Thursday, March 6, 2008

Bobby Murcer for Monument Park

There were 2.1 million Americans who served in the Vietnam War. Only 1 of these played Major League Baseball: Roy Gleason, who grew up in Southern California, and played 8 games for his "hometown" Los Angeles Dodgers as a September callup in 1963, as an outfielder and pinch-runner. He came to bat only once, but hit a double down the left field line, and scored on a subsequent single. He was sent back to the minors in 1964, was drafted in 1967, was wounded in 1968, and was sent home. Although he was ineligible for the Dodgers' 1963 postseason roster due to the time of his callup, they gave him a World Series ring.

Due to the circumstances of his exit from the combat zone, his ring was left behind in the jungles. The Dodgers later gave him a new one, and, now a 65-year-old car salesman, he has been a spokesman for veterans.

Several other players served in the Vietnam era without being sent "in country." Bobby Murcer may have been the best of them.


He debuted with the New York Yankees in 1965, as a 19-year-old shortstop-turned-outfielder from Oklahoma -- which, naturally, caused someone to publicly call him "the next Mickey Mantle." Well, he wasn't. But he had a swing made for Yankee Stadium's short right field porch, and he had a good enough arm to be recruited as a quarterback by the University of Oklahoma. He chose baseball because of football's injury factor, and because baseball paid more then (and still does).

He missed the 1967 and '68 seasons in the service, and has said that it was well worth it, that he did a lot of growing up in the Army.

In 1969, with Mantle retired, Murcer became the new Yankee center fielder. Mantle had played the two previous seasons at 1st base, to ease the strain on his oft-injured legs, while Joe Pepitone, a great fielder at first, proved less than that in center. Pepitone went back to 1st, but his days in Pinstripes were numbered; that's a story for another time.

Murcer stayed there until the 1974 season, when the Yanks fell tantalizingly short of the Playoffs, knocking the Boston Red Sox out of the American League East race, but dropping a September doubleheader to the Baltimore Orioles caused them to finish 2 games back of the O's, the closest the Yanks had been to October since the 1964 Pennant.

Team owner George Steinbrenner apologized to Bobby, but traded him to the San Francisco Giants for Bobby Bonds. You might be familiar with his son Barry, but in his time, Bobby Bonds was one of the best players in the game, coming closer to being a 40-40 man -- 40 home runs and 40 stolen bases in the same season -- than anyone would be until, interestingly enough, Barry Bonds did it in 1996. (That was before Barry apparently began using steroids, but well after Jose Canseco had a steroid-aided 40-40 season in 1988, so that doesn't count anymore.)

To be traded even-up for Bobby Bonds was something of an honor, but Bobby Murcer didn't see it that way. He was absolutely heartbroken. And he hated Candlestick Park, whose winds messed up both his hitting and his fielding. And Bonds didn't work out for the Yanks, either, and after 1975 he was traded to the California Angels for Mickey Rivers and Ed Figueroa, a trade that worked out very well.

Murcer was traded to the Chicago Cubs, and enjoyed Chicago and Wrigley Field, with its passionate fans and close power alleys, much more. In 1979, the Yankees got him back, and he felt redeemed.

Then came that awful day when Thurman Munson's plane went down. Bobby and Thurman were close friends, and Bobby may have been the last teammate to see Thurman alive. At Thurman's funeral, on August 6, 1979, Bobby and Lou Piniella gave eulogies.

That night, the team (ironically) flew back to New York, played the 1st-place Orioles, and Bobby drove in all the Yankee runs, with a 3-run home run off Dennis Martinez in the 7th inning, and a 2-run double off Tippy Martinez (no relation) in the bottom of the 9th. It may have been the most emotional game in Yankee history, even standing up with the 2 9th-inning comebacks in the 2001 World Series after the 9/11 attacks.

The Yankees finally reached a postseason with Murcer on their roster in 1981, winning the Pennant, before falling to the Dodgers in the World Series. In 1983, Steinbrenner told Murcer, 37, he wanted to call up a hot young hitter from Triple-A, and needed to clear space on the roster. He said that if Bobby would retire as a player, he'd make him a broadcaster and give him a Bobby Murcer Day at the Stadium. Bobby agreed, and has been in the Yankee booth ever since, 25 years.

The hot young hitter? Kid from Indiana named Don Mattingly. It's strange how Bobby may have helped the Yankees more by leaving the field than by playing on it.


Bobby teamed with Phil Rizzuto until the Scooter retired in 1996, and took over Phil's role as the Yankee TV booth's storyteller-in-chief. He has also worked with, among others, Frank Messer, Bill White, Billy Martin, Tim McCarver, Tom Seaver, Paul Olden, Jim Kaat, Joe Girardi, and, currently, Michael Kay, Ken Singleton and Paul O'Neill.

Bobby has been a lot of fun, but he hasn't always been brilliant. In 1992, the Yankees went to Detroit to play the Tigers, who, at that point, were still talking about building a replacement for Tiger Stadium. What became Comerica Park would not open until 2000. And Bobby said, "The Detroit Tigers are very tough at home, especially when they play at Tiger Stadium." I still have it on tape. Where else were they going to play at that point, the Silverdome? The University of Michigan's field in Ann Arbor? (At the time, Derek Jeter was a newly-signed Yankee prospect, and a freshman at UM, although he never played there.)

Then came 1999, and the opening of Safeco Field in Seattle, the new home of the Mariners. No more Kingdome. Safeco has a retractable roof, and on the Yankees' first weekend series there, the roof was open and the sun was shining. And Bobby said, "Ah, gotta love that sunshine. Get that Vitamin C." Of course, it's Vitamin D. I thought McCarver was going to have a fit.

A few weeks later, I was at Fenway Park to see the Yankees demolish the Red Sox, 13-3. On my way out of the old ballyard, I managed to reach the home plate entrance, which is also the press entrance. It was dark, and, not quite looking where I was going, I bumped into somebody. I looked up, and it was Bobby Murcer! And Tim McCarver was with him.

That was a big thrill. Not as big as getting out of New England in one piece, with a Yankee cap on, in the middle of a Yanks-Sox Pennant race, but pretty big.

Around Christmas 2006, we who root for the Yankees were stunned with the news that Bobby had a brain tumor removed. After a year's worth of treatment, he was thought to be cancer-free. But last week, getting checked out for a cold (it seems the whole country has this cold, mine seems to be getting better), they did a full MRI on him just in case, and found a spot on his brain. The Yankee community freaked out; although he never became the Hall-of-Fame star everyone expected, Murcer is beloved around here.

We were told it could only be one of two things, and one was a new tumor. It turned out to be the other, scar tissue, and everyone associated with the team and everyone who roots for it is relieved.

Now 61, Murcer is fully expected to be in the broadcast booth on Opening Day, March 31, and to be there all the way through this final season of Yankee Stadium.

George and Hank Steinbrenner should do the right thing and give him his Monument Park Plaque on this year's Old-Timers' Day. He has spent 38 of the last 44 years on the Yankee payroll (40 of 44 if you count his military service), and while they won't retire his number (he wore 1 the first time around, retired for Billy Martin, and 2 the second time around, which will be retired for Derek Jeter), he deserves the honor of Monument Park while the Plaques are still in the Stadium he graced with his presence for so long.

George, Hank, it is time. While we still have time -- both with him and with Yankee Stadium. Please. Honor Bobby Murcer for all he has done for this team.

UPDATE: They didn't give him his Plaque in time. And they still haven't.

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