Celebrate Your Birthdays
Honestly, my mom always made me feel special on my birthday, March 14. When I was a young boy, she used to wake me up at the exact time I was born: 7:36 A.M. As I grew older and moved out of the house, it became the phone call at 7:36 A.M. Even after I got married and had kids of my own, I always woke up looking forward to her call—it started the day off on the right foot. I put that tradition into City Slickers, with Jayne Meadows’s voice playing my mom on the other end of the line. Mom’s been gone since 2001, but come March 14, I still get up early and look at the alarm clock, and at 7:36, in my mind I hear the phone ring. Her call always ended with her saying, “Do something special.” I didn’t even mind that she called collect.
The most special thing I ever did on my birthday was when my life’s dream came true: I got to play for the New York Yankees.
In 2007, I was in Costa Rica for Christmas vacation and could feel my birthday looming. I was anxious about turning sixty — it felt like a huge number. Derek Jeter happened to be at our hotel. I’d known Derek since his rookie year, and we’d become friends. I told Derek I was going to be sixty and was a little freaked out about it. Jeter asked, “If you could do one thing to make yourself happy, what would it be? You should do something special.” Somewhere, my mom was smiling.
I knew my answer to Jeter’s question right away. When Joe Torre was the Yankees’ manager, he had let me work out with the team many times, even before World Series games. Joe and I were very close friends, and he not only knew I could handle myself on the ﬁeld but thought my presence might even relax the guys. Inﬁeld practice was the most fun. I was still a good player, having been an outstanding (if I say so myself ) high school second baseman and shortstop, and had played in leagues in New York and Los Angeles into my forties. My skills, though hardly professional, were solid. I still take batting practice regularly in a cage at home, and every morning my gym workout ends with a “catch.” Turning double plays with Jeter on the historic inﬁeld of old Yankee Stadium was an enormous thrill. I wanted to do it again—this time, for real.
I came up with a plan where I would get one at bat in a spring training game. Whatever happens, happens, and I then announce my retirement and throw the team a party. Jeter loved the idea, and a few weeks before my sixtieth birthday, he and George Steinbrenner, Lonn Trost, Randy Levine, Brian Cashman, Bud Selig, and Major League Baseball gave me the greatest birthday gift ever: the Yankees would sign me to a one-day contract, and I would play against the Pittsburgh Pirates in a spring training game in Tampa. The game was on March 13, 2008, the day before my sixtieth birthday.
The ofﬁcial contract was for $4 million! But the nice part was that the Yankees gave me three days to come up with the money. We worked it out so that I would be the DH—designated Hebrew. Even though I wasn’t going to be in the ﬁeld, I needed to prepare. As you get older, there’s a ﬁne line between getting a walk and just wandering away from the batter’s box. So I went into training.
Reggie Smith, the former great player who’d trained my “Maris and Mantle” — Barry Pepper and Thomas Jane— for 61*, has a baseball academy in Encino, California. He is a great teacher, and a better man. When I told him what was happening, he was almost as excited as I was. We didn’t have a lot of time, but every day I worked on my swing with Reggie and his son (also a great teacher), against live pitching. As I left the West Coast for this great moment—accompanied by my good pal Robin Williams and some dear friends from high school — I was hitting eighty-ﬁve-mile-per-hour fastballs and felt as ready as a ﬁfty-nine-year-old comedian can feel as he’s about to play for the New York Yankees.
Trivia freaks will know that I was the oldest person ever to play for the Yankees, and the ﬁrst player ever to test positive for Maalox. I actually did have to undergo routine testing. When they asked me for blood and urine, I gave them my underwear. The day before the game, I met with Yankee manager Joe Girardi. He wanted me to lead off and play left ﬁeld. I said that was too far to run. We agreed that I would lead off and DH and have just the one at bat. Joe wanted me to score a run if I could. I wasn’t sure (again, that’s a long way to run), so we agreed that if I did get on base, Johnny Damon would pinch-run for me. It would be more theatrical, so to speak. I signed my contract with Lonn Trost and Jean Afterman and went and got dressed in the clubhouse. I knew most of the guys in there and had been in the clubhouse many times, but this felt unreal — I was one of them. In a strange way, I was very relaxed about it. It was so natural for me to wait until everyone had left the clubhouse so I could take off my clothes and put on my uniform. Just like high school gym class.
The team was on a road trip, and I spent that day working out with Derek and José Molina, who’d stayed back in Tampa. I took batting practice with Jeter and José while a small crowd and many camera crews looked on. I was on my game, hitting line drive after line drive. I know I shocked everyone, which was a great feeling. But I was in great shape and ready. Tino Martinez was throwing me sixty-mile-per-hour fastballs while Janice videotaped from a distance. Derek saw her and motioned for her to come over by him at the cage. She whispered to him, “How fast is Tino throwing?”
“One-oh-seven,” Derek whispered back.
I couldn’t sleep that night. It was really happening. I arrived at the park early the next morning. Girardi met me and we hung out a little, and to this day I can’t thank him enough for welcoming me the way he did. This was his ﬁrst year with the club, and the last thing he needed was some aging leading man as his lead-off man. Yet he treated me like a ballplayer, which is what I was that day. I did my pregame stretching and conditioning drills with the club and, of course, was then ready for a nap. Batting practice was amazing. I was in the cage with Derek and Damon and Bobby Abreu and Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada. When the guys nodded to one another that I was okay, I was on cloud nine. The hard part was that once batting practice was over, we had about an hour and a half till game time. I could feel my sphincter tighten, as well as my lower back and hamstrings. Now it wasn’t just fun, it was really on.
I had lunch with Derek and Jorge and tried to be cool, but I was getting more and more anxious. Jorge and Derek were so easy with me. We all ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches: the same meal I always had before games in high school and all the league games I’d played in and, actually, before hosting the Oscars. After lunch I went to put my game uniform on, and that’s when the pranks started. My shoelaces were cut, so when I went to tie them, they came off in my hands. The toes on my socks were cut as well, so when I pulled them on, my foot went through. I took it all in good stride, trying to act like nothing bothered me, as I knew the guys were watching. I was careful putting on my cup, as the fear of hot sauce loomed. The pranks continued — my hat switched with one that didn’t ﬁt, my glove missing, a belt with no holes — until it was time to go to the dugout.
The stands were full as I bounded onto the ﬁeld with the team to loosen up. A big roar from the crowd made me feel great, until I realized that A-Rod and Jeter were standing next to me. The national anthem was played, and I had a tear in my eye as I looked into the stands to see my brothers, Joel and Rip, and my daughter Jenny, and of course Janice. Mike Mussina threw a perfect ﬁrst inning, and then I was up. When the announcer introduced me with “Leading off for the Yankees, the designated hitter, number 60, Billy Crystal,” I just about lost it. Since I’d been a kid, playing with my dad, brothers, or friends, I’d always dreamed of this moment, and now it was real. The crowd gave me a tremendous hand as I left the on-deck circle. “Hack,” (meaning swing) said Jeter, patting me on the helmet.
The Pirates’ pitcher was Paul Maholm: six foot two, 220 pounds, from Mississippi. Never been to a Seder. I was nervous, but the one thing I was not nervous about was getting hit by a pitch. It never entered my mind. If Maholm hit me, I’d sue. You ever see a Jew get hit by a pitch? They get plunked in the leg and they grab their neck. Whiplash! Once I’d found out the date of the game, I’d gone to the Pirates’ website to see who’d be pitching. I’d then watched Maholm strike out Barry Bonds. A real conﬁdence builder. I studied his motion and his release point and tried to visualize what hitting off him would be like. As I approached the plate, the ump greeted me, as did the Pirates’ catcher. I watched Maholm’s warm-up pitches, looking for the release point I had seen on the website, and told myself, I can do this.
I stepped in. Since 1956, from the time I had seen Mickey Mantle play in the ﬁrst game at the stadium I’d gone to, I had wanted to be a Yankee.
So there I am in the batter’s box ﬁfty-two years after that ﬁrst game, my heart beating into the NY logo on my chest. Maholm is staring in for the sign, and I’m staring back, trying to look like I belong. Here comes the ﬁrst pitch: ninety-two miles an hour. Ball one. I never see it, but it sounds outside. The ball makes a powerful thud in the catcher’s glove. I want to say, “Holy s__t,” but I act like I see one of those every day. In fact, I do: on TV, not in the F___ING BATTER’S BOX. The count is 1 and 0. He comes in with a fastball, a little up and away, and I hit a screaming line drive down the ﬁrst base line, which means I didn’t hit it that hard but I’m screaming, “I hit it! I hit it!” Someone yells, “DOUBLE!” Which would be tough because I can’t run like I used to and on my way to second base I’d have to stop twice to pee. The last time a Jew my age ran that fast, the caterer was closing down the buffet.
But I’m still thinking double. The ump is thinking, Foul ball. I had made contact with a major league fastball. Okay, 1 and 1. Ball inside, 2 and 1, and another ball and it’s 3 and 1. I’m this close to getting to ﬁrst base, just like at my prom. I look over, and Derek Jeter is in the on-deck circle yelling, “Swing, swing!”
The windup, the pitch. It’s a cutter. The nastiest cutter I’ve seen since my bris. But I swing and miss. The ﬁrst time I’ve swung and missed in two days at Tampa. Now it’s 3 and 2. The crowd stands up. This is my only shot, my only at bat. Ever. Maholm winds, I look to the release point, and there it is: eighty-nine miles per hour, a cut fastball, the same pitch he threw to that obstructer of justice Barry Bonds. I swing over it. Strike three. I’m out of there.
I head back to the bench, but before I do, I check with the ump: “Strike?” He shakes his head no: low and inside. I’m so mad I missed it, and also mad I didn’t take the pitch, that I almost don’t hear the crowd standing and cheering. The guys are giving me high ﬁves. Girardi hugs me, then Kevin Long, the great hitting coach, and then Jorge. Then, for the ﬁrst time in baseball history, they stop the game and give the batter a ball for striking out. A-Rod hands it to me, saying, “Great at bat!” My teammates greet me as if I’ve just hit a home run. Mariano Rivera hugs me, and others keep saying the same thing:
“Six pitches, man, you saw six pitches!”
I sit with Yogi Berra and Ron Guidry for a few innings, and if that isn’t cool enough, I’m asked to come up to Mr. Steinbrenner’s ofﬁce. In full uniform I walk into the boss’s lair. He gives me a big hug and then says with a straight face that I’ve been traded for Jerry Seinfeld.
Excerpted from STILL FOOLIN’ ‘EM: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys? by Billy Crystal. Copyright © 2013 by Jennilind LLC. All rights reserved.
Excerpted from Still Foolin' 'Em by Billy Crystal. Copyright © 2013 Billy Crystal. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Co..
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