One of my favorite parts of being part of Bleeding Yankee Blue is that we are focused on fans. The writers are fans and we write for the fans. It all comes from a love of the game and a love for the Yankees. Like any good father who loves baseball, I want to teach my kids about the beauty of the game and to share with them my love for the Yankees. I watch games with them and take them to the Stadium as often as I can. I get them T-shirts with their favorite players' names and numbers. Still, it's not the same as actually seeing players come out to say hi and sign a baseball or a program or a ticket.
I had a friend in college who loved the Yankees. One day she told me the story of the day she became a fan. When she was a little girl, she got to go to a game as part of a day camp field trip and the kids got to walk on the field. Apparently, somebody threw a ball where they shouldn't have and she got hit with it. She started to cry. A man in a Yankees uniform came over, said "Here you go, little girl" and handed her an autographed baseball. It was Billy Martin. She became a fan for life. I totally understand.
As I began to think about it, there are a lot of barriers we set up to keep kids from the ballpark and from the players. It already costs a small fortune just to take the whole family to the ballpark and get decent seats. Then you get there and batting practice is over before they open the gates. Don't even get me started on the moat. How hard would it be to have designated sections for kids to come close to the field to get autographs up until 1 hour before game time, like the way they let fans into Monument Park.
I think sometimes baseball believes they can do this without consequence. If they think they cannot lose a generation of fans, they'd better look at the baseball card industry and think again. When I was a kid, I could get a pack of cards with a stick of gum for a quarter. First, they priced the kids out of the market, then they reduced distribution of the cards, preferring to sell whole year lots. Not surprisingly, interest dropped precipitously. I asked my daughter Katheryn, "Do you know what a baseball card is?" She shrugged her shoulders and shook her head no.You reduce access, kids will lose interest, whether it's collectibles or the sport itself.
Just before the game ended [Tom Lasorda] and some of his colleagues forehandedly stationed themselves beside a runway under the stands, where they could collect autographs from the players coming off the field. The game ended, the Giants came clattering by, and Tom extended his scorecard to the first hulking, bespiked hero to come in out of the sunshine.
“Can I have your autograph, please, mister?” he said.
“Outta my way, kid,” the Giant said, brushing past the boy.
When Tom Lasorda tells the story now, the shock of this moment is still visible on his face. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “Here was the first big-league player I’d ever seen up close—the first one I ever dared speak to—and what he did was shove me up against the wall. I think tears came to my eyes. I watched the guy as he went away toward the clubhouse and I noticed the number on his back—you know, like taking the license of a hit-and-run car. Later on, I looked at my program and got his name. It was Buster Maynard, who was an outfielder with the Giants then. I never forgot it.”
Seven or eight years went swiftly by (as they do in instructive, moral tales), during which time Tom Lasorda grew up to become a promising young pitcher in the Dodger organization. In the spring of 1949, he was a star with the Dodger farm team in Greenville, North Carolina, in the Sally League, and took the mound for the opening game of the season at Augusta, Georgia, facing the Augusta Yankees. Tom retired the first two batters, and then studied the third, a beefy right-handed veteran, as he stepped up to the box. The park loudspeaker made the introduction: “Now coming up to bat for the Yankees, Buster May-narrd, right field!”
Lasorda was transfixed. “I looked in,” he says, “and it was the same man!”
The first pitch to Maynard nearly removed the button from the top of his cap. The second, behind his knees, inspired a beautiful sudden entrechat. The third, under the Adam’s apple, confirmed the message, and Maynard threw away his bat and charged the mound like a fighting bull entering the plaza in Seville. The squads spilled out onto the field and separated the two men, and only after a lengthy and disorderly interval was baseball resumed.
After the game, Lasorda was dressing in the visitor’s locker room when he was told that he had a caller at the door. It was Buster Maynard, who wore a peaceable but puzzled expression. “Listen, kid,” he said to Lasorda, “did I ever meet you before?”
“Not exactly,” Tom said. “Did I bat against you someplace, maybe?” “Nope.” “Well, why were you tryin’ to take my head off out there?” Lasorda spread his hands wide. “You didn’t give me your autograph,” he said.
Tom Lasorda tells this story each spring to the new young players who make the Dodger club. “Always give an autograph when somebody asks you,” he says gravely. “You never can tell. In baseball anything can happen.”