Dent, Nettles also recognized at annual NY charity event
By Mark Newman
NEW YORK -- During his incredible two-month blitz with the Yankees last season, when he bashed 20 home runs and drove in 42 runs, Gary Sanchez was honored twice as the American League Player of the Week. It was the first time a Yankees catcher had earned that recognition in 40 years, when the distinction went to Thurman Munson.
On Tuesday night at the Grand Hyatt, the night before he would depart for Spring Training and the start of what could be another year to remember, Sanchez was an honoree at the 37th annual Thurman Munson Awards Dinner. Speaking through a translator, the 24-year-old Dominican phenom accepted his award and began speaking directly to Munson's widow Diana, who has been to all 37 of these dinners and keeps the late captain's spirit alive.
"It means a lot to me to receive an award in Thurman Munson's name," Sánchez said. "Diana, the best way I can show my appreciation for this award is playing hard and trying to be a great man like your husband was, and I promise you that I will do my best."
A catcher definitely ready to report.
Sanchez was honored along with Yankees legends Bucky Dent and Graig Nettles, Mets infielder Wilmer Flores, New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz and Corporate Hero Award recipient Sanford Schlesinger -- he of 73 Yankees Opening Day appearances and counting. The event raised more than $500,000 to benefit the AHRC New York City Foundation and help people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Before the dinner, Sanchez said he had decided to bypass the World Baseball Classic in order to give total focus to this uncharted territory. What would his season look like with 130 or 140 games behind the plate, as he hopes to see on a Yankees club infused with youth?
"I've only been in the big leagues about two months, and I know it went well, but I still think there's a lot I have to do preparation-wise to be able to catch for a full season for the first time," Sanchez said, explaining his reasoning.
"My goals are number one to stay healthy, number two to help the pitching staff -- that's a very important part of what I want to do this year -- and just to be able to help the team win."
Asked what he has concentrated on the most this offseason, Sanchez said, "I did a lot of strength work. That was something very important for me, because it's going to be a long season, and first time I catch hopefully over 100 games in the big leagues, and receiving, my mittwork."
Sanchez struggled at last year's Spring Training, but come August he was on top of the world. "I've actually always been a slow starter," he said. "I'm not changing anything particularly, but I am approaching this Spring Training with a lot of intensity, and I'm not resting on my laurels after the two months I had last season."
Dent, who hit the famous home run that beat Boston at Fenway Park in a tiebreaker to decide the 1978 AL East title, said he "loved playing with Thurman."
"He was a tremendous teammate, a tremendous leader. He was tough as nails, kind of a crusty old guy who would sometimes say things to you, to get you motivated," Dent recalled. "Like if you weren't playing very well, he'd walk up to you by the batting cage and say, 'Hey, you ever thought about retiring?' It was something to kind of get your attention. That's the kind of guy he was. He was a fun guy. Even playing against him, when I was with the White Sox, you would walk up to the plate and he was always chirpin', throwing dirt on your shoes, trying to distract you. I just loved him to death."
Nettles, a six-time All-Star who spent 22 years in the Majors from 1967-88, was presented with his award by Roy White, his teammate on those Yankee clubs that won it all in 1977-78. Nettles spent half of that career in pinstripes.
"We had some good teams," he said in his acceptance speech. "We had come from a time when the Yankees were not so good, in the late '60s and early '70s, and we slowly put the puzzle together and ended up being a very good team at the end of the '70s.
"When Bucky hit his home run in 1978, it set off a series of events. If we don't get in the playoffs, we don't get in the World Series, and I don't get to show the world my defense, which I did in the World Series in 1978. Bucky started the whole thing."
Nettles said Munson "was my best friend, he was a great teammate. Everybody thought he was a gruff, mean guy, but I think he was a shy person. I just think he didn't want people to know what was going on in his life. But in the clubhouse, he was the best. I am so happy to have been a teammate of his, and to have been a Yankee for 11 years. I wouldn't have traded it for anything."
Diana Munson attended with two of her three children, plus a granddaughter who was just accepted into law school. They are family in New York. Munson, the 1976 AL MVP, died on Aug. 2, 1979, when a small plane he was piloting crashed outside Canton, Ohio.
"I know I say this every year, but I'm still blown away that Thurman is still so loved and well-thought-of by everyone, and New York in particular," Diana said. "They took him to heart and they have honored him and have been loyal to his memory and legacy. ... He didn't realize how loved he was."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com and a baseball writer since 1990. Read and join other baseball fans on his MLB.com community blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.