One of the immediate thrills at Fantasy Camp is being surrounded by great former ballplayers. Allow me to color in some detail, starting with our (the Bombers) Great Coaches.
Gil Patterson was a hard throwing phenom for the Yankees in the early ‘70s who then became a pitching coach after injuries sidelined his playing career. Gil has been a major league pitching coach for the Blue Jays (including for Roy Halladay), director of minor league pitching for the Yankees, and currently director of minor league pitching for the Oakland A’s.
Gil told us an amazing story, that when he blew out his arm in the 70’s he knew his power and finesse were unrecoverable. He started throwing left-handed on a lark in warmups as a way to stay engaged and a wizened gentleman asked if he wanted some pointers throwing leftie.
Whitey Ford coached Gil to throw left-handed, with accuracy and power in the low 80’s, an amazing feat. I couldn’t throw 80 mph if I was driving a car that fast and dropped it out the window.
Gil is enormously proud of his daughter, a cardiologist. He spoke to me often about her, probably thinking I could use a good one and staying ahead of the paperwork.
Gil pitched to us, seven out of eight games, with a nasty fresh arm injury he acquired in another camp, clearly in pain each day. The man is a prince, and my appreciation and respect for him is profound.
Ron Blomberg was a #1 overall draft pick for the Yankees in the late 1960’s. He was the first DH in Major League Baseball history, in 1973. (He walked, and the bat is in Cooperstown). Ron was a multi-sport athlete in high school in Atlanta and was being recruited by multiple colleges and professional sports teams. He could do it all.
Ron has written a couple books, most recently “The Captain and Me” about his time with Thurman Munson. It has sold over 60,000 copies and is a great read. His first book, “Designated Hebrew,” is an honest profile of his life as a young Yankee, and my favorite of the two books. Early on there were times when he was treated injudiciously, IMHO, but he never complained, and never cast aspersions on others. He is a real mensch.
Ron and I have attended the same gym in the same town going on 13 years. He is a machine, working out every day, really presses himself, and sometimes goes twice because he feels good.
We call him the Boomer in Georgia. Boomer is the mayor of the gym, knows most people by name, and compliments work ethic from the buff to the bloated. He has that special trait of talking just to you when he is surrounded by others begging for his attention. Boomer has been telling me for years that Fantasy Camp is a great experience, and I am in his debt for him urging me to go.
I would like to say that we are good friends, but that would be a stretch. Ron is everyone’s best friend. I am proud to be his acquaintance and I will always marvel at his genuine camaraderie toward my family and me. Hey World, I know Ron Blomberg, the Boomer, the Yankee phenom and MLB’s first designated hitter!
Not many people know Joe Lomascolo, who was a high school teacher and baseball coach at Cardinal Hayes High in the Bronx when a series of simple events led him to be the batting practice pitcher for the New York Yankees during their championship run in the late 1970s. Joe pitched batting practice from late ’77 to ’79 to some iconic Yankee heroes: Reggie Jackson, Bucky Dent, Willie Randolph, Thurman Munson, all of them…
For us Bombers, Joe assumed some duties that the players simply could not find the time and wherewithal to do. He kept a detailed record, the “book,” of each game, generously segregating hits from near hits and also took note of good defense, especially Reagan and Ace’s work. Joe loved the banter and chatter, kept things upbeat and fun, and also pitched one game for us.
When you hear Joe talk, you can picture yourself in Yankee Stadium with your best friend or a fan for the ages who had been to every game for years… great ones. All three of these gentlemen have NY Yankee World Series Rings!
Thank you, Gil, Ron, and Joe, for making sure we had the best experience possible.
I have pix with Roy White, Kyle Farnsworth (his mother lives a mile from us!), Mickey Rivers, and Boomer. I stopped carrying my phone after the first night, and I wish I had kept it, but it was just one more thing to hassle with.
Jim Leyritz, Jesse Barfield, Scott Proctor, Jeff Karstens, Mike Gallego, Homer Bush, many many more…
Of course, Charlie Hayes, whose hand I shook twice daily and each time I could only squeak out what a great ballplayer his son, Ke’Bryan, is playing for the Pirates. After the third time he just tolerated me. I am not the kind of Yankee fan who could wax poetic about stats and facts and game situations and special moments, so I usually just shook hands, said thanks, and left the Greats to themselves.
One of the camp requests to each of us was to give a brief favorite Yankee moment. Mine is easy.
I was working in Atlanta in 1996, through the Olympics and the World Series there. Exciting time, to say the least. The Yankees/Braves series started poorly at home for the real Bombers, who took a 2 – 0 deficit on the road to Georgia.
You know the rest, the Yankees ran the table, winning three in a row to a mixed Braves/Yankees crowd at Turner Field and going back to the Big Ball Orchard in the South Bronx for Game 6.
Third baseman Charlie Hayes caught the last out, a routine pop-up in foul territory. I will never forget the sheer joy and relief I felt when Charlie caught that ball, thrusting his arms in the air, giving the Yankees their first World Championship title in 18 years, a helluva drought. I can still see his catch and leap nearly 30 years later.
These are important snapshots in time for the individual player and for the team, certainly, but I can only pray that these Greats realize these moments, like Charlie Hayes’ catch, are among the greatest moments in the arc of our own lives, shared with millions of people. It was communal, the excitement, the kinship. This is what they mean by the Yankee Family: the collective taste of victory or defeat. Yes, they were and are paid professionals, but we can never repay them for the sheer thrill of it all.
I couldn’t put that into words to Charlie Hayes. I hope he saw it in my eyes, or the clasp of my mitt in his iron handshake.
These Greats didn’t just capture lightning in a bottle – they were inside it when lightning struck. They will always part of the Yankee association, and I am sure they love their lives, but to a man these Greats would rather have Derek Jeter’s bank account than their own.
The short shelf life, the pinnacle, of the Greats’ respective careers were the shoulders that Jeter and Mariano stood upon on their paths to immortality. The pros are notorious for grinding them up and spitting them out, the sports meritocracy (the last real one in this age) of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately.
I suspect there isn’t a day that goes by and they think, “What could have been…”
But the Yankee organization seems to have found a formula for these former Greats to stay that way. Sure, a silly camp for crazy fans, but they wouldn’t be there if they didn’t want to be.
I like to think I have a kinship with one Great, Jeff Nelson. I know he couldn’t pick me out of a lineup of just me and a cocker spaniel, but I will always be the “old guy” who called him “Gil,” twice, and then caught him on the field and lived to tell about it.
One last encounter with one last Great that I just recalled. One Tuesday (Day 2) afternoon, our first full day with 2 nine inning games, I was overcome with soreness and small pains and heat just like every other guy.
El Duque didn’t get to camp until that afternoon. His arrival coincided very closely with my wearing only a bathing suit and limping in the hallway after Game two. I was a little lost, still the FNG, and there was El Duque holding court with a few campers who looked at him with real admiration.
But I needed to find that ice bath, a salmon fighting against the raging stream. I was in dire straits, lumpy-looking, face beet red, sweating like a mule at the end of a workday. I was on a mission, pleasantries be damned.
I asked the tallest guy there, El Duque, interrupting their conversation, “Hey, where’s the ice bath thing?” It came out like a growl from a wounded non-threatening animal.
El Duque laughed at me and pointed, “Down there,” he said, “Better hurry it closes in one minute.”
I hobbled/quick marched/hopped down the hall in fear of not getting in that ice bath. I didn’t recognize the Great El Duque and I had asked him a question like he was a camper or camp staffer – and he obliged by breaking my chops. The ice tub would be open for hours.
I was THAT GUY, of course, minutes away from my DEEP DIVE.
The Greats are all truly great, fun and genuine men, hard at work, and my appreciation knows no bounds for their service to the Yankee Legacy.
A tip of the cap to Brian “Doc” Miller and Steve “Wolfie” Wolfberg for providing quick and able assistance on bios for our coaches. Thanks much, boys.
One more episode, “Compliments and Suggestions.”