Wednesday, September 17, 2008

More Bad Days in Yankees History

My recently published book, THIS BAD DAY IN YANKEES HISTORY, was more fun to write than anything I've ever written. It features everything embarrassing to the Yankees--on and off the field--that happened on each calendar date. For most dates, I had way more that I could have written, and the tough part was narrowing down the Yankee debacles to just a few that would fit on one page. Some of the off-season dates were tough to fill in, but with a little stretching I could do another edition right now with 100% new material.

Of course, the beauty of tracking the misfortunes and misdeeds of the Yankees and their fans is that there will always be fresh material. I'm sure readers will be telling me about this or that event which I omitted, and today a co-worker alerted me to something which had completely escaped my notice, but which is further proof that the Yankees and their fans have a shamefully warped sense of baseball history. Don't you think it's warped that in a sport where, on average, each team should win the championship once every 30 years, one team's fans and owners believe that a handful of years without a title constitutes some sort of distortion of the entire universe? During the last off-season, Hank Steinbrenner declared that the Yankees would regain the title in 2008 and restore order to the universe. Today, as the Yankees teeter on the brink of finishing fourth in their own division, without even a sniff at a playoff spot, let's take a moment to look at their innate insensitivity.

In putting together my book/calendar, one challenge was deciding which date was the best for telling a certain story. Many issues, like the lengthy feud between Dave Winfield and George Steinbrenner, unfolded in bits and pieces, and I included entries on many dates, but for simpler stories I had to pick between two dates. When I do a new edition, I'll have to choose between April 2 and April 16 for this next little gem of a tale.

In the 36 seasons since the death of Puerto Rican hero and Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente, numerous players have worn his uniform #21 as a tribute to his greatness and his inspiration, including Sammy Sosa, Carlos Delgado, Ruben Sierra, and Esteban Loaiza. It's a wonderful thing to honor an idol in this way. Even though MLB officially retired Jackie Robinson's #42 in 1997, it has seen fit to allow players to wear #42 one day a year as a tribute to his enduring legacy. There is a growing movement to accord the same honor to Clemente, but meanwhile his admirers have honored him by wearing #21, with universal approval.

The universal approval ended on April 2, opening day at Yankee Stadium, when newly acquired relief pitcher LaTroy Hawkins took the field for the team introductions wearing #21. The number had been assigned to Morgan Ensberg during spring training, but Ensberg didn't make the team so Hawkins staked a claim to the number as his own tribute to Clemente. When the Stadium fans spotted him wearing #21, they launched a deafening chorus of boos. Were they upset that Hawkins wasn't a good enough player to honor Clemente? No, of course not. Yankees fans couldn't care less about Clemente. They were pissed because Hawkins had insulted them by donning the number made forever immortal in the Bronx by Paul O'Neill during his nine years as a Yankee.

Imagine, the sacrilege of wearing Paul O'Neill's number! For the record, when Babe Ruth left the Yankees after 1934, the team quickly assigned his #3 to George Selkirk, who wore it for the next eight seasons. From 1943-1948, eight other Yankees wore #3, none of them even as talented as Selkirk. Did Selkirk or Bud Matheny wear #3 as a tribute to the Babe? Nope. They wore it because somebody told them to. The team didn't think anything of giving Babe's number to anybody and everybody, not retiring the number until Ruth died in 1948.

It's terrific that the Yankees have retired more uniform numbers than any other franchise. It's a fitting honor for long-time stars. Notice that O'Neill's number hasn't been retired. There has been no grass-roots movement by fans to retire his number. O'Neill was a fine player, but he couldn't do much more than carry Clemente's jock. He knows it himself. But don't tell that to the "fans" who were at Yankee Stadium on April 2. They booed Hawkins as if he had taken a leak on Lou Gehrig's monument. The hostility continued relentlessly until April 16, when after consulting with Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera (the last player still wearing Robinson's #42 and therefore someone who should understand about honoring heroes), Hawkins decided to abandon #21. "I figure if it's important enough for Jeter and Mariano and some other veterans to ask me about it, it's not worth it to keep wearing the number," Hawkins said. Commenting about the change in numbers, Joe Girardi said, "My guess is it always comes from the Boss." Who didn't know that? I wonder if he also fired the team official who let Hawkins wear #21 in the first place? Or the one who was willing to tell Morgan Ensberg to wear it? Once you start getting pig-headed about things, where do you stop?

I'll concede that Hawkins did give Yankees fans plenty to boo about--once he took the mound. In his second outing of the season, he was torched by Tampa Bay for six runs in less than an inning. His days in the Bronx were probably numbered after that debacle. But it was reminiscent of another Hawkins--Andy Hawkins--who pitched dreadfully at Yankee Stadium and was run out of town just ahead of a lynch mob after going 5-14 with a 5.71 ERA in 1990-1991. In both cases, poor performance was at least partly caused by the hostility of the home-town fans, whose negative expectations were justifiably met. In LaTroy's case, he matched Andy's boo-able 5.71 ERA in his brief Yankees tenure, getting booted out of town at the end of July.

The Yankees had better hurry up and retire O'Neill's number so this travesty isn't repeated. While they're at it, how about these numbers: #11 (Hall of Famer Lefty Gomez), #14 (Lou Piniella/Moose Skowron), #30 (Willie Randolph/Mel Stottlemyre), and #51 (Bernie Williams). All of them lasted longer in New York than O'Neill, and you shouldn't tarnish them by letting some pinhead locker room attendant give away their numbers.

Meanwhile, LaTroy Hawkins will go down as the first (and last?) Yankee to wear #21 after the incomparable Paul O'Neill retired. He'll be in good company. Don't ever forget the legacy of Hal Peck (0 hits as a Yankee), Eddie Bockman (1 hit in 12 AB as a Yankee), Frank Colman (7 hits in 43 AB as a Yankee), and Allie Clark (a whopping 24 games as a Yankee). They all had the privilege of wearing #3 after Babe Ruth was dismissed from the Bronx. I wonder if they enjoyed it while it lasted.

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