July 18th, 1999 was a blistering hot day. My father, as a joint birthday present for my brother and I got us tickets to see the New York Yankees take on the Montreal Expos at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. It was also going to be Yogi Berra Day at the stadium, marking the great man’s return to Yankee stadium for the first time in fourteen years. He had feuded with legendary/infamous Yankees owner George Steinbrenner after his unceremonious firing as Yankees manager just a few games into the 1985 season. I knew it wasn’t going to be an ordinary day but, in my wildest dreams I could not have predicted what was about to happen. I was always excited whenever I got the chance to be in New York City. A sense of wonder took over whenever the Manhattan skyline came into view, the idea that you were about to have an adventure. Especially when I was younger this meant spouting off as many nicknames for New York as I could think of, and then inventing a few of my own. As far as I am aware, “The Big Rooster” and “The Big Chow Chow” have not caught on with the general public. My good friends Will and Bill, who were also accompanying me to this game, extolled the virtues of bringing a glove no matter where you sat for a game while we crossed over the George Washington Bridge and started down Jerome Avenue in the Bronx. I looked out my window in the back seat and saw children chasing a rat down the street that was the quite possibly the largest rat in the world. I’m not engaging in hyperbole either, that thing was the size of a house cat.
We parked in a garage a couple of blocks down and emerged into a world where subways roared just above your head and hordes of sweaty people in cheap blue jerseys pushed their way towards the gate. As you walked up the concrete tunnels you caught flashes of the field and your heart fluttered. Then, when you finally reached your section, you were completely transported the second you got that panoramic view of the house that Ruth built. It was astonishing how green that grass was, how the majestic white facade ringed the entire stadium. This place was more holy than church as far as I was concerned. My dad pointed to the black bleachers beyond center field to show me where “Mr. October” Reggie Jackson parked his third home run in game 6 of the 1977 World Series. We were about halfway up the right field upper deck in fair territory so naturally my dad also used the opportunity to point up to the spot at the top where Mickey Mantle once hit a home run off the facade, a ball that people said was still rising when it struck. I looked out to left center field where Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and the other ghosts of Yankee lore slumbered in Monument Park, waiting to be awoken. Old Yankee Stadium was a place of magic, a place of legend. It was where the right center field bleacher creatures were drunk and chanting before the first pitch, where the hopes and dreams of Red Sox and Orioles and Indians and Mariners went to die every October. It wasn’t fancy and, honestly it was a bit dirty and old, just like New York, and I loved it. That was our house, and no new monument to corporate greed could ever replace the memories we made there.
We all got to our seats early, in time for batting practice. We watched Tino Martinez and Bernie Williams lash balls into the lower deck but nobody hit one near us and I remember saying to my friend Will “Nobody’s going to reach us all the way up here.” Before the game they held the ceremony for Yogi. As is tradition with the Yankees they trotted out as many living legends onto the field as they could round up. One of these former players was Don Larsen, who baseball fans will remember threw a perfect game in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers. To this day it is still the only perfect game in the World. Finally the man himself rode in on a golf cart from behind the right field wall. As he emerged and made his way towards the mound, the crowd thundered for this short, dumpy little man. The wonderful thing about Yogi Berra, despite always being a short, dumpy little man who looked like a plumber, still managed to win the hearts of Yankee and baseball fans everywhere with his charm and wonderful little “Yogisms” “It ain’t over till it’s over,” being just one of his little gems. Of course his baseball IQ, MVP awards and Hall Of Fame career may have also had something to do with the admiration. Larsen ended up throwing out the ceremonial first pitch to his old battery mate Yogi, who coincidentally, had also been behind the plate for Larsen’s perfect game back in 56.’ Again, despite the obvious foreshadowing, nobody in that crowd knew what was coming (and if they claimed they did, they are a damned liar).
The first inning and a half of the game went by with relatively little excitement, the exception being a diving catch made on a shot to the gap by lumbering Yankee right fielder Paul O’Neal, robbing the Expos of a sure double. Then, in the home half of the second inning, lightning struck (not literally, that comes later. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves). Ricky Ledee, a utility outfielder for the Yankees, strode to the plate with about as much fanfare as a circus at 3am. After a useless pickoff attempt against Yankee DH Chili Davis, who couldn’t outrun a toddler on a tricycle, let alone steal second base, the unthinkable happened. I remember the crack of the bat and the delayed roar as the tiny, blinding white baseball rose like a fighter jet and rocketed towards us. In that split second I fumbled with the trusty catcher’s mitt I’d brought and reached up for the ball that whizzed just over our heads and thudded against the seats a few rows above us. Ricky Ledee, of all people, had just crushed a 500 foot home run that sailed mere feet above my head. It was (and still is if you’re interested) the furthest and hardest I’d ever seen a baseball hit. It was miraculous, like a pristine rainbow after a violent storm (still getting ahead of ourselves). As a special treat, this article will also be an interactive experience. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wwod7qO4y40). If you skip ahead to the 19:30 mark you’ll see Ricky Ledee crush that towering home run. And if you go a little further (the 20:47 mark to be precise) you’ll see me, the stubby little kid in the dark blue Yankees shirt, vainly holding up my catcher’s mitt as I just miss a once in a lifetime home run ball… that assuredly would’ve broken my hand had I actually caught it.
Well I’ll tell you, Ricky Ledee’s home run really was a rain maker because not an inning later dark clouds appeared over left field. Lightning crackled ominously and the heavens opened up in the bottom of the 3rd inning as the umpire ordered the tarp onto the field in the middle of an at-bat by my man, Tino Martinez. My dad grabbed all the kids and we raced for the tunnel just above us. What ensued was a 33 minute rain delay, during which time all us kids traded the best fart jokes we knew, my father swelling with pride… at least I think that’s what it was. Once the skies and rain lightened we returned to our now soaked seats. You know, the beautiful thing about a day game in the middle of summer is nobody cares if you get your shorts soaking wet. There’s no dress code (though it must be said, wearing Red Sox gear into Yankee stadium is poor form, not that Boston fans have ever cared about decorum), it gets you nice and cool after the summer swelter and besides, the heat will return and dry that right off soon enough. As he game restarted and the innings went on we all began to sense that something special was happening, because on Montreal’s side of the scorecard, there were all zeros. The Yankee starter that day was David Cone, 20 game winner from the year before who, despite being 36 years old at the time still had one of the nastiest breaking balls I’ve ever seen. He was mowing down the Montreal lineup like they were the JV high school team. Now even future MVP and Hall Of Famer Vladimir Guerrero, Vlad the Impaler himself, could touch Cone.
By the time Cone had made his way cleanly through the Montreal lineup for a second time, the stadium was buzzing with the words that not a soul dared let escape from their lips. “He’s throwing a perfect game.” Just for some context, before that day there had only been fifteen perfect games thrown since the beginning of the modern era of baseball, circa 1900. That means literally tens of thousands of baseball games had been played in Major League Baseball and only fifteen of those were perfect. I’d have to check my math but I’d imagine you’re more likely to get struck by lightning while riding a unicorn then you are to physically be in the ballpark for a perfect game at the professional level. Now sports have always been prone to superstition and none more so than baseball. There have been stories of major leaguers wearing the same pair of underwear every game because they’re on a hitting steak or Ted Williams only drinking chocolate milkshakes because he feared alcohol would effect his hitting. But, when it comes to perfect games this gets amplified. After a certain inning, if the pitcher still hasn’t allowed a hit or is perfect he will sit by himself on the bench and not interact with anybody. No player or coach would dare talk to him for fear of jinxing the game. Same goes for the fans, even the broadcasters will tap dance around saying the actual words.
I can tell you we were all thinking about it though, the knowing glances I exchanged with my dad, the breathless looks between my friends and I. Nobody could believe this was happening, with each out, each pitch we sat rigid on the end of our seats, gasping at any swing of the bat and then thundering with each out recorded. By the time we arrived at the top of the 9th inning you could’ve cut the tension around that ballpark with a knife. He was so close, so tantalizingly close to achieving the nearly impossible feat. I could feel my heart beating out of my chest, I had never been this nervous in my life, for a sporting event or otherwise. The first batter he struck out on three pitches, three straight breaking balls that poor soul couldn’t have touched with a ten and a half foot pole. With one out now in the 9th, and just two outs from perfection, a pinch hitter named Ryan McGuire stepped to the plate. At the time he was just 27 years old, not two years in the bigs under his belt, not fully grasping the totality of the situation. This was just the sort of man to break up a perfect game. McGuire was disciplined at the plate, laid of two good breaking balls in a row to force a 2-1 count before Cone blew a fastball by him even it at 2-2. Now David Cone hadn’t allowed a count to reach three balls all day, so we all knew he was coming in with something, so did McGuire. By this point, if you were there, your heart was in your throat. You wanted Cone to throw a strike because you couldn’t bare to see a three ball count and have something this extraordinary end on a walk. On the other hand, if he came in the strike zone Cone risked getting hit. Cone went back to his breaking ball and caught a big chunk of the strike zone. McGuire swung and lifted a ball to left field.
My heart stopped, I watched this flair bloop out towards left field. It was too far for the shortstop Derek Jeter to snare, everything now depended on the left fielder, the same man who crushed that 500 foot home run, Ricky Ledee. At first he charged desperately in for the ball, hell bent on making sure that thing didn’t drop in front of him. Then he stopped almost min-stride, my god he’s overrun the ball, no!!! In quite possibly the most awkward play I’ve seen in my life, including my intrepid years in the Verona Baseball League, Ledee ran in for the ball, stopped, ran in again and at the last possible second stuck his glove out and somehow caught the ball. Ledee seemed almost shocked, by the momentary shutter that went through his body, that he’d managed to track that ball. The crowd was simultaneously stunned and elated, that was going to be the ball that ruined everything, either Ledee would muff the catch and we’d be praying for an error so at least a no hitter was alive or watch in horror as he dived and missed, destroying everything. Even though the replay would later show he clearly lost that ball in the sun, somehow that ball found the glove cleanly, and it was at that moment that we all began to believe.
Orlando Cabrera was the last man up for Montreal. Cabrera would have two gold gloves and a World Series title waiting in his future, but on this day the 24 year old shortstop was the last obstacle remaining between David Cone and immortality. On the first pitch Cabrera waved helplessly at a breaking ball and the crowd, already on its feet, unleashed a deafening roar. Then we watched and groaned as another sharp breaking ball missed outside to even the count at 1-1. Then, with the count even Cone threw yet another breaking ball on the outside corner and Cabrera, with a huge cut, tried to pull the ball. It took a second, as the ball rose on the left side of the infield but, as we watched the great defensive third baseman Scott Brosius wave his arms and say he had it, the stadium rose as one. Drifting just into foul territory Brosius moved in and used two hands to squeeze the pop up, taking no chances. It was pandemonium, all I could think to do was jump up and down, shout at the top of my little lungs and hug anybody I could get a hold of. David Cone, himself in disbelief, dropped to his knees and put his hands above his head before catcher Joe Girardi slid down and tackled Cone, followed swiftly by the rest of the team.
The incredible roar continued as the players hoisted David Cone onto their shoulders and carried him off the field. I hugged my father as hard as I could, and he I, and we both had tears in our eyes. Everybody in our group, regardless of age, understood that we’d just witnessed a once in a lifetime experience. We could each of us say that we were there, on a day in July of 1999, when a pitcher in the twilight of his career delivered his magnum opus, in the house that Ruth built, on the day when Yogi finally returned home. Those New York Yankees would go on to win the World Series that year, the second of three championships in a row and four out of five, cementing the last of the great baseball dynasties. David Cone would never quite recapture the same magic again, and within a couple of years he was out of baseball. Ricky Ledee, who hit that majestic home run and saved the perfect game would never make it as a started in the big leagues, himself retiring before the end of the 2007 season. After the 2004 season the Montreal Expos, by this point gutted of all talent by owner and super villain Jeffrey Loria, relocated to Washington DC and ceased to exist. It has been eighteen years since that magical afternoon in the Bronx, when a simple baseball game took the spirits of a grieving family and lifted them into the heavens, if only for a moment. A lot of water has passed underneath the bridge since then, and the world is a strikingly different place, but even in these times of darkness and doubt I can still look back on that day and smile, because for approximately four hours, life was perfect.