By Father Gabe Costa
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We are at the All-Star Game juncture of the 2014 season. This year has become noteworthy for a number of reasons, not the least of which are the escalation in the number of teams using defensive shifts and a plethora of injuries. When the winter snows come in six months, we will have a lot to talk about during our Hot Stove League chats.
From the perspective of Yankees fans, 2014 has been a year with many disappointments. The hitting is abysmal and the anticipated five-man starting rotation is in shambles. The team is literally a .500 club, and if the Bombers make the playoffs it will only be because no one in the American League East will have distanced themselves from the rest of the pack.
But this is also a year of reflection and recollection for the Yankees. Icon Derek Jeter will be retiring and is being honored in every ballpark he enters. Independence Day marked the 75th anniversary of Lou Gehrig’s famous speech, with took place in Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939. Major League Baseball graciously reproduced this event by interspersing the film of Gehrig speaking with modern-day players repeating different lines of the speech.
And earlier this month, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the debut of Babe Ruth. The Bambino, more than any other player in history, dominated the game. Many of his records still stand, and he is the only player to transcend the game. For example, in 1920 Ruth became the first player in history to hit 30, 40 and 50 home runs in a season when he clubbed 54 circuit clouts. This number was actually more than 14 of the remaining 15 teams’ totals. In fact, Ruth out-homered 11 pairs of teams that year.
I never saw Ruth in person. The greatest all-around players I saw were Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. Over their careers, I would take Mays over Mantle. However, during their primes, I think The Commerce Comet was superior to The Say Hey Kid.
Anyway, I asked an old childhood friend, John DeStefano, to share some of his “random recollections” about his favorite player, the Mick:
“All our lives, we Yankeea fans have been spoiled by great players, from Babe, Lou, Joe, Mick, Phil, Whitey, Yogi, Thurman and Derek….
“Mick was my favorite. How many fans my age went toe to toe with their fathers arguing about the greatest Yankees center fielder?… DiMaggio, from my father’s generation, and Mantle in mine. Let us not forget Bernie, but he has to be third.
“How many people know that the Mick started as a shortstop and wore No. 6? He did not perform up to expectations and was sent to the minors and almost quit. What a mistake that would have been for Yankees fans and the Yankees!
“Who could forget the great game he had in Don Larsen’s perfect game or the monstrous home runs he hit which almost left Yankee Stadium? How about the one in Washington off Chuck Stobbs?
“I will never forget a home run he hit against the White Sox at Yankee Stadium. He thought he flew out and actually flung his bat to the ground. Even the voice of the Yankees, Mel Allen, thought it was going to be an out. But the ball kept going and going, over the black screen in center field.
“And how about the home run against Barney Schultz in the 1964 World Series?
“When I coached Little League I had a tape that I showed to the team. The film featured both Phil Rizzuto and the Mick. These two Hall of Famers taught the fundamentals of baseball: how to field ground balls, how to steal bases, how to catch fly balls and how to stand in your proper stance in the batter’s box, using the batting grip that was appropriate for the hitter. Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra also made appearances.
“The best part of the video dealt with bunting. Using Rizzuto’s and Mantle’s advice, my team benefited by winning a lot of one-run games. This was due to the fact that when we had a runner on third base and a “big kid” up at bat, the opposing infield would play back. Our hitter would merely bunt down the third-base line and catch everybody by surprise!
“A final thought: I feel that regarding today’s power hitters, the TV and radio announcers are wrong when they say power hitters are not paid to bunt or hit into the open field. Mickey would have taken advantage of this open field and his career batting average would have been well over .300.
“And I can’t resist taking a shot at my friend in Florida who loved Mays. Remember when the Mick beat Willie in the Home Run Derby?”
It’s fun to walk down memory lane.
In a few days it’s back to business. We’ll see what happens.
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