There are many reasons I am a Yankees fan: I’m a New Yorker, after all, and it is definitely nice to root for a franchise that wins more often than not (I’m also a Buffalo Bills fan, so I’ve had the opposite experience too. Winning is definitely better.). But one of the things that really makes me love the organization is their sense of tradition and history. Most teams respect their past to some degree, but the Yankees are among the few who revel in it. One example of how they pay tribute to their history is with the annual Old Timers’ Day game, where past players are invited back to the stadium to be cheered and applauded. While once a staple for most major league teams, the Yankees are the only team that holds the celebration every year. It is also one of the most popular games of the year, which says something about the fan base. I only started going to Old Timers’ Day last year, as it was always difficult to get good tickets for this game (I now get presales for Yankees tickets, so it’s gotten a lot easier).
I was particularly excited for Old Timers’ Day this year as it was the first time that I would get the chance to see Paul O’Neill, one of my all-time favorite players, participate. He hasn’t been part of Old Timers’ Day since the new stadium opened in 2009. O’Neill is a bit of a polarizing player – while fairly beloved within the organization, his penchant for destroying Gatorade coolers in the dugout when he is frustrated has earned him the label of being a crybaby with a temper. Where opposing fans see a whiner, I see someone with intensity and a passion for doing his best for his team. I always liked him when he was patrolling right field, but my affection for him has only increased in the years that he’s joined Michael Kay in the booth to call games for the YES network. He and Kay have a great rapport and he can bring a perspective that only a former player can give you. He is also endlessly amusing, as he talks about food all the time. The best is when the game is a blow out and not much is happening and he and Kay go off on some hilarious tangents. One of my prized possessions is O’Neill’s authentic jersey (#21, no name on the back) that I wear to every game; it really stands out in the sea of women wearing pink Jeter shirts and I’m proud to show my support for “The Warrior.” I normally sit in right field anyway, as I enjoy the antics and comedy stylings of Nick Swisher, but for Old Timers’ Day, I made sure I would have a good view of O’Neill during the exhibition game.
Old Timers’ Day is always a lot of fun, but it is also a very long day. The ceremony starts around 11:30 and all the visiting alumni are announced one by one. The players who are able to play then participate in a three inning exhibition game. At 2 pm, the current Yankee roster takes the field to play their regularly scheduled game. All told, I was sitting in Yankee Stadium for close to 6 hours, which is a long time even when you are in comfy seats. Adding to the endurance challenge this year was the sweltering heat; it was 94 degrees this past Sunday and our seats had absolutely no shade. With the humidity, it actually felt like it was 96 degrees. I’ve finally accepted, after two painful sunburns, that I need to take precautions when I am going to be out in the sun for any prolonged period of time, so I slathered on some SPF 100+ sunblock (and faithfully reapplied it) and threw on a baseball hat and made the trek to the Bronx.
Despite how oppressive it was, it was a beautiful day to honor the former Yankees. The size of their uniforms may have changed a bit, but there is just something magical about seeing so many legends back in the pinstripes. You don’t have to be a Yankee fan to appreciate the history that was out on the field – two perfect game pitchers (David Cone and Don Larsen), the man who has a surgery named after him (Tommy John), and of course Yogi Berra, who has more World Series rings than any player in history and is possibly the cutest little old man to ever walk the planet. Yogi is always announced last at Old Timers’ Day, and rightfully so, and gets among the biggest ovations. I always get a list misty when he appears at events at the Stadium; at 87 years old, our time with Berra is limited and it makes me sad to think that one day he won’t be around to participate in something that clearly means so much to him.
Actually, I tear up quite a bit in general at Old Timers’ Day, though at least this year my tears were masked by sweat and the giant sunglasses that I was wearing. I well up whenever they show video of David Cone’s perfect game or when they announce any of the players who were a part of the late 90s Yankee dynasty, as these were the teams that I became a fan with and that I hold closest to my heart. I shed a tear or two when they announced Joe Torre, as well, and of course the biggest reaction came when I first saw Paul O’Neill take the field in his uniform. I am such a soft touch when it comes to this stuff. There is just something about the opportunity to thank these players who have given you so much enjoyment over the years and the chance to, however briefly, relieve those great moments. There is just something so comforting about looking out on the field and seeing O’Neill in right, Tino Martinez on first and Bernie in center field. As much as I love many of the current players, it is nice to take a stroll down memory lane. I am already dreading the day that Jeter and Rivera are a part of their first Old Timers’ Day. I’m going to be a wreck.
Some other thoughts:
- Quite by accident, our seat location but us right behind the Masters of Ceremonies (Michael Kay and John Sterling) so I got to see myself on the jumbotron, which was pretty cool. I’ve kind of always wanted to do that, so it was an added bonus to the day.
- For the second time this season, I made it on TV during the game thanks to a homerun that was hit to our section by Robinson Cano. This is becoming something of a trend.
- The woman sitting next to us was a genius and brought in a small water gun that she sprayed our entire section with, much to the delight of the kids who were sitting nearby. It was a nice way to cool down a little.
- The cameramen working the game missed getting some pretty amusing footage of me dumping bottles of water down the front of my tank top throughout the game. That would have made for some fun television and I wouldn’t have even cared. It got the job done and I was relatively comfortable the entire game.
- If you are going to sell pints of ice cream, you need to give away stronger spoons to eat said ice cream with. The spoons we got were so flimsy that it took a lot of effort to get the ice cream out. And yes – eating a pint of ice cream while watching a Yankee game is pretty close to my definition of heaven.
- I am now 3 for 3 in seeing the Yankees win this season. Clearly I am a good luck charm and someone should be getting me season tickets.
- I really wish Mike Mussina would come to Old Timers’ Day again. It would be great to see Moose.
- There had been rumors that Roger Clemens might show up this year. He had not been invited while under investigation, but with his recent court victory there was speculation that his ban had been lifted and that he would be present. That ultimately didn’t happen, though it would have been interesting to see what kind of reaction he would receive from fans.
- O’Neill was apparently mic’d up during the exhibition game so he could still provide commentary from the field. I wish I had DVRed the game to hear what he had to say.
- Swisher never fails to be fun – this is what he did in reaction to a fan yelling out “How many outs Swish?”
- One of the Old Timers, I can’t recall who, made a diving catch and would up rolling around on the ground afterward. Good to see that the desire to win hasn’t left some of these guys and that they are still as competitive as ever.
It was a hot and sweaty day, but it was totally worth it. I’m already looking forward to the 67th Old Timers’ Day next year.