February 22, 2022 8:30 a.m.
Growing up in south Florida was a fun time for me in the 70's and 80's. As someone who loved playing baseball everyday, you truly could play baseball practically everyday. In the late1970's the Miami Dolphins and Fort Lauderdale Strikers (NASL....that's soccer) were the only professional sports teams in town. There were no Heat, Marlins or Panthers for years to come.
The Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic was a really big golf event that took place about 10 minutes from my house and the biggest names in golf always came to play. Other than that, spring training was the biggest sporting event as the New York Yankees called Fort Lauderdale home.
Spring training for the Yankees was a big deal back then. In 1977, the Yankees won the World Series, beating the Dodgers, in six games. A spring training at Fort Lauderdale Stadium meant former Yankee greats would be out almost everyday at practice, which was open to the public. And spring training games days meant a packed stadium and a beautiful blue sky that you could only dream of...at least every game I attended seemed that way.
My dad would take my older brother and I to several spring training games every year and there was Joe DiMaggio, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, White Ford and other Yankee greats roaming the diamond, often in uniform, because....because they were legendary Yankees and George Steinbrenner loved having Yankee Royalty out to attract fans.
All this brings us to 1978 one sunny morning and afternoon.
But first, I need to tell you about my brother. I idolized my older brother as most younger brothers do. I wanted to be just like him and tried to do everything he did. My oldest brother was seven years older than me. But he loved having me around. He took me out with him to high school football and basketball games. He took me to the movies and anywhere we wanted to go. He didn't mind having me around even when he was out with his friends. He played sports and helped make me better than he was and he became my biggest fan. My brother was my best friend.
My brother taught me how to read box scores and memorize rosters and learn about sports history. He is the reason I can name the entire 1973 Chicago Cubs starting rotation, even though I am a Yankees fan.
It's been almost a decade since my brother passed away. A candidate for a kidney transplant four times, he was never chosen and lost a near decade battle after needing dialysis 4-5 times a week.
I miss my brother every day. We used to talk every Saturday morning before I had a UCF football game to call. It didn't matter where I was, there was that early morning call to talk about the game, sports, our families and sports trivia. It was the least I could for someone sitting for four hours to get his blood filtered.
But back one spring day in 1978, something special happened. I was in fourth grade at Nob Hill Elementary. It was a routine day I assume. You know, some math, some reading, maybe a science project, a little lunch and some sort of outside activity.
Around 10:00 a.m., I remember being called into the front office. When that happens it usually means your classmates "ooo" with a resounding sound that just assumes you are in trouble and likely headed for a very uncomfortable meeting with an adult. I was told to grab my belongings and head down to the office.
When I arrived I saw my brother at the front desk. He just shook his head with a motion that I knew meant to say nothing. He was signing something and I stood silently by. Moments later, we were off. My brother, a senior in high school, had just checked out his younger brother- not yet age 11- from school. Trust me when I tell you security in 1978 in school was not as tight as today. Somehow the front office believed my brother when he told them he was there to take me to the dentist. The funny thing was I had no appointment to the dentist.
We walked to his red Mustang II, red on the outside with white leather seats, and he told me we were headed to the Yankees-Orioles spring training game. It may have been the coolest moment of my life. My brother just strolled into my school on a weekday and signed me out to go to see a spring training baseball game. How cool was that?
Along the drive, I wondered if mom and dad knew what he just did, but for some reason I never asked. We pulled into the parking lot, arriving early to watch batting practice. He bought two tickets down the right field line and into the stadium we went. It was perfect. The sky was blue, the sun was bright, and the crowd was full and the field was manicured like the opening tee shot Thursday morning at Augusta.
Down on the field, former Yankee greats were all over and fans buzzed because some of the greatest players ever were about 100 feet away.
The 1978 Yankees were loaded with players like Thurman Munson, Willie Randolph, Chris Chambliss, Lou Pinella, Reggie Jackson, Ron Guidry, Catfish Hunter and Rich Gossage. The Orioles that season were pretty good with manager Earl Weaver and players like Jim Palmer, Dennis Martinez and Eddie Murray.
We were among the many lined up along the fence in right field trying to catch a foul ball and get an autograph. We roamed the stadium to soak it all in and I remember the first pitch as if it was game one of the World Series. We laughed and cheered and played baseball trivia as we always did.
It may have been the third or fourth inning when my brother suggested we go to the concession stand. What kid says no to that? And so we went and I can still remember the smell of the hot dogs, popcorn and hot pretzels. My brother bought each of us a hot dog and got a bag of peanuts and a beer. That's right, a beer. Remember this was 1978, my brother was 17 and no one even questioned when he made the order.
Off we went back to our seats down the right field line. We watched baseball, ate a hot dog and cracked opened peanuts and enjoyed a cold beer all while watching the Yankees play the Orioles in a spring training game.
We stayed until the end of the game because that's what you do. I remember the walk back to the car and didn't want the day to end. But it hit me. If mom and dad didn't know we went to the game, what would mom think when I didn't get off the school bus as I normally did. My brother covered his bases. He had told mom he would pick me up from school because he had to swing by his workplace to pick up a paycheck. Again, in 1978, parents trusted kids....for some reason.
My brother reminded me of his story the whole ride home and I bought it. I just knew it would work. And how cool was it that my older brother and I just pulled this off. It was the perfect story. It lasted about three days when I messed up at dinner and said something about the game we attended. My parents were upset and they shouted for about an hour. We were grounded and I still don't know what that meant in my house. I mean I may have had to stay in my room for a weekend or something but I had the coolest parents in the world. Heck, the following weekend I am pretty sure my dad had my brother and I back at a spring training game because he loved going to the ballpark.
I will never forget that day. Lou Pinella strolled down the right field line signing autographs and handed me a ball. I thought he was the greatest player ever. I had a beer with my brother on a day I was supposed to be learning how to multiply using the number nine.
I miss my brother every day. He never got to meet his grandchildren. He would have been an awesome grandfather and no doubt those kids would have been checked out of school to attend a spring training game. I am not sure about the beer though his oldest grandchild today is nine so anything would have been possible.
Oh, that Jackie Gleason Inverrary Golf Classic in 1978, Jack Nicklaus birdied the final five holes to beat Grier Jones, Hale Irwin, Andy Bean and Jerry Pate. How do I remember that? I was there...with my brother.
Final thought: The 1978 New York Yankees won 100 games. The 100th win was Bucky Dent's home run to beat the Red Sox in the one game playoff. They went on to beat the Dodgers again in the World Series