From "Still Foolin' 'Em"
By Billy Crystal
Honestly, my mom always made me feel special on my birthday, March 14. When I was a young boy, she used to wake me up at the exact time I was born: 7:36 a.m. As I grew older and moved out of the house, it became the phone call at 7:36 a.m. Even after I got married and had kids of my own, I always woke up looking forward to her call -- it started the day off on the right foot. I put that tradition into "City Slickers," with Jayne Meadows's voice playing my mom on the other end of the line. Mom's been gone since 2001, but come March 14, I still get up early and look at the alarm clock, and at 7:36, in my mind I hear the phone ring. Her call always ended with her saying, "Do something special." I didn't even mind that she called collect.
The most special thing I ever did on my birthday was when my life's dream came true: I got to play for the New York Yankees.
In 2007, I was in Costa Rica for Christmas vacation and could feel my birthday looming. I was anxious about turning 60 -- it felt like a huge number. Derek Jeter happened to be at our hotel. I'd known Derek since his rookie year, and we'd become friends. I told Derek I was going to be 60 and was a little freaked out about it. Jeter asked, "If you could do one thing to make yourself happy, what would it be? You should do something special." Somewhere, my mom was smiling.
* * *
I knew my answer to Jeter's question right away. When Joe Torre was the Yankees' manager, he had let me work out with the team many times, even before World Series games. Joe and I were very close friends, and he not only knew I could handle myself on the field but thought my presence might even relax the guys. Infield practice was the most fun. I was still a good player, having been an outstanding (if I say so myself) high school second baseman and shortstop, and had played in leagues in New York and Los Angeles into my forties. My skills, though hardly professional, were solid. I still take batting practice regularly in a cage at home, and every morning my gym workout ends with a "catch." Turning double plays with Jeter on the historic infield of old Yankee Stadium was an enormous thrill. I wanted to do it again -- this time, for real.
I came up with a plan where I would get one at bat in a spring training game. Whatever happens, happens, and I then announce my retirement and throw the team a party. Jeter loved the idea, and a few weeks before my sixtieth birthday, he and [Yankee brass] George Steinbrenner, Lonn Trost, Randy Levine, Brian Cashman, [Commissioner] Bud Selig, and Major League Baseball gave me the greatest birthday gift ever: the Yankees would sign me to a one-day contract, and I would play against the Pittsburgh Pirates in a spring training game in Tampa. The game was on March 13, 2008, the day before my sixtieth birthday.
The official contract was for $4 million! But the nice part was that the Yankees gave me three days to come up with the money. We worked it out so that I would be the DH -- designated Hebrew. Even though I wasn't going to be in the field, I needed to prepare. As you get older, there's a fine line between getting a walk and just wandering away from the batter's box. So I went into training.
Reggie Smith, the former great player who'd trained my "Maris and Mantle" -- Barry Pepper and Thomas Jane -- for "61*," has a baseball academy in Encino, Calif. He is a great teacher, and a better man. When I told him what was happening, he was almost as excited as I was. We didn't have a lot of time, but every day I worked on my swing with Reggie and his son (also a great teacher), against live pitching. As I left the West Coast for this great moment -- accompanied by my good pal Robin Williams and some dear friends from high school -- I was hitting 85-mph fastballs and felt as ready as a 59-year-old comedian can feel as he's about to play for the New York Yankees.
* * *
Trivia freaks will know that I was the oldest person ever to play for the Yankees, and the first player ever to test positive for Maalox. I actually did have to undergo routine testing. When they asked me for blood and urine, I gave them my underwear. The day before the game, I met with Yankee manager Joe Girardi. He wanted me to lead off and play leftfield. I said that was too far to run. We agreed that I would lead off and DH and have just the one at bat. Joe wanted me to score a run if I could. I wasn't sure (again, that's a long way to run), so we agreed that if I did get on base, Johnny Damon would pinch-run for me. It would be more theatrical, so to speak. I signed my contract with Lonn Trost and Jean Afterman and went and got dressed in the clubhouse. I knew most of the guys in there and had been in the clubhouse many times, but this felt unreal -- I was one of them. In a strange way, I was very relaxed about it. It was so natural for me to wait until everyone had left the clubhouse so I could take off my clothes and put on my uniform. Just like high school gym class.
The team was on a road trip, and I spent that day working out with Derek and José Molina, who'd stayed back in Tampa. I took batting practice with Jeter and José while a small crowd and many camera crews looked on. I was on my game, hitting line drive after line drive. I know I shocked everyone, which was a great feeling. But I was in great shape and ready. Tino Martinez was throwing me 60-mph fastballs while [my wife] Janice videotaped from a distance. Derek saw her and motioned for her to come over by him at the cage. She whispered to him, "How fast is Tino throwing?"
"One-oh-seven," Derek whispered back.
Excerpted from "Still Foolin' 'Em: Where I've Been, Where I'm Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys?" by Billy Crystal, published by Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright © 2013 by Jennilind LLC. All rights reserved.