Tampa – Today I walk around the new renovated George Steinbrenner Field. I see the left field balcony and there is a big and bright number 15 displayed for all the fans and it naturally takes me back to my early spring training days with Thurman Munson.
It used to be a glorious time back in the 1970’s. I shared wonderful moments with Bobby Murcer. I had incredible times with Catfish Hunter. A player that many of the fans won’t remember but yet he meant a lot to me was an outfielder named Walt “No Neck” Williams.
A guy who probably played first base better than anybody in the history of the game was a part of our world championship 1978 team by the name Jim Spencer. Another guy that meant the world to me and he happened to win eight Gold Gloves as a center fielder was Paul Blair.
Another guy, Aurelio Rodriguez helped the Yankees win at the start of the 1980’s was also an incredible defensive wizard at third base. And of course our fearless leader on the field was our incredible manager Billy Martin, and then of course “The Boss” of bosses George Steinbrenner was the man who always demanded for this team to win for our great city yet always had the greatest heart of anyone associated with the New York Yankees.
I think of all these men often. I miss them so very much and when I see the families at Old Timers Day I can’t help but cry.
Seven years ago a lady by the name of Sally Cook, who was associated with Columbia Presbyterian Hospital asked me if I could bring a player to read one of my children’s books to the kids there. I decided that I would bring a young rookie by the name of Brett Gardner.
It’s always easier to ask a rookie to assist you with a hospital visit than a veteran. And with the kids at the hospital when any one puts on that Yankees uniform as far as they are concerned those players are Superman.
I recall picking up Gardner at Yankee Stadium and driving him to the hospital. On our way there I remember him saying, ” I don’t know if I can do this.” He was actually quite nervous. I explained to him about the history of Yankees always visiting children at hospitals dating all the way back to Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
I told him about a lot of the Yankees who are no longer with us and how they always gave back to the less privileged. I even told him how Thurman Munson used to feel after spending time with a lot of these kids. Thurman never had to say anything because you always saw it in his eyes. In Mr. Steinbrenner you would always see it in his smile.
When we arrived at the hospital Ms. Cook was nervously waiting for us at curb side. I introduced the two of them and she led us inside to where many of the kids were waiting.
Gardner went right up to the podium and was introduced by the President of the hospital and like a seasoned pro he read the children’s book “Goodbye to Yankee Stadium.” Ironically that book was about all the spirits that played at Yankee Stadium.
The kids loved how Gardner read the book to them. It was if he was acting out all the different parts. When he finished reading the book he received a big ovation from everyone there. After signing many autographs we started to leave. A little girl introduced herself to Brett. Her name was Alissa
She handed Gardner a little bracelet. She asked him if he would wear it at the game that night. She asked it he would do her a favor and Gardner responded, “What can I do for you?” She told him she had been waiting for a heart for over six months and she felt if Gardner hit her a home run that they would find a heart for her.
Gardner looked at her with a startled look in his face. She asked again if he would please try and he said that he would. He gave her a hug and then we jumped back in the car.
On our way back to Yankee Stadium, Gardner had a very sad look on his face. I asked him what was wrong and he said, “I hardly hit home runs and I am afraid of letting Alissa down.” I told him, like in my children’s book, just let the spirits handle it.
When he walked into the Yankees clubhouse he noticed his name was not in the starting lineup and he really got disappointed because now he was really not going to have a chance to hit a home run.
As faith would have it, Johnny Damon got into an argument with the umpire and got thrown out of the game in the sixth inning. Manager Joe Girardi looked over to Gardner and told him to grab a bat.
Gardner hit a line drive down the left field line The left fielder for the Minnesota Twins was the extremely fast Denard Span. For some reason he misplayed the ball and it went past him and all the way back to the wall and the even faster Brett Gardner raced around the bases the way Mickey Rivers would in the 70’s.
They tried to throw him out at the plate but Gardner got his hand at the plate just before the tag could be made. A miracle happened, an inside the park home run. As he ran into the dugout all he could think of was he fulfilled his promise to a very sick little girl who had been looking for a heart.
By the time the game ended and the players got into the clubhouse a call had came in that a heart had been found for little Alissa. It was as if the baseball Gods were looking over Brett and Alissa’s shoulder. This was something that was just meant to be.
It’s been almost ten years since this incredible miracle happened and I can joyfully say that Alissa is a beautiful young lady today thanks to the wonderful doctors, to the great soul of Brett Gardner and all the wonderful spirits that will always be known as New York Yankees.
Just look over your shoulder always! This story is dedicated to my Mom and Pop, Adele Smithers “The Mother of Recovery” and all the wonderful people that we lost in the last year. Thank you Phil Collins for writing such a wonderful song….”You’ll be in my heart.”
Weekends with Ray on ESPN1050 Impact 12-2pm and he can be read on Newsmax.