THT book review: Yankee Miracles

Yankee Miracles: Life with the Boss and the Bronx Bombers is Ray Negron’s story of a career spent in baseball, mostly with the New York Yankees, and how some of the biggest names in Yankees history impacted his life. It is an unapologetically biased retelling of relationships Negron built throughout his years in the organization. While the book covers controversial episodes in the club’s amazing history, dating from the mid-1970s to now, the descriptions come from an employee who never stopped being a fan, and as a result, there’s not much insight beyond glowing recounts of player and manager personalities.

Negron was a native New Yorker, and as noted, a rabid Yankee fan. The story of how he came to work for the Yankees is indeed compelling. George Steinbrenner, shortly after purchasing the Yankees, caught Negron spray painting graffiti on the outside of the Stadium in 1973. In lieu of calling the cops, Steinbrenner instead allowed the boy to work off the damages as a way to pay for his misdeed. So what started as a temporary stint as batboy and gopher to pay off a debt, became a full-time stint as bat boy and gopher for cash, opportunities for a career in baseball, and the chance to hang out with some really cool dudes.

So while the hook is there for a good story, Yankee Miracles reads a little like the autobiography of a character that is a bizarre mix of Forrest Gump, William Miller, and Bobby Savoy. You may recall that in Forrest Gump, a history story is told through the eyes of a man who ends up in the middle of historic events. Likewise, Negron was there when Reggie Jackson hits three home runs in the Game Six of the 1977 World Series, and encouraged the slugger to go out and tip his hat, which Jackson finally did against his will. He was also there earlier that season when Jackson and Yankee manager Billy Martin argued in the dugout during a nationally televised game.

Where William Miller got caught up in the decadent life led by rock stars in Almost Famous, Negron was running with some of the biggest celebrities in sports, who could often party like rock stars. Negron even became the quintessential batboy when he went beyond picking out a good piece of lumber for Lou Piniella by helping the All-Star fix his swing through the use of video analysis. Through it all, he is teased by some players and befriended by others and loved it all unconditionally.

As further evidence, Steinbrenner comes off as a sort of life coach even though it doesn’t seem they spent a great deal of time together. The respect and admiration Negron holds for the former Yankees owner is highlighted in every passage he writes. Even as he relays a humbling, and borderline abusive, incident in which Steinbrenner fired Negron for no reason only to rehire him hours later, the latter still can’t muster much negativity toward his former mentor. Nearly every description of Steinbrenner is favorable, down to the neatness of his clothes and hair. Of course, most of that likely stems from the gratitude the author always had for his boss for not only sparing him punishment for vandalism, but for also for “the Boss” letting Negron continue to hang around his heroes.

Negron may have got his start with the Yankees by painting the side of the building, but with this book, he has spent the past few months trying to paint a picture of all that is right in the world being made manifest inside the Yankee organization. Not that the ugly episodes are left out completely, it’s just that they’ve been tinted by Negron’s set of rosy glasses he uses to view an organization that he obviously still loves. Chapter 7, one in which Negron spends 11 pages rehabilitating Alex Rodriguez‘ image, is probably the best example of the author’s bias toward his friends in the New York organization.

A-Rod is extolled for working hard in practice and lending time and money to local youth groups. When it comes to the controversial slugger’s use of steroids or attempts to slap a ball out of an opponent’s glove during the playoffs, readers are constantly reminded that the press had it in for Rodriguez and that all of his actions are overly criticized.

But, while he glosses over Rodriguez so much that it often feels forced, his recollection of working with Billy Martin comes across much more sincere and candid. Martin’s notably flaws are duly noted, but so are Negron’s feelings for the former manager, and the loss he felt when Martin died on Christmas day in 1989.

Getting past the obvious affection Negron still feels toward those he’s worked with, there are some nice little stories many fans who were children in the 1970s may enjoy. In addition, he spends considerable time relaying stories of Thurman Munson, including the tragic story of the plane crash that took the Yankee legend’s life. Negron relives the night New York played their first game after the accident and writes of the unbelievable amount of support and adulation fans expressed.

As a nine year old, I was at Tiger stadium for a Twi-Night doubleheader on August 3, the night after Munson’s accident. They had a moment of silence there, as they did in every stadium in baseball that night, I’d imagine. Reading about it in Yankee Miracles reminded me of the awe I felt as a child upon seeing my hometown baseball heroes in real life. There are several images from that doubleheader that still stick in my mind today—Al Hrabosky, the “Mad Hungarian” pitched, after all. But the most indelible memory is of an entire baseball stadium, a bigger collection of people than I had ever seen in my life, growing completely silent in honor of Thurman Munson.

Going to that Tigers-Royals doubleheader was also one of the last things I ever got to do with my brother, who died in a car wreck a few months later.

For its flaws, one thing this book does well is take you back to larger than life Yankees legends of the 1970s. If you are of the age where names like Graig Nettles and Catfish Hunter mean something to you, Yankee fan or not, you may enjoy reading how Negron was a young fan living any young fans dream. He does convey that message very well.

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