August, 1st, 1973. The Yankees are in a virtual tie for 1st place in the A.L. East with the Baltimore Orioles. This could be it! The year the Yankees make it back to the World Series. Visions of a pennant are swirling around my 17 year old head. Is G.M. Lee McPhail’s much vaunted “Five Year Plan” finally paying off? Does manager Ralph Houk have the right pieces in play? Yes! Yes! Oh, please Mama, say “yes!” It all made perfect sense. After all, this was the teams last season at the real Yankee stadium and each Bomber proudly wore a 5o year commemorative patch on his home jersey’s right sleeve. Why not close the Grey Lady down the same way the opened her back in 1923? That would make for a most harmonic closure, wouldn’t it?
Then came today’s game
For those who want to cut to the chase, skip to the 9th inning, with Thurman Munson on 3rd, Gene Michael at bat and the score 2-2.
A squeeze play gone bad. A horrendous home plate collision. A bench clearing brawl. A double ejection (Munson and Fisk). And finally a two out game winning hit in the bottom of the 9th off Sparky Lyle by the immortal Mario Guerrero.
And that was it. From that point on the Yankees would post the worst record in the A.L. East and finish the season in 4th place at 80-82. Ralph Houk would retire, almost in tears, almost immediately after the team’s last game, after almost 11 years, frustrated by season after season of “almost” but not enough. Gone, too, was McPhail, the architect of the club’s supposed resurgence to the level of contender, his “Five Year Plan” a stunning failure. And gone, long gone, was the erudite and polished (and, some would say, snobbish) Michael Burke, who as team president had made mediocrity a staple under the eight year aegis of CBS. All three gone. Yankee Stadium gone. And what was left? This Steinbrenner guy? WTF could he do? He didn’t have the experience of a Houk, the skills of a McPhail or the brains of a Burke. All he had was money—and not a whole lot of it, to tell the truth—and arrogance.
Well, it seems like only yesterday to me. As I say, I was only 17 on 8/1/73. But in many ways today is my 38th birth-day as a real fan. It was the turning point in the season, in the season when I came to consciousness, you might say. It’s when I brushed away all the front office BS images from the Yearbooks, programs, and WPIX placebos circulating about to see the real portrait “warts and all” actually playing on the field—and learned to accept it and own it.
And I suppose it all started on this day in Yankees history.