Sunday, January 27, 2013

End of an era: Joe DiMaggio Legends Game ends after 25 years

All good things must come to an end. Sadly, the Joe DiMaggio Legends Game held in Fort Lauderdale to benefit the Children’s Hospital that bears his name, had its 25th and final contest Saturday afternoon. The announcement was made Friday evening by Frank Sacco, CEO of the Memorial Healthcare System, during the player reception and charity auction at the Signature Grand in Davie to a packed crowd of over 500 supporters. The news came as a surprise to not only the crowd, who let out an audible sigh when they were informed, but also many of the players who looked visibly shocked hearing it for the first time while they were on stage.

Orlando Cepeda, Rico Carty, Paul Casanova and Jose Cardenal / N. Diunte 

The event dates back to 1989 when it was an exhibition before a spring training game at Dolphins Stadium. For the next quarter of a century, it would remain a fixture in South Florida, reuniting teammates for another moment in the sun while raising tremendous amounts of money for the hospital. For many, it was an annual pilgrimage they looked forward to making.

“I’ve been coming here for four years, and it’s really something to give back to the fans and keep the legend of Joe DiMaggio and what he did for the hospital,” said New York Mets bullpen coach Ricky Bones. “For me, being one of the youngest [here] around the legends of baseball, it’s a pleasure for me to be a part of it.”

Bill “Spaceman” Lee, the affable left-hander formerly of the Boston Red Sox and Montreal Expos, provided a more vivid description of what brought him to Fort Lauderdale.

“Bermuda grass, green Bermuda grass," Lee said. "The wind blowing in, slightly off the ocean, 78 degrees, it just doesn’t get any better than this. You’re raising money for a good cause, and you’re playing baseball; that’s the meaning of life.”

While Lee, never shy about pontificating about one’s existence, (signing autographs at the game with the tag of “Earth 2013”) was disappointed about the close of the event.

“It’s tragic," he said. "You can’t quit playing baseball. You know we’ve gotta find sponsors and stuff. It’s a game about time. It’s a great anti-cancer cure for children, teaching them to play baseball.”

Beyond the ghosts of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris in Fort Lauderdale Stadium, which was the spring training home of the New York Yankees for over 30 years, stepping on the field rekindled fond memories of yesteryear for Lee.

“I had my last baseball card ever in a Red Sox uniform made here, and then I was traded to Montreal. I couldn’t believe it!” he said. “My greatest memory is [of the Legends Game], seven RBIs in one inning here my first year. I came in late, batted last, got a bases-loaded double, and then hit a grand slam. Seven RBIs in one inning, that’s a career for most pitchers.”

The event transcended baseball, attracting celebrities and athletes from outside of the baseball world, including five-time NBA champion Ron Harper of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. Harper took some mighty hacks at the plate and even spent an inning on the mound at the end of the game. Stepping on the field with players he grew up watching from his youth in Ohio was a thrilling experience for Harper.

“It’s a great event," Harper said. "It’s about my third or fourth time here. I look forward to playing with some of the greatest players ever to play the game when I was growing up. I admired them, and it’s a fun event for a great cause. I played this game when I was a small kid too. My first love is hoops, but I really love this game too.”

Even though event organizers were definite in their tone about this being the final exhibition, Bones remained optimistic that event would persist, hoping that the players will organize to keep it going.

“It’s kind of sad," Bones said. "Hopefully, something happens that we can keep doing it because I think the fans appreciate it and what we do for the kids and the hospital. I think that if someone can keep doing it, it’s the players. The players can keep it alive.”

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