Baseball fans from all over the country converged on New York City for the 2013 MLB All-Star Game. My Dad and I did not attend the game which saw the American League win for the first time since 2009 and New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera pitch in his final All-Star Game.
But standing room tickets costing at least $250 a pop were not a practical expenditure. Even if were prepared to spend that money we would have had to put up with taking a long ride on the 7 Train to Queens only to be greeted by 100-degree weather. An equally unappealing proposition.
Nevertheless, we did have a chance to partake in some of the festivities going on the city leading up to the first pitch which gave me a rare opportunity to see the game's best All-Stars both past and present.
MLB Fan Fest
Our adventure began with the MLB Fan Fest that took place at the Jacob Javits Convention Center. The Javits Convention Center is a vast facility and the displays were spread throughout the premises. It would have been very easy to get lost. If it's tough on an adult, I don't have to imagine what it would be like for a child.
Yet I did not see any lost children. They were dutifully waiting in long lines to throw their fastballs, take batting practice, get their pictures taken and have autographs signed.
(One exhibit that did not have a long line was the Yogi Berra Museum located in Montclair, New Jersey. We talked with a volunteer at the museum who admired Yogi for always sticking to a commitment. She pointed out that many years ago, Berra agreed to read in front of children and did so despite the fact it was pouring rain and he got quite wet. I believe a trip to Montclair is on the order paper. Although I hear that the Yogi Berra Museum is so crowded that no one goes there anymore.)
Upon entering the Fan Fest, the people at the information booth saw my handlebar mustache and sardonically asked, "Who could you be possibly coming to see?"
Yes, the man who revolutionized relief pitching, Rollie Fingers, was signing autographs. But there must have been at least a thousand people in line hoping to get one of them. It was longer than a bread line in Moscow. Dad wisely suggested that I not wait. If I did, all I would get is crumbs.
However, Fingers would be appearing at a Q&A session later in the afternoon. All hope was not lost.
The Q&A sessions were an oasis of order in a sea of chaos. It was an ideal setting for those baseball fans who wanted to sit down and drink in the experiences of MLB legends and those who most closely associated with them.
First up was Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal who won more games than any other hurler in the 1960s. Marichal recounted his childhood in the Dominican Republic. He said he seldom showed up for school because there was always a baseball game being played. When confronted by his mother, Marichal told her, "I want to be a baseball player." "How are you going to support yourself and your family?" his mother replied incredulously. Well, the young Marichal would eventually have the last word, signing with the San Francisco Giants at the age of 17.
Marichal wowed the audience with his pitching exploits. In his first season in the minor leagues in 1958 in Michigan City, Indiana, Marichal pitched 245 innings and struck out 246 batters. Today's minor league pitchers are lucky to throw half that many innings as overcautious teams baby their prospects. There was an audible gasp in the audience when Marichal said that he threw 227 pitches in his 16-inning duel against Warren Spahn of the Milwaukee Braves in 1965. The Giants won the game 1-0 on a home run by Willie Mays.
The Dominican Dandy also told the audience how he developed his high leg kick. Marichal was originally inspired to become a pitcher in the Dominican by watching someone named Bombo Ramos who threw sidearm. His minor league manager, Andy Gilbert, took him aside and asked him if he had an arm problem. After Marichal assured him that he didn't have any arm troubles, Gilbert suggested he learn how to throw overhand. Marichal found it awkward to throw overhand at first but overcame that difficulty with a high leg kick. And a Hall of Fame career was born.
Since the All-Star Game was being played at Citi Field there was a large presence of former New York Mets players. Someone should give Mookie Wilson his own talk show because he had the audience in stitches. Some examples:
On his post-playing career: "When you retire, your bills don't."
On contrasting New York City and his native rural South Carolina: "There were more people in the Mets clubhouse than in my hometown."
On his famous (or infamous depending on your point of view) at bat in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series against the Boston Red Sox: "I took 10 pitches in that at bat. When is the last time you remember me taking ten pitches in an at bat?"
On hitting that ground ball to Bill Buckner: "When I hit the ball I said a word I shouldn't have said. When he missed it, I said it again."
Wilson was also someone with definite opinions. A switch hitter, Wilson said if he had to do it all over again, he wouldn't have done it. He said he would have concentrated on one side or the other. Wilson then asked, "How many great switch hitters have there ever been?" The audience replied with Mickey Mantle, Eddie Murray and Chipper Jones. Mookie shot back, "That's only three people," to much laughter.
Mookie also said today's baseball players were "cookie cutters." He lamented the lack of nicknames in today's game. "A-Rod doesn't count," Wilson said, "It's an abbreviation, not a nickname."
Wilson was disappointed when his half hour session with the fans was over and so was the audience. "Hey, I'm just getting started."
Vera Clemente, the widow of Roberto Clemente, spoke of the events that led to her husband's death more than 40 years ago. Clemente was, of course, organizing a relief mission following an earthquake in Nicaragua. She explained that there were three other planes he could have boarded, but that he boarded the fourth. When you hear her talk it is apparent that the pain is as fresh now as it was four decades ago.
However, Mrs. Clemente's mood lightened considerably when she was asked about the personal side of the Pirates right fielder. One person asked about her first date with Clemente. She explained that her future husband was already famous when they met. He took her out to a movie. Smitten, he asked her to dinner, but she had to decline. Mrs. Clemente said she had to go home because her parents had only granted her permission to go to the movie, not dinner.
Another audience member asked about Clemente's hobbies. She replied that her husband suffered from back problems and had a great deal of trouble sleeping. He would spend those hours downstairs either painting or making ceramics. While we will never be fortunate enough to be in the presence of Clemente himself, the audience was grateful to Mrs. Clemente for telling us about the man she knew better than anyone else.
Then came the moment for which I had been waiting. In walked Rollie Fingers. I made sure I was sitting in the front row so he could see my mustache. When Fingers saw it he said to me, "You wear it better than I do." Now that's an endorsement. But then Fingers pointed to my shiny chrome and said, "Now you have to do something about that head."
Fingers has a very dry sense of humor. He put it on display in response to my question. I asked him why Marge Schott, the late owner of the Cincinnati Reds, refused to let him sign a contract with the team unless he shaved off the mustache. Fingers replied that then Reds manager Pete Rose wanted to add him to their bullpen. Everything seemed OK until Fingers talked to the team's GM who informed him he would have to shave off the mustache because of the team's policy forbidding facial hair. Fingers told the GM, "If Marge Schott shaves her Saint Bernard then I'll shave off my mustache." Fingers never heard back from the Reds and his big league career was over. Fingers then added, "Come of think of it, Marge Schott could have used a shave as well."
One audience member asked Fingers if his mustache ever got him into trouble. He replied that many years ago he was waiting in line at the airport when a six-year old girl kept looking back at him. Then she suddenly kicked him in the shins. Her parents turned around wondering what Fingers had done to their daughter when she asked Fingers, "Why were you so mean to Peter Pan?"
When asked about the late Dick Williams, who guided the Oakland A's to back to back World Series titles in 1972 and 1973 (Alvin Dark was the manager when the A's won it all in 1974), Fingers said that Williams pretty much left him alone. Although he recalled one outing against the Chicago White Sox in 1972 in which he gave up singles to Dick Allen, Bill Melton, and Walt Williams on consecutive pitches. Williams came to the mound where he was joined by catcher Gene Tenace. Williams wouldn't look at Fingers. Instead, he turned to Tenace and asked, "What is he throwing out there?" To which Tenace replied, "I don't know. I haven't caught anything yet."
I am grateful we attended the Q&A. It made for a far more meaningful encounter with Fingers than having to wait in line for two hours to speak with him for ten seconds. I am also grateful to have to been in the same room with other baseball legends and the people associated with them.
But I also wanted to get as close as possible to those playing in the 2013 All-Star Game. If I couldn't go the game, the next best thing would be to attend the All-Star Game Parade.
The All-Star Game Parade
It was over 100 degrees on New York City on the day of the All-Star Game. But my Dad and I grabbed a couple of chairs, found a shaded area on the grounds of the New York Public Library on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street that gave us a perfect view of the proceedings.
Tom Seaver led a terrific procession of the best the game has to offer today. This included the likes of San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey, Washington Nationals center fielder Bryce Harper, Baltimore Orioles first baseman Chris Davis, and Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander.
My Dad made his Bronx bravado known as the parade passed by. Some examples -- New York Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano ("Whaddaya know? It's Robinson Cano") and Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto ("Yo Canada!!!"). But when Baltimore Orioles center fielder Adam Jones came along, Dad yelled, "A.J.!!! A.J.!!!" Jones responded, "Yo! What!!!", as if he were ready to jump out and throw down. Dad yelled back, "You're lucky you're in that car," to much laughter.
For the most part, the players just waved to the fans although a couple tried something different. The contingent with Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout threw out baseballs while Toronto Blue Jays DH Edwin Encarnacion displayed a Dominican flag.
The crowd gave the rudest reception to the Boston Red Sox delegation (pitcher Clay Buchholz, second baseman Dustin Pedroia, and DH David Ortiz). New York Mets third baseman David Wright came with a double-decker bus that included Dwight Gooden. But the loudest applause was reserved for the two New York Yankees selected to the AL All-Star Team -- Robinson Cano and Mariano Rivera. Of course, Rivera would get a much louder reception when he entered the game in the 8th inning en route to his All-Star Game MVP performance.
Perhaps one day my Dad and I will attend an All-Star Game. But if that doesn't come to pass we both come away a treasure trove of memories for the time we spent getting up close and personal with MLB All-Stars past and present.