“Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It is a way of understanding it.” Lloyd Alexander
As the opening of Yankees Fantasy Baseball Camp began on Tuesday in Tampa, many Yankee fans got a chance to put on their cleats and new Yankee uniforms as they began to take infield, outfield and batting practice with several of their Yankee heroes such as Mickey Rivers, Al Downing, John Flaherty, Charlie Hayes and Chris Chambliss among others. However, it is Chris Chambliss, former Yankee first baseman/coach that this writer had set his sights on this beautiful fall Florida day.
In 1976, the first year back after two temporary seasons at Shea Stadium (1974-1975), the New York Yankees returned to their freshly renovated stadium in the Bronx. I remember those years well as my grandfather would take my brother Richie (8) and I (10) to Shea Stadium to see several Yankee games. It was at those times that I became a true Yankee fan and experienced true love with my grandpa. My favorite players were Thurman Munson and Bobby Murcer. Although I would get teased by all my Met friends, my loyalty for the bombers began. Looking back on those moments, I remember the loving relationship that my Grandfather had for us. He knew that our young lives were challenged with various adversities as he always tried to step in and provide unconditional love and stability. His devotion, work ethic and passionate dedication for my brother and I shielded us from life, especially watching a live Yankee game. So as the Yankees won the American League East with a record of 97-62, finishing ten and a half games ahead of the Baltimore Orioles, New York was beginning to get excited. Led by Thurman Munson(American League MVP), Willie Randolph, Graig Nettles, Roy White, Mickey Rivers, Oscar Gamble, Lou Piniella, Chris Chambliss, Catfish Hunter, Ed Figueroa and Sparky Lyle among others. Fearless Billy Martin was at the helm as Owner George M. Steinbrenner provided the Big Apple not only with a new renovated stadium but with a World Series Bound team.
When the Yankees made it to the American League Championship Series against the Kansas City Royals, it was clear that this series was going to be highly competitive. True to form, it went to a game five (Best of Five Series) which was a night game to be played at Yankee Stadium on October 14, 1976. Now all throughout the school day, I was ridiculed and teased as most of my elementary school friends, from Island Park, New York, were Met fans. In addition, our crossing guard at the school was the mother of Royals All-Star Ace Pitcher Dennis Leonard (17-10, 3.51 ERA in 1976), who grew up and went to neighboring Oceanside High School. I remember Mrs. Leonard crossing a group of my friends and I across the street after school that day saying, “Now boys and girls, make sure you come to school tomorrow after my son’s team, the Royals beat the Yanks.” I said, “No way that is happening. We will win and somebody will hit a big HR.” Little did I know at that time, fantasy was about to become reality.
I raced home so that day so I could do my homework and clean the house to get on my mother’s good side. As we were eating dinner, I began begging my mother not only to stay up to watch the “biggest game ever” but asking her not to watch her favorite show “ever” on our little Magnavox black and white TV in the living room. “Steven, you are not staying up that late, it is a school night!!! Plus, the Tom Jones Show is on,” she yelled. I replied, “But Maaaa, this is the game that puts the Yankees in the World Series. I cannot miss it.” My mother then said the four dreaded words that no baseball fan or little boy wants to hear, “It’s only a game!!” I had a little temper tantrum and then I saw my mother have another moment of compassion and unconditional love. My mother sacrificed her entire life for my brother and I ALWAYS. Despite her physical/psychiatric limitations she loved us more than anything in the world. My mother than said, “Honey, I love you so much. Let’s do this, you can watch the game if you help me paint the living room this weekend.” “Yes, I will do anything you want. I love you mommy, thank you,” I replied as I gave her a big hug and kiss. So I took an early shower and then slipped into my favorite, good luck Yankee pajamas. I then turned the TV dial to channel 11 (WPIX) to hear the voices of Bill White, Frank Messer and my all-time favorite Phil Rizzuto. It was a great game as the Yankees had a 6-3 lead late in the game. Then, George Brett hit a 3-run homerun to tie it up. This set the stage for the Yankees to bat in the bottom of the ninth, with a 6-6 tie. Chris Chambliss was to lead off. I began to pace then sit up really close to the TV, wishing I was there with my Grandfather and brother. As my hands were clenched together praying for a Yankee win, Chris Chambliss stepped up to the plate……………………… Then I heard Phil Rizzuto excitingly explain, “He hit that ball deep to right center, that ball is out of here!!!! The Yankees win the American League Pennant. Chris Chambliss on one swing and the Yankees win the American League pennant!!!” With that HR and Rizzuto call, I watched the chaotic Yankee Stadium scene immediately unfold as thousands of fans ran onto the field. I too, “lost my mind” as I jumped up in the air and began screaming at the top of my lungs waking up my mother and brother. I grabbed two frying pans and ran outside to bang them together so all the “world” could hear that Chris Chambliss hit the biggest homerun to catapult the Bronx Bombers into the World Series against the Big Red Machine. I could not wait to see Mrs. Leonard and all my Met friends the next day. However, even though the Yankees lost to the Reds in the World Series, four games to zip, that team and that moment changed my life forever. Even after all the great Yankee teams from 1977 on, I always wanted to meet Chris Chambliss and get his intimate thoughts on that unbelievable night forty two years ago. Then my fantasy became a reality again.
Thanks to Ray Negron, who has the unbelievable ability of bringing people together, I was invited to attend the opening dinner for the Yankee Fantasy Camp held at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa. As I walked in, Negron and I walked over to the table where Mickey Rivers and yes, Chris Chambliss were sitting. Rivers, who I had the opportunity to act with during each production of BATBOY, warmly greeted us. Rivers then said, “Hey Chris I want you to meet the producer of Ray’s play and the actor that played the Marshmallow Man (referring to me as I played the Marshmallow salesman who got punched out by Billy Martin in each BATBOY production). Negron and Chris Chambliss began to laugh with Rivers. I then greeted Chambliss introducing myself,” Hi, Chris, I want you to know that your HR in 1976 made me a Yankee fan for life and it took me away from some very difficult times. It motivated me to play baseball and to become a psychologist so that I can help and motivate others.” I then began to tell him the specifics of that night and he laughed even more. I asked him to explain his own recollections of that dramatic game. Chambliss, who finished with a career batting average of .279, 185 HR’s and 972 RBI’s for the Indians(1971-1974), Yankees(1974-1979 & 1980) and Braves (1980-1986), began to explain,” I was the first hitter in the bottom of the ninth. I had learned to that point that thinking Homerun was not good because I didn’t have good swings when I tried to hit a home run, so I just tried to put a good swing on the ball and it happened to be in the right place. Mark Littell threw a high fastball and I took a good hard swing at it. It was up a little bit, and I was able to hit it high in the air to right field, and it went over the fence. Their right fielder went right to the wall and he jumped for it and everything, so I didn’t know it was over the fence until he didn’t come down with it.” Without prompting from this writer, he further explained, “It was crazy. I jumped up and so did Sandy Alomar Sr., Thurman Munson and the entire stadium all at the very same time. Then I tried to run around the bases and I could not make it past second base as all the fans converged onto the field. Graig Nettles actually recovered my bat and a security guard retrieved the ball. Crazy, crazy Night.” As he was sharing his recollections of that infamous night, I sat there in awe reliving that moment in my mind as a kid watching it on our little black and white TV. I thanked Chris and graciously said, “Thank you so very much for taking the time to share your personal thoughts. It was a great family moment for me back then and by far my greatest baseball moment. You have been a hero in my eyes and meeting you has been a true blessing and honor. Please know that homerun motivated me to play little league, High School and college baseball. It even inspired me throughout life and led my brother and I to choose professions that inspire others. He turned out to be a Probation Officer and I am a Psychologist,” We then shook hands, hugged and captured the moment by taking some pictures. Another memory that will be etched in my mind.
I wanted to share this story because not only did people come to this amazing Yankee Fantasy Baseball camp to play baseball with some of their favorite players, some of us came to relive a childhood moment with a player that made a little boy from Long Island a Yankee fan forever with just one mighty swing of the bat. A Yankee baseball moment that helped me cope with some of life’s most challenging childhood times. On behalf of the millions of Yankee fans around the world, thank you Chris Chambliss for paving the way, continuing the winning Yankee tradition and making all of our dreams come true.