July 18, 1999. My brother-in-law was able to secure tickets to a game in the Bronx between the Yankees and Expos. A rather mundane interleague match-up between David Cone and future two-time Yankee Javier Vazquez. The biggest story leading into the game had nothing to do with a matchup between a veteran star and a youngster coming into his own. Rather, it was the return of Yogi Berra to Yankee Stadium after years of saying he would never step foot in the ballpark again after being fired as manager years earlier.
There was a subplot that we needed to deal with that afternoon: We had a softball game to get to later that evening. I understand many would say “Why worry about a stupid softball game when you are at Yankee Stadium?” That is not how athletes (or whatever it is you wish to call slow-pitch softball players) think, though. We still have that sense of team – that sense that if we don’t get to the field in time, it could cause a forfeit. Sure, they might forgive us for sacrificing a chance at a softball win in order to see a perfect game, but the key word there is MIGHT.
During the historical game – a type of game that has only been witnessed by 23 crowds in the history of the sport – there was a young child sitting behind us that had this thing with kicking my brother-in-law’s seat. He also wasn’t very happy when his father was unable to secure a foul ball for him. His family probably talks to him this day about how he was more into being obnoxious than watching baseball history. If you are reading this now, I hope you are a die-hard Yankees’ fan that now can sit in your seat comfortably.
As with many things in life, most of what happened that day was a blur. I remember the Berra ceremony, which came complete with Don Larsen. I remember Ricky Ledee hitting a shot in the upper deck that is probably in the top five longest home runs I have witnessed in person. Ledee was an interesting player – he was a smooth, sweet-swinging left-handed hitting outfielder that seemed like he could become a star in Yankee Stadium. He showed flashes of brilliance in his time in the Bronx, including a crucial hit in the 1998 World Series off of Padres’ ace Kevin Brown. He just never quite got over the hump to become that star, and was eventually dealt in a trade that would bring in David Justice. He would go on to have a career that was successful, if not forgettable. However, on this day, he would have easily been voted as the second star of the game if this was the NHL. His home run was pivotal on the offensive side, and the catch he made for the 26th out was one of the most heart stopping plays I have ever witnessed. It was not a great play – it was one of those looping pop ups that just smelled like trouble coming off the bat. Ledee, seemingly struggling to maintain his balance, charged in and made of the most awkward catches you will ever witness. Left field in Yankee Stadium is harder to play than many center fields across baseball, and in that one moment, it almost robbed us all of history.
Of course, we all remember what happened next – a pop up to Scott Brosius that put the entire crowd into a state of frenzy. I don’t know how long we stayed after that final out – I assume we left quicker than most because of that darn softball game.
There were very few tense moments during the game. Paul O’Neill made a sliding catch on a ball that was too early in the game to be memorable as we watched. A ground ball to Chuck Knoblauch, famous for once hitting Keith Olbermann’s mother with a throw, lead to a loud “phew” across the stadium as he routinely turned it into an out. Other than that, it was a lot of weak contact and strikeouts. Other than the Ledee play, the most nerve-wrecking part of the game was a rain delay.
Nobody ever wins against time. A year and a half later, Cone found himself as a mop up reliever in the Subway Series after a rough 2000 campaign. He gave Yankees’ fans one more big moment, however, when he came into the 5th inning of Game 4 and was able to get Mike Piazza to fly out. Piazza had hit a ball that likely is still carrying to this day off of Denny Neagle earlier in the night, and Joe Torre wanted nothing to do with that matchup again, so he summoned Cone with two outs and nobody on to get through Piazza.
There was also some justice for my brother-in-law and me. 3 years earlier, we were supposed to be in the Bronx for a game against the Seattle Mariners. A game that would become Dwight Gooden‘s no-hitter.
In my life, I have seen other big baseball moments. The first game I attended with my future wife was the night Roger Clemens recorded his 300th win and 3,000th strikeout. Years later, those accomplishments have been stained. I have attended a few Old-Timer’s Day games, the first being Don Mattingly‘s return, while the second was the return of Hideki Matsui. But the best game I ever saw was on that July day in the Bronx, and the bar is forever set high to top it.