Friday, September 30, 2011

A Brush with a Legend

"This field, this game: it's part of our past. It reminds us of all that was once good and could be again." -James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams

If you had the opportunity to meet one of your childhood heroes, you'd take it right? And when you did, you would tell him that your dad (gulp) hated him, right?

I think my dad would have gotten a kick out of my meeting former Yankees center fielder Bernie Williams. Even though, for no reason at all, he had the most irrational hatred for Bernie. Could not stand the man. He'd say things like, "He's the slowest fast guy I've ever seen." Whatever that means. And, "I just hate how he runs." Huh?

The man was a little crazy, and this is just one example.

Suffice it to say, even though I think my dad was being ridiculous and I found it amusing enough to goad him about it during Yankees games, I wasn't going to bring it up to Bernie.

Bernie Williams was appearing as a guest on my show. I watched him help the Yankees finally win a World Series in 1996, then three more in the next four years. As soon as I was told that he arrived, I waited for a long commercial break, unplugged my headset, and hightailed it out of the control room.

Working in the news business at a national network, I occasionally get to meet sports, entertainment, and political celebrities. I rarely go out of my way to meet them. But this time I made an exception.

I spotted our stage manager in the hallway, handed him my blackberry and said, "You mind taking a picture of me with Bernie?" He understood. I didn't even have to ask. I didn't even have to wait for an answer.

I burst into the green room (where the guests wait) and spotted Bernie sitting there, watching television. (Watching my show, which was still in commercial.) Here is a man behind so many great Yankees memories. So many great stories. I had no time to tell him any of them.

I shouted Bernie's name, almost startling him. I introduced myself and explained that I was actually producing the show on which he was about to appear. And would he mind taking a picture.

"Yeah, no problem." Bernie stood up and shook my hand. I was surprised at how tall he was, impressed at how in shape he still appeared, thankful he was friendly, and relieved he had a strong handshake.

Before the picture, I considered putting my arm around him. Then I thought if Bernie wanted a half-man hug with a complete stranger, he would have made the first move. So I just settled for a kind of awkward standing next to each other pose:

If I had the time, I would have loved to tell him about watching Game 6 of the 1996 World Series with a bunch of my fraternity buddies (Yankees fans only) at that crowded off-campus apartment. Bernie came up in the bottom of the sixth inning. The Yankees clinging to a 3-1 lead. We were on the verge of witnessing our first ever World Series title. Even though we were all alive for the Yankees last championship in 1978, none of us remembered. That's when I made my pledge.

"If Bernie hits a home run right now, I swear I will name my first born 'Bernardo Mannato.'" I didn't even have a girlfriend at the time. (I wonder why.) That's when everyone began to chant, "Bernardo Mannato, Bernardo Mannato, Bernardo Mannato" at the top of their lungs. For the entire at bat. Then, Bernie connected. He lofted a 1-1 pitch deep down the left field line. Everyone still chanting, "Bernardo Mannato, Bernardo Mannato, Bernardo Mannato." It had a chance. At the warning track. At the wall. The left fielder leaped and made the catch.

The Peanut has no idea, but she was a few inches away from being named Bernardo or Bernice or Bernadine. One day I hope she gets as big a kick out of that story as my fraternity buddies still do.

Bernie came up again in the eighth inning and I repeated my pledge. The chant started up again. On the fifth pitch, he singled up the middle.

The Yankees won that game, clinching that memorable World Series title. We were all drunk and happy and hugging and crying with each other. As soon as things settled down, I went outside and called my dad. I didn't plan it, I just felt it. At that point, my dad and I weren't as close as we would become. But I imagined him sitting there in his reclining chair, with his ashtray on his chest and an open bag of ShopRite Krinkle Cut potato chips on the floor next to him. My mom asleep on the couch. No one to enjoy this with.
That's exactly where he was when he picked up on the second ring. I heard his joy when the first thing he said was, "How 'bout them Yankees?!" This was my favorite conversation I ever had with my dad. We talked about the game. I told him how cool it was that they finally did it and I finally got to see it myself.

Then I told him I loved him. That's the first time I said that to him and actually meant it. I always felt it, but never really said it without having to, without my mom asking me or telling me to.

Just another great memory involving Bernie.


  1. Great story. I find it very awkward to be in celebrity encounter situations. I accosted David Letterman's mom in the grocery store to tell her how much I loved her cookbook. For whatever reason, I just felt compelled to tell her. She was very sweet and surprisingly not frightened when I charged her at the meat counter.

  2. That's Baseball Justin! Nothing brings a father and son together more.


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