By David Moriah
New York’s “Golden Boy” Derek Jeter went AWOL. The great Willie Mays signed dozens of autographs for “kids only.” Young Dodger star Clayton Kershaw hit up Dodger legend Sandy Koufax for a signed baseball, then delivered the best speech of the night. Bud Selig gave his farewell address in the waning hours of his tenure as baseball’s commissioner.
All this and more took place on January 24 at the mid-town Manhattan Hilton Hotel for the annual awards dinner of the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA).
The event is always a star-studded affair, and this year’s version showcased some of the biggest names in both today’s and yesterday’s game. The occasion is built around presentations of all the major awards for the previous year’s baseball season – the American and National League honors for their Most Valuable Players, Rookies of the Year, Managers of the Year and each league’s Cy Young award winner for top pitcher in their circuit. The Babe Ruth Award is also given for best postseason performance.
In addition, the local chapter of the BBWAA presents several New York-specific awards. There is a “Good Guy” award for the New York player most helpful to the press, this year given to Yankee Brett Gardner; a community service award granted this year to Yankee Mark Teixeira; and the “Joe DiMaggio Toast of the Town” award for the man who emerges as the Big Apple’s favorite player that season.
Jeter was the logical and obvious recipient for the Toast of the Town award, and the evening was intended to be a gala tribute to him in the aftermath of his dramatic sunset season. The cover of the 122-page yearbook-style program featured a cartoon of Jeter, along with an admiring Phil Rizzuto. Jeter, however, to the great frustration of dinner organizers and guests, was a conspicuous no-show. A curt and curious announcement was made that they tried to reach Jeter through his agent to no avail. Ouch!
Unfortunately, Jeter was not the only no-show, as several other seats were empty on the dais. American League MVP Mike Trout, for one, had a credible excuse for his absence, as his parents accepted his trophy and explained that Mike was home sick and sent his regrets. For the other no-shows, Babe Ruth award winner Madison Bumgarner and New York “Player of the Year” Dellin Betances, no such explanations were offered.
Along the same lines, John Smoltz was the sole representative of this year’s Hall of Fame class, as Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez were nowhere in sight. Also, neither current Yankees manager Joe Girardi nor Mets skipper Terry Collins were present, despite a long-standing tradition that both New York teams’ managers attend the event. Mets general manager Sandy Alderson was on the dais, but there was no sign of his Yankee counterpart Brian Cashman.
Nevertheless, there was plenty of star power in the house. Kershaw was there to receive both the NL Cy Young and MVP awards, Corey Kluber picked up the AL Cy Young, Jose Abreu (AL) and Jacob deGrom (NL) scored Rookie of the Year prizes and Buck Showalter (AL) and Matt Williams (NL) came home with Manager of the Year trophies. All were present and accounted for.
Other players and managers on hand either as award presenters or spectators included the aforementioned Koufax, Mays, Gardner and Teixeira, along with Cal Ripken Jr., Bobby Valentine, Terry Francona, Gene Michael, Bobby Jones and Tony Clark, the latter being the former player and current head of the MLB Players Association. In addition to Selig, incoming commissioner Rob Manfred was on the dais, and several general managers were in attendance, as well.
With close to 1,000 guests in the ballroom and a security apparatus befitting a Presidential appearance in place, snagging an autograph or two was no easy task. The dais with the award winners and most other notables was roped off and guarded, but at one point several on it began to accept balls or items that were tossed to them, including the always autograph friendly Ripken. Koufax also signed a few, as did deGrom, Kershaw and Clark.
Mays was not on the dais but at a table on the floor, and before dinner and the program began, word spread that Mays was signing. Like moths to a summer light bulb, a crowd quickly gathered around him. Adults came away disappointed but a few dozen children were treated to a Mays signature before security finally cleared the crowd.
Current Indians manager, and Red Sox world championship manager Terry Francona was another on the floor who signed freely, in his case for young and old alike. Former Rangers, Mets and Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine was on the dais, but he ventured onto the floor a few times and was quick to sign whenever requested. Mets Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom took time in several places to sign for all comers, Abreu signed on his way into the hotel and Clark served as a great ambassador for the players with his willingness to sign on several occasions.
The dinner, which included a pretty fine steak for the $225 ticket price, yielded to a program with speeches and award presentations. For hard-core baseball fans, it was heaven to hear stories spun by today’s players and old-timers alike. Though the current players were generally not as polished in their delivery as veterans like Gene “The Stick” Michael, who introduced Buck Showalter, or Showalter himself, it was 26-year old Kershaw who stole the show with his remarks.
Kershaw delivered a tribute to Koufax, who had introduced him, by saying “how honored I am that you would want to be here tonight, and even more so it’s been an honor to get to know you these past few years.”
He proceeded to take “a walk through a normal day at the ballpark,” calling out by name not only his famous teammates but also the typically anonymous, behind-the-scenes clubhouse attendants, strength and conditioning coaches and video technicians who contribute to his success. Kershaw concluded with an extraordinary statement of humility, offering his final thanks to the St. Louis Cardinals, the team that spanked him in the 2014 National League Division Series.
“My final thank you is to the St. Louis Cardinals for reminding me that you’re never as good as you think you are,” Kershaw concluded as he left the stage.
The other notable speech was Selig’s, who pointed out the fact that at 10 p.m. when he took the stage, he was in his last two hours as commissioner. Manfred introduced him and was waiting in the wings to take over when the clock struck midnight. Selig’s speech summed up his 23-year reign at the helm of baseball and included a few memorable lines.
Perhaps referring to the multi-level postseason schedule, the split into three divisions in each league and the introduction of inter-league play, Selig declared, “I’m proud to say baseball is no longer a sport resistant to change. We now adapt to the wishes of our fans.”
Selig also boasted that with the new economic realities of baseball including revenue sharing and the luxury tax on high payrolls – “All clubs have a legitimate hope to compete for the World Series.”
He concluded with thanks to the fans, “who forever will be the heartbeat of baseball.”
All of the evening’s speeches can be accessed at http://atmlb.com/1A8sLxL.
The bottom line for baseball fans and autograph collectors to consider is that a ticket to the event a.) carries a hefty price tag of $225, b.) provides only limited autograph opportunities, and only for those who know how to hustle for the prize, and finally, c.) is a heckuva good time and an opportunity to see and hear from many of today’s and yesterday’s great names of the game.
If all that appeals to you, we’ll see you in New York next January!
David Moriah is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at email@example.com.