Generations of Yanks blend on Old-Timers' Day

Generations of Yanks blend on Old-Timers' Day

Generations of Yanks blend on Old-Timers' Day
NEW YORK -- Nearly 50 Yankees of the past and the not-so-present assembled on Sunday for the 66th Old-Timers' Day at Yankee Stadium, an annual afternoon of wonder when time stands still and the formerly possible begins to feel realistic again.

Bernie Williams dug into the batting cage and ripped doubles to the gaps. Paul O'Neill put one in the seats. Darryl Strawberry filled out a uniform about as well as he ever did. If guys like Andy Pettitte can come back and win, who's to say Tino Martinez can't rip big league pitching?

"If I worked out, I'd probably say yes," Martinez said, flashing a grin. "Not today. But if I worked out, I could hit .200, for sure."

Ron Guidry might beg to differ after he faced Martinez, making the lifetime .271 hitter look silly in the batter's box once the festivities got under way. Mind you, this wasn't 1978-vintage Gator, though he certainly induced his share of weak contact back then, too.

The box score -- that is, if there had been one -- would credit Martinez with an single in the Clippers' 6-2 win over the Bombers. In truth, he managed a popup between the mound and the plate for which nobody moved more than a few steps.

But that's the magic of Old-Timers' Day, once a tradition around the Major Leagues that now largely seems confined to the Bronx. A few steps onto a steamy diamond, as Mickey Rivers scores from second base or Strawberry surrenders in pursuit of a Pat Kelly triple, and it's clear that slow-motion is just the right speed for a Sunday afternoon.

"That's why they call us Old-Timers," Strawberry said. "We're not players anymore. We're just coming out here to have fun."

They did, preceded by the traditional baseline introductions that seemed to favor the Yankees of the late 1990s -- Williams, O'Neill and Joe Torre heard the loudest cheers for a while. That lasted only until a golf cart rolled to home plate containing the most precious cargo: Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra, the modern-day equivalent of Yankees royalty.

As Torre doffed his cap and jogged to the first-base line, wearing the pinstripes of a club he never played an inning for, Berra's words of wisdom may have been ringing in his ears.

"Yogi told me one thing that stuck with me," Torre said. "When you get introduced Opening Day or the first game of the World Series, that feeling you have on the baseline is something that is very special. That certainly is the case, and it's something that doesn't go away."

The Yankees celebrate their history more than anyone, and with good reason. Even notables who starred in other uniforms still come back -- consider the cases of Rich "Goose" Gossage, David Cone and Rickey Henderson, for example.

"In my career, I'd probably say [being a Yankee ranks] one or two," said Henderson, who wears an A's cap in Cooperstown. "Billy Martin was my manager; he was the one that decided I should be a Yankee and then brought me over here. It was a good time, a fun time. I wish I could have spent a little more time here, but I had a good time here."

The afternoon marked the first Old-Timers' Day appearance for former manager Stump Merrill, as well as an opportunity to welcome Gene Monahan back to the dugout. Monahan retired last year after treating the most valued bodies in the Yankees universe as the club's head athletic trainer.

"It was wonderful to be here with these great players that we've had over the years, but these fans as well," Monahan said.

It's also a way to prove that, yes, dad or grandpa really was a Yankee. Roy White, who patrolled the outfield from the Mickey Mantle era to Thurman Munson's final season, said he was most jazzed about impressing a 19-month-old boy.

"My grandson will get to see me in a Yankees uniform," White beamed. "My 15 seasons were all with the New York Yankees. I never played with another team. I came up through the organization, so it's extra-special to me. It's a great experience.

"All the old stories start circulating once you get down in the clubhouse. It's a lot of laughs when you've got guys down there like Mickey Rivers and Joe Pepitone down there telling stories. I look forward to it."

Charlie Hayes toed the dirt around the third-base area of a ballpark in which he never played, but as he spoke and gestured, it might as well have been the night of Oct. 26, 1996.

"I was right along in here somewhere when I got that ball," said Hayes, who has worn his World Series ring every day since. "The cherry on top of the ice cream for me was winning that World Series. That's what we play for."

The Yankees make a weekend of it for their guests, hosting a dinner on Friday and then a cruise on Saturday around Manhattan for the Old-Timers to hobnob. The drinks start flowing and the stories get wilder, and the oft-spoken phrase, "Once a Yankee, always a Yankee," begins to ring true.

"I remember when I was a visiting player with the Seattle Mariners, coming to town and happening to be here on Old-Timers' Day," Martinez said. "How awesome that was, how cool that was. To actually now be a part of it is something special.

"No other organization has this, or can have this."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and read his MLBlog, Bombers Beat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.