Sunday, September 21, 2008

Yankee Stadium

Tonight, you may be aware, the Yankees and the Orioles are playing the final game that will ever be played in Yankee Stadium.

I'm a Red Sox fan. You all know this. I've been one for many years, and I'm proud of it. Which normally means that I'm rooting for a) the Red Sox and b) whoever is playing the Yankees. But not tonight. Tonight, I want the Yanks to win. I want their last appearance in their legendary park to be a victory. Next year - what am I saying? tomorrow - I'll go right back to maintaining that every loss for the Yankees is a victory for civilization, but tonight, I want them to win. I'll even go so far as to say that I want Johnny Damon, a former Red Sox and hero of the '04 Postseason, to be the last Yankee to hit a homer in the Stadium. Mr. Demon may have a special chamber in Hell reserved for him, but it would give me a kind of joy watching him be the hero tonight.

And speaking of heroes, let's take this evening to pay a small tribute to a few of the great Yankees that have given baseball some of their best moments.

First of all has to be the man who Built the Stadium. Another former Red Sox, and one of the greatest ever to play the game. The Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth.

Career Batting Average .342, Home Runs 714, Slugging Percentage .690 (Major League Record), On-Base Percentage .469. He hit 60 homers in a single season, and was by far the most dominant power hitter of his time, some would say of all time. And, incredibly, he was an exceptional pitcher as well. Still holds the record for longest complete game victory in a World Series (as a Red Sox, as it happens) for the 1916 game in which he held the Brooklyn Robins to 1 run over 14 innings. 14!! But it was those homers that made him arguably the most feared player of all time. By way of perspective, he regularly hit more home runs himself than entire Major League Teams. Including the Red Sox, for 10 out of the 12 years immediately following his sale to the Yankees.

[Side note - if there ever was a curse, people, we broke it in 2004. I like to think that we broke it in Utah, while we were simultaneously reversing the Curse of the Scottish Play, but that's another story...]

The Pride of the Yankees, Ruth's teammate, Lou Gehrig.

His sadly shortened career saw a Batting Average of .340 and On-Base Percentage of .442. Won the Triple Crown in 1934. He was a great team leader, and held a record that people called unbreakable when I was growing up - he played in 2,130 consecutive games without a day off for any reason. Although the great Cal Ripkin, Jr. did break that record in '95, it scarcely diminishes Gehrig's achievement, especially when you consider that Lou suffered 17 hand fractures during that stretch of games. And of course that iconic Farewell Speech. It's tough to find a player harder to dislike than Lou Gehrig.

The Yankee Clipper - Gehrig's teammate Joe Dimaggio.

Career Batting Average .325, he was a top-notch outfielder and baserunner as well as a great hitter. The Yankees had some of their best seasons, and won the World Series in each of his first four seasons in the majors. He was a three-time American League Most Valuable Player, and might have been so honored more than that if he hadn't served in the military for three years during World War II. He had another one of the records that people sometimes call unbreakable - in 1941 he had an unparalleled 56-game hitting streak. Since then, only Pete Rose has had a streak even as long as 40 games. Less heralded, after that one game when he didn't get a hit, he then had another 17-game streak, meaning that he hit safely in 73 of 74 games. Some people call him the greatest ever, and while I don't necessarily agree, I can see where they're coming from.

The Mick, Dimaggio's teammate Mickey Mantle.

Whether he's the greatest of all time or not, he's he's a whole lot of people's favorite player. His Career Batting Average was 'only' .298 over 18 seasons, but his On-Base Percentage was .422, he hit 18 home runs in 12 World Series (think about that - 12 World Series in 18 seasons!) and hit 536 home runs over the course of his career, including some of the longest balls ever hit. He had a great glove and an arm like a cannon. He was a big guy, but one of the fastest baserunners of his time, evidenced in his trademark drag bunts - how many power hitters bunt effectively these days? Amazing in the clutch, hitting from both sides of the plate, the poster boy for hard work and playing through pain (and maybe for hard drinking and good-ol'-boy hellraising too).

Ok, up to now you won't get much argument from anyone on these choices. I think just about everyone you'd ask would mention those four guys when you ask about the greatest Yankees of all time. But who's going to get the fifth spot? Yogi Berra, who was on 10 World Series-winning teams? Whitey Ford, who won 236 games (including a record 10 World Series games) and threw 1,956 strikeouts? Possibly even a current player like Mariano Rivera, with 480 saves (and counting) and a 1.16 World Series ERA.

With all respect to those greats, I'm going to go with Mr. October, Reggie Jackson.

Yes, I have a sentimental weakness for a man who was one of my favorites growing up, but - 563 Homers, 1,702 RBI, and performance in the clutch that led to 5 World Series Championships and of course those three home runs on not just three at-bats, but three swings of the bat in game 6 in 1977 - an almost indescribable achievement. I think it's a defensible choice. [And as it happens, Joe Morgan just backed me up with his inclusion of Jackson on his own personal top Yankees list.] The only thing that makes me second guess this is that, unlike the Berra, Ford and Rivera, more than half of Jackson's career was for teams other than the Yankees (including 3 of those Series wins - with the Oakland A's.) Still, it's the Yankees who retired his number, and the pinstripes he's wearing in the Hall of Fame.

Sure, it's easier to say all these pro-Yankee things now that they are essentially (though not mathematically - remember '78) out of the running for the season and there's slim to no chance that there will be some horrific reprisal at the House that Ruth Built. And you may notice that there is one particular personage whose name will go unmentioned in this entry. And we're not even getting into the Stones concerts and boxing matches and Papal appearances. But I'm a baseball fan even before I'm a Red Sox fan, and the ballpark in the Bronx deserves a tip of the cap.

As a postscript - the Yankees won, beating the Orioles 7-3. Johnny Damon did hit a four-bagger last night, but not the last one. That honor goes to Jose Molina. Who knew? Not a titan of power at all - this was his third home run of the year - or even the Yanks regular catcher but for the fact that Jorge Posada is injured. But history is made up of singular occurrences as well as larger-than-life figures. So Molina gets to be a trivia answer that will be harder to come up with than Jeter or Rodriguez would be. But not for you...

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