"It's the last season for the old Yankee Stadium." BLAH. BLAH. BLAH. That's all I hear or see on talk radio ESPN this week. It's the last season for Shea Stadium too, you know. I happen to think Shea is much more of a "New York" stadium but I'm a tragically incurable Mets fan so I've long ago lost all powers on rational evaluation on the matter. Still, can we talk about something else for a minute this week, besides the history, the glory, the eminence of "The House that Ruth Built"?
Reggie Jackson seemed able to change the subject, dropping an anti-Semitic stereotype as he waltzed the streets of Manhattan yesterday. Now that he's an organization man, perhaps he's just spouting the company line. That's what former Yankees great Mickey Rivers intimated to me in March 2004. I met Mick the Quick in the principal's office at Bayside High School (Queens, NYC) where he was visiting his granddaughter and offering his wit and wisdom sui generis to her P.E. classmates.
So in honor of the 2008 MLB All-Star game hosted at (yawn) Yankee Stadium and all the maudlin reminiscing about Yankee days of yore, I felt compelled to share this never before published exchange with one of my favorite Bronx Bombers.
Incomparable and (somewhat) incomprehensible, the former All-Star, two-time World Series champion and inimitable lead-off hitter remembers when Gaylord Perry pummeled Chicken Stanley, felt obligated to fight same guy three different times for Billy Martin and didn't mind being mistaken for Dave Kingman. Oh, and don't miss the bit at the end about racial quotas, if it doesn't get lost in translation.
You've been nicknamed "Mick the Quick" and the "Gozzle" but I like what teammate Sandy Alomar called you: "The Almighty Tired Man."
He looked at me the way I approached the plate. I could see it -- what he said.. He'd say "Why you walk so slow?" (laughs)
You walked slow but ran fast. Today all these guys are taking steroids but they seem to get hurt a lot more -
-- Definitely. Anytime you take things into the body you have a period of adjustment. You take it for a year, next year you gonna pay for it. For some it will catch up with them quicker than the rest.
You led the American League in triples twice (1974, 11 and 1975, 13) and stolen bases once (1975, 70). What was more exciting to you, hitting a triple or stealing a base?
What I liked was to set the tone -set the pace for the team. I know when we're starting the game, I can get on and steal a base then a guy bring me in. Then we're in the lead and in a good position to win. That was the most exciting thing -to help the team. Everybody complaining about their average and all that, but I wanted be in there where I can help my team no matter what situation. And a lot of days I didn't have it. But some of the pitchers would come to the manager and say "Mickey ain't playing. What happened?" Okay, I'll get on that bill if you put it that way. Because the pitcher said "I don't care if he don't have it. Let him stand out there." After that I said "Hey, the guy want me out there, I got to go out there."
Your old Yankees manager Billy Martin - didn't rely on statistics. He knew about people. Where is that in baseball today?
These days that's because of the market values. For instance you got A-Rod at third and you see Jeter playing short. That's not taking nothing away from nobody but you gotta say "Hey, who's a better shortstop?" In New York they say Jeter because we home-grown him. But look at A-Rod. A-Rod's a better shortstop. And I'm not talking about statistics. Billy was one of the great motivator managers. He was always on top of everything. That's what I liked about him. Nobody see it that way because he be hollerin' and all this but when it come down to it he say "Good." For instance, Steinbrenner say something negative to the team, Billy would say, "Okay guys we had a lead, anything come down, I got the backs." So if he got the backs, I gotta watch him.
You did watch him. You actually fought the same guy three times - twice in a bar and once in an elevator - defending Billy Martin.
(laughs) Yeah, because we got to build that structure. I wouldn't leave him hanging. I wouldn't leave him in the street. I wouldn't leave his back uncovered.
Speaking of fights is it true that after a game in 1976, Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry beat up your teammate Chicken Stanley in the Yankee locker room for hitting a home run?
Gaylord got raving mad! You know how Chicken was. Chicken didn't' never play that much. He didn't want to play that much he just wanted to be around the guys. He was just happy being there. So we took Bucky out one night and he needed a replacement the next day, so they put Chicken in. I'll never forget this. He got to start against Gaylord Perry. Gaylord Perry one of the best pitchers in the league. We all knew each other. So Gaylord Perry says "Where's Chicken at?" He said "If Chicken gets a hit off me that'd be okay." But Chicken hit a homerun. Oh he just nailed it. Perry said "Anybody can get a home run off me except him." Anybody in the league could hit a home run off him but he didn't want Chicken to hit a home run off him.
Did Gaylord have something to say to Chicken Stanley after the game?
Did he? He beat him down! He literally beat him. He come in the locker room and literally beat him. I thought he was joking but Gaylord wasn't joking. He was serious.
The Red Sox-Yankees rivalry has seen it's share of scuffles. From Jason Varitek giving A-Rod catcher's mitt sandwich in 2004, to Pedro Martinez taking down Don Zimmer in 2003 -
-- Now wait a minute. We can take it both ways. Like I'm saying, sometimes you get in a complication with the instructor and the student. I wouldn't go challenging a younger kid at a different level from me. Maybe now I take a chance, but in Zimmer's standpoint why would I want to challenge a young player?
In a 1976 brawl, you broke Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee's arm.
He and I talked about that. But I wouldn't challenge anybody younger in that manner. Zimmer, he'll tell you it didn't dawn on him. All of a sudden he just ran out there. How did Pedro do it? He stepped aside and pushed him. It wasn't like he was beating him down. I wouldn't say it was bad on Perdo's point. When somebody's charging, you don't know how you'll react at that same time.
In the famed 1978 Yankees-Red Sox one-game playoff Bucky Dent didn't use his own bat to hit that storied home run, did he?
Well, that's my homey. He's my homeboy. What's mine is his, you know. That's our motto. We come from the same area just five minutes apart in school - same schools and stuff like that. We look out for each other. We don't care if you on this team or that team especially when your on the same team. Cuz if I need a ride or something like that or if I need anything I can say "Hey, I need this." And he's looking out for me. So he used my bat. And he got a job done. I'm happy and everybody else was happy.
You were a happy guy off the field too. Many who know you know you loved dancing, but not every one may know that you discovered Rerun from the hit 1970's television show What's Happening?.
Everybody don't know who Rerun was. He was a dancer. We used to go by and judge some of the dance contests. I remembered Rerun and there was a guy that Jim Henson later on trained to play Big Bird. I tell you who else I missed and I could've had was the guy MC Hammer - the rap guy.
Sure; "Can't Touch This".
Yeah, you know him! All these guys were coming around and we said, well, we don't know too much about the dancing groups but we like music. So I take Willie (Randolph) with me to judge this dance contest. I set Willie up there with the judges and we had some favorite dancers at the time. They say hey "Mickey, you see Shirley over there? Sharp looking girl, Shirley, and Rerun and the other guy -- we got 'em started as a dance group called the Rockers. Two more years later it broke up: one got married, one got an acting part as Rerun and one became Big Bird.
You also "discovered" a guy named Juan Rivera.* Have you had to pull him out lately?
(heh, heh) We'll keep him in there inside, you know. Maybe when I hit the road going back to Puerto Rico, Venezuela and other places they'll say "Is Juan Rivera coming over?" (changing the subject) You know, I played for the Cuban All-Stars in 1970 over in Cuba to play and I was the only non-speaking Spanish guy there. I played there for two years and they all thought I spoke Spanish. In Miami we had a lot of speaking Spanish guys.
A ninety-year old woman named Millie Parisi is the toughest card player I know. Who was the bet clubhouse card player you ever met?
You once said about former major leaguer Danny Napolean "He's so ugly. When you walked by him, your pants wrinkle. He made fly balls curve foul." But have you ever been mistaken for Dave Kingman?
Oh yeah, Dave Kingman he was with the Mets at the time. First he was with the Giants organizations where I got to know him. It was nice how all the guys knew each other. It isn't like it is now. You always did things together. They used to kick us out of the smorgasbord because guys would go there an eat. Eat, eat, eat. We weren't paying more than $5.50 a meal and you could eat all you want. So, they run us out of the smorgasbord. The he go back to the National league, I go back to the American League and we get to see each other on the spur of the moments and talk. Later years, we join the Senior League. I'm talking to a writer who says to me "Mr, Kingman may I have an interview?" So I'm looking around and I'm the only one in the clubhouse and everybody else is out on the field. I say "Come on in the clubhouse while I change shirts and we'll just talk." So he's popping me questions about Kingman and I'm answering the questions. And all of a sudden in the paper the next day, he actually thought he was talking to Kingman. I thought the guy was playing a joke on me. He actually thought he was talking to Kingman.
Who were the "knowledge brothers?"
The great knowledge brothers: you had Thurman [Munson], you had Lou [Pinella] you had Roy [White], you had Catfish [Hunter], you had [Craig] Nettles, and uh you know me. Eight of us, plus Holtzman. But one thing they couldn't do, they couldn't separate Holtzman from us because a lot of the guys at the time didn't like Holtzman in the office upstairs. The wouldn't play this guy. And I couldn't understand why they wouldn't pitch Holtzman. I thought he was one of the best pitchers at that time. They wouldn't let him pitch and I didn't understand it. Even if you piss somebody off you're still the best pitcher. If I'm the owner, I wouldn't stop you from pitching. I got get my use out of you. So I'd sit down with coach and say "Put in Kenny," but they didn't like him at that time. So he came around for a couple years and the they let him go without even pitching.
My thing is, I couldn't understand that for nothing in the world. Was it me, around him all the time?
Was that it?
I never could figure it out.
They just didn't like the guy personally?
Just didn't like the guy personally. And that was so sad, you know -- a guy with that talent to get away from the organization like that. They do different individual different than they do other guys.
I don't get it. What are you saying to me?
Well, I know we had a quota. I know we had a quota on blacks.
You think it's because he was Jewish?
I know we had quotas on blacks. I know that for a fact. And I'm around Kenny and they ask me "You like Kenny?" and I say "Yeah, Kenny's one of my best people." Anything I ask Kenny, he's say I'll do this for Mickey. Anything I asked for he did it. And as time passed by I see the quota getting better on Latin, Blacks and Jewish. But I know we had quotas. If you had one, you had one. If you had two then you had to balance it.
Did anybody say anything to you about quotas on blacks or Jews?
Well, I knew there was black quota for a fact.
On the topic of ethnic diversity, you once told Reggie Jackson, "No wonder you're all mixed up. You got a white man's first name, a Spanish man's second name and a black man's third name." -
-- We just met Reggie the other day. He talked good to me. He said he'd meet us down in spring training. After thirty years we are good buddies now.
Vladimir Guerrero has a Russian first name and a Spanish last name. You think he's gonna be alright?
(laughing) He'll do great. We had that humor about [the Yankees] back then. I thought it was a great team, and everybody loved each other. They worked with each other they helped each other and that's what it's all about. If you gonna have a great team you got have understanding. Everyone has to work on the same line. We may have different opinions but we'll have a meeting and we'll come to some conclusion. Meaning, this is where we want to get: at the end of this week we'll have so many wins. Next week, we want to be this way. We all got together and say we got one opinion -- no matter what -- and we can relate that to the guys and we had one group. And we turned out to be winners.
*In 1978, Mickey's then wife, Mary, had flown back to New York three days early from a business trip only to find that Mickey had not been staying in their apartment. He claimed to have been staying at the home of Oscar Gamble in New Jersey. Suspecting foul play after three days of Mickey not coming home, Mary waited for Mickey in Yankee Stadium parking lot before a scheduled game. Unsatisfied with Mickey's explanations, she rammed his car with hers repeatedly while Mickey was still in it. After George Steinbrenner had security remove Mary from the property, Mickey checked into a hotel for a few days under the alias "Juan Rivera" until Mary had a chance to cool down.