Whatever Happened to Old Timers’ Day?

(published June 26, 2011)

The Yankees held their sixty-fifth annual Old Timers’ Day on Sunday, welcoming back to Yankee Stadium their usual array of Hall of Famers, World Series heroes, unforgettables and others.

Granted, it wasn’t a Yankee Stadium where any of them had played a game, but the pinstripes were unchanged even if the waistbands were wider.

Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, and Don Larsen took their traditional bows.  Joe Torre and Lou Piniella appeared for the first time, as did Bernie Williams. Ron Guidry, Goose Gossage and Reggie Jackson were back; so were David Cone and David Wells, and a host of players you wouldn’t immediately associate with the Yankees, like Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, Charlie Hayes and Cecil Fielder, Graeme Lloyd and George Frazier.

The high point comes when the players are introduced, receive warm applause as they trot out to the foul lines, greet old friends, and wait for the arrival of those more famous than they.

The low point comes when they put the erosion of their talents on display.

Pitchers lob the ball to the plate.  Hitters swing, make contact, and chug creakily around the bases.  A ball off the wall requires three throws to get it back to the infield.

Other teams have had Old Timers’ Days, but only the Yankees continue to do so on an annual basis.  No other team has the history the Yankees do, and no other team markets it as relentlessly.

It makes sense that others would give up the practice, since it’s an expensive proposition for a team to bring forty or fifty players into town for a weekend, entertain them, patch them up if they get hurt, and send them back home to await the next call for an Old Timers’ Day or fantasy camp.  For most clubs, as it is with doubleheaders, there isn’t enough marginal gain in attendance to justify the cost.

There could be other reasons as well.

Bill Veeck, the iconoclastic owner and promoter who brought baseball the exploding scoreboard, live-chicken giveaways, and a midget pinch-hitter, hated Old-Timers Days.

“It is, after all, an exercise in mortality,” he wrote in Veeck As In Wreck, still one of the best baseball autobiographies. “I could never understand how it either entertained the fans or benefited baseball to show the great old names as wheezing, balding, arthritic old men.  To the younger generations, the fabled old stars they have read about are made to look ridiculous.  To their contemporaries, there may be a temporary wave of nostalgia, but it is followed by a wave of sadness at the realization that they themselves are becoming wheezing, balding and arthritic old men.  That sends them home feeling just great.”

Casey Stengel put it more succinctly: “Old-Timers Days and airplane landings are alike.  If you can walk away from them, they’re successful.”

Norm Nixon and David Thompson understand what Stengel meant.  These two former NBA greats suffered serious knee injuries during the Legends Game in Orlando’s 1992 All-Star Weekend.  The game was soon scrapped and replaced with one featuring the league’s rookies.

At the new Yankee Stadium, across the street from where legends roamed, Tino Martinez hit a two-run home run off David Cone, and teammates joked with Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada that they should be playing in the three-inning exhibition instead of the nine-inning affair that followed.  Derek Jeter, on the disabled list, was not around for the festivities that coincided with his 37th birthday.

Not too many years from now, when Jeter and Rivera are the last two Yankees to be introduced, would it be so awful if they simply acknowledged the cheers and waved to the crowd, and didn’t take the field to remind us of what they can’t do any more?






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