Thursday, October 16, 2008

Tommy Tresh, 1938-2008

In 1961, we were too young and stupid to know that we'd just witnessed the greatest team in baseball history. We just thought it would always be that way. Our shortstop, Tony Kubek, was going to the military -- no volunteer Army during Vietnam -- but, hell, we had two great prospects vying for his job.

One was Phil Linz, who would one day toss a harmonica into Yogi Berra's startled face on the back of the team bus, a moment that would galvanize the club during a tough race.

The other was Tommy Tresh, the International League's all-star shortstop. And everybody -- everybody -- knew he was the one, because the Yanks were all about alliteration. Everybody knew.

And Tresh it was. He hit 20 home runs, played shortstop and won the Rookie of the Year award. They forgot Kubek and penciled Tresh in for a future centerfield monument. It was a done deal. Tommy Tresh... the next great Yank.

These days, if you want to be cruel, you could say he pulled a Melky. Maybe the pitchers figured him out. Maybe he lost his stroke. We'll never know. He moved to left field, his average fell, then his power disappeared.

I'll never forget one game when Tresh was playing LF and struggling. In the ninth inning of a tie game, he crashed headfirst into the stands to save a home run. In the bottom of the ninth, he hit one right into those bleachers. And everyone -- the announcers, the fans, me at home -- we all went to bed certain that this was the big hit that would get him restarted.

And yes, he'd get that centerfield monument.

The truth is this: There aren't many monuments. Great players, great men, come and go. Sometimes, their names have alliteration, or their eyes shine, and everybody knows they're destined for Cooperstown. Then life, or the curve ball, or some woman -- hey, when in doubt, blame women -- intervenes. Or we never do know.

Tommy Tresh died yesterday at age 71.
I don't weep for anybody who lives to be 71. But I'll remember him making that catch, then hitting that home run. The fans went crazy. Everybody know he was a true Yankee. Everybody. There aren't many. Their monuments are in our memories.

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