“Just looking around the stands, you see the kids with their dads. That’s what baseball’s all about. To be part of that and make someone smile, it’s a dream come true.”
— Yankees third baseman and former Red Baron Charlie Hayes
The date: June 21, 2015
The place: PNC Field
The situation: On a sweltering Fathers Day in the summer of 2015, one of the most-anticipated events in baseball came for one day only to PNC Field.
Only, the Legends Game — an offshoot of the Yankees Old-Timers Day game played a day earlier at Yankee Stadium — wasn’t just a cool event that drew a packed house to the ballpark. It felt like the start of something, the beginning of a new era, the dawn of endless possibilities at a renovated ballpark that shined like a minor-league jewel. It was the promise of a new ownership group fulfilled, and the manifestation of Yankees history on a field in Moosic.
It was the beginning of a different kind of relationship between the Triple-A franchise and its parent club.
The lead-in: In January of 2015, David Abrams said something that, at the time, frankly seemed ridiculous.
Four months earlier, Abrams and a team of friends and fellow investors chipped in the capital to buy Mandalay Baseball Properties out of its 50 percent ownership stake in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders. On Jan. 21, they made their first big promise: They’d make an effort to bring a legends game to PNC Field during the 2015 season, and it was an idea that excited fans during a meet-and-greet with the new owners.
It was bold. And exciting. And typical. It was the type of statement fans expect from new ownership looking to create excitement, which is why it’s also the type of statement that goes in one ear and out the other. Only, about a month later, they reiterated it again, more forcefully, at another community gathering at the stadium. They were hoping to bring the Yankees Old Timers Game to the area.
Abrams and the new owners were either underestimating the patience for broken promises held by the public around the region, or they were confident.
A month later, the answer was clear: Co-managing partner Grant Cagle confirmed that the game was happening, on June 21, that it would be an exhibition of Yankees old-timers, and that the event would have a charitable component. Proceeds from the game would go toward Parkinson’s Disease research in honor of former Yankees infielder Brian Doyle, the 1978 World Series hero who had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
It marked the first time an old-timers-type game had been planned at the ballpark since members of the 1978 Yankees and Boston Red Sox played each other there. But mostly, it was the manifestation of the new ownership group’s desire to foster a more tight-knit relationship between the Yankees and the region.
“From the meetings we had with season ticket holders and sponsors, one of the biggest requests we had was to bring back the Legends Game,” Cagle said. “This can be a perfect reason to bring back the game, honor Brian and to donate some money to Parkinson’s research.”
He said he expected around two dozen former Yankees would be on hand for what he called then a can’t-miss event for area fans.
The moment: The Yankees did a little better than the two dozen players Cagle predicted two months earlier.
By the time the buses pulled into PNC Field after a fun Saturday night in New York for the old timers, 31 of them were ready to play their second game of the weekend in what became known around the area simply as The Legends Game. Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson headlined the event, but he wasn’t the only Yankees legend fans crowded the ballpark to see. Legends of yesteryear, like Don Larsen, Bobby Richardson, Hector Lopez, Al Downing and Joe Pepitone signed autographs. Stars of the great Yankees championship teams from the late 1970s — Bucky Dent, Chris Chambliss, Mickey Rivers and Oscar Gamble joined Jackson and Doyle. Even a handful of key contributors from the Yankees’ 1990s dynasty years — relievers Graeme Lloyd and Jeff Nelson, speedster Homer Bush, right-hander Scott Kamieniecki and third baseman Charlie Hayes, who caught the last out of the famed 1996 World Series — were among those that made their way to the ballpark for a special Fathers Day event.
Before the game, the legends met with a group of fans at an event that featured a silent auction. Afterward, there was another meet-and-greet, with a postgame barbecue that followed. On the field, fathers and sons were given the opportunity to play catch.
“It was awesome having all the old legends here,” Mike Lavelle, of Pittston, said. “It pretty much played out exactly like I thought. It was nice to have the local people interact with the Yankees legends. It was a good atmosphere overall.”
As for the game itself, the result didn’t matter much, of course. The Gray team, managed by former Yankees general manager Gene “Stick” Michael, battered Jackson’s Blue team, 9-2, collecting 21 hits in a six-inning affair. Jackson collected a single and scored a run in his only at-bat. For Scranton/Wilkes-Barre infielder Andy Phillips played a sparkling third base defensively. But, Rivers stole the show, picking up a few hits, flashing amazing speed for a 67-year-old and dancing to the plate in the fifth inning to the tune of Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk.”
The day belonged to Doyle, though.
With adoring teammates cheering him on, Doyle threw out the ceremonial first pitch, a moment Dent called “awesome” for Doyle, whose right arm shook throughout the game, a visible sign of the disease he fought. Before the game, Abrams presented an emotional Doyle with a check for $40,000, the amount of money the franchise raised through the Legends Game for Parkinsons research.
HISTORY BEHIND THE MOMENT
Exhibition games like the Legends Game have traditionally been among the most popular events for fans at Lackawanna County Stadium and PNC Field.
The Phillies played the Red Barons in a somewhat-annual exhibition at Lackawanna County Stadium. Mike Schmidt, the Phillies’ Hall of Fame third baseman, played here to the delight of a sellout crowd just before his 1989 retirement.
The Legends Game was hardly Reggie Jackson’s first foray into old-timers action in Moosic. On Aug. 9, 1992, Jackson hosted the “Reggie Challenge,” a home run derby that benefitted the Negro League Baseball Players Association. In all, 9,456 fans arrived to see Mr. October that August night, and they got to see him win the derby, smashing six homers to beat Rico Carty, Willie Horton, Dick Allen, Ron LeFlore, Ivan Murrell and even former Red Barons fan favorite Floyd Rayford.
“`I thought the support given by the fans in the Scranton/Wilkes- Barre area was great,” Jackson said. He’d come back often.
In 1994, the Upper Deck Heroes of Baseball brought several Hall of Famers to the stadium for an exhibition game that raised money for the Baseball Assistance Team and St. Ann’s Monastery Restoration Fund. National League legends played American Leaguers that night, with stars like Dick Allen, Darrell Evans, Darrell Porter, Bert Campaneris, Tippy Martinez and Dave Cash joining Hall of Famers Harmon Killebrew, Rollie Fingers and Gaylord Perry.
The most-anticipated event before the Legends Game, though, came in 2008. Celebrating the 30th anniversary of the iconic 1978 season — when the Yankees beat the Red Sox, 5-4, on Dent’s legendary home run over the Green Monster in a one-game playoff at Fenway Park — a game between nine members of the ’78 Yankees and nine ’78 Red Sox was held at PNC Field on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
Several Hall of Famers — or soon-to-be Hall of Famers — played in that five-inning contest. Goose Gossage started on the mound for the Yankees, and Jim Rice played left field for the Red Sox. In the first inning, to the delight of around 9,000 fans, Dent came to the plate to bat against Red Sox right-hander Mike Torrez, who allowed that home run in ’78. Torrez jokingly threw the first pitch over Dent’s head.
“There’s not a lot of testosterone here. You only see Flomax and Viagara commercials out there today. It used to be tobacco,” Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee said after the game. “True baseball fans must have really enjoyed this. It brought back a lot of memories. I wish we could have played nine innings, put on a good show and leave them laughing. Sorry we could only play five.”
The RailRiders ownership group intended to make the Legends Game an annual occurrence, but perhaps the only disappointing thing about that event back in 2015 is that, so far, it has been the only one. It did, however, spawn the RailRiders’ popular Legends Series, which has brought several popular former Yankees — and some Phillies — to PNC Field to greet fans. Hall of Famers Rickey Henderson and Goose Gossage, Roger Clemens, Johnny Damon, Roy White, John Flaherty, Jose Canseco, Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden are among the former Yankees who have been part of the series that debuted in 2016.
Donnie Collins has been a member of The Times-Tribune sports staff for nearly 20 years and has been the Penn State football beat writer for Times-Shamrock Newspapers since 2004. The Penn State Football Blog covers Nittany Lions, Big Ten and big-time college football news from Beaver Stadium to the practice field, the bowl game to National Letter of Intent Signing Day. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9100 x5368; @DonnieCollinsTT