There I am, standing before the late Thurman Munson’s locker from the 1970s, preserved on display in the Yankee Stadium Museum.
At that moment, I was not attending the New York Yankees’ season opener on April 4, 2016. I was transported ten years in the past to my living room, working on my “Hero in a Shoebox” project with my dad for my fourth grade class.
I was raised a fan of the New York Yankees, hearing tales told of the most famous pinstripe pioneers like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, and Mickey Mantle, forever comparing them to my generation’s favorite role model, Derek Jeter. But it was a scruffy, ‘heart of the lion’ backstop in Thurman Munson, whom my dad had gravitated to and idolized the most.
Munson, a Rookie of the Year Award recipient, one-time League MVP, and 2-time World Champion, would have in all likelihood been a first-ballot hall of famer, had his career and life not been cut short in 1979. Sadly, at the far-too-soon age of 32, Munson, a licensed pilot, perished after crashing his plane in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio.
There is much to be absorbed by staring hypnotically into Munson’s vacant locker. In that moment, I chose to focus not on the tragedy of his departure, but on the spirit of his Bronx Bomber teammates.
On the day of his funeral, Munson’s best friend, teammate, and eulogy performer Bobby Murcer single-handedly helped the mourning Yankee fans learn how to cheer again. Trailing 4-0 in the seventh inning to the Baltimore Orioles, Murcer hit a three-run homerun, cutting the deficit to 4-3. He then hit a game-winning, walk-off two-run double in the bottom of the ninth inning, to win the game 5-4 for the Yankees.
I have seen this emotion-triggering game nearly two dozen times in repeat on the Yes Network’s “Yankees’ Classics” collection. Considering how the impeccable poise and prowess of the late 90s and early 2000s Yankees dynasty has created a disproportion in the eras of Yankees baseball represented in reruns on the network, it made sense to always value the August 6th, 1979, “Memorial for Thurman” game differently than all the others.
In 2016’s opening game, there was not quite the same level of symbolic moments to be documented in the post-game highlights, for obvious reasons. But it still included the added ounce of dramatic flair and excitement absent from the last head-to-head match between the Houston Astros and the New York Yankees.
The teams squared off for the first time since last year’s American League Wild Card Game, where the Astros eliminated the Yankees from the playoffs in a 3-1 victory. Six months later, the Astros had luck in their favor yet again. They defeated the Yankees 5-3, in a game Yankees manager Joe Girardi requested be played under protest, as a result of his dispute over a call and an unfortunate rule book flaw, which transpired in the eighth inning of a then tied 2-2 game.
To elaborate upon the controversy would be feeding into the universal trend towards media scrutiny over the game of baseball. Rulebook challenges. Play review. Baseball is currently undergoing the “electronic treatment.”
But Opening Day, and every Yankee game I attend, for that matter, is a time where I decide to put that all away, even my customary electronics. Texting or use of any mobile device is an overwhelmingly distracting action to perform. To corrupt my spectating privilege by having the majority of my focus channeled elsewhere would be a disservice to the players who are paid to entertain us for six months out of the year, and to the team who I credit with molding me into the person I am today.
There were no tweets expressing condolences the day Thurman Munson passed. Nor was there a widespread dependency on status updating social media sites in 2007, the year my dad passed away in similar tragic circumstances as his childhood hero. So when I go to Yankee Stadium, I think of the first time I went to a game at the Old Stadium when I was six years old. I think of when my Babe Ruth card was stolen from me in the second grade, and my dad doing everything in his power to get it back. I think about the Thurman Munson shoebox we spent an entire night making, and how it still remains in my bedroom to this day. I think of how I will someday take my son to the new Yankee Stadium, which broke ground the same month I went to the last game I would ever go to with my dad.
Even though I enjoy doing so from time-to-time, I do not view it as a necessity to post an Instagram of myself at Yankee Stadium whenever I am there. Admittedly, I engage in similar activities, snap-chatting a picture of the ball Houston Astros right fielder George Springer tossed me during batting practice. But “checking in” should not be the main gratification one should seek to receive out of attending a ballgame.
More people should stride to experience what I did while gazing upon Thurman Munson’s locker for the first time. When you can truly appreciate a game and its impact, without the aid of devices, baseball will do for you what it has done for me. I am not a Yankee fan. I am a Yankee.