Friday, March 14, 2008

For Crystal, a Strikeout and a Lasting Memory

The New York Times
Published: March 14, 2008

TAMPA, Fla. — The most famous Yankee of all, at least for a day, traded autographed baseballs late Thursday afternoon with Paul Maholm, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ left-hander who had struck him out in the first inning of an exhibition game at Legends Field.

Scott Audette/Reuters
Billy Crystal, who played with the Yankees for his 60th birthday, worked the count to 3-1.

“So we’re forever linked,” Billy Crystal told him. “We’re Louis and Schmeling now.”

For Crystal, the actor who turns 60 on Friday, the six pitches he saw from Maholm will be a personal highlight, every bit as memorable as the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling bouts of the 1930s. The Yankees signed Crystal to a contract for the game, a gift for a lifelong fan who later gave a party for the team.

Crystal was older and smaller than his teammates, who hazed him by slicing his shoelaces and cutting the toes from his socks. But he has a home batting cage and took lessons from a former All-Star, Reggie Smith. As much as he could, Crystal looked the part.

He sized up Maholm from the on-deck circle and said he barely noticed the Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson kidding with him. He rubbed sticky grip on the bat handle, bumped fists with Derek Jeter and strode to the batter’s box, kicking dirt from his spikes with the barrel of the bat.

With his friend Robin Williams watching from a box beside the dugout, Crystal took a ball and then bounced a foul down the first-base line. Two balls followed, and Crystal adjusted his batting gloves.

Noticing that Maholm was behind in the count, 3-1, the Yankees’ Mike Mussina expected him to bear down.

“You give up a hit to a pitcher in the National League, that’s not too good,” Mussina said. “But you give up a hit to a 60-year-old actor, you’re going to hear it for a while. And he came back from 3-1. If he had walked him, it would have been just as bad.”

Maholm’s next two pitches were his toughest, cutters bearing down and in on Crystal, who swung at both and missed. The last one hummed near 90 miles an hour, a legitimate big-league offering.

“It’s tough to hit for a player, a cutter inside,” Jeter said. “You could tell he probably didn’t want to give up a hit.”

Maholm said he took something off his first few fastballs, to give Crystal a chance. But he was never concerned he would plunk him.

“I think I’ve got good enough control so I wouldn’t hit him,” Maholm said, “especially because he wasn’t all that close to the plate.”

Had Crystal reached base, Johnny Damon would have replaced him as a pinch-runner. After the strikeout, Crystal waved to the cheering crowd. Alex Rodriguez asked Maholm for the ball and gave it to Crystal as a souvenir.

Crystal called the at-bat the most unbelievable — and strangest — moment of his life. He was grateful that Maholm took him seriously.

“It was tough; that’s how it should have been,” Crystal said. “I didn’t want him to throw a softball, a sky ball. It would have been great to do that, but I think it’s better to strike out on a really tough, 89 mile-an-hour pitch than to say, ‘Oh, good, I got a single off a 60 mile-an-hour piece of pie.’ ”

Crystal hung around the dugout and also visited the suite of the principal owner, George Steinbrenner. He joked that he thought he was getting traded for Jerry Seinfeld, and thanked Steinbrenner for the chance.

The experience, Crystal said, was nothing like a live performance, where he knows his material and feels in control. But he was not scared, he said, and he felt his legs under him. Never has a strikeout been so rewarding.

“I hung in there for six pitches against a good pitcher,” Crystal said. “At this age, I did my job. I was the leadoff man and I felt like a baseball player. I didn’t feel like the actor who came to do this. I worked hard, really hard, and I hung in there. What a great feeling.”

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