Montclair, N.J., August 19, 2002 — “No truly great man ever thought himself so.” Apparently for no particular reason, a Web site I visit that is devoted to historical events of the day chose that saying by the English Essayist William Hazlitt (1778-1830) for their quote of the day for August 18. It may have been happenstance that led to its timing on that site, but those words carry a very pertinent lesson for this Yankee fan, as became clear after a long, hot and bittersweet day in Montclair, New Jersey.
Hmmm. 96 degrees. 97 percent humidity. We could travel two miles east and hurl our sweaty bodies into the soothing waters of Long Island Sound. Or better yet, we could choose from Column A, crawl from the bed to the couch, and simply not participate in the little bakefest the earth decided to throw — again — in the New York area. Of course there was a third option that usually wouldn’t even be considered I realized, as we cooled the car to a bearable boil (and eventually a delightful cool, though a long way from the couch in the comfort department), and drove 40 miles south and west, so we could spend the day sitting in the sun in a former rock quarry where the only reference to the word “shade” all day was the brand of sunglasses we each chose to wear.
Sue and I moved from Northern Jersey to Westchester two years ago. Basically baseball groupies, while still citizens of the Garden State we had managed to see the Trenton Thunder perhaps half a dozen times, Rick Cerone’s Newark Bears three times, and the Somerset Patriots, the Atlantic City Surf and the New Jersey Cardinals once a piece. But we were always disappointed at not having made it to Yogi’s museum and the Jersey Jackals in Montclair, New Jersey, before our move. A quick glance at their schedule during one of those “when are we ever going to?” conversations a week ago confronted us with a put-up-or-shut-up conundrum: The 2002 Jersey Jackals were home for their last weekend homestand of their regular season, would be on the road shortly, and the Northern League Playoffs start during the first week in September. So although the thermometer and the steamy conditions refused to budge, we backed ourselves into a corner by inviting Sue’s father along, and there we were heading south across the hated George Washington Bridge so prominent in all my years of Yankee Stadium attendance.
Although I know less about the games played in the Independent Leagues than I do about the AAA and AA Leagues (hothouses where future Yankees are being groomed), I was excited to be seeing the Jackals Sunday. They have posted a gaudy second-half record of 24-7, had carved out a 6.5-game lead over second place Elmira in their division, and already had a playoff spot sewn up. And I just read that in the last week they had won games by scores of 16-2, 16-4 and then 25-10. So we were expecting an offensive explosion. And of course, we were dead wrong. Jackals starter Aaron Myers (who threw “pretty” hard, but lived mostly on a nice assortment of breaking pitches) carried a one-hitter into the seventh inning. He threw a first-pitch strike to 11 of the first 13 Albany-Colonie Diamond Dogs he faced, and retired 16 straight Diamond-Dogs from the third through the seventh innings. He had only struck out five by the time we succumbed to the heat in the seventh, which was just as well. The Yogi Berra Stadium strike out sound effect was probably intended to evoke an image of someone being “mowed down,” but it sounded a lot more like a chainsaw than a lawnmower, and clashed jarringly with the family-friendly ambience, at least in my opinion.
Although listed differently on one Web site I checked, I was amused that all the numbered dimensions along the outfield wall had been altered to reflect Yogi’s No. 8, (308 down each line, 368 to the power alleys, and 398 in dead center). Fun events were staged in between and after innings throughout the contest. These included the “Water Ballon Toss Off” (parents toss water ballons to bat-wielding children, who compete and win based on how many they can break in about a minute); the “Dizzy Bat Race Home Run Challenge” (two adolescents run in a circle with their heads touching the handle of a standing baseball bat; then they try to stand erect and hit a teed-up wiffle ball over the visiting dugout for a home run); “Tackle the Jackal” (where a young child — perhaps five? — runs around the bases chasing the mascot Jack the Jackal; the third baseman interrupted his infield practice long enough to impede Jack’s progress, so even though the mascot [how hot was it under that mask?] started with a two-base lead, the boy reached him, pulled him down, and jumped on him just before third base); the “Mattress Dash” (two older babies — or younger toddlers — are each placed on one end of side-by-side mattresses and they race by crawling to the other end — one participant bowed out yesterday over “creative differences”); “Catch the Flying Jackal” (a preteen has to catch a Jackal doll catapulted with one of those T-shirt slingshot devices); and the “Top of the Dugout Frisbee Throw” (three contestants attempted to land a frisbee into a kiddee pool from the top of the visiting dugout). A “cherub choir” sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” a tape of “God Bless America” was played, and we were led in a strange hybrid of YMCA (music, and danced while the letters were intoned) and the Macarena (danced the rest of the time) by Jack and three Jackals employees wearing a cowboy hat, a hard hat and a fireman’s hat respectively.
As for the game, the Jackals hardly put on an offensive display either, garnering two runs on seven hits, the first scoring on a bases-loaded walk to centerfielder Billy Rich in the third. Catcher Todd Johannes drove in the second run with a sixth-inning single. Somewhat fooled by the expected offensive explosion that never materialized, the result was a hard-to-quantify combination of good pitching and poor hitting, but one thing was clear. The defense was superb. Diamond-Dog third baseman Vic Davila made three great plays, twice diving to his right and spearing liners headed for the left field corner, and making a fine, charging, bare-handed pickup and throw on a swinging bunt. Jackals right fielder Travis Bailey made some nice running catches, and Dog center fielder Terrel Merriman almost prevented the second run on a diving try in short right center.
Although we bolted for the exit — and the car’s A.C. — after losing the seventh-inning 50-50, we heard the rest on the car radio, and the ninth inning was a beaut. Apparently stretched thin by a worn and injured bullpen (including Yankee-for-a-cup-of-coffee a few years back Mike Bertotti), Myers was forced to finish. He gave up back-to-back-to-back bunt base hits in the ninth with no one out, and then got the next three Dogs to pop out.
Of course, our Montclair experience had started two hours before game time with a visit to the Yogi Berra Museum. A delightful 90 minutes was like a tour through a mini-Cooperstown, with a heavy emphasis on catchers and the Yankees, not too hard to take. The lobby is dominated by a stunning (and huge) live-action photo of a collision at home plate between Yogi and former Washington Senator third baseman Eddie Yost. Known as The Walking Man in his day, Eddie led the American League six years in walks, and is also famous for enjoying the shortest managerial career in major league history, as he led the 1963 Senators in one game (a loss) before being replaced by Gil Hodges.
We were assured that Yogi swears that the “out” call that was made on the play that is depicted in the lobby photo was correct, even though the ball is clearly visible in the photo neither in Yogi’s glove nor his bare hand. (His story: It came loose as he took it out of the glove to make a throw.) And he is just as adamant that Jackie Robinson was out during his successful steal of home in the 1955 World Series, the lone time “dem bums” from Brooklyn beat Yogi’s Yanks.
One of the first displays you see is a montage of all the catchers who played with or before Yogi and are in the Hall, each in their equipment: Ric Ferrell, Roy Campanella, Ernie Lombardi, Ray Schalk, Bill Dickey, Josh Gibson, Gabby Hartnett, Mickey Cochrane and Ed Bresnahan. And as with any trip to such a museum the facts and memories cascade over you in too numerous a legion to recall, some that you knew before, some that you didn’t.
Yogi grew up in St. Louis, and Joe Garagiola was a neighborhood friend. His favorite ballplayer was Joe Medwick of the Cardinals, and pictures of Yogi’s father Pietro are almost stunning in their likeness to former New York Mayor and Yankee fan Rudy Guiliani. He married love of his life Carmen and they had three boys, and quite a few grandchildren.
Both he and Joe Garagiola went for a tryout in front of Branch Rickey, and Yogi was hurt that Joe was signed with a $500 bonus and he wasn’t. A year later he demanded the same $500 before signing with the Yanks (who always seem to make the right move — go figure). He fought in World War II and took part in the D Day invasion of Normandy. Returning to the U.S., he played for the Newark Bears of the International League before getting called to the Yankees to play in his first game on September 22, 1946. Even though legend has it that few expected him to make it, he did hit a home run that day. And as his Hall of Fame career blossomed, he became the first player to pinch-hit a World Series home run in the 1947 Classic.
I could quote stats and facts from the many displays, but it was overwhelming, and the stats of Yogi’s storied career in Pinstripes are recorded in a bushel of books and on many a Web site. The staff were friendly and helpful. I found the rookie baseball cards display and all of Yogi’s World Series rings the most impressive. As in Cooperstown, there is a mini-theater where we saw some great This Week in Baseball footage (including Paul O’Neill accurately kicking a flubbed baseball in right in Cincinnati to the first baseman) and a tribute film to Yogi.
Meanwhile, the Yanks were losing a game in Seattle and Bad Edgar and Joel Piniero made for a long day for Roger and my team. Looking back, we were wise to miss the August 18 Yankee game, as it was this day in 1983 that the K.C. Royals defeated the Yanks in the continuation of the infamous “Pinetar Game.” And just last year, the selfsame Mariners beat us in the Stadium to win a three-gamer two games to one, and keep their incredible string of won series intact.
But today’s loss was the only one of a six-game road trip during which we extended our four-game lead in the East to seven games over the Red Sox. Roger threw hard and long, Bernie continued to hit, the struggling Giambi homered to inch within one of team leader Soriano and all of our starters except Boomer appear to be rounding into form. And if you don’t think having five out of six pitch well in the middle of August is both big and uncommon, take a look at the move the scrambling Mariners just made in acquiring Ismael Valdez from the Rangers. There’s a four-way dandy for two spots among the Mariners, Angels, A’s and Red Sox, and this is one party we should be glad we have not been invited to.
And we are not the only ones out there with ambivalent feelings about August 18. Hammering Hank Aaron has an up-and-down thing with the day too. Ironically, Peter, Paul and Mary released their first hit on this day in 1962. Of course it did not refer to the homer-hitting star of the Braves, but it was entitled “If I had a hammer.” Three years later Hank went deep on Curt Simmons of the Cardinals only to have umpire Chris Pelekoudas call him out for being out of the batter’s box. Undeterred, Hank continued smashing baseballs with relentless regularity in parks all over the bigs, and on August 18, 1973, he surpassed Stan the Man Musial’s record with 1,378 extra base hits.
All in all a great day, and a nice day in Montclair visiting monuments to what appears to be a very nice and genuine man. Casey Stengel referred to Yogi both as “my man” and “a peculiar fellow with amazing ability.” And after a full day of it, I’m sold. But the thing that made the biggest impression on me, as I thought back once the day was over, was a tribute to the guy who will always be No. 1 in my book (and I believe, by the way, that Yogi wouldn’t mind), Mickey Mantle. On one wall of Yogi’s museum are mounted the two original plaques honoring Joe DiMaggio and Mickey that graced Monument Park before the Stadium renovation in the early seventies. I had no idea that the two had been dedicated the same day, on June 8, 1969, with each of the two Yankee greats presenting the plaque to the other. Joe’s hangs about an inch or two higher, and Mickey’s words are immortalized just above. I guess, The Mick said, Joe’s should “hang a little bit higher than mine.” A bittersweet moment as I thought of my childhood hero, “a truly great man…”