“The Day a Brash Rookie met a Grizzled Veteran”

May 22, 1990. Yankee Stadium. For Deion Sanders, Baseball was just a hobby. His main employment was as professional football player for the Atlanta Falcons, playing at $1 million a season. His baseball salary with the Yankees was chump change, some pocket money at $100,000 a year. Why was he even bothering with baseball when he had commented to sportswriters that he didn’t even like baseball? Probably because he was an attention junkie. When the camera lights came on, he was “Neon Deion”.

In his own words: “Prime Time wakes up every morning and says to the mirror, ‘Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the flashiest, best dressed of them all’”? And every morning the mirror says You, Prime Time’”!

Behind the plate on this night for the White Sox at Yankee Stadium was a man known as the ‘Commander’. A ballplayer who was in his fourth decade in the bigs. He was a man who believed in who he was, believed in what he said, when he addressed you, he told you the truth, if you didn’t like it, he didn’t care. You were going to hear about it. Carlton Fisk.

For Pudge, Yankee Stadium carried some of his finest memories and performances during his days in a Red Sox uniform, on the biggest East Coast rivalries stage. Fisk had many a run-in with members of the Bronx Bombers, especially in the 70’s.

Carlton Fisk, a man who had earned his wings in the bigs the traditional way. Working his way through the minors, four years of labor down on the farm, taking busses that you hoped would get you to the next podunk city you were going to be playing in, instead of first class seats on chartered major airliners, meal money that might afford you a hamburger, where in the majors you could indulge in a juicy steak dinner. He would work his way to the major leagues playing in run-down ballparks and dress in cramped, sweat smelling locker rooms. You get the point, the Commander knew what it took to play the game, and that he would do and do well in to his 40’s at one of the most demanding positions on the field, catcher.

Admittedly, and I take nothing away from Deion Sanders, the football player. He was a magician when the ball was in his hands, but it was his arrogance that gets under my skin, and Pudge Fisk as well on this particular night. Sanders hadn’t put in the time in the minors as most big leaguers had. Playing in just 17 games in rookie ball, 6 games in A-Ball, and 5 in Triple A, all the while with very poor plate discipline. But, somehow, here he was, suddenly with the Big League Yankees, as their lead-off hitter, batting a brisk .143, just what you would hope for from your lead-off man. (Don’t call me an idiot, it’s sarcasm.)

The visiting White Sox would get on the board first with the third pitch of the game from Dave LaPoint to Sammy Sosa who got a hold of one, sending a laser in to center field for a home run, but that would be all in the inning and it would be the Yankees turn to hit in the bottom of the frame. Leading off, ‘Neon Deion’ Sanders.

The cocky rookie would stroll up to the plate like a beauty contestant, knowing the cameras were on him. Fisk was preparing his territory so he could receive the first pitch from Melido Perez, his starter. Pudge would glance down at the dirt where the rookie was using his bat to draw something in the batters box. To Fisk’s amazement he saw it was a dollar sign and silently thinking to himself as he glanced at the rookie with some disdain, “This guy is driving me crazy already”. Big Money Prime-Time Neon Deion would strike out.

The game would move along uneventfully until Sanders sauntered to the plate again in the third inning. Trailing 1-0 to the Sox, Perez would walk Randy Velarde, while Alvarado Espinosa was at bat, Perez would be charged with a balk, moving Velarde to second base. Velarde would advance to third as Espinosa tapped a bunt back to the pitcher and was thrown out at first. With only one out and a man only 90 feet away from tying the game, next up would be Sanders.

Deion would sky one in the infield and Ozzie Guillen, the Sox shortstop would easily put it away for the out. Sanders had taken maybe one or two lethargic steps toward first base before pausing to watch the flight of the ball he had just hit and then would just give up moving any further as the ball rested neatly in Ozzie’s glove, turning toward the Yankees dugout, sluggishly dragging his feet.

The White Sox backstop, Carlton Fisk was like a volcano that was just beginning to belch grey smoke, signaling that an eventual eruption was going to take place. It didn’t take long as Mount Pudge would spew lava from his lips as he looked directly at the rookie and screamed “Run the (expletive) ball out, you (bleep, bleep, bleep)!! Sanders just continued to leisurely stroll to the bench, not paying a bit of mind to Fisk or pausing to turn and acknowledge the veteran.

Sanders again would lead off an inning when he came to bat in the fifth, and you can almost guess that Fisk had been seething since Deion had last come to the plate. Pudge would stand behind the plate watching as Sanders approached the plate, giving the rookie a stare that could have cut through steel, but Sanders wouldn’t look back at either the catcher or the umpire as he stepped in to the batters box and drew his dollar sign in the dirt at Pudge’ feet, while mumbling something under his breath.

Fisk stopped what he was doing, stood straight up, turned toward Sanders and asked quite authoritatively, “What did you say”? Again, Sanders wouldn’t give Fisk the respect that he had earned by looking directly in to his eye, instead, staring in to the ground and said “Hey man, the days of slavery are over”.

Pudge ripped the mask off his head and was in Sanders face before the mask hit the ground, “I don’t care whether you are black or blue or pink or red. If you don’t start playing this game right, I’m going to kick your butt right here”. Although neither team on each side of the field had any clue what was unfolding, both benches would empty and there would be an impromptu gathering at home plate. Everyone just stood there, no donnybrook, no yelling, no pushing or shoving, no questions being asked, they all just continued to watch as Fisk gave Sanders a verbal tongue lashing like a harried school marm would give one of her pupils. Even home plate umpire John Hirschbeck stood back, allowing Fisk to speak his peace before separating the two combatants and the game played on.

Sportswriters, who also were clueless and in the dark as to what had transpired would ask Fisk what happened. What exactly started the argument? Fisk would be direct, “There is a right way and a wrong way to play this game. It’s the Yankees pride and the Yankees pinstripes involved here. Some of these guys (past Yankee legends) have got to be turning over in their graves. I play for the other team, but this even offends me”! When Carlton was pressed to clarify further a couple weeks later by sportswriters, Pudge rehashed his comments, “It is professional etiquette. There’s a right way and a wrong way to play this game” and then added, “Me! Me! Me!, I!, I!, I!, his selfishness offends me! There are certain stripes you must earn before you can go about the way you put your mustard on”!

Sanders never amounted to a hill of beans on a baseball diamond, hitting a whopping .158 as the lead-off man for the Yankees and in August of 1990 he would insult the Yankees demanding a new contract for $2 million and when the Yankees refused his demands, he would walk out on the team. A true class act.

Pudge always had played the game right, hard-nosed and with passion. It may have served Sanders well to have respected Fisk, absorbing his message like a grandson would soak in every lesson a grandfather cared to bestow upon him.

The White Sox may have dropped this game to the Yankees 5-2 but they and Carlton Fisk certainly came out as a winner.

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