March 2014

Horsehide and Pigskin

March 24, 2014 – On Friday night (March 21), Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino was at George M. Steinbrenner Field for the second time in two years to throw out a ceremonial first pitch.

Marino, who was representing Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza, an Italian restaurant that has locations in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Florida, took a unique approach to the mound.

A few minutes before he went out to the mound, Marino was asked to autograph a football. As he was signing the pigskin, Yankees clubhouse manager Lou Cucuzza suggested that he throw the football rather than a baseball.

“I can’t do that,” Marino said. “Everyone is expecting me to throw a baseball.”

But on second thought, Marino came up with a great idea.

“I’m going to throw the first pitch with a baseball,” Marino said. “Then, I’ll throw the football.”

That’s exactly what he did. Marino tossed a strike to Jorge Posada with a baseball, before picking up a football and completing a pass to the former catcher.

There will be an article in the April Issue of Yankees Magazine on Marino’s first pitches. I also interviewed Marino, who played quarterback for the Miami Dolphins for his entire 17-year career, and Posada, who wore pinstripes for the same number of years, before the Yankees’ game against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

During the interview, which can only be read below, Marino shared his memories of being at Yankee Stadium on the mid-winter day that Posada announced his retirement in 2012.

Enjoy this exclusive Q&A piece.

–Alfred Santasiere III

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Alfred Santasiere III: What are your thoughts on catching Dan’s first pitch?

Jorge Posada: It’s a big honor to catch Dan. Watching him play for one team for so long was special, and all the things he does now in the South Florida community is great. Dan is an important part of the community in South Florida, and as a member of that community, he is someone I really admire.

AGS III: Dan, Hall of Famer Goose Gossage caught your pitch last year. This year, you’ve got one of the greatest Yankees catchers of all-time behind the plate. What was your reaction when you found out that Jorge would be your catcher?

DM: Well, I knew it was going to be fun. I’ve always been a big fan of Jorge. He’s had a great relationship with the community in South Florida, as well. And, of course, he was a great Yankee for long time. I’m going to throw my best heat and see what happens.

AGS III: You each played for your respective organizations for 17 seasons. What did it mean to each of you to have only played for one team?

JP: There’s nothing better than putting the pinstripes on. I get chills every time I put that uniform on. I was proud when Dan put that jersey on tonight, because I wore it for so long. Dan wore a Dolphins uniform for 17 years, and I’m sure he feels that same pride. It’s something that has deep meaning to me. I started playing for the Yankees when I was a little kid, and I was a grown man when I left.

DM: Playing for the Dolphins was very special. I created relationships with the fans that will never change. When you play for one team for your whole career, I think you’re always a part of that organization in the hearts of the fans. I’m proud to have done that.

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Panama’s Favorite Son – Mariano Rivera Honored In his Home Country

March 20, 2014 – The Yankees made history last weekend by playing the first major league game in Panama since 1947. I covered the Yankees two-game Legend Series — honoring Mariano Rivera — against the Miami Marlins for a feature story that will appear in the 2014 New York Yankees Yearbook and in the April Issue of Yankees Magazine.

The games certainly didn’t lack drama — the Yankees were no-hit on Saturday, and then they came back and held Miami to one hit on Sunday — but the weekend was about so much more than what took place between the white lines.

The three-day event was all about the great Mariano Rivera, who had long wanted to bring the Yankees to his native country. After nearly a year of planning, Rivera’s dream came true, and as an ambassador, the former closer certainly made the most of the experience.

The team flew to Panama on a chartered flight on March 13, and as each member of the traveling party stepped out of the plane, Rivera and his wife, Clara, were there. Rivera welcomed the guys he had played alongside for decades as well as the ballplayers who have joined the team since his 2013 retirement with the same enthusiasm.

“I wanted to greet my team,” Rivera said. “When they saw me, they were smiling and laughing. I could feel the love from them, and that meant more to me than I can put into words.”

The following morning, Rivera and several Yankees players, coaches and executives took a guided tour of the Panama Canal, and that was my favorite experience of the trip, and one that exceeded my expectations.

The 48-mile waterway, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and which has saved ships from having to travel 8,000 miles around the southern tip of South America for the last 100 years, is awe-inspiring.

As I stood on a concrete platform that overlooked a small portion of the canal, I gained a tremendous appreciation for the people who created the canal 100 years ago, and I enjoyed listening to Rivera share his pride in Panama’s most significant landmark.

“The people who built the canal are not around today, but I often think about the sacrifices they made during the 10 years the canal was being built,” said Rivera. “Those people caught malaria, they were injured, and in some cases, they lost their lives. It’s refreshing to see how those people are appreciated today for opening up a pathway between two oceans. More than anything else, I am proud that the people who gave so much were Panamanians.”

During the tour, we walked across the Mira Flora Locks on a two-foot wide bridge. That would not be a trek I would recommend to anyone who is afraid of heights, especially when the water in the locks is brought down. As you walk across the tiny bridge, which has metal railings on each side — except, of course, where there are gaps in the railings — it’s difficult to avoid looking down several hundred feet to the surface of the water on one side of the locks.

Once we got to the other side of the locks, we toured the building with the computerized system that controls the locks, raising and lowering the water so that ships can pass from one ocean to another.

A few feet from the modern-day control center sits the now out-dated manual controls, and that was as interesting to learn about as the massive computerized operation.

Following the tour of the canal, we ate lunch at the American Trade Hotel, located in Panama City’s Casco Viejo. The historic part of town, which was settled in 1673, still has an old-world look. From the brick streets outside the hotel, to the marble floors within the rustic building, it felt like we had stepped back in time.

Later that evening, Rivera hosted about 500 people at a charity gala. The dinner, benefitting Panama City’s Children’s Hospital, took place on a roof-top deck at the Trump Ocean Club International Hotel & Tower. In addition to raising a sizable amount of money for the pediatric medial center — tickets to the event cost $400 — Rivera also signed autographs for the better part of the night. As Joe Girardi said afterward, “Everyone who wanted to take a photo with Mo or get his autograph, got their wish. Mo made sure that everyone left happy.”

The biggest celebration of the weekend took place on Saturday night. After being honored throughout the United States in 2013, Rivera received the most memorable tribute of them all on March 15. In front of a tightly-packed crowd of 27,000, Rivera made his entrance from right field before the game. With Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” playing, Rivera walked slowly to the mound, where he addressed the crowd.

“Thank you very much for being here for me in my beautiful Panama,” Rivera said. “This is something I wanted for a long time.”

Then, Rivera tossed a ceremonial first pitch to his successor, David Robertson.

“That pitch was the passing of the torch to David,” Rivera said in a news conference after the ceremony. “I’m praying that he will succeed as the Yankees closer, and I’m confident that he will do the job. I believe in him.”

For Rivera, the passionate ovation from his fellow Panamanians and the presence of the Yankees in his home country made for an emotional night.

“To get that ovation in my hometown, with my teammates on hand, that was wonderful,” Rivera said. “This one is different. I am thankful for all of the ceremonies I had in the United States. But when you come home, there’s nothing better than that. To have that moment in my country, and to feel the love from my people is the greatest gift I could ever get. When I got to the mound and saw my people cheering in the seats, it was spectacular. I can’t describe the emotions I felt that moment, because there are no words that could express how happy I really was.”

The next day, boxing legend Roberto Duran — who is also from Panama — tossed the ceremonial first pitch, with Rivera at his side. A few hours later, we were on a chartered flight back to Tampa, and by my count, everyone on that plane left the country with lifelong memories of a historic event. I was lucky to be one of those people.

This was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. During the three days in Panama, I had unequaled access to Rivera. I shadowed him at the Panama Canal. I was in the dugout with he and his family in the hour before he took the field for his greatest honor. And, I conducted a lengthy one-on-one interview with the great closer moments after the emotional pre-game ceremony.

All of that went into a unique feature that I believe is a great read. Enjoy the story.

–Alfred Santasiere III

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Iconic Interview with Broadway Joe and Derek Jeter

March 10, 2014 – A few weeks before spring training began, legendary quarterback Joe Namath accepted my invitation to attend a game at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida.

With the cooperation of Yankees skipper Joe Girardi and GM Brian Cashman, I arranged for Namath to serve as the Yankees honorary co-manager and to also toss a ceremonial first pitch.

Before the March 3 game, I conducted an interview that I had long coveted. With Namath in a full Yankees uniform — including a number 12 jersey — he and fellow New York icon Derek Jeter joined me in the dugout for a 20-minute discussion (see photo below).

From the moment that Namath and Jeter approached each other, just about every photographer and reporter swarmed them. Everyone wanted to capture the rare encounter between two of New York’s most storied athletes, and I felt extremely fortunate to have an audience with them.

As the interview began, Namath offered a classy comment that meant the world to me.

“First of all, I want to thank you both for doing this,” Namath said. “This is a real thrill for me.”

Then, with about 50 members of the media looking on from the area in front of the dugout, I asked Jeter and Namath how they maintained their outwardly calm demeanors in the biggest games they played in.

For Namath, the question brought him back to Super Bowl III, the game he so famously guaranteed a win in, despite being on a New York Jets team that was heavy underdogs.

“Well, my heart was beating pretty hard before I got out there on the field that day,” Namath said. “I learned to accept the nervous energy before a big game. But once I got out there, I was just repeating what I knew how to do. I was doing something that I had done since I was a child. I wouldn’t have been out there if I lacked confidence, and I always knew the difference between being cocky and confident. I was able to be calm once the game started, and that came from confidence in myself.”

“I agree with what Joe said about having butterflies,” Jeter then said. “I’ve always feel the butterflies before I take the field. I’ve always cared about winning and playing well, and that nervous energy is there before I get on the field. But I’ve tried to treat every game the same. Baseball is baseball, whether it’s a spring training game, a regular season game or a World Series game. There is more attention off the field during the bigger games, but once you get on the field, you have to treat every game the same way. Like Joe said, when you get out there, it’s just about playing the game you’ve played your whole life.”

I also asked Broadway Joe and the Yankees captain to discuss why winning in New York is extraordinarily special.

“The fans really care,” Jeter began. “They watch every game. It’s almost like life or death some times. They experience everything that happens throughout the year. Also, New York is the media capital of the world, so there’s a lot of attention and scrutiny, and if you’re able to win a championship in New York City, it doesn’t get any better. With no disrespect to any other cities or teams, if you can win it all in New York with all the attention that is on you, it makes it that much more special.”

“I’ve given this a lot of thought over the years,” Namath said. “What makes New York special? Well it goes back a few hundred years. New York was special from the beginning. The Big Apple is made up of a gathering of people from different backgrounds who have always had their own ways of doing things but still worked collectively together. The people are sharp, and they will let you know how they feel, especially when you win. It’s the greatest city in the world. I cherish my relationship with New Yorkers. I feel like I’m one of them.”

After the interview, Namath visited with players and coaches in a lounge inside the home clubhouse. Then, as we walked out to the field, he asked me to warm him up for the ceremonial first pitch. That experience was both thrilling and nerve racking.

In front of the packed Yankees dugout, I found myself playing catch with Joe Namath, and the Hall of Fame quarterback made one strong throw after another. Fortunately, I caught Nathath’s warm-up pitches, and I got the ball back to him without making any throwing errors.

Namath then took the field to a chorus of cheers, and from a few feet in front of the mound, he threw a strike to his catcher — Derek Jeter.

“I planned to walk out to the mound,” Namath said. “But I ended up jogging out there, because the adrenaline was going. I was really excited because of where I was. When I looked down there and saw Derek in the catcher’s stance, I couldn’t believe it. I knew he was going to catch the pitch, but I when I saw him out there, it was really special.”

When the game was over, I asked Girardi’s co-manager if he had to make any difficult decisions during the team’s win over the Washington Nationals.

“I wasn’t sure how long I wanted to keep Jeter in the game,” Namath joked. “For real, I kept thinking to myself, this is the early part of spring training, and he’s been out there for a while. Then, around the sixth inning, it dawned on me: Derek’s probably calling that shot. I realized that he was going to stay in the game as long as he wanted to.”

My entire interview with Namath and Jeter, along with sidebars on the former quarterback’s first pitch and his time in the dugout, will be published in the May Issue of Yankees Magazine.

–Alfred Santasiere III

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Special Cover Story on Masahiro Tanaka – April Issue

March 10, 2014 – During the first week of spring training, I interviewed Masahiro Tanaka over lunch for the cover story of the April Issue of Yankees Magazine.

On February 18, I spent a few hours with the Yankees free agent acquisition at SoHo Sushi in Tampa, Florida. During our meal, Tanaka discussed his childhood in Japan, his incredible career in Japan’s Nippon League and his goals with the Yankees.

In final three seasons with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, Tanaka racked up a 53-9 record, and he put together a perfect 24-0 season with a 1.27 ERA, while leading the Golden Eagles to their first championship in 2013.

Tanaka — who was accompanied by Yankees advisor of Pacific Rim operations, George Rose, interpreter Shingo Horie and Japanese media advisor Yoshiki Sato — ordered a variety of sushi and other Japanese favorites for the group.

Without even browsing the menu at the acclaimed sushi bar, Tanaka quickly rattled off a list of items in Japanese to Horie, who then relayed the order to our waitress.

Moments later, 12 sushi rolls and several other dishes began to fill the table.

As quickly as the culinary masterpieces arrived, Tanaka began to pluck pieces of sushi off each dish with a pair of chopsticks. From the tuna rolls to the elaborate volcano roll, which included crab and cucumber wrapped in avocado and buried under a mountain of baked spicy salmon and crabmeat, Tanaka devoured it all.

“I love sushi,” Tanaka said through Horie. “I’ve been eating it since I was a little kid.”

During the meal, Tanaka opened up about his decision to attend Komazawa University Tomakamai High School, which was located far from his hometown.

“It took a two-hour plane ride to get from my home to the high school,” Tanaka said. “I was far away from where my family was, but I wanted to go to that high school because I felt that I could become a better baseball player there. Even when I was very young, I was thinking about where I could improve my skills as a baseball player, and when I saw the environment that they had at Tomakamai, I knew that was the best place for me. That’s why I made the decision to go there.”

Tanaka, who led Tomakamai to two championships in Japan’s prestigious Summer Koshien tournament, also discussed the pressure he felt to perform at such a young age.

“Tomakamai had been very successful before I got there,” Tanaka said. “As a result, there was an enormous amount of pressure on me to continue to help them win championships. I didn’t feel any pressure when I was playing, but when the games were over, I always felt a sense of relief. That helped me to understand that there was a lot of pressure, but I also felt good about the way I dealt with it.”

The part of the conversation that interested me the most involved the amount of time Tanaka spent on the diamond when he was in high school.

“I practiced baseball about nine hours a day back then,” Tanaka said. “I went to school and finished my studies at about 1 p.m., and then I would play baseball until about 10 o’clock at night. There were nights in which some of my teammates and I would finish up at around midnight.”

After we discussed Tanaka’s early days, he shared his thoughts on more recent times, including his undefeated campaign in 2013.

“I was just taking it one game at a time,” said the 25 year-old right-hander. “I just happened to get 24 wins.”

At the end of the lunch, Tanaka beamed as he spoke about his decision to sign with the Yankees.

“I feel that the Yankees wanted me the most and gave me the highest evaluation,” Tanaka said. “As a player, you can’t ask for much more than that. The Yankees are so rich in tradition. They are the team that everyone wants to play for. I felt that this was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.”

–Alfred Santasiere III

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