Monday, October 18, 2010
What if Thurman had lived?
On August 2, 1979, I was in the front yard of our home doing what I did on most summer days... playing whiffle ball with my brother Ted. My dad came out and told me that Thurman Munson had died in a plane crash.
The 7 year old version of me took a moment to process this information. I remember the first question I asked was "Will he be buried in Cooperstown?"
I don't know why that seemed important to me.
I was very sad that day... and I was, as I am now, a Red Sox fan. But this was still a gut punch. Baseball players weren't supposed to die. Especially players who meant everything to a team.
Jim Rice, Yaz, Fisk, Lynn... they were RED SOX.
Munson? He was a YANKEE.
Using my "you start following baseball when you are 7 years old" formula, I guess people my age are the cut off for people getting emotional over Thurman Munson.
For people in their early 30s and younger, I guess Munson is a shadowy figure from the past... always a martyr.
For Yankee fans my age and older, he is the irreplaceable captain.
I remember my friend Michelle Ciulla, a big Yankee fan, lamenting in the early 1990s when the Yankees were bad (remember those days?) "The Yankees haven't won since they lost Munson. They may never win again."
Diana Munson still gets standing ovations at Yankee Stadium. You still see men in their 40s wearing #15 jerseys.
And you'll still hear Yankee fans say things like "I wasn't a Reggie guy... I was a Munson guy."
Meaning of course they loved the grit and substance of the home grown captain to the flash and style of the imported superstar.
Imagine the Jeter vs. A-Rod debate... but in a clubhouse where the guys were brawling.
His funeral and the following Monday Night game (won by Munson's best friend Bobby Murcer) is one of the most emotional highlights in Yankee history.
And as a Red Sox fan, you MUST know that Munson is off limits for any taunts.
Just out of respect... you can say bad things about ANY Yankee ever... just not Munson.
I often wondered what would have happened if Thurman had lived.
He probably would have left the Yankees eventually.
He only had a year left on his contract and made it very clear that he wanted to play for an Ohio team.
The reason he was taking the flying lessons was to be able to fly to Ohio on off days to be with his family.
And, at least in 1977, was sick of what was happening in the Bronx. During the World Series celebration, he ducked the question "Do you want to be traded to Cleveland?"
He wasn't happy when Reggie Jackson became a higher paid player than he was. And with free agency looming, and an MVP and two World Series titles in the Bronx, he probably would have skedaddled.
And by 1979, the Yankees were quickly transforming. Sparky Lyle, Mickey Rivers, Chris Chambliss, Ed Figueroa, Catfish Hunter, Dick Tidrow and Paul Blair were all gone before the 1980 season was halfway through.
And Reggie had enough, leaving for Anaheim in 1982. Nettles and Gossage weren't far behind.
Munson wouldn't have stayed around for that.
Remember how insane the Bronx was in the 1980?. Steinbrenner would dump beloved players on an impulse. (Remember letting Willie Randolph go for Steve Sax?)
He would alienate his best players (Howie Spira following Dave Winfield anyone?)
And even anger Yogi Berra to the point where he wouldn't come back to the stadium for 14 years.
He probably would have gone to Cleveland and helped young pitchers like Len Barker find their stuff.
The 1980 Indians weren't contenders, but they came damn close to .500. Maybe a tough competitor like Munson in the clubhouse would have sparked the Tribe better than young Ron Hassey.
(Ironically, Hassey became one of the merry go round of Yankee catchers brought in to replace Munson.)
Maybe the more relaxed environment would have rejuvenated Munson.
Getting out of the Bronx certainly seemed to agree with Nettles, Gossage, Randolph and Jackson who continued to produce.
Maybe bringing him closer to his family could have made him more content.
Maybe Munson would have gone to Cincinnati.
With Sparky Anderson (who had slighted Munson after the 1976 World Series) gone and Pete Rose off to Philadelphia, the Reds were changing identity and needed a new spark.
And the oft injured Johnny Bench was playing fewer and fewer games behind the plate.
Maybe he would have gone to a still strong Reds team with a chance to win another ring and be only 200 miles from home.
(Probably not... the competitiveness with Bench would be too strong.)
Maybe in 1980, Munson would have joined his old manager Billy Martin in Oakland.
The team was brimming with young talent in the pitching staff including Rick Langford, Steve McCatty and Mike Norris.
Munson could have handled the staff instead of Mike Heath and who knows? Maybe faces the Yankees in the 1981 ALCS.
That's a long shot... his heart would have been in Cleveland.
Munson could have become the manager in Cleveland... Maybe he could have squeezed some wins out of the Joe Carter/Julio Franco years.
The Billy Martin Yankees produced future managers like Lou Piniella, Willie Randolph and Bucky Dent (for some reason Chris Chambliss never got his shot... but that's another post.)
I am sure Willie, Lou, Bucky and Chambliss would all tell you to a man that Munson was the best managerial prospect.
Eventually he would have come back to the Bronx. In the end, they always do.
If Winfield and Yogi could mend their fences with Steinbrenner, then no doubt Munson could have as well.
Even if it was just as a fixture at Old Timer's Day where he would get a rousing ovation each year, he would have been welcomed home.
No doubt there would be many Yankee fans insisting that he manage the team, just like there were people who wanted Don Mattingly to manage the team in 2008 and no doubt people will call for Jeter to helm the club if Girardi leaves.
No matter what would have happened, there would have been happiness and closure.
Munson would have found peace and time with his family as a player... and eventually Yankee fans would have had their captain back, even if it were only ceremonial.
Would he have been a Hall of Famer?
It would have been close... but he would have been a beloved Yankee and maybe even have his number retired. And it would have been a joyous celebration of a man who played the game the right way and honored the uniform in an era of great turmoil.
If only he had lived.