Holy Cow: A Yankee Worth Liking?

It could hardly have been more dramatic. The bases were loaded with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, the Yankees led 6-3, and the Tigers’ clean-up hitter, Alan Trammell was at the plate. As a Mets’ fan living in New York, the Tigers were, for the day, my second-favorite team as I sat in front of the television tuned into Channel 11, WPIX.

As Yankees right-hander Cecilio Guante pitched himself into a full count, however, TV viewers were being regaled with some inane story about a thunderstorm in 1955 or something equally irrelevant. Guante delivered the 3-2 pitch, and Trammell crushed it to deep left field at Tiger Stadium. At this point, the announcer blurted out “he popped him up,” and continued with his pointless tale, before his colleague interjected to shout that Trammell had just hit a game-winning grand-slam with two outs and a full count.

The announcer of course, was Phil Rizzuto, who passed away this week at 89 years old. My memory of the occasion is probably skewed by the years and by my biases, but the Scooter was a perpetual thorn in my side throughout the late 80s and early 1990s. He was an unabashed “homer” — an announcer who threw aside any pretense of being even-handed. He openly rooted for the Yankees, and he let his favoritism skew his analysis of the game (such as calling Alan Trammell’s walk-off grand slam a “pop up”).

While rallies or spectacular plays went on down below on the field, Rizzuto would ramble on about chicken Cacciatore or the train stations of American League cities. And somehow Yankees fans seemed to love him. His announcing was why all Yankees fans, every summer, would complain that the Scooter wasn’t in the Hall of Fame (not to keep bringing him up, but Alan Trammell, also a shortstop, had a higher lifetime batting average, was more important to his team, and was a better fielder than The Scooter). Eventually, in 1994, Rizzuto was inducted into the Hall.

What was the obsession with this man? Was it just Yankee fan blindness that caused him to be elevated and to still have a job?

I started to get answers to that question as I began learning baseball history and playing the game in Little League, High School, and these days in an adult wood-bat league. Like Rizzuto, I have never been a power hitter, and so like him, I relied on the bunt. (In 2005, I hit .300, with a majority of hits being bunt singles.)

Rizzuto also executed one of my favorite plays in the history of baseball. Like Alan Trammel’s grand-slam, it won the game with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, but it was a little different. Facing Hall of Fame Cleveland pitcher Bob Lemon in a tie game, the Yankees called for a squeeze bunt (the runner on third breaks towards home on the pitch, and the batter bunts the ball, allowing the runner to score). This is not an easy play for a batter, I know, having failed more times than I’ve succeeded. If you don’t bunt the ball, the runner is tagged out. If you bunt it up in the air, it’s a double play.

Lemon saw DiMaggio running home, and he knew the squeeze was on. He threw it over Rizzuto’s head — a pitch out of sorts. But the Scooter proceeded to leap in the air, stick the bat in front of the ball, and get down the game-winning bunt. That was Rizzuto — willing to claw his way to victory (and he won the World Series in a majority of his 13 seasons).

Looking back on his playing career, he was undoubtedly a gamer. Thinking back on his announcing career, I can’t really blame the guy for being a homer — this country probably needs more home-town loyalty and our media would do well to be as open as Scooter about their biases. And while baseball — and the enjoyment thereof — is immeasurably improved by the constantly increasing understanding and availability of statistics in the game, it’s nice to stick an old storyteller in the booth.

This is incredible to say about a Yankee, but over time, I learned to kind of like the guy.