Mazzuca: ‘Play ball!’
Like many others, I miss the baseball season, and without real MLB games to watch on TV, I’ve been relegated to my memories. But a couple have been downright spectacular so I thought I would share one today. The year was 1986 and I had just won an incentive trip to the Mickey Mantle-Whitey Ford Fantasy Camp in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
I hadn’t played hardball since I was 13; nonetheless, I was excited about the prospect of playing ball with a few of the Yankee greats like Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Bill “Moose” Skowron and Hank Bauer.
The first four days of camp comprised what might loosely be called intramural practice, time in the batting cages, photo ops with the old Yankees and listening to the “old-timers” regale us with stories from their playing days.
But the highlight of camp took place on Friday night when the “campers” played the former Yankees under the lights at Lauderdale Stadium. Whitey Ford was pitching for the Yankees and while Ford could no longer throw a fastball, his curveball broke down like it was rolling off of a tabletop.
During my first at-bat I made good contact with the ball but grounded out to short. As I trotted back to the dugout Ford wore an expression that said, “How did this camper hit the ball that hard?” I didn’t give it much thought, but when I came up to bat in the fourth inning, the Yankee great wore a different expression — a smirk.
Whitey delivered his first pitch and unlike my first at-bat, I swung and missed. Whitey smiled. With the count “oh and one” his second pitch was perfect — waist high and right down the middle; but again “whiff” — I wasn’t even close to making contact. Ford grinned as if he knew something I didn’t — he did.
Meanwhile, Mickey Mantle, who couldn’t play due to his bad knees was coaching the campers, knew exactly what Ford was doing. And it should have been obvious from their furtive glances and body language there was something going on between the two Hall-of-Famers — I was just an unwitting participant in their chess match.
Down ‘oh and two’ Mickey called time, walked out of dugout, called me over and said, “On the next pitch swing a foot below the ball.” A foot below the ball I thought — is he serious? But hey, who was I to argue with Mickey Mantle?
As I readied myself in the batter’s box, Whitey delivered another perfect pitch, waist-high and right down the middle. My eyes must have been the size of silver dollars at this incredibly tempting offering; but I resisted my instincts, and with every ounce of discipline I could muster I followed Mickey’s instructions, dropped my hands, and swung a foot below the ball.
I honestly don’t recall ever hitting a baseball that hard. My line drive actually cocked Whitey’s cap as it sailed past his head on its way into center field. Moose Skowron who was playing first base couldn’t hold it together and was doubled over laughing; Mickey was near hysterics in the dugout and Hank Bauer began razzing Ford unmercifully.
Like Mantle, all of the old-time Yankees knew what was going on — Ford had been throwing “batting practice” pitches in the early innings but now he was throwing his curveball. And when Mantle saw what Ford was doing he decided to one-up his old buddy by telling me to swing a foot below the ball.
But regardless of the backstory, I need to be clear about one thing: On that day, I delivered a “cannon shot” into center field and I’ll tell anyone who’ll listen that I have a .500 lifetime batting average against the great Whitey Ford. OK, now back to the story.
Professional ballplayers don’t like being “shown-up” on the field, and Ford is a Hall of Famer. Basking in my moment of glory I took my lead off first base when Moose Skowron whipped his glove against my left knee and the umpire shouted, “Yer Out!”
I never saw the pickoff move. With my mouth agape, Ford, who I will say was a prince of a guy, looked over, doffed the very same ball cap I had nearly knocked off his head moments before and gave me a look that said, “You’re playing with the big boys now, rookie!”
Quote of the day: “Baseball is ninety percent mental; the other half is physical.” — Yogi Berra.
Butch Mazzuca, of Edwards, writes biweekly for the Vail Daily. Follow him on his blog at butchmazzuca.com.