The New York Yankees are set to open their season against rival Boston today. But before turning their attention to a high-stakes season of adversity, the Bronx Bombers spent Saturday touring the facilities at West Point and holding an exhibition game against the Army cadets. The game rekindled an old tradition for the two storied programs.
Saturday’s game brought the Yankees back to West Point for their 22nd game against Army – but their first since 1976, renewing a rivalry that dates back to 1927, when the Yankees’ marquee names were Ruth and Gehrig. Arriving on a pair of buses at about 10 Saturday were the more modern Yankee heroes, including Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira and skipper Joe Girardi. Even hobbled general manager Brian Cashman, recovering from a broken leg sustained during a spring training skydiving accident, and owner Hal Steinbrenner came along. The rehabbing captain, Derek Jeter, did not.
The Yankees split into two groups to tour several campus highlights, including the historic chapel and the state of the art gym and locker room before joining cadets for lunch in the mess hall. Teixeira, the first baseman recovering from a nagging wrist injury, said the tour reminded him of his days in the big-time college baseball of the Atlantic Coast Conference at Georgia Tech.
"That's impressive," he said. "Their weight room, their football practice facility, their hall of fame, just a very nice Division I program."
The visit was only the latest example of partnership between Army and the Yankees; the Army football team has played at the new Yankee Stadium, and manager Joe Girardi has been at West Point for football games.
“When you go through a day like today, it really makes you appreciate our country, it makes you appreciate what the military does for you," Girardi said. "But it also keeps life in perspective. What we do is important to us ... but it's a little bit different than the tradition here."
By early afternoon, the Yankees and Army were warming up at Doubleday Field – which normally seats about 900. On this day, there were more than 6,000 in attendance, many fans of both teams who filled up the temporary seating and elbowed to the fence for autographs.
The always outgoing reliever Joba Chamberlain joined the cadets in the right field bleachers, adding to the celebratory vibe. The cadets even held their own version of the Bleacher Creatures’ roll call in the first inning.
As with any Army sporting event, there was plenty of pomp and circumstance. Some of the Yankees, for their part, seemed genuinely moved by their surroundings, and truth be told, that part of the experience was more important than the game itself, a 10-5 Yankees laugher that featured most of both rosters. It was New York’s last preseason tune-up, but even with a 162-game schedule looming, there were smiles all around during the group picture taken at home just before the game and Mariano Rivera’s ceremonial first pitch.
Army coach Joe Sottolano, in his 14th season, said it was an honor to share the field with the 27-time World Series champs, a day his players would never forget.
"I don't know if you could see a better fit anywhere else in the country for the New York Yankees to come, the best in their business and what they represent, than coming to West Point," he said.
The Yankees were asked if they would be making the pilgrimage to West Point a yearly tradition. Girardi, the son of a Korean War vet, said that as with most things, the Yanks are taking it one season at a time. As for the Cadets, the Yankees were a fun distraction – and memorable one, no doubt — from their conference schedule, which began with another tough opponent: Navy.