The Day Derek Jeter Tipped Off President Bush on How To Throw a Perfect Pitch — And Other Stories of the Damn Yankees

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Friday is Opening Day at Yankee Stadium, the start of a Spring ritual that brings with it a new season of great baseball writing – books and essays that seem to capture insights into life almost as effortlessly as a Willie Mays catch, even though (or perhaps because) they are about what appears simply a game.

David Ulin’s beautifully written review of “Damn Yankees: Twenty-Four Major League Writers on the World’s Most Loved (and Hated) Team” (edited by former Sports Illustrated executive editor Rob Fleder), begins with Ulin’s recollection of playing interactive video baseball with his then 11-year old daughter — “an avowed Yankees hater and (even worse) a Red Sox fan.” Mr. Ulin cautioned her that the video game might bring out his Yankees-fan cold-bloodedness, and that is exactly what happened:

During the game, in a digital Fenway Park, I tried to keep it friendly, throwing her the occasional meatball, letting her score some runs. But in the eighth inning, with the Yankees leading by three, she hit a two-run homer to bring the Red Sox within one. I looked at her as she did a dance of joy; I might even have said, “Now it’s serious.” Then I did what any real Yankees fan would do: I went to the bullpen for Mariano Rivera, and I shut my daughter down.


“Damn Yankees” includes a Roy Blount, Jr. essay (“I Have Feelings for the Yankees”) that recounts a classic appearance by Yogi Berra on a radio talk show:

The host says, “Yogi, we’re going to play a game of free association. I’ll throw out a name, and you just say the first thing that pops into your mind. Okay?” “Okay,” says Yogi. They go on the air. “I’m here with Yogi Berra, and we’re going to play a game of free association. I’ll just throw out a name, and Yogi will say the first thing that pops into his mind. Ready, Yogi?” “Okay.” “Mickey Mantle.” “What about him?” asks Yogi.

Pete Dexter’s contribution is “The Errors of Our Ways,” an essay both funny and ineffably sad, reflecting on Yankee second baseman Chuck Knoblauch’s career-ending inability to make his throws to first base — a sudden psychological handicap known to baseball fans as Steve Blass Disease, Steve Sax Disease, and Chuck Knoblauch Syndrome. The most humorous part of Mr. Dexter’s essay is unfortunately unquotable on a website accessible to younger Yankee fans; but perhaps it will suffice to note that Dexter makes connections between Knoblauch, Keith Olbermann, Anthony Weiner, and an unfortunate rooster.


Jane Leavy’s “Sully and the Mick” traces the relationship between Mickey Mantle and Red Sox pitcher Frank Sullivan over nearly a decade in which they faced each other 79 times, with Mantle homering seven times and striking out 14. Ms. Leavy had contacted Sullivan to apologize to him after she described him in her book on Mantle as the “late” Frank Sullivan, mortifying his wife, who contacted Ms. Leavy’s publisher. Mr. Sullivan responded with an email that read:

Dear Jane, it would distress me big time if you were to lose a minute’s sleep over this. I know I haven’t. And besides, you’re probably not off by much.

Ms. Leavy’s subsequent interviews of Mr. Sullivan resulted in a touching essay about him and Mantle. The first time the 6’ 7” Sullivan faced Mantle, he struck him out three straight times — and then watched him “hit one so far up in the bleachers in Yankees Stadium I couldn’t believe it. He could hit the ball so much farther than anybody his size. Or anybody’s size.” After tearing his knee in 1951, Mantle would never again play without pain, but by 1957 he was an American legend.


Mantle eventually burned out, before he even left the game in 1968. When Mr. Sullivan retired, he moved to Hawaii, to get as far away from the game as possible:

He worked for a company that built helicopter pads and golf courses on Kauai; he became a golf pro and sailed boats throughout the seven seas; he wrote a damn good book called “Life Is More Than 9 Innings” a lesson Mantle didn’t learn until it was too late. … “If I knew I was going to live so long, I would’ve taken better care of myself,” Mantle liked to say, a throwaway line he delivered often while throwing his life away.

Mr. Sullivan ends up telling Ms. Leavy, “I had no idea of the misery and suffering the poor bastard went through. If I’d known how tough Mickey’s life had been, I would’ve thrown a few fat ones over the plate.”

Sally Jenkins contributes a nice recollection of President Bush’s visit to Yankee Stadium on October 20, 2001, to throw out the first pitch for Game Three of the World Series, just a few weeks after the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11. He wore a NYFD sweatshirt and a bulky bulletproof vest, and he was advised by Derek Jeter to throw from the mound (not in front of it) and not to bounce the throw, or “they’ll boo ya.” Standing alone, at the center of the stadium, the President threw a strike, helping to lift a city and a country (the video is here).

In a review of another new baseball book, pitcher Jim Abbott’s “Imperfect: An Improbable Life” — an “uncommonly compelling coming-of-age story” of a boy born with one hand, who became not only a Major League pitcher but threw a no-hitter for the Yankees — Chris Erskine writes that the game “is different today; we are different today; but in another sense we are still the same, still seeking ways to recover the lost innocence of youth, always searching for the second chance of a new season.”

In that endeavor, it is the stories of baseball players, more than their statistics, that can assist us, as we are blessed, once again, with the possibilities of another Spring.

Mr. Richman, a former Little Leaguer and a current L.A. Dodger fan, is a contributing editor of the Sun.

The New York Sun

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