Four Years, Four Months

November 12, 2012, Port Chester, N.Y. – It was an inscrutable moment, this past Saturday, traveling by train, then subway, to New York’s Central Park for an event. The first 50-degree-plus day in a week that represented the second straight seven-day period the city and its environs remained recovering from the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and the first time many New Yorkers were emerging for any purpose that was more than survival-based. Why was everyone smiling at me?

I’m a fairly pleasant guy and, when I’m not living through day 11 of a heatless apartment I’m likely to be walking around wearing a pleasant grin. Sometimes people smile back, but more often than not milling through a New York crowd most are [wisely] avoiding eye contact, the expression on my face the furthest thing from their minds. But it was unmistakable. First came the woman with the Saks Fifth Avenue bag. Attractive, well dressed, 20 years my junior. Hmmm. Then there was the guy with the Giants jersey. Well, I was wearing my Yankee cap as always; perhaps he roots for both. Another woman, maybe a runner, a married middle-aged couple, a lady decked out for a Broadway show, all smiling sweetly, and looking at me. I looked down at my clothing.

Oh, I was wearing Bobby again.

Taking advantage of the weather, I had unthinkingly pulled on my Bobby Murcer T-shirt that morning, and was wearing my jacket open. Yankee fans are blessed with a cavalcade of heroes, some current, and many many more who have played in years gone by. New York’s most popular sports franchise, the club’s team-oriented gear often elicits a positive response, but sometimes negative ones too, and in the case of the former certainly not just quiet, full-faced smiles. Mickey Mantle is the hero of a whole generation of men, Babe Ruth is the face of the game for many, the tragic Lou Gehrig has a compelling story, and the legacy of Derek Jeter grows as the baseball sands drift through the hourglass.

The switch-hitting Mantle hit balls a country mile; the Bambino changed the game – and all spectator sports – forever; the experience of many suffering from ALS and their loved ones evokes memories of the “luckiest man on the face of this earth”; the current Yankee shortstop has amassed more hits than them all. Bobby Murcer leads the Yankees in no statistical categories. One of several unfortunate athletes dubbed “the next Mantle,” he showed an unreliable arm and displayed some power as an infielder, and homered often when moved to the outfield. In 1970, he hit four home runs in consecutive at bats during a double header. But the team’s two-year sojourn in Shea Stadium away from Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch sapped his long ball numbers, and the hearts of young Yankee fans were broken when Murcer was traded away.

The swap that brought Bobby Bonds here was a decent one, and becomes even more brilliant when the players Bonds was traded for helped bring three straight pennants and two World titles to the Bronx. Meanwhile, Murcer miserably did his best in windy, cold Candlestick park, and then Wrigley Field, but he remained a Yankee in his heart. He was brought back and greeted eagerly. He may have had his greatest day in the game following the death of his good friend and the beloved Yankee captain, Thurman Munson.

And that is emblematic of what was most loved about Bobby Murcer, not the numbers accumulated over the years, but rather the superb play, great sportsmanship, and dedicated drive to succeed the fans witnessed when Bobby was on the field. He was more than anything a decent man. Having played with Mantle, he was a link to the franchise’s most storied time, and there was a possibility that that link might last for decades when Bobby followed another popular pinstriper in retirement, taking the Phil Rizzuto path and going to the broadcast booth. Murcer loved to talk about the “at-’em ball,” remembering the many line drives off his bat that died in fielders’ gloves. He approached the job with humor as well. One time during the current Fox broadcaster’s brief turn in the Yankee broadcast booth, Tim McCarver was setting up a long-winded arc about ballparks by starting with, “If you built another Astrodome…” when Bobby, one of many players who hated partaking in the game in the fabled Houston indoor edifice, stopped him short with “Why? Why? Why would you ever do that?”

The shirt I was wearing Saturday is one that sadly was purchased after Murcer’s untimely demise. It features a big picture of his face topped by his NY cap, with seven images of him in his career around it, the bottom one with a huge smile the way we remember him in suit and tie as a broadcaster. Yankee fans are sometimes criticized as being front runners. The reasoning goes, how hard is it to root for a team that so often wins? How difficult is it to grow up worshiping Mantle, reading up on Ruth, emulating Derek Jeter’s class and professionalism? Bobby was worshiped too; he hit long balls; he carried himself with dignity. But it clearly wasn’t just his play afield that had New Yorkers smiling so at a past middle-aged man wearing a Bobby Murcer shirt.

My friends and I first noticed the Murcer magic a few years ago at Monmouth Raceway. Every time I headed off to make another wager, and on the rare trips to cash in a winner, I never came right back. On each and every time walking toward the grandstand I was stopped by people who loved Bobby, and loved the shirt. They wanted to talk about him. The joke became that it was a shirt I could wear anytime if I decided I wanted to pick up middle-aged men (something I do not do, of course).

Murcer was not to have the long years behind the mike that the Scooter did. We were shocked to hear about a brain tumor, and the city and the baseball world prayed for his recovery. He underwent surgery and returned to the booth, our pleas apparently successful. The cancer was in remission. But alas, Bobby suffered a relapse. And Bobby’s wife Kay, his children, the Yankee family, and the world lost him to this horrific disease. It’s a slow day on November 12, 2012, with football all over the sports pages, and the 2012 season baseball awards soon to be announced. These are sparking some discussion. But not from me. On this Monday morning I’m looking back to Bobby, lost to the world on July 12, 2008.

Four Years, Four Months Ago.