Al Downing happy to be part of the Yankees tradition
A half-century after his debut, Downing is still living the legacy of the pinstripes
07/11/2014 10:27 AM ET
By Lou DiPietro
Al Downing (right) clowns around with David Cone and David Wells during 2011's Old-Timers' Day festivities.(AP)
Al Downing turned 73 years old just days after the Yankees held their 2014 Old-Timers' Day festivities, and while his age won't stop him from coming, don't expect to see him take the mound alongside guys like David Cone and El Duque anytime soon.
"I've retired from throwing; my arm told me it was time to stop," he laughed as he watched batting practice prior to this year's Old-Timers' Day Game. "I can think about it, but it's time to stop."
And that's okay, as Downing pitched 2,268 1/3 innings over 17 years in the Majors, even if it wasn't as smooth a career as he would've liked.
"As long as you can complete a season healthy, every year is a good year, just some are better than others," he laughed, "but I always took the optimistic point of view; when my arm was healthy, I didn't care if I threw 80 or 90, I felt I could always get a batter out."
Downing can relate to what the current Yankees pitching staff is going through, specifically having 4 starters on the DL and at least 2 of them likely out for the year - and he also has a cautionary tale about what it means going forward, too.
"When I got hurt in the second half of 1967, I never recovered the rest of the time I was here," he remembered. "I was finally better in 1969, and then I was traded that winter, so when I went to the National League, I started really a new career."
In that "new career" Downing had some highs (a 20-win season in 1971 and a 3ird World Series appearance in 1974 among others) and some lows (he is, after all, the man who gave up Hank Aaron's then-record 715th HR), but the 9 years he spent with the Yankees taught him all he needed to know about success - and he still learns more every time he comes back for Old-Timers' Day.
"Old-Timers' Day reinforces what this tradition is all about. I just saw Yogi (Berra) and Whitey (Ford) and (Don) Larsen inside, and when you see these guys, you know they represent a tradition from long before I got here," he said. "We were keepers of that tradition, and now that's moved on to the guys like (Johnny) Damon and (Hideki) Matsui, and soon to the guys like Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte - and that's great, because it means that you have the right people here who understand what the Yankee pinstripes are all about."
During Downing's time in pinstripes (1961-1969), the Yankees were at the tail end of a dynasty and in reality, a transition period; they won the World Series in 1961 and 1962 (years in which Downing was not on the postseason roster) and reached the Fall Classic in both 1963 and 1964, but from 1965-1968 they finished no higher than 5th in the American League and, in the debut of divisional play in 1969, placed 5th out of 6 teams in the AL East.
Whether worst or first, though, Downing knows the Yankee legacy is about more than just the total in the win column.
"It's not so much about the success, it's about the striving for that success, so you know you have to uphold that legacy," he said. "These guys before us won a lot, so you know that you have to win a lot. Being ordinary is not acceptable."
There's one current Yankee (and sadly, soon-to-be "Old-Timer") that exemplifies that, and Downing believes that the Captain, Derek Jeter, even transcends baseball in that realm.
"You have to go beyond the team and ask what Jeter has meant to baseball, and what he has meant to Americana," Downing said. "When we think about Derek Jeter, you wonder who in our lifetimes has gone beyond baseball to be talked about like that. Babe Ruth, and that's about it."
To Downing, as with many others, it's the Captain's never-say-die attitude and class in any situation that makes him so special, at least on the field.
"Derek embodies character and playing to the greatest of his ability at the highest level he can play, and nothing kept him out of the lineup," Downing said. "As a competitor, you see that smirk he has, and it's like he's feeling that 'I've got you where I want you, and I'm gonna beat you.'"
That said, though, Downing wouldn't classify Jeter as the greatest shortstop ever - and not because of anything related in the slightest to baseball ability.
"I don't qualify talent, I qualify the person, and as a person, he would've been great no matter where he played," Downing said of Jeter. "To try to compare positions isn't fair because you play in different eras and situations; for instance, Derek never really played much on Astroturf. But, he's a very successful competitor and a highly competitive athlete - and one we were very lucky to have (in New York)."
Come 2015, Downing may get to stand alongside the soon-to-retire Jeter as an Old-Timer, but until then, as he says, he's going to "keep doing what people are supposed to be doing at my age!"
And whether he's standing on the field next June with one or more of the Core Four or just any four ex-Yankees in general, Downing will for sure be back, because to him, there's no better feeling.
"Putting on the pinstripes again is great; it's like having a cashmere coat, suede shoes, and a fedora hat…uptown, Jack!"
Backstop from the 1960s has had three great stints in the organization
07/04/2014 10:27 AM ET
By Lou DiPietro
Jake Gibbs spurned both the NFL and AFL to sign with the Yankees in 1961.(AP)
From Bill Dickey on down to Brian McCann, the Yankees have had a strong legacy of catchers for over 100 years. Jake Gibbs may not be a household name to many Yankees fans these days, but he is part of that legacy, and he's proof of the thought that once you put the pinstripes on, you bleed them forever.
A Bombers backstop from 1962-1971, Gibbs began his career learning from Yogi Berra and Elston Howard, finished it as a mentor to Thurman Munson, and in between had about a 3-year span where he was the main man behind the plate.
He'll be the first to remind you that his Yankees teams weren't always the greatest - the 1962 World Series champions notwithstanding - but he will also be the first to remind you that whether you go 162-0 or 0-162, you're still part of the legacy.
"I enjoyed my time here; maybe we didn't have the good teams that they did before I came or after I left, but that was part of it," he said. "Once you put the pinstripes on, it doesn't matter what era it was - you're always a Yankee."
For Gibbs, that legacy has included 3 stints in the organization, the 1st coming when the 2-sport star at the University of Mississippi eschewed the NFL in 1961 - despite being taken in both the NFL and AFL drafts - to sign with the Yankees.
Gibbs returned to Ole Miss when his baseball career ended and retired after winning 485 games as the Rebels' head baseball coach from 1972-1990, but once again, his pinstriped mistress came calling; so, after a couple years off, he spent the 1993 season as the Yankees' bullpen catcher before signing on to manage the team's Advanced Class-A affiliate when it moved to Tampa in 1994.
He spent just2 years in that role, and even though he led the T-Yanks to the Florida State League title in 1994, his fondest memory there was helping shape the careers of two of the greatest Yankees ever.
"You could see how special of a player Derek Jeter was even then," he recalled, "and Mariano (Rivera)…man, he did pretty well for himself, huh?"
Gibbs now serves as a guest at the annual Fantasy Camp the Yankees run each January in Tampa, and he also works with a Pennsylvania-based company called Tyndale that produces worker safety apparel; as such, he considers himself only "halfway retired," but Old-Timers' Day is one special event he makes sure to make time for every year.
"I see a lot of the guys from time to time," Gibbs said, "and as soon as you get out on the field you recognize everybody - but no matter who is here, it's always great to come back, because I had a lot of good memories that always stayed with me."
This year, as he watched Goose Gossage get honored with a plaque in Monument Park, the 73-year-old recalled his own moment in the sun, a September 22, 1971 ceremony celebrating his pending retirement on the day of his final home game.
Gibbs was 1-for-4 as the starting catcher that day, and although the pomp and circumstance surrounding his departure paled in comparison to what Rivera got last year and Jeter is likely to get this September, it was still a career highlight he knows not everyone is fortunate enough to get.
"When I retired, they gave me a day, and I'll never forget it…that was a fun day, and I'll cherish it forever."
Attendance: Not known, but the Red Sox's average attendance that season, per Baseball Reference, was 6,093.
Ruth's line: Seven innings pitched, three runs (two earned) allowed on eight hits with no walks and one strikeout. He was 0-for-2 at the plate.
Famous K: Ruth struck out in his first at-bat, against Naps pitcher Willie Mitchell, who, interestingly, had thrown a perfect game against LSU. In that game, Mitchell logged an incredible 26 strikeouts while pitching for Mississippi State in 1909.
Cooperstown cred: Three eventual Hall of Famers were on the field that day: Ruth, Boston center fielder Tris Speaker and Cleveland second baseman Nap Lajoie. Hall of Fame right fielder Harry Hooper did not play in this game but was with the Red Sox that season.
Notable opponents: Two other Naps players who faced Ruth that day: "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, whose involvement in the 1919 Black Sox scandal and continued ineligibility for the Hall remains a subject of great dispute, and Ray Chapman, who in 1920 became the only Major League player to die from an injury suffered on the field.