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How Ron Blomberg made me care about baseball again (if only for one night)

At Yankee Stadium, MLB’s first designated hitter brought back a desperately needed enthusiasm

It had been nearly five years since I’d last attended a Major League Baseball game, and I frankly wasn’t planning to go back again any time soon. The constant rules-tinkering and “profits over all else” mentality had increasingly sapped my enthusiasm for MLB in the Rob Manfred era, as had the nauseating gambling tie-ins, the ever-annoying TV blackouts, the continued exploitation of minor league labor, and the Commissioner’s Office’s donations to political campaigns.

But the game itself had also been providing me with less and less joy, to the point where I’d pretty much stopped even paying attention to the sport that I’d loved with a passion since childhood, the sport that had been the bond for so many of my friendships and had even inspired me to write three books on the subject. Waste three hours watching yet another drama-free contest where the teams combine for 25 strikeouts, 7 solo home runs and 10 relief pitching appearances? No thanks; I’ve got books to read and records to listen to.

But when The Big Guy invites you out to a ballgame, you go.

Ron Blomberg, circa 1972. Photo by Getty Images

“The Big Guy” is what I call former New York Yankee Ron Blomberg, partly because he’s still a big guy at age 74, and partly because “Big Guy” is what he calls everyone of the visibly male persuasion. Ron — with whom I’d co-authored the 2021 book The Captain & Me: On and Off the Field with Thurman Munson — had been invited by the Yankees to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before their April 3 game against the Philadelphia Phillies, in honor of the impending 50th anniversary of him becoming the first Designated Hitter to make an official plate appearance in a regular season MLB contest. (The actual anniversary is April 6, but it wouldn’t do to make the Yankees’ first Jewish star show up to the ballpark during Passover.)

“Big Guy!” the Big Guy boomed at me over the phone, “I’m gonna throw out the first pitch! You gotta come!”

And so, I hopped the D train uptown from 59th Street to Yankee Stadium, a place my Mets fan father had always assiduously avoided taking me during my baseball-mad youth. Disembarking at the 161st Street station, I got an immediate buzz from the sight of Stan’s Sports Bar and all those other bustling establishments jammed up alongside each other on River Avenue in the shadow of the El tracks, looking as festive and funky as they did back in the 1970s.

Unfortunately, said buzz quickly evaporated once I entered the corporate confines of the latest, 2009-vintage edition of Yankee Stadium, which exudes none of the magic or majesty I’d associated with the old “House That Ruth Built.” The vintage Armitron clock above the left field bleachers is a welcome throwback touch, but otherwise the place looks and feels more like a “facility” than a ballpark.

Still, it was a kick to look down from my seat above home plate and see The Big Guy on the field in his Number 12 Yankees jersey, chattering excitedly to reporters and anyone else within a 30-foot radius. He’d warned me not to expect a sizzling sixty-foot-six-inches strike, as shoulder issues dating back to his playing days prevented him from bringing his throwing arm more than halfway back.

“But even if I throw it in there at a hundred miles an hour, the Yankees aren’t going to sign me,” he’d said with a laugh.

The Big Guy got a nice round of applause from the crowd when he was introduced, as photos and film clips from his playing days flashed upon the centerfield jumbotron. He raised both arms in thanks, then took his spot about 15 feet in front of the mound and tossed the ball to the catcher, who fielded it cleanly on the hop and ran out to congratulate him. Ron posed for a quick official photo on his way off the field; even from up in my seat I could tell he was beaming from ear to ear, and I was completely delighted for him.

“You can’t laugh at me, Big Guy!” he shouted across the room to me 30 minutes later, when I caught up with him in one of the stadium’s many luxury suites. “I didn’t throw it far, but I threw it straight!” I had no intention of laughing, of course; I just wanted to come by and shoot the shit with him, but there was already a crowd of a couple-dozen excited fans ahead of me, their arms filled with memorabilia for The Big Guy to autograph.

Mickey Rivers, seen here in his 1970s playing days, seemed unenthused by the prospect of attending a Bon Jovi concert — even if his friend Ron Blomberg was along for the ride. Photo by Getty Images

I initially thought that the signing scrum would soon dissipate, but quickly realized that I was going to have to get in line with everyone else in order to give my co-author a congratulatory hug; fans just kept coming and coming, thrilled to have a chance to schmooze with the Ron Blomberg, who seemed just as thrilled to schmooze back.

Fellow ’70s Yankee Mickey Rivers kept darting in and out of the room, as quick and inscrutable as he’d been in his playing days, but The Big Guy remained happily perched on the same stool for hours, animatedly trading stories and laughs with everyone who approached his table. Some wanted him to sign baseballs, photos and old Yankees programs; some wanted to pose for photos with him. One guy even invited Ron and Mickey to come with him to a Bon Jovi concert. (Ron was genially noncommittal; Mickey just seemed nonplussed by the prospect.)

“Ron was my hero as a kid,” Larry, a guy in a suit and a Yankees cap who appeared to be about 60, told me. “I used to imitate his stance at the plate. The Yankees should have signed him to a one-game contract and brought him up as a DH tonight!”

But there were also fans in line who hadn’t even been born when injuries forced The Big Guy to retire in 1979 at the age of 30. Amber, a self-described “library nerd” in her 30s, brought a copy of The Captain & Me for Ron to sign, and expressed her sympathy over the physical challenges that had truncated Ron’s once-promising career, and the sadness and frustration that this #1 draft pick must have felt when things hadn’t panned out as predicted.

“I mean, I was in a car accident, and it’s taken me forever to be able to play softball again,” she told me. “I can only imagine how he felt, trying to get back to playing after he ran into that outfield wall.”

There was no sadness tonight, however. Down on the field, the Yankees were cruising their way to an 8-1 victory over the Phillies in a game whose outcome was all but assured by the end of the fifth inning. And up here in the luxury suite, there was only pure joy — the joy of connection between player and fan, of favorite memories shared and old bonds reaffirmed. Baseball magic, that same cocktail of excitement and bliss I remembered from when I was a kid, was truly in the air, and The Big Guy was truly in his element. And just for a moment, it occurred to me: If MLB could somehow take this feeling and find a way to inject it back into the current incarnation of the game, I might actually find a way to care about baseball again.

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