Reggie Jackson turned 65 yesterday. He was my baseball hero as a kid. He was also Jon DeRosa’s idol. To mark the occasion of Reggie becoming a senior citizen, figured this is as good a time as any to share Jon’s Lasting Yankee Stadium Memory (which appeared in the book but not on-line until now).
By Jon DeRosa
On January 22, 1982 Reggie Jackson signed with the California Angels. It was the latest in a series of difficult lessons for me—a six-year-old who otherwise had it pretty good. In rapid succession, Darth Vader revealed he was Luke Skywalker’s father, the Yankees crashed out of the only two baseball seasons I had ever followed, and my Grandmother passed days after my little brother was born on my 6th birthday. I was looking for a fight and George Steinbrenner and his Yankees were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I assigned Steinbrenner and Vader to the same category of evil: each had reached into my life and changed things forever. I actively rooted for the Yankees’ decline the way I rooted for the fall of the Empire. I removed my Yankee baseball cards from the binder, secured them with merciless rubber bands and tossed them in with obscure Seattle Mariners and Cleveland Indians and other total strangers. From that point on, I rooted for the Angels.
In 1982, for a kid in New York, that was difficult. You had to write a letter to the team, addressed to the stadium itself, requesting them to mail you an order form so that you might have the opportunity to buy something with a halo on it. My mother wrote such a letter and, by the grace of Gene Autry, was allowed to purchase a cap, a helmet, a jersey, and for some reason, Angels wristbands. I wore the whole ensemble to Yankee Stadium on Tuesday April 27th, 1982 for Reggie’s first game back in New York. My father and older brother were with me but I was scared stiff. What if he struck out? What if they booed? What if the Yankees were right?
We watched batting practice from right field in a light rain as a buzzing crowd filed in around us. Our seats were in the upper deck between first base and right field, where we munched on hot dogs. I felt grown-up whenever I was allowed to get two, but that night, my nervous stomach wasn’t accommodating. The rain made the bun on the second hot dog a little soggy.
When Reggie came to bat in the second inning, Bob Sheppard announced his name with such elegance that I imagined it was a personal statement, “I should be announcing this name every night.” This was the moment I dreaded. Would they boo? The crowd stood and chanted: REG-GIE, REG-GIE, REG-GIE. Buoyed by the warmth of the welcome, I got to my feet, but my jaw was frozen shut and I couldn’t move my lips. My dad put his arm around me as Ron Guidry poured in a heater. Reggie took his massive cut, but he got jammed and popped out. I was back in my seat the instant I saw Reggie’s reaction.
The game rolled along at a pace more akin to a 100-meter dash than a modern American League baseball game—they got through seven innings in 1 hour and 51 minutes before the game was called due to rain. When Reggie batted in the fifth, the crowd rose for him again. REG-GIE, REG-GIE, REG-GIE. He yanked a single to right field and was rewarded with brief applause. I was silent throughout this at bat, too, but the base hit calmed my nerves temporarily. The crowd asked; Reggie delivered. Contract complete, customers satisfied, right? Even a child should have known better. Yankee fans didn’t ask—they demanded. And they didn’t want a single; they wanted a home run.
When they greeted Reggie with his chant for the third time in the seventh, my stomach knotted, and I wished they would stop chanting. It wasn’t fanatical devotion; it was the begging of spoiled children. REG-GIE, REG-GIE, REG-GIE might as well be MORE, MORE, MORE. I knew it was not fair to ask for so much. In this world I was learning about, teams lose, people die; things just don’t usually work out…
I saw Reggie’s black bat whip through the hitting zone; the ball accelerated at an improbable speed and angle at impact and assumed a trajectory that could have sent it across the street if not for the upper deck façade. As the ball sped past my face it erased all my doubts and fears and I felt a lightness rise from my gut to my head. Pure relief. I couldn’t hear anything because my mind had not yet validated this moment as reality. Then the noise just materialized in my ears: REG-GIE, REG-GIE, REG-GIE, louder than the other three times combined. My brother and father jostled me from side to side as they chanted along.
I stayed quiet. How did this happen? Did I use the Force to will that ball out of the park? I couldn’t even comprehend that I just got exactly what I wanted. What were the ramifications of getting what you pray for? I should have been screaming my head off, but I just stared out at Reggie rounding the bases, making sure he touched every one and hoping he was as happy as I was.
The chanting didn’t end when Reggie reached the dugout. When he came out for his curtain call, as if they had rehearsed it prior to the game, the crowd turned toward Steinbrenner’s box and let him have it. Steinbrenner SUCKS, Steinbrenner SUCKS, Steinbrenner SUCKS! All of the emotion that had built up in my little body flowed through the crowd into the damp Stadium air. My brother and father were gleefully singing the song, rousing me to participate. But I felt bad for George and I kept silent.