By Will Weiss
Part Two of Two: The Personalities
I’m lucky to have my own batch of special memories from my five years covering the team. But the thing I’ll miss most is interacting with the many people who gave the stadium life.
There were a few regular occurrences: the mad rush for positioning in the dugout when Joe Torre would prepare for his pre-game conference with the media; Jim Kaat making a beeline through Brian Cashman’s office to get coffee right before the seventh inning stretch; Bob Sheppard’s sprint to the elevator right after the game (you wouldn’t believe how spry he was) and the way he’d disappear when the elevator reached the lobby. There was also the inimitable way in which official scorer Bill Shannon announced a scoring decision. The first time I heard, “Single, runner takes second on the throw,” or, “E-Five. Error on the third baseman,” I thought it was the ghost of Harry Caray, or at the very least, Will Ferrell’s impersonation of the late broadcaster.
I learned a lot about the press culture and how to act – mainly to shut up and stay out of the way – from Phil Pepe. He covered the team from the early 1960s through the early ’80s, and observed the many internal changes that took place. We would frequently eat dinner together in the press dining room before games, particularly in 2003 and ’04, when he rotated with Bill Shannon, Howie Karpin, and Jordan Sprechman as official scorers.
The press dining room was an interesting place to mingle, network, and get information from “sources close to the situation.” It was routine to see writers chatting up advance scouts from teams both the Yankees and their opponents would be playing within the next week to 10 days. I had some good conversations with members of the A’s staff prior to an Aaron Small start back in 2005, as well as chats with the Twins in 2004 before the playoffs.
It was also a great place to observe the cliquey nature of the New York baseball writers. I found it amazing how they could socialize and be cordial to one another in one setting, but would gouge each other’s eyes out if it came to getting a scoop. You always knew where John Sterling was, based on the level of harrumphing.
My favorite encounter in the press dining room happened by complete accident. Between the 6 and 7 o’clock hour, during one of the Tigers’ two visits to the Stadium, I had completed my pregame info gathering in the clubhouse and headed in for some dinner before I started writing my pre-game notebook. I couldn’t find an empty table, and the only empty seat was at a table with the legendary Sheppard and Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell, who was retiring at the end of the season. Scared out of my mind, I approached the table and asked, “Is this seat taken?”
“No, young fella,” said Harwell.
It was the ultimate “I’m not worthy” moment. I sat down, trembling. All I ever wanted to be growing up was a baseball play-by-play man and here I was in the presence of two of the greatest voices of all time.
The three of us made small talk for a few minutes. I wish I remembered the topic of conversation. I recall I didn’t say much; I just wanted to listen to Harwell and Sheppard. I wanted to ask them both about 1951: Harwell’s TV call of the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” and Sheppard giving insight to his first year on the Yankee Stadium microphone. There wasn’t enough time. When Harwell got up to leave, we shook hands, and he wished me luck in my career.
The only other time I was starstruck was Old Timer’s Day in 2002. I made it my mission to meet Don Mattingly; for many fans, including myself, who grew up watching the Yankees in the 1980s and ’90s, he was the be-all, end-all. When I finally found an opportunity to approach him, I introduced myself, again shaking. I told him, at the risk of sounding unprofessional, that I wanted to thank him for all the great years, and that it was a pleasure to meet my favorite baseball player ever. His response: “Thanks, Bill. That means a lot.”
I didn’t care that he called me Bill instead of Will. He could have called me Ted and I wouldn’t have cared. I’ve been fortunate to meet a couple of my idols, but based on that moment and the times I interviewed him during his coaching tenure, I can say definitively that Don Mattingly was the classiest of them all.
There was always action in the clubhouse, Old Timer’s Day or no. During one post-game interview in 2004, during El Duque’s second tour with the Yankees, as the press huddled around him and asked questions in English, which were translated to him by his interpreter, Leo Astacio, I took notes while he was relaying the answer back to Leo, pre-translation. Duque looked over Leo’s shoulder, noticed me taking notes and gave me a nod and a wink, as if to say, “OK, the gringo speaks Spanish.” I nodded back to acknowledge him. The next day, as he stretched in preparation for his throw day, I introduced myself, we chatted a bit in Spanish, and he called me “Papi.”
The ability to speak Spanish was a tremendous icebreaker in the Yankee clubhouse. Alfonso Soriano and Mariano Rivera were gracious enough to let me practice my Spanish on them. In mid-May of 2005, a couple of weeks after Robinson Cano called up, I was writing a feature on him. I walked up to him, and not knowing if he spoke any English – he was just 22 at the time – I began speaking to him in Spanish. He stopped me before I got my first question out and said, “Talk to me in English. I want to practice my English.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Yes, I need to speak English,” Cano said.
Melky Cabrera was much shyer when I wrote a feature on him the following year. I conducted that interview in Spanish and translated the quotes for the feature.
My favorite clubhouse moment, though, came on September 30, 2004, in the celebratory atmosphere that followed Bernie Williams’ game-winning, division-clinching home run. As I was walking into position to find my way into the huddle near Bernie, I walked past a local TV reporter interviewing Mike Mussina. Mussina, known to be witty and at times condescending to certain members of the media, was in rare form. The reporter started the interview with this question: “Mike, you’ve been outspoken this season, complaining about the trip to Japan, you struggled through an injury…” Mussina cut the reporter off and said, “How do you know I’ve been complaining? You’ve been here like 10 minutes all year.”
The reporter looked back at the cameraman and asked to start over.
Now, four years after that wild scene, the Yankees, their fans, and baseball buffs in general have the opportunity to look back at all the incredible moments at the Stadium. As for starting over, Joe Girardi and his crew will get to do that soon enough, in a new building. Maybe someday I’ll have the opportunity to get to the new Stadium in a reporting mode and start over myself, and reconnect with the people that gave the old Stadium life.
Will Weiss, author of the weekly Yankee Panky column here at Bronx Banter, covered the Yankees from 2002-2007 as Senior Editor of YESNetwork.com.