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Bucs aid Crystal's dream

March 14, 2008
The Altoona Mirror
TAMPA, Fla. — Billy Crystal whacked himself in the helmet with his backswing, found his shoelaces and socks sabotaged and watched his team lose.

Oh, and the New York Yankees rookie struck out in his one and only at-bat as a big leaguer.

‘‘It was the strangest, greatest moment of my life,’’ he said Thursday.

A day before his 60th birthday, the comedian, actor and Oscar host enjoyed every moment of the day he’d hoped for his entire life.

Talking ball with Yogi Berra and Reggie Jackson at the batting cage. Taking infield with Derek Jeter. Jogging in the outfield with Alex Rodriguez. Becoming a victim of clubhouse pranks. Getting a chance for the kind of hit he can’t find in Hollywood or on Broadway.

‘‘I felt like a baseball player,’’ Crystal said. ‘‘I really hate to leave.’’

Wearing No. 60 and cheered on by fellow funnyman Robin Williams, the lifelong Yankees fan was no joke at the plate against Pittsburgh.

Players on both teams perched on the top step of the dugout when Crystal came up. They almost saw something special as he took Jeter’s advice: ‘‘Swing early in the count.’’

Batting leadoff as the Yankees’ designated hitter in the first inning, he took a late-but-solid cut at a fastball from Pirates lefty Paul Maholm. Crystal hit a chopper that got past first baseman Adam LaRoche, but came down 3 feet foul.

Crystal showed a patient, good eye and got ahead in the count 3-1. Maholm came back with a pair of cutters, and the right-handed Crystal swung over both 88 mph pitches.

‘‘I was mad at myself for swinging at ’em,’’ he said.

Especially the last one.

‘‘It was ball four,’’ said plate umpire Mark Carlson, who shook hands with Crystal before the at-bat.

Said Maholm: ‘‘I tried to lay it in there for him. I definitely didn’t try to blow it by him.’’

‘‘It was definitely a little nerve-racking,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m glad I didn’t have to watch it every day, him getting a hit off me.’’

The fans at Legends Field gave Crystal a standing ovation, and he raised his hand to acknowledge them. Rodriguez signaled Maholm, who tossed the ball toward the dugout for a souvenir.

Then it was time for a quick trip up to the suite level to talk to Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

‘‘I was worried he was going to trade me for Jerry Seinfeld,’’ Crystal said.

Hank Steinbrenner was pleased.

‘‘As long as the fans enjoy it, it’s great. He has a real love for the Yankees. He’s going to help us in the opening of the new stadium and all that,’’ the general partner said.

Crystal’s debut — and finale — followed the likes of Garth Brooks and Tom Selleck, other celebrities who played in exhibition games.

Johnny Damon took over at DH after the first inning — he was poised to pinch run had Crystal gotten on base. When the game ended, a 5-3 Pirates win, Crystal said his career as a major leaguer was over.

‘‘I can always say I led off for the New York Yankees. That’s an amazing feeling,’’ he said. ‘‘I don’t even know how to describe it. It was so intensely good.’’

Surely better than getting a World Series ring as part-owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks when they beat his beloved Yankees in 2001.

Technically, Crystal still is under contract to the Yankees. He signed a standard minor league deal Wednesday that commissioner Bud Selig approved; as long as the Yankees officially release him before opening day, they don’t owe him any money.

No chance of comeback, Crystal said.

‘‘Not the way my hamstring feels,’’ he said.

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