Marty Noble

Old-Timers gather, celebrate life at Yankee Stadium

Old-Timers gather, celebrate life at Yankee Stadium

NEW YORK -- Charlie Zabansky moved from memory to memory, embracing every one of them. If he didn't recognize a face, he recalled a uniform number -- even with Al Downing, Rickey Henderson, Tino Martinez and Lee Mazzilli each wearing No. 24. Charlie would extend his right hand, share a warm smile and some sage words and maybe request a photo. Every Old-Timer accommodated him.

Charlie is 91 now, 14 years removed from the last time he served as security guard, escort, friend and kindly old soul at the door that led to the Yankees' clubhouse, the clubhouse in the old, since-razed place across the street. No one called him the doorman; they called him Charlie. Even Henderson -- infamously poor on names -- knew "Charlie" was the right thing to say.

Henderson hugged him, chatted and posed with him. And before he turned to take his leave, he repeated a phrase he had heard moments earlier. Henderson congratulated Charlie for being on "this side of the grass" and encouraged him to stay there.

Death was a topic at Old-Timers' Day on Sunday, subtly and indirectly, but a topic of conversation nonetheless. It's been a tough month for baseball and folks with fond memories of those who populated the fields in the past 30, 40, 50 and 60. Don Zimmer, Bob Welch and Tony Gwynn no longer are available for such celebrations or, as Gene Michael says, "Older Timers' Days." Or, using the euphemism Stan the Man preferred, "They've joined the great majority."

And it's not the same without Bauer, Boyer and Blanchard. They seemed to appreciation OTD moments more than most.

"Death and taxes," Willie Randolph said after he had finished his work. He had thrown batting practice to his fellow Old-Timers. "I'm doing one, and I have no interest in the other."

But it's a fact of life, and each former player who participated in the Yankees' 68th come-as-you-were party Sunday is a year closer to being free of tax responsibility than he was the last time these men gathered. Mostly, they joked about it. Dugouts and clubhouses always have been filled with gallows humor.

Stick Michael claims he holds the record for years participating -- "30-something" -- and he hopes to extend it by "another 30." "It's worked so far," Michael says.

* * * *

Dr. Bobby Brown, once Yogi's roommate with the Newark Bears and the third baseman on Yogi's earliest Yankees teams in the late '40s, was in the Stadium across the street in 1946, the first time the club saluted its past. But he was never was invited in the years he served as American League president from '84-94.

"Evidently," Brown said, "George [Steinbrenner] didn't want the Ameican League office represented on the his field."

Late Sunday morning, Brown was in the clubhouse reserved for Old-Timers with a few of his Yankees contemporaries -- there aren't many left. Yogi and Whitey were with him. Dr. Brown had been present for the some of the earliest "Yogi-isms" and he was there for the most recent.

A list of recently deceased Yankees, Brown said, had been posted. Yogi glanced at it, and according to Brown, he said to Whitey: "When I come back next year, I hope I'm not on that list."

"Is that perfect Yogi?" Goose Gossage said later. "I always say you've got to listen when Yogi's talking. There's no telling when he gonna drop one of those on you. Just in normal conversation, he might give you one of those gems of his."

In his role as an accomplished cardiologist, Dr. Brown has helped others cheat death, but he knows that his age -- 90, in October -- hardly bodes well for many more Old-Timers visits. Indeed, his obituary has been written; it's an auto-obit.

"I have it in a file," Brown said. "My kids know where it is. It's not for the newspapers. I wrote in the third person, so it could be, but it's for them. They haven't read it. I want them to know what I did in my life. I wrote my wife's too. Sara died, March 26, 2012. I want them to know I was a darn good player ... for a doctor."

* * * *

Aging is not a particularly choosy process. It has picked on -- of all people -- Henderson, who still has the physique of a man 30 years his junior. Henderson, who turns 56 come Christmas, has arthritis in the big toe on his right foot.

"I figured it was broken, but the doctor told me arthritis," Henderson said before playing in the Old-Timers' game and looking no worse for wear.

"Rickey don't need no arthritis," Henderson said. "But it slows me down jist a little. I ain't stealing three bases today. Just two."

Kelly Baseball?
When he grins, Pat Kelly looks a lot like Don Mattingly, particularly since Mattingly lost the mustache. ... Brown said he once received a letter seeking dual-career advice from George Medich, the other prominent physician in Yankees history. ... And from Joe Torre, 74 next month, days before his Hall of Fame induction: "You do feel old when guys you managed are Old-Timers."

Deuces are wild
Even on Old-Timers' Day with the Babe, Gehrig, Joe D and Mickey represented by their uniform numbers, and with Yogi and Whitey, Reggie, Goose and Gator, O'Neill, Tino and Torre in the house, uniform No. 2 clearly was the most prevalent.

Smuggling Coke
It's not how it sounds, honest, but Buck Showalter acknowledged that he and some Yankees players were guilty of such an offense during his tenure in the Bronx. The Orioles manager was uncertain of the year, but he recalls Steinbrenner once having an an issue with the service Coca-Cola provided the Yankees.

"Now, you might not believe this, but the Boss wasn't always so patient," Showalter said Sunday morning. "And one day he'd just had it, so he threw them out. We had boxes and cans and dispensers being thrown out on the street. He told RC Cola and if you can get us full service by tomorrow, the contract is yours.

"So we had RC for a year or two. I remember guys dying for some Diet Coke. And after a while, cans of it stated showing up."

An observation
The place was packed and the the reaction was loud when Brett Gardner apparently tripled in the first inning. The Orioles challenged the safe call and won. Nonetheless, it seemed odd to men of a certain age to hear a louder response for in-game action than for the introductions of Yogi, White, Guidry, Goose, Reggie or O'Neill. Guess we will have to wait for Jeter's first OTD game.

Exclamation Point
Torre, on the gathering of players for Old-Timers' Day: "It's a unique family. There are other great franchises, but what they can do here is different. The Yankees set the bar."

Marty Noble is a columnist for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.