On Tuesday night, I was lucky enough to attend a reception hosted by the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, an organization that holds a 5K run around Yankee Stadium every year to support their efforts. Last night welcomed Yankee great Roy White to the cause.
The former Yankees outfielder who says he hasn't run for distance since his days in the service, will serve as one of the official starters for the third annual Damon Runyon 5K Run at Yankee Stadium on Aug. 7.
(If you haven't registered and need more details on how you can RUN AROUND THE WARNING TRACK! and the bleachers, the stands, etc without having to worry about knocking into someone balancing a stadium beer cup--all while raising money for cancer--visit the Damon Runyon 5K site!)
Unfortunately, the Cincy game was canceled, it would have been pretty cool to have watched it with him, but the Q&A with him was just as rewarding. PLUS I got to hang out with Jason from the outstanding IIATMS blog. (Check out this recent post, which has been cited around the blogosphere as one of the greatest pieces ever written on the subject. I'm not even remotely exaggerating.)
Of course, I never got to see White play, so I deferred to my dad to give me some insights beyond what the more-than-impressive resume of records and stats could tell me.
"Oooh, you're meeting Roy White?? Yeah, he was a good one. Everyone loved him. He was just a real decent guy, just put his head down and did the work and didn't complain. Just a real good guy."
(And this coming from the guy who thinks Gandhi had ulterior motives.)
Like my dad, I love the Mariano Rivera's of the game. And in life, I suppose. The guys who go to work and just get it done, whose first priority is to do it well, and who don't place any sort of premium on resorting to the bells and whistles that ensure everyone KNOWS they're doing it well. No fist pumps, no brown nosing with the boss, no fluff.
Just...talent. And class.
When I arrived at Mickey Mantle's restaurant, White was sitting in the front of the room with Marty Appel and talking with MLB writer Marty Noble (whose take on the night is excellently captured here), and when he began the Q&A, I was struck by how genuine he was. My sister once told me that most people align themselves in a certain persona or identity or whatever. And then they end up liking things or responding to things in a way that may or may not be how they actually feel, but in a way that coincides with this persona they've chosen to project.
And I'd say that's pretty normal, and pretty accurate, but I didn't see that in White. He was genuine. He wasn't trying to be Johnny Modest or anything. He was proud of what he'd done with the Yankees, but also lightly self-deprecating at times.
It was unassailably awesome.
Some highlights from the endearing White:
On becoming a Yankee:
"When I was brought up, Bobby Richardson was the guy I wanted to pattern myself after. It was amazing. I had watched these guys all through little league, and I was just in awe being among them."
On his unbroken season sac fly record of 17:
"I wouldn't say sac flies are intentional. I wasn't exactly swinging as hard as I could, just enough to make contact. The thing was I always made sure to choke up on the bat. [The sac fly record] is one of the things I'm most proud of. I guess it's not that easy, only because it hasn't been broken yet. Managers talk a lot about small ball, and that was one of the little things I was good at."
On being a clean-up hitter who choked up on the bat:
"It doesn't really cut down on your power, you still have the bat speed. I remember the first time I actually choked up. 1970 Spring Training. I was 0 for 20, and we were playing the O's in Fort Lauderdale. Elston Howard was throwing batting practice. And all I of sudden I felt very relaxed in the box. Elston says, 'hey what are you doing over there?' I told him, 'Just trying something new.' The next thing I knew, I hit a line drive to right field, and I just kept my hands right there on the bat ever since. Right by the NY logo."
"Yeahhh, he's a lot faster than I was. A lot."
On Billy Martin:
"I really liked him a lot. You just never knew what he was gonna do. Once in 1975, we were on a road trip to Oakland. I was on 2nd, there was a runner on first. No out. I moved to third. Lou [Piniella] first squares to bunt, but then gets a base hit to left and I score, and I see Billy Martin coming up. I'm thinking he's gonna give me a high five and instead he says, 'You know, you missed a hit and run.' I knew then that we were playing a different kind of ball."
And lastly, on whether the 233-base stealer could do the 5K:
"Ha, I doubt I could make it one mile!"
(You and me both, White.)
I talked a little with White about how high he'd be ranked in everyone's fantasy leagues if he was still playing. I told him how I hate having to find players with specific stat benefits just to appease certain categories, and why is it ok for a slugger to be absolved of any kind of defensive or base-stealing prowess?
"Yeah, it was a different game back then."
White hit home runs from both sides of the plate in the same game five times and also switch-hit triples in a game on September 8, 1970, which nobody has ever done more than once in a season.
He had speed, too, and stole 233 bases in his career. He was in double figures in steals every season except for his first and last years, and he stole a career-high 31 bases in 1976 at the age of 32.
His fielding was just as steady as his other talents, and in 1975 he fielded 1.000, the first Yankee ever to play an errorless season.
League-leading performances offensively came in 1972 (99 walks), 1973 (639 at-bats), and 1976 (104 runs).
In 1971 he set the American League record for sacrifice flies in a season with 17.
In the 1976 playoffs his six doubles tied the ALCS lifetime record. His best postseason came in 1978 despite just having come off the disabled list when he hit .313 in the LCS, with a game-winning sixth-inning home run in the clincher, and hit .333 with a home run and four RBI in the World Series.
Roy White was good at everything. And he didn't make a big deal about it. And he still doesn't. He may have tried to pattern himself after Bobby Richardson, but for my money, today's baseball players should be patterning themselves after the guy who played with the timeless dignity and guileless resolve that bolsters our Great American Pasttime.