Sunday, July 13, 2008

Bobby Murcer was prince of our city

By Mike Lupica
New York Daily News
Saturday, July 12th 2008, 10:30 PM

Bobby Murcer didn't turn out to be the next Mickey Mantle, but the five-time All-Star was the heart and soul of the Yankees during the 1960s and '70s before ...

... beginning the next phase of his career as broadcaster for the Bombers which he continued to be while battling brain cancer before dying Saturday at age 62.

This was April of 2007 at Yankee Stadium and Bobby Murcer had made it back to Yankee Stadium after being diagnosed with brain cancer the previous Christmas. I walked over to the YES broadcast booth and there he was, with less hair than he had when he had last left the place, but wearing the biggest smile in the place that day, because he was the happiest guy in the place. He was back. He was a Yankee again in Yankee Stadium.

"You don't make long-range plans anymore," he said. "Maybe nobody should ever do that. But you still set goals for yourself. And one of my goals was to make it back here."

Then we were talking about the first time he was ever inside Yankee Stadium, the old one. Bobby Murcer, Yankee, was telling about September of 1965, when he was a couple of years out of high school in Oklahoma and had hit the ball around pretty good in Greensboro that year and somehow it was enough to get him a September call-up with the big club.

He was the hot kid in those days, out of Oklahoma, so there was all the Mickey Mantle stuff from the start. And even then he knew you weren't a real Yankee until you were a Yankee in Yankee Stadium. But first, Bobby Murcer said, you had to get inside.

"I got lost the first day," he said.

I said, "On your way from the city?"

"On my way from 161st St.," he said. "I was staying at the old Concourse Plaza on the Grand Concourse, and I got to the ballpark all right. But once I did, I didn't know where I was supposed to go in."

He finally found the right entrance, and when he did, he went straight to the field, and wasn't the first to ever say "it was about the biggest place I'd ever seen in my life." The entrance he finally found was the entrance to the rest of his life, a life that saw him become as popular as any living Yankee, a life that finally ended much too soon because of cancer Saturday, Bobby Murcer, Yankee, dead at the age of 62.

You can look up some of his numbers, because they are better than you think, because he was an All-Star in both leagues and hit .331 once. They traded him away for Bobby Bonds and then he ended up with the Cubs, and then finally the Yankees did the right thing and brought him home, in 1979. Once he was home, he never really left.

Murcer played out his career as a Yankee, even made it to the World Series finally in 1981. Then he went to the broadcast booth, brought all he knew about the game and all he knew about his team along with him, brought that Oklahoma voice and charm and decency most of all. If you knew him, and I was lucky enough to know him for 30 years, first as a player and then as a broadcaster, you knew what a gent he was.

There was a reason why Murcer's teammates loved him the way they did and why Yankee fans loved him the way they did. He was as good a man as you think he was, never better than he was these last years facing a certain death from a cancer that nobody comes back from.

"Don't you feel sorry for me," he said that day last season, what really was his last full season as a Yankee in Yankee Stadium. He pointed to my notebook and said, "Don't write any sad stories about me. I've had a wonderful life. And every day I ever spent here" - he pointed out at the most famous green grass in this world - "was a good day."

I kept that notebook knowing I would need it someday, hoping it wouldn't be nearly this soon.

That day last April Bobby Murcer talked about the most famous day he ever spent at the new Yankee Stadium, in 1979. It was the night he and his teammates flew right back from the funeral of his dear friend Thurman Munson because there was a game to be played that night, against the Orioles.

All Yankee fans know what happened, of course. Know that Murcer, who had given one of the eulogies in Ohio, grieving as much as anybody in the ballpark that night, hit a three-run home run and then a two-run single in the bottom of the ninth to win the game, 5-4, for the Yankees. It was the night when Murcer showed everybody just how much of a Yankee he was.

"Yankee for Life" was the title of his wonderful autobiography, written with Glen Waggoner and published not long ago. He had to cut short his book tour, then he was back in the hospital, then you knew there would be no more good news about him. Just the news that finally came Saturday.

There will be a moment of silence for him Tuesday night, at the All-Star Game. Then one last time they will cheer Bobby Murcer big at Yankee Stadium, the biggest place the kid from Oklahoma ever saw, this time to the heavens.

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