The Night Ron Guidry Pitched in the Minor Leagues, and turned Heritage Park and the Capital District upside down

By Chuck Miller

It's a cliche John R. Tunis or Ring Lardner might pound into their typewriters on a rainy evening. Imagine the children in a small rural town scraping together all their nickels, going down to the local ball field en masse and watching the local town team face a barnstorming team of all-stars. Maybe Babe Ruth or Satchel Paige might lead the visitors, who would beat the town team and then sign autographs for all the children after the game.

But barnstorming teams have long since passed into nostalgia, and the children of the small towns now go to the ball field and watch the stars of tomorrow, who toil in Fort Lauderdale and Greensboro and Appleton and Rochester before climbing up the ladder to the big leagues.

But there was the time when a star Yankee pitcher took a minor league city by storm, pitching before a two-hours-early-but-still-can't-find-a-seat overflow crowd.

Our story really began on July 2, 1986, when the New York Yankees faced the Detroit Tigers. Ron Guidry, the Yankees' top pitcher of the 1980's, was on the mound. It was the seventh inning, two men out, and Guidry sent a fastball towards Lance Parrish, who was supposed to hit a lazy fly out to end the inning. Instead, Parrish hit a line drive drive back to the mound, and before Guidry could react, the ball ricocheted off his left hand. Within minutes, the Yankee ace was in the locker room, as the team doctor stitched up his bleeding pitching hand.

Meanwhile, the Yankee's new AA farm club in Albany played to record crowds. A few days after Guidry's injury, Albany-Colonie Yankees president Ben Bernard, a businessman who helped bring both baseball and the Yankees to Albany, offered a proposal to the major league team - when Guidry's hand heals and he leaves the disabled list, offer him a pitching start at Albany's Heritage Park. Guidry had pitched "simulated" games at Yankee Stadium while he was on the DL, and this might be an opportunity to help the pitcher react in game situations.

It was a million-to-one shot - the Yankees usually sent their players to their AAA farm team in Columbus for rehabilitation. But on July 21, 1986, Bernard convinced Yankee vice-presidents Woody Woodward and Bobby Hoffman that Heritage Park, with its natural grass and propinquity to New York, would be more suitable for Guidry's rehabilitation. Woodward and Hoffman agreed, and Bernard got his pitcher, who would start two days later against the Nashua Pirates.

"What this shows is that the major leagues look at their minor leagues as a very important part of their organization," Bernard told the Albany Times-Union. "Albany is very close to New York and it's a natural thing that [Guidry] would come here on his rehabilitation."

Bernard shared the good news with the fans at Heritage that Monday night, 48 hours before Guidry's start. "[Guidry is] the biggest name among the Yankees the last ten years or so," said Bernard to the Schenectady Gazette. "That's the best player we could have here. I expect a good crowd."

He got a crowd, all right. More than 8,000 tickets - Heritage Park's capacity - were sold within 24 hours. And when Wednesday arrived, three hours before the park officially opened its gates, there was a line of cars from Heritage Park all the way down Albany-Shaker Road to Albany Airport, a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam that looked more like a three mile, single lane, parking lot. Some enterprising souls parked their cars at Albany Airport and caught a cab to the park. Even more parked at the airport hotels and walked the two or three miles.

The A-C Yankees were already at the field, taking batting practice and warming up for the game. Guidry and his pitching coach, Mark Connor, were throwing the ball back and forth. Mitch Lyden, the Albany-Colonie catcher, told the Albany Knickerbocker News about a conversation he had with Guidry before the crowd arrived. "I asked him what he wanted to throw. He said it was pretty much up to me. He just said, ‘You know these hitters, so I've got to listen to you.'"

The fans were still filing into the park at 7:00 (the announced time of the game), and the security guards had their hands full keeping fans away from the outfield fences, from the scoreboard, from the roof of the building past center field, from any place that had a flat surface and enough room for a pair of fannies. Along the third base line, fans stood so close to fair territory they could have thrown out a runner on a single.

At 7:15, Guidry appeared. Mark Connor and A-C pitching coach Bill Monbouquette were at his sides, blocking the swarm of fans trying to touch the Yankee legend as he headed for the diamond. When Guidry stepped on his first minor league pitching mound in twelve years, he received a standing ovation from the fans and awestruck stares from his temporary teammates.

First baseman Hal Morris had just been called up from Class A Oneonta, and this was his first game at the Double-A level. "This is awesome," said Morris to the Gazette. "Last night, I'm playing in Oneonta. Tonight, I get here. Ron Guidry is pitching and the crowd is unbelievable."

Connor kept a pitch count on Guidry throughout the game. This was a rehabilitative assignment - the lefthander would throw 45-50 pitches or five innings, whichever came first. Guidry almost used up his pitch count in the first inning alone, when he walked left fielder Tommy Gregg, who later stole second. Guidry then faced Mike Ashman, a former member of the Albany-Colonie A's, the team who preceded the Yankees as Albany's affiliate.

Ashman worked the count to 3-1, then whammed a Guidry fastball to right center field for an RBI double. "When you have to throw a fastball to a guy [with a 3-1 count]," grumbled Guidry to the Times-Union, "It doesn't make a difference where you're pitching. It could be college ball. They're gonna hit it."

The A-C Yanks scored five runs in the bottom of the first, including a three-run double by Mitch Lyden and Hal Morris' RBI single. Blessed with a four run cushion, Guidry retired five of the next six batters he faced. At the end of the third inning, Mike Ashman stepped up to the plate again. This time, Guidry got Ashman to pop up, ending the third inning.

Three innings and 41 pitches after the national anthem, Guidry's pitching duties were done. "He wanted to go another inning," replied Bill Monbouquette to the Troy Times Record, "but we wouldn't let him because he might be pitching Sunday (with New York against the White Sox)."

So while Guidry was herded into a press room to answer questions about the Yankees and the Albany boys that were in the big leagues (including former A-C Yankees Bob Tewksbury, Brad Arnsberg and Doug Drabek), the fans were still surging into the park, a game of musical chairs with 14,000 spectators and 4,000 seats.

Even though Guidry was relieved by the fourth inning, Bernard allowed some seatless fans the opportunity to stand against the outfield wall. Those fans quickly signed temporary waivers, clearing the A-C's from any liability should a fairly batted ball bonk someone in the noggin. Nashua manager Dennis Rogers threatened to protest the game because of the fans on the field, but later rescinded when three innings went by without a single hit to the deep outfield.

Meanwhile in the press room, Guidry answered question after question, sometimes responding to the same question twice in a row. "It's really nothing for me to come down here," he told the Times-Union, "and it was a pleasure to come out and pitch in front of these people. I got one of the biggest ovations I've ever got ... from 12,000 people."

But after the sixth inning, Guidry and Connor thanked the media for their time, shook hands with the local dignitaries, fought off the crowd surrounding Guidry's jet-black Mercedes, and drove down the Thruway toward New York City.

Back in the park, as Albany-Colonie's Steve Frey pitched four scoreless innings for his third win of the year, the crowd thinned out. Before the seventh inning, Bernard told the assembly at the warning track that Ron Guidry had left the park, and they needed to find real seats.

Guidry returned to New York and beat the White Sox on Sunday, July 27, his first win since leaving the DL. And in time, thanks to Ron Guidry's initial appearance, the Yankees sent more players to Heritage Park during their 1985-1995 affiliation - Jesse Barfield, Mike Witt and Pascual Perez, to name a few.

And if it weren't for a Lance Parrish line drive and a great idea from Ben Bernard, the closest Ron Guidry might have come to Albany would have been at a baseball card autograph show.reatest hits package recently released on Taragon Records) -- which would be fun."