This essay is original to "Notablog," first appearing on 24 August 2003.
A DAY IN THE BRONX WITH RON GUIDRY
By Chris Matthew Sciabarra
On the face of it, Saturday, August 23rd, 2003 was not a great day for New York sports fans. Chad Pennington of the New York Jets busted his wrist---before the football season even started. The Yankees lost to the Baltimore Orioles, 7-2. And Barry Bonds' father, Bobby, a wonderful baseball player who actually played for the Yankees in 1975, died at the young age of 57 from lung cancer.
There was a moment of silence for Bobby in Yankee Stadium, on a day that was meant for memories. A warm late summer sun was cooled by a breeze that stiffened the team banners flying above the grand stadium facade. And one of my favorite Yankees of all time---left-handed pitcher Ron Guidry---was on hand, honored with his own day at The Stadium. Ron Guidry Day, so proclaimed by the Mayor of New York, is the kind of thing that can take place only in this Cathedral of Baseball. If it were up to me, it is a day that would have taken place many years ago.
Back in 1978, being a Yankee fan was a sure ticket to a nervous breakdown. By mid-July, the team---coming off a 1977 World Series victory---was 14 games out of first place, behind the rival Boston Red Sox. Tensions between the front office and management were flying high. Team manager Billy Martin was fired---a ritual that would be repeated several times thereafter in the hire-and-fire routine established by owner George Steinbrenner. Bob Lemon was named the new manager. Conflicts among certain team members made it seem that the Bronx Zoo had simply shifted south to 161st Street.
And then, there was Ron Guidry: A quiet and dignified guy of slight build---5'11", 160 lbs.---who simply went out every few days, and won. In fact, on the strength of an exploding fastball and an utterly devastating slider, he started the season with 13 wins and no losses. He set team club records for most strikeouts in a season (248) and most strikeouts in a game (18)---a remarkable game it was on June 17th versus the California Angels. On that night, broadcaster and Hall of Fame Yankee shortstop Phil Rizzuto dubbed Guidry "Louisiana Lightning," as the frenzied Stadium crowd elevated the practice of clapping on a two-strike pitch to a holy sacrament. Guidry ended that 1978 Cy Young season by tying Babe Ruth's (!!!) pitching record for most complete-game shutouts by a southpaw (9). He also led the league in Earned Run Average (an unbelievable 1.74), and achieved a 25-3 record (a staggering .893 winning percentage). I still think he should have been the American League MVP over Jim Rice of the Boston Red Sox. And it was Guidry who won that final playoff game against the Bosox---to break a dead-even tie at the end of 162 games. He led the team all the way to a second-straight World Championship, the last Yankee series victory until 1996. A career 170-91 record, leading the majors in wins for the ten-year period 1977-1987, a three-time 20+ game winner, a four-time All-Star, a five-time Gold Glove Winner (a better fielding pitcher would be hard to find), and a co-captain of the team in the mid-1980s, Ron Guidry was the essence of Yankee pinstripes---class and confidence incarnate.
Joining Guidry at the Stadium were some of his old teammates, including the great third baseman Graig Nettles, first baseman Don Mattingly ("Donnie Baseball"), catcher Rick Cerone, sluggers Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield, pitchers Goose Gossage and Dick Tidrow, and some of the old-time Yankee greats, including Hank Bauer, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, and Whitey Ford, the only other pitcher so honored in Monument Park. It was overwhelming enough for Guidry to see his number, 49, retired for the ages. It was just too much for him when his buddies unveiled a plaque in his honor---something reserved only for a select few. The plaque---unveiled to the rousing sounds of the "Parade of the Charioteers" from the Miklos Rozsa film score to "Ben-Hur"---cited Gator's various achievements and concluded: "A dominating pitcher and a respected leader of the pitching staff for three American League Pennants and two World Championships. A True Yankee."
When Guidry spoke, he was clearly battling back the tears of joy and gratitude. From his expressed appreciation to his family, the Yankees, and the fans, to his profound awareness of the organization's honorable tradition of excellence, everything he said exemplified his humanity.
When he finally allowed himself to weep, I realized that I too was weeping. I don't think I've ever been so moved to tears by this game---and its memories---in my entire life. And judging by the grown men and women weeping around me, I doubt there was a dry eye in the House that Ruth Built.
Whatever else had happened in the world of sports on this date, August 23rd turned out to be a great day after all.