Tuesday, February 16, 2010
One day. One more day until one of my favorite sentences in the English language will be uttered: "Pitchers and catchers report". I know it's cliched. I know unofficial workouts have been taking place in earnest for a few days now. But there's something special about having an official date when we know the offseason is over. A date when we know we'll soon be talking about real baseball stories instead of speculating about where Johnny Damon or Chien-Ming Wang will sign. A date when we can stop speculating about if and when Derek Jeter will re-sign, and for how long and how much, and who will eventually replace him next year, or in 2014, or whenever.
I would hate to be the guy to replace Derek Jeter. The burden of expectations might be too much to bear. Last year we saw Mark Teixeira struggle somewhat early on in replacing Jason Giambi, who in turn had struggled in replacing Tino Martinez, who had struggled in replacing a Yankee legend in Don Mattingly. In Derek Jeter we're on a different level. We're talking about a Yankee icon with a grip on the psyche of the fanbase that goes beyond what even Donnie Baseball had. A sure first ballot Hall of Famer. A five time (at least) World Series champion. The Captain of the Yankees. One of the top two or three shortstops ever to play the game.
Yankee history has had more than its share of legends. And for every legend to hang up his cleats some poor soul has had the unenviable taks of replacing him. Some have done so with great success; others were not so fortunate. Babe Dahlgren begged Lou Gehrig not to take himself out of the line up. Yogi Berra succeeded Bill Dickey with aplomb, as did Mickey Mantle in replacing Joe DiMaggio. Thurman Munson was worthy heir to the Dickey-Berra-Howard line of catchers, then poor Jerry Narron and Brad Gulden had the unthinkably difficult job of taking the Captain's place just days after his untimely death. But perhaps no one in Yankee history was saddled with greater expectations than Bobby Murcer.
Bobby Murcer was supposed to be the next Mickey Mantle. Murcer, like Mantle, was from Oklahoma. Murcer, like Mantle, was a baseball and football star in high school. Murcer, like Mantle, came up through the Yankees system as a shortstop. Murcer so badly wanted to follow in the foot steps of his hero Mantle that he signed with the Yankees in 1964 for $10,000, half of what the Dodgers offered him. The scout that inked him to that deal was Tom Greenwade, the same man who had signed Mantle fifteen years earlier. When Murcer made his Major League debut in late 1965 at 19 years old, the same age at which Mantle debuted, The Mick still had three full seasons of his career ahead of him. It didn't matter. The press and the fans were hungry to anoint the next chosen one, and it was Murcer. Hitting a game winning home run in just his second Major League game only increased the level of expectation.
Entering the following season, Murcer was considered the favorite to win the starting shortstop job, the position vacated with the retirement of Tony Kubek. The Yankees broke camp with Murcer platooning with veteran Ruben Amaro, but through seven games, and just three starts, Murcer had struggled to a .071/.071/.071 batting line and had made three errors in just 31 defensive innings. Manager Johnny Keane buried him on the bench, and eventually he was sent to AAA. He returned when rosters expanded in September, but struggled through the season's final month.
Unlike Mantle, Murcer did not have a 4F exemption from military service, and he lost the entirety of the 1967 and '68 seasons while in the Army. He returned for the 1969 season, just as Mantle announced his retirement during Spring Training. Murcer won the third base job and was htting the tar out of the ball. But after committing fourteen errors through just thirty one games, Murcer was moved to right field, the same position where Mantle began his Major League career. He spent the next three and half months there, and by the end of August, he had inherited the same center field that Mantle and DiMaggio patrolled before him.
Murcer spent the next four plus years as the Yankee center fielder. Though the team languished around .500 (save for a surprising 93 win season in '70), Murcer thrived. Through the first five full years of his career he hit .287/.362/.482, good for 143 OPS+ and averaging 26 HR per season. He won a Gold Glove, started three consecutive All-Star Games, and had three consecutive top ten MVP finishes. He led the AL in OBP, OPS, and OPS+ in '71, then followed that by leading the League in runs and total bases the following year. He had several top ten finishes on the League Leader board for average, on base, hits, walks, times on base, total bases, doubles, home runs, and RBI. He might not have been the next Mantle, but as Joe Posnanski pointed out earlier this year, he was in the discussion for best player in the game during this stretch.
Things went south for Murcer in 1974. With Yankee Stadium undergoing renovations, the Yankees moved to Shea Stadium. There, without the friendly right field porch, Murcer dropped to .274/.332/.378 (106 OPS+) with only ten home runs, just two of them coming at Shea. By late May, manager Bill Virdon had shifted Murcer to right field, upsetting the veteran who valued his being the successor to Hall of Famers Earle Combs, DiMaggio, and Mantle. After the season, Murcer was traded for Bobby Bonds in a blockbuster deal. While it was surely difficult for the team and the fans to see a homegrown talent shipped away, Bonds turned in an outstanding 1975 for the Yankees and then was flipped for Mickey Rivers and Ed Figueroa, two key cogs of the teams that went on to win three consecutive pennants and back-to-back World Series.
Murcer's numbers rebounded in San Francisco, but Bobby made no secret of his dislike of windy Candlestick Park, where he hit just 17 home runs over two seasons. From there it was on to the friendly confines of Wrigley Field for the '77 and '78 seasons. Then, in late June of '79, Murcer was traded back to New York, where he had always wanted to be. His return would be bittersweet. Not because he had missed out on the winning of '76-'78, but because he was about to lose his best friend.
Thurman Munson and Bobby Murcer had forged a close friendship during Murcer's first go-round in New York. Munson debuted late in 1969, during Murcer's first full season with the club. In the bottom of the sixth inning of Munson's second career game, Murcer led off with a home run. Munson followed with a long ball of his own for his first Major League homer, then Gene Michael followed with a third straight home run. It was just the third time in club history that the Yankees had gone back-to-back-to-back. Murcer and Munson became sort of a next generation of the M&M boys, and the two young superstars were amongst the few bright spots as the Yankees emerged from one of the few extended down periods in their history.
Murcer had been back with the Yankees for just over a month when they arrived in Chicago for a three game series on July 30th. Murcer still had a home in the area thanks to his time with the Cubs, and rather than stay at the team hotel, Murcer and his wife Kay hosted Munson and Lou Piniella throughout the series. On Wednesday August 1st, the series concluded with the Yankees taking a 9-1 victory. After the game, Bobby and Kay drove Munson to the airport, where he hopped in his plane and flew home to Canton, Ohio for the off day. It was the last time anyone from the Yankees would see him alive. The next day Munson crashed practicing takeoffs and landings.
On the morning of Monday August 6th, the entire Yankees team, coaching staff, and front office was in Canton. They were scheduled to play the division leading Baltimore Orioles in New York that night. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn had advised the team against attending Munson's funeral, but George Steinbrenner would hear nothing of it. The man who once said winning was second to only breathing was prepared to forfeit the game if the Yankees couldn't get back in time. But there was no way his club wouldn't be attending their Captain's funeral.
There, Piniella and Murcer, Munson's roommates for the last few nights of his life, eulogized him. Murcer broke down during his and on the flight home manager Billy Martin told the emotionally drained Murcer he would have the night off. Murcer refused, saying he felt he needed to play. So Martin penciled Murcer in as the left fielder, and batted him second. He would go on to have his signature night as a Yankee.
In the seventh inning, Murcer stepped to the plate with two outs. The Yankees were down 4-0; Bucky Dent was on third, Willie Randolph on second. Murcer was 0 for 3 on the night, having fanned, flown out to right, and lined to short. This time his luck changed, as he yanked a Dennis Martinez offering into the right field stands to cut the O's lead to one.
In the ninth, Murcer came to the plate again. Again Dent was on third, Randolph on second. The score was still 4-3. There were no outs, and now left handed Tippy Martinez was on the mound. Under normal circumstances the lefty swinging veteran would have been lifted for a pinch hitter. But Martin let him hit, and Murcer delivered with a base hit to left, giving the Yankees the game. Murcer drove in all five Yankee runs in the 5-4 win. He and fellow eulogist shared a hug in the dugout and Murcer saw to it that Munson's widow Diane received the bat.
Murcer remained with the Yankees for three more years, posting great numbers in part time duty in '80 and '81. He finally reached the World Series in '81, but went 0 for 4 in limited duty as the Yankees blew a 2-0 lead and fell to the Dodgers in six games. His numbers slipped a bit in '82, and after getting off to a slow start in '83, Murcer retired to make room on the roster for a young player named Don Mattingly.
The end of his playing career marked the start of Bobby Murcer's second career with the Yankees. He proceeded immediately to the broadcast booth, and worked there for the '83 and '84 seasons. He became an assistant general manager in '85 and briefly attempted a comeback that year, abandoning it after four minor league games. He served as a coach in '87, and in '88 he returned to the broadcast booth for the Yankees' final season on SportsChannel. In '89 he was part of the original Yankees' crew for their first season on MSG, then reunited with Phil Rizzuto on WPIX in '90. Murcer remained with WPIX until they lost the Yankees' broadcast rights following the 1998 season. He spent the next three seasons doing Yankee games for FOX5, and then joined the YES Network for its launch in 2002. Murcer also became part owner of his the AAA club in his hometown of Oklahoma City in 1989, and served as the club president for a few years. He was a regular at Old Timers Day throughout his retirement. In later years, Murcer was miked up and would announce from the field. He also took to employing current Yankees as his personal hitting coach for the Old Timers game, as Hideki Matsui, Jason Giambi, and others unsuccessfully attempted to coax one more homer out of Murcer.
On Christmas Eve 2006 Murcer was diagnosed with brain cancer. He faced his diagnosis with the same bravery and dignity that marked his playing and broadcast career. He returned to the booth after receiving treatment, but suffered a relapse in 2008. He succumbed to the disease on July 12th.
Bobby Murcer didn't turn out to be the next Mickey Mantle, but he had a full and successful career. For one generation of fans, he was the Yankee superstar as they scuttled through the early 70s. For my generation, he was our Phil Rizzuto, the kindly, entertaining former great in the broadcast booth. Easy to relate to and impossible not to like. But whether one remembers him as a player or as an announcer, for any Yankee fan of the past 45 years, it's impossible not to remember Bobby Murcer. Just as he titled his autobiography, Murcer will always be a Yankee for Life.