Monday, January 27, 2014

An unlikely reunion for Wil Cordero and his first major league home run

My ticket from 9/18/1992
On the night of September 18, 1992, the New York Mets played the Montreal Expos, and I was excited to get to the park because my favorite Met Gary Carter was now playing for the Expos. I hoped that I would have one more chance to see him play up close. When my mom told me that we had tickets to the picnic area, my eyes grew wide with passion.

Attending a Mets game in the picnic area was an annual tradition for our family, as my mom was able to secure tickets through an event her job held there annually. For a young kid, it made going to a baseball game an even more enjoyable affair, as there was free food and an opportunity to be up close and personal with the opposing team’s bullpen. This usually meant that some of the members of the bullpen would make themselves available to sign a few autographs, something I looked forward to as much as the game.

We usually made sure that we arrived early when the gates opened, but this year we were delayed in getting to the park. By the time we arrived at the picnic area, the members of the Expos bullpen were fully focused in getting prepared for the game. There would be no chance to get some signatures, so I sat closer to the bullpen, hoping in my naiveté that by sitting near the pitchers, that I could somehow reverse my fortunes. Little did I know that later in the game, my sulking behavior a few rows away from my family would pay greater dividends than I expected.

Dwight Gooden was pitching for the Mets, and I remember him hitting the skids late in the game, necessitating Mets manager Jeff Torborg to quickly go to the bullpen. After making a pitching change, Wil Cordero, a young prospect at shortstop was preparing to take the plate. I was familiar with him largely due to his rookie baseball card that I owned, so I paid closer attention to the at-bat. A pitch or two later, a fly ball comes skyrocketing in my direction. I stand up in anticipation, noting that the ball is coming increasingly closer towards me. Steadying my hands for the catch I reach out for the ball and at the last minute someone in front of me attempts to snatch at it. It ricochets off of their hands right under my feet. Immediately, I dove on it and secured it in my possession. I was now the proud owner of a Cordero home run ball.

I stand up with the ball and get some pats on the back from fans nearby. Almost as soon as I turn around to look for my family, a Shea Stadium security guard calls for my attention. Being a good young citizen, I followed the man. He informed me that the ball in my hands was Cordero’s first major league home run, and that the Expos would like to offer me a baseball autographed by their bullpen. My earlier dejection was now turning to joy, as I would be going home with some signatures after all. I quickly made the exchange, returning Cordero’s first round-tripper to his possession.

Immediately fans came up to me, wanting to know what I traded the ball for. Some said I should have asked for a bat, his jersey, cash, or even autographs of the whole team. Everything happened so fast that I had little time to process the transaction. I was just thrilled that I was being offered something for returning the ball; never did the thought pass my mind of how I could capitalize on the situation.

A few weeks later I wrote Cordero at the Montreal Expos ballpark, explaining to him the events and how I would appreciate it if he was willing to offer his signature, as the ball I was given contained only a few members of the bullpen and not his own penmanship. I didn’t include a baseball card, or a SASE, both no-no’s in the world of writing to baseball players. Heck, I wasn’t sure if he was going to even read the letter, but I thought it was worth sending.

The card sent by Cordero himself
About a month later, an envelope comes from Canada, with the return address written in script, “Wilfredo Cordero, Montreal Expos.” I quickly open the letter, to find a beautiful baseball card, with Cordero’s signature neatly across the front. Both the envelope and card are something I’ve kept until this day.

Imagine my surprise when I read last week that Cordero would be appearing at the 2014 BBWAA Awards Dinner in New York, as part of a tribute to the 1994 Montreal Expos. Right away, I was transported to that game some 22 years ago in Flushing. I thought that if I had the chance to meet him at the event that I would relay the story to see if he remembered. There was one problem though, I didn’t have a ticket.

My friend Nick D’Arienzo of metroBASEBALL magazine must have been reading my mind, because the next day, he sent me an e-mail offering a ticket to attend. I gladly accepted and excitedly awaited my trip to the New York Hilton.

When I arrived, D’Arienzo gave me my ticket and program. Immediately, I looked for Cordero’s name in the program and found that he was not on the dais, but on the main floor with the rest of the patrons. Once we found our table, I put down my belongings and went for Cordero’s table. Sporting a mustache and a goatee, I passed his table once, not sure if it was him. I doubled back, and after a gentleman at his table confirmed that the man I was looking for was indeed Cordero, I introduced myself.

I told him the story and Cordero, as well as the rest of the members at his table, all perked up to hear the tale of his first home run. He thanked me for returning the ball, and when one of the people at the table asked what he remembered about the at-bat, he quickly replied, “You can’t sneak a fastball by me!”

Wil Cordero and the author after the dinner
He gladly signed a few baseball cards that I brought, and agreed to talk more after the dinner was over. We met in the hotel lobby and spoke for a few minutes about being a part of that 1994 Expos team that was halted by the strike, and how being honored at the dinner brought it full circle.

For a young kid that evening who caught his first and only home run ball at a big league game back in 1992, this meeting completed my small connection with Cordero’s memorable first time around the bases.

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