill could become a curious cross between Billy Martin and Lou Piniella, and wouldn’t that be an interesting kind of manager for Yankee fans to follow after the sedate tenure of Joe Torre?

*A couple of Yankees from the lean years also made their Old-Timers debuts. Ken Griffey, Sr. and Jesse Barfield reappeared in Yankee pinstripes for the first time in years. I have to admit that I never much cared for the senior Griffey as a Yankee; he was a chronic complainer who showed a reluctance to try to steal bases and who bristled when the team tried to move him to first base. On one occasion, Griffey failed to show up for a game (a cardinal sin for a professional athlete), only contacting the team at a very late hour to provide a reason for his absence. I find his return to the Stadium curious; could it be an omen that Griffey, Jr. is on his way to the Bronx? As for Barfield, I have a much softer spot for the former right fielder. Though he played for some of the worst Yankee teams in the early 1990s, Barfield always played hard, displayed one of the greatest arms in recent right field history, and gave the Yankees some decent production before giving way to Danny Tartabull. Barfield also carried himself like a classy gentleman, which is one reason why I root for his son, Indians second baseman Josh Barfield.

*As the Yankees always do, the organization remembered former players who have passed away within the last 12 months. The list of names read by Bob Sheppard included Cory Lidle, Hank Bauer, and Clete Boyer, along with onetime Yankees Steve Barber, Lew Burdette, Johnny Callison, Pat Dobson, Pete Mikkelsen, and Joe Niekro, and former Yankee pitching coach Art Fowler. I knew Boyer fairly well from recent summers, in which he lived in Cooperstown and often signed autographs up and down Main Street. I also remember Barber, Callison, Dobson and Niekro from my early days growing up with baseball, yet another sign that I’m treading toward middle age.

*The theme of this year’s Old-Timers Day centered on the 30th anniversary of the 1977 World Championship team. That’s a summer that I remember vividly. I was 12 years old, still in grade school, and savoring what would be the first Yankee World Championship of my lifetime. Sixteen members of that team attended Saturday’s reunion. Also, in a nice touch, close relatives of four deceased members of that club (captain Thurman Munson, Hall of Fame right-hander Jim "Catfish" Hunter, coach Elston Howard, and manager Billy Martin) were introduced to the crowd. That left roughly ten prominent players from the ’77 squad who did not show for a variety of reasons. Several of the ’77 Yankees are managers at either the major league level (Lou Piniella and Willie Randolph), in the minor leagues (Sparky Lyle), or in the new Israel Baseball League (Ken Holtzman), thereby making them unavailable for Saturday’s ceremonies. With those exceptions, that left Roy White, Carlos May, Fred "Chicken" Stanley, Fran Healy, Don Gullett, and Dick "Dirt" Tidrow as no-shows. Stanley and Tidrow both work as executives with other clubs, so perhaps that created a conflict. Healy has disassociated himself from the Yankees since working for them as a radio broadcaster in the early 1980s. As for White, May, and Gullett, I’m not sure of the reasons behind their absences. White was fired by the Yankees after his last coaching stint, so perhaps that was a factor, while the whereabouts of Gullett and May remain unknown to me.

*Perhaps the most surprising attendee among the ’77 Yankees was Mickey Klutts, a onetime highly regarded prospect who flopped in the major leagues. Klutts (man, we had fun with that name back in the seventies) appeared in all of five games in 1977, coming to bat 15 times, but was still included in the ‘77 contingent. (Klutts actually had fewer at-bats than 1977 late arrival Dave Kingman, who has about as much association with the Yankees today as Ken Phelps.) It makes you wonder if Dave Bergman, Gene Locklear, and Marty Perez received invites to the reunion.

*The No 1 highlight of this year’s Old-Timers gathering may have been the appearance of Bobby Murcer. Given some of the grave reports surrounding Murcer’s battle with cancer this past winter, I wondered whether we’d see Murcer on Old-Timers Saturday. Not only did Murcer appear, but also he wore a uniform, sported a microphone for the YES Network, played in the actual game, and delivered a hard-hit line drive that was caught in right field. Though his uniform looked a bit baggy because of his recent weight loss, Murcer moved well for someone battling the effects of brain cancer. His hair has also started to grow back after recent chemotherapy treatments. And just as importantly, Murcer has lost none of the self-deprecating humor that makes him one of the most beloved of all the retired Yankees. Simply put, Bobby Murcer is one of the best justifications for having something like Old-Timers Day in the first place.

Let’s just hope the Yankees remain the last holdouts among major league teams and never do away with this gathering of nostalgia and remembrance known as Old-Timers Day.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver