You could say that as a lifelong (OK, I didn’t become a fan until age 8, so lifelong is not quite accurate) fan of the New York Yankees, these are interesting times and the home of the Orioles is an interesting place for me to live.
It’s not that I hate the Orioles. That hate is reserved for the Red Sox. I just don’t like them, especially how they degrade The Star-Spangled Banner by singing that elongated O thing. You see, Yankees fans respect the National Anthem and we just love our team that has given us a treasure chest of lifetime memories.
Among the special moments sketched in my memory: Reggie Jackson smashing a first-inning homer during my first visit to Yankees Stadium (more on that later); World Series championships featuring teams led by Thurmon Munson, Ron Guidry, Graig Nettles and Jackson, followed by series championship teams led Mo and Jeter and company; and Mike Mussina joining the club (more on that later as well).
Many of you are thinking it’s easy to root for a winner because you have been cheering for a loser in Baltimore for so long until this year. To that I need to tell you about myself. I grew up in a baseball town in North Central Pennsylvania – Williamsport – yes that Williamsport. Along with being the home of Little League Baseball, Williamsport also was one of those places where cable came early when televisions had rotary dials and 13 channels.
Growing up, my channel choices were Wilkes-Barre, Pa., network affiliates and the non-affiliate stations from New York – WNEW, WOR (broadcast home of the Mets who won the World Series in 1969, shortly after I started watching baseball with my older brother – the hardcore Yankees fan in my family) and WPIX, home to my beloved, if not good Yankees. That’s right, the Yankees were not very good.
The 1968 Yankees featured Mickey Mantle, but he was at the end of his career and played first base. Here are some other names from that team: Jake Gibbs, Horace Clarke, Tom Tresh, Roy White (early in his career), Joe Pepitone and Gene Michael. The pitching staff featured Mel Stottlemyer and some other guys including Jim Bouton, Fritz Peterson, Lindy McDaniel and Al Downing – famous for surrendering Hank Aaron’s 715th homer while pitching for the Dodgers.
I have memories of watching WPIX broadcasts and listening to the Scooter, Phil Rizzuto, and Frank Messer – the guy who had been an Orioles broadcaster, but took off for New York when the Yankees called – much like Mussina did years later. I was as likely to watch a losing effort as a winning one, as the Yankees finished 83-79 in 1968. In 1969, the year New Yorkers were going bonkers over the Amazin’ Mets, my beloved Yankees finished 80-81.
Orioles fans don’t have to remind me about 1970 – and Brooks Robinson’s mastery of third base during the World Series.
The Yankees started improving during this period through players in the farm system – Thurman Munson for one and through a series of trades. Downing – who had been on my first team – was traded for Danny Cater.
Who’s Danny Cater, you ask? In 1969, he was the only major league baseball player who lived in my hometown. Older brother was so excited, he walked about a mile and a half on a nasty winter day to Cater’s home, knocked on the door and got his autograph. Most Yankees fans celebrate Cater as the guy the Yankees traded to the dreaded Red Sox (now there is something Orioles and Yankees fans agree on) for Sparky Lyle.
In addition, the team was sold to King George and things improved rather quickly.
George Steinbrenner’s Yankees of the late ’70s added free agents, most notably Catfish Hunter and Jackson, to the improving lineup.
In 1976, the Yankees returned to the World Series, only to be demolished by the Cincinnati Reds. Lessons learned, the Yankees returned and won in 1977 and 1978. As for 1978, Yankees fans will tell you Nettles matched Robinson’s 1970 exploits at third.
The ’80s did not bring any championships, but it did give Yankees fans Donnie Baseball and I did get to see Guidry pitch and win in the stadium.
It was during this time I started my journalism career in my hometown and I remember the sports pages tracking a local guy playing in the major leagues. You might remember him – Tom O’Malley. He played third for the Orioles.
O’Malley’s family had moved to Montoursville when he was in high school. The story locally was his father chose Montoursville over Williamsport because Williamsport – with all its baseball history – did not have a high school baseball team at the time.
I also remember interviewing a high school football player about the big play of his career. He spoke about beating a kid from Montoursville (four and a half miles from Williamsport). Asked the outcome, his face lit up and he said “Touchdown.” The kid he beat was named Mussina.
A few years later, I was sitting with my older brother in the Montoursville Middle School gym on a nasty winter Saturday afternoon, watching my brother’s son play middle school basketball. Brother nudged me and said, “That’s Mussina, isn’t it?”
I looked along down to courtside and there he stood, the star Orioles pitcher. No one bothered him. In Montoursville, he was just Mike, the kid from the neighborhood. I liked that about Mussina and Montoursville.
In 2001, Mussina joined the Yankees with hopes of getting a World Series ring. The Yankees had returned to the top, winning championships in 1996, ’98, ’99 and 2000.
Mussina kept returning to Montoursville and remained just Mike to the kids in his hometown. With 270 major league wins, Mussina retired in 2008, a year before the Yankees won their most recent World Series.
Remember at the beginning, I told you about seeing Jackson hit that homer during my first visit to Yankees Stadium.
Aug. 8, 1976: Jackson hit a first inning homer off Catfish Hunter. But wait, weren’t Jackson and Hunter teammates with the Yankees and before that with Oakland A’s?
In 1976, Jackson played right field for the Baltimore Orioles.
Since I live in Maryland, I can cheer for the Orioles if I have to – I’ll just remind myself that Buck Showalter managed the Yankees.
What if I had moved to Massachusetts? Would I cheer for the Red Sox?
(Feature photo from May 12th Yankee/Orioles game. Yankees fan ruined Wei-Yin Chen’s shutout by interfering with a ball in left field. Orioles outfielder Xavier Avery leaped to make the catch on a Curtis Granderson fly ball, but a fan snatched it from him. Avery told reporters after the game that the Yankees had a “tenth man out there helping them out.”…So what’s wrong with that? We have great fans that help our team win.)
John Bechtel spends his days editing. He and his wife are new to Maryland and look forward to exploring the state.