Thursday, March 13, 2008

‘The designated Hebrew’: Billy Crystal digs in

He almost looked mahvelous. But for taking a too-aggressive cut at a fastball moving at 88 miles an hour for a distance of 60 feet and six inches — a ball that needed just three-tenths of a second to trick his 60-year-old eyes — Billy Crystal, debuting as a New York Yankee, might have been a giant.

Crystal, a Yankee fan in utero, realized a personal-best dream Thursday when he made his debut — his first and last at-bat — with the team during spring training, playing the Pittsburgh Pirates at Legends Field in Tampa, Fla., after signing a one-game contract days earlier. “I think I’m the designated Hebrew,” he said at a press conference.

Crystal’s status as a Yankee fan has not been a casual thing. He frequently punctuated the commentary in Ken Burns’ 1994 documentary “Baseball,” and he directed the 2001 HBO movie "61*", - about the joys and agonies of Roger Maris' pursuit of the single-season league home-run record in 1961.

Still, the Yankees didn’t cut him any slack. Invited by shortstop for the ages Derek Jeter, Crystal showed up and was (like all rookies, we'd guess) subject to team pranks, finding a drink spiked and the laces in his shoes disappeared.

Then, getting a standing O before he even got to the plate, one day before his 60th birthday, William Jacob Crystal dug in, the leadoff man in pinstripes.

Let the venerable Associated Press give you the play-by-play. Or maybe just the play:

Players on both teams perched on the top step of the dugout when Crystal came up. They almost saw something special as he took Jeter’s advice: “Swing early in the count.”

Batting leadoff as the Yankees’ designated hitter in the first inning, he took a late-but-solid cut at a fastball from Pirates lefty Paul Maholm. Crystal hit a chopper that got past first baseman Adam LaRoche, but came down 3 feet foul.

Crystal showed a patient, good eye and got ahead in the count 3-1. Maholm came back with a pair of cutters, and the right-handed Crystal swung over both 88 mph pitches.

“I was mad at myself for swinging at ’em,” he said.

Especially the last one.

“It was ball four,” said plate umpire Mark Carlson, who shook hands with Crystal before the at-bat.

Said Maholm: “I tried to lay it in there for him. I definitely didn’t try to blow it by him.”

“It was definitely a little nerve-racking,” he said. “I’m glad I didn’t have to watch it every day, him getting a hit off me.”

◊ ◊ ◊

"I can always say I led off for the New York Yankees," Crystal said. "That's an amazing feeling. I don’t even know how to describe it. It was so intensely good."

The New York Yankees Web site played it up right: “Yanks lose despite Mussina, Crystal,” read the headline in the story published after the game.

But some bloggers on the sports Web sites were weirdly uncharitable, calling it a stunt that cheapened the Yankee pipnstripes. Hello folks — before it was a tradition, it was a game, a kid’s game. Crystal never forgot that.

Whether the humorless chuckleheads who put him down know it or not, he took a hack at a dream, which is more than most of us can say. A goof? A stunt? Get real. Billy Crystal doesn’t need any more publicity, and God knows the Yankees don’t.

What happened today was a nod to the persistence of childhood, a short laugh at the advances of maturity and the relentless march of time. Billy Crystal took a shot for all of us. He was up three and one and went down swinging. That’s a scenario we all relate to, sooner or later.

“There’s more Met than Yankee in all of us,” the great sportswriter Roger Angell once observed. And if that’s true, and it is, there’s more Billy Crystal in all of us than maybe we’d ever admit.
Image credit: Crystal:, republished under Fair Use Doctrine: photo subject as news story

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