Willie Randolph's journey from Brownsville to Monument Park is the stuff of legend
By Alfred Santasiere III
Yankees Magazine |
As Willie Randolph walked along a cobblestone path on the banks of the Hudson River in Edgewater, N.J,, he pointed to the New York City skyline.
"That is my town," said Randolph, who was at the scenic location for a Yankees Magazine photo shoot. "That really is the greatest city in the world."
Although the former second baseman hasn't played a game for the Yankees in almost 30 years and last wore the pinstripes as a coach in 2004, he's still beloved in the Big Apple. And more than most players who have ever donned a Yankees uniform, he embodies everything that New Yorkers love.
"New Yorkers love people who grew up on the same streets that they came from," Randolph said. "They love people who are hard workers and who play hard every time out. I think I did that, and the fans never forgot that."
Those fans had the chance to show Randolph how they feel during the Yankees' Old-Timers' Day celebration in June 2015. During the festivities, the team dedicated a Monument Park plaque to the man who played second base for the club from 1976 through 1988 and who spent another 11 seasons on the coaching staff.
During his playing career in pinstripes, Randolph was named to the American League All-Star team five times. He ranks second among Yankees second basemen in hits and on-base percentage, and he amassed more walks and more stolen bases than anyone who ever manned the keystone corner for the team.
"I'm extremely proud," Randolph said. "When you think about the other players who have plaques in Monument Park, guys like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, it's incredible. It's hard to believe that there will be a plaque for me that will be there forever."
After the photo shoot, Randolph walked up a flight of concrete steps and met up with former Yankees media relations director Rick Cerrone and a few other friends for an early dinner -- and a night of reminiscing about a lifetime in baseball -- at Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar.
As the group sat down at a table overlooking the Big Apple, Randolph took off his sport jacket and draped it over the back of his chair.
"I wore the right shirt for today," said Randolph, who was dressed in a blue pinstriped button-down shirt and gray slacks. "You always look good in the pinstripes."
As the blue sky turned black and the lights on the skyscrapers began to turn on, Randolph talked about his early days in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, where his family moved when he was 4 months old.
"When I was a little kid, it was a nice neighborhood," the now-62-year-old Randolph said. "Everyone looked out for each other. We were always playing pickup games, and in the summer, we were outside from sun up to sun down. As I got a little older, the neighborhood began to change, and it got a lot tougher. Around the time I was in high school, there were a lot of problems with gangs, drugs and violence. I never got caught up in anything like that. I always had ambitions to do well in life, and my parents were very strict."
"Around that time, I met a little old man who loved the game of baseball and loved teaching the game to the kids in the neighborhood," Randolph said. "Galileo Gonzalez came up to me and a group of my friends one day and asked us if we wanted to play baseball at Prospect Park. He would get the local bodegas to sponsor teams and buy our uniforms, and we would play in tournaments on the weekends."
From the first time he played baseball, Randolph enjoyed everything about the game, and a few years later, he starred on the Samuel J. Tilden High School team. By the time Randolph graduated from high school, he was well on his way to a career in professional baseball, having been selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the seventh round of the 1972 Draft.
Randolph batted .317 in his first season in the Minors. He was promoted from rookie ball to Single-A in 1973, and he put together another solid campaign, batting .280. Then in his third professional season, in Double-A, Randolph struggled for the first time.
"I was playing in Thetford Mines, which is a small province in Quebec, Canada," Randolph said. "It was kind of a makeshift situation because the team wasn't planning to play there, but they were forced to. It was really cold, and the ballpark we were playing in didn't even have clubhouses. We had to get dressed at a hockey rink and walk over to the ballpark.
"I wasn't as mentally tough as I needed to be. It was hard to play well in the cold weather, and for the first time, I struggled statistically. I remember calling my mother and saying, 'I don't know if I can do this.' She said, 'I didn't raise you to be a quitter, but if you want to come home, I will send you a bus ticket.' I thought about it, and I told myself to grow up. I stuck it out and began to play well a few weeks later. Once I got past that hurdle, I felt like I could make it in baseball."
One season later, Randolph batted .339 in Triple-A and was called up to join the big club in July. He couldn't have known then that it would be the only time he would play for Pittsburgh.
In December 1975, the Yankees traded pitcher Doc Medich for Randolph, Ken Brett and Dock Ellis.
"That was the best day of my life," Randolph said. "I was so happy to get the chance to play in front of my family and friends."
Randolph began the 1976 season on the Yankees' Big League roster, and the 21-year-old rookie earned his first All-Star selection that season.
He also earned the respect of Manager Billy Martin, something that meant a great deal to the young player.
"Billy and I were very similar," Randolph said. "I was able to contain my emotions more than he was, but I was just as fiery and competitive. I was a young second baseman like he once was, and I was a tough street kid like he was. I think that's why we gravitated toward each other. I was his boy from the first day I walked into that clubhouse."
For Randolph, the support from veteran players and coaches helped make the transition to the star-studded Yankees team seamless.
"Thurman Munson was a guy who I really looked to for acceptance because he was the captain," Randolph said. "He really embraced me, as did Yogi [Berra], Chris [Chambliss] and Roy White. Those guys really taught me the ropes. Dick Howser taught me how to be a good second baseman, and Elston Howard, who was our first base coach, taught me how to handle myself on and off the field. He embraced me as the next part of the Yankees tradition, and he taught me the Yankee way."
Randolph's upbringing also helped him succeed in the Big Apple, where so many players struggle under the bright lights.
"I was never intimidated by the thought of playing in New York," Randolph said. "I grew up in a tough New York neighborhood. My dad worked hard every day. He didn't know anything about baseball, but what I took from him was his work ethic, and that's a more important lesson than learning how to turn a double play. He taught me the value of hard work and what New York is all about, and there's no doubt in my mind that my upbringing helped me to deal with the pressures of being a young player in the big city."
Randolph batted .274 during the 1977 regular season, earning his second All-Star nod in two years. He collected five hits in the American League Championship Series against the Kansas City Royals, and his two doubles and one home run in the Fall Classic helped the Yankees secure their first championship in 15 years.
"Winning that World Series was like being at a big party," Randolph recalled. "It was a culmination and an emotional climax. When you win in the town you grew up in, there is nothing better than that. I thought about all of my family members, friends and school teachers when we won the World Series. Knowing that I made them happy and that our team made the whole city happy was gratifying."
Randolph was invaluable in the Yankees' 1978 comeback from a 14-game deficit in July, batting .315 and posting a .421 on-base percentage over the final 55 games. He drew 82 walks that season, settling into his role as a table setter for the likes of Munson, Lou Piniella and Reggie Jackson.
"I was a good hitter at the top of the lineup because I understood what my job was," Randolph said. "I was there to get on base and score runs for the big boys. When you embrace that idea -- which I was taught to do all the way back when I was playing for Mr. Gonzalez in Prospect Park as a kid -- you end up with a strikeout-to-walk ratio that is unbelievable."
Randolph played a huge role in catching the Red Sox. In the historic Boston Massacre series, in which the Yankees won four consecutive September games against the club in Fenway Park, Randolph collected eight hits and six walks.
"I loved playing in Fenway Park," he said. "If you had a pulse, you were motivated and ready to play there. The fans were calling us all kinds of names, but you do good teams a favor when you do that stuff. I was focused on kicking their [butts], and I was able to have a great series."
In the third-to-last game of the regular season, Randolph came up big again. With the Yankees trailing, 1-0, in the eighth inning against the Cleveland Indians, he reached base on a swinging bunt, igniting a three-run rally. The Yankees won that contest and in doing so held onto a one-game lead over the Red Sox in the standings. That rally -- and subsequent victory -- became more important two days later, when the Yankees lost to the Indians, forcing a one-game playoff against Boston.
Randolph suffered a season-ending hamstring injury as he hustled to first base on that pivotal play. But with Brian Doyle filling in at second base, the Yankees defeated the Red Sox in the tiebreaker at Fenway Park and went on to win their second consecutive World Series.
"I was devastated when I got hurt," Randolph said. "Not being able to contribute in the postseason was tough to deal with. But I took solace in the fact that if I didn't leg out that swinging bunt, we wouldn't have won a game that we absolutely needed in order to get to the tiebreaker. That rally gave us a grace period on the last day of the regular season, and we needed it."
Although the Yankees didn't win another title during Randolph's playing days, he put together some of his best seasons over the next decade. In the 1980 season, Randolph led the American League with 119 walks while batting .294 and winning the Silver Slugger Award at second base.
"As I got a little older, I became even more comfortable," Randolph said. "I matured physically and got a lot stronger. I really felt like I could take off in the '80s."
With several of the veteran leaders from the late '70s no longer around -- including Munson, who died in a 1979 plane crash -- Randolph emerged as a leader in the clubhouse.
"I tried to lead by example," Randolph said. "I played through a lot of injuries, but I felt like I was a guy the manager could count on every day. I think my teammates fed off my energy."
Randolph's steady focus didn't go unnoticed by Yankees Owner George Steinbrenner. In 1986, The Boss named Randolph co-captain of his team, an honor the former second baseman still cherishes.
"When you stop and think about it, there have only been 16 captains in the rich history of the Yankees," Randolph said. "And I was one of them. It made me feel like I was part of history. I was the person they wanted to be responsible for leading the team."
Randolph signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers following the 1988 season, but after four more seasons in the Majors, Randolph returned to the Bronx in 1993 as the Yankees' assistant general manager. Then in 1994, he moved back into uniform as Buck Showalter's third base coach.
Randolph would remain on the team's coaching staff for 11 years, the last nine as one of Joe Torre's most trusted lieutenants.
While the 1980s were filled with frustrations for Randolph and his teammates, who were unable to capture a World Series title despite winning more regular season games than any other club that decade, the late '90s were a dream come true.
"I had the best seat in the house," Randolph said of being part of the team's most recent dynasty. "From the third-base coaching box, I got to watch the glory come back. I enjoyed those seasons almost as much as I enjoyed playing the game."
Just as Yankees coaches took Randolph under their wings when he arrived in the mid-'70s, he was now doing the same for a group of players who led the Yankees back to the top. From a Spring Training dinner with Derek Jeter in 1996 during which Randolph shared his thoughts on what it meant to be a Yankee to his tutelage of a young Bernie Williams, the third base coach contributed mightily to the four championships the Yankees won between 1996 and 2000.
"I really enjoyed helping the young players with the mental approach to the game," Randolph said. "I felt like if I could interject something that would help, that was important to do.
"When Bernie Williams was a young player, he was kind of tentative at the plate, especially when the game was on the line," Randolph continued. "I went up to him one day and said, 'You are the center fielder and cleanup hitter for the New York Yankees. You're one of the best players in the game, but I don't think you realize that.' He looked at me and said, 'Really?' I told him that when he starts believing in himself, his career would take off. Well, he got confident, and the rest is history."
Following the 2004 season, Randolph reached another one of his goals: becoming a Major League manager. In three-and-a-half seasons as the New York Mets' skipper, Randolph compiled a 302-253 record along with a National League Championship Series berth in 2006.
"Getting that job was great," Randolph said. "I had the opportunity to play the game, coach and manage in my hometown, and I'm very proud of that."
Alfred Santasiere III is the editor-in-chief of Yankees Magazine. This article appeared in the June 2015 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get this article and more delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription at yankees.com/publications.