Army second baseman Grant Van Orden, right, forces out New York Yankees' Brett Gardner during the second inning of an exhibition baseball game at the United States Military Academy on March 30in West Point, N.Y. (Mike Groll / The Associated Press)
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WEST POINT, N.Y. — At first glance, it seemed like the end of a typical Yankees home victory. Frank Sinatra crooned “New York, New York” over the loudspeakers and the players hugged one another.
Except this game was different. Action had stopped at 5 p.m. — the visitors were batting in the eighth inning — for the lowering of the Stars and Stripes atop the towering flagpole at Trophy Point to the sounds of Reveille played by a solitary bugler.
And those hugs and embraces after the final out were for the opponents, the Army Black Knights.
On a sun-splashed Saturday afternoon at West Point, the Yankees revived an old tradition, traveling up the Hudson River to play Army, something they hadn't done since 1976.
“This is a special day, a great way to finish spring training,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “It gives you such a sense of pride about being an American when you come up here and how respectful they are to our country. The game stopped. That, to me, puts it in perspective.”
Finalizing the roster for Monday's season-opener against the Boston Red Sox was on general manager Brian Cashman's mind. The game at hand took precedence on this day, though.
“Baseball's just a game and it's just a sport. What these people are preparing for is life-and-death stuff,” Cashman said. “Anytime you get exposed to the reality of who's doing the really important stuff in the world, that's a healthy dose of perspective.”
That the Yankees won 10-5 behind home runs by Brennan Boesch and Melky Mesa was an afterthought at best.
“This is so important. We're here to play a game, but they're here to protect us,” said Girardi, whose dad was an airplane mechanic in the Korean War. “How important that is. Every day that I wake up, I feel safe. That's not true in a lot of places. I think our guys are having a blast.”
They were, indeed.
Before the game, the team took a tour of the campus, making stops at the Hall of Fame, Cadet Chapel, Michie Stadium, and Trophy Point.
“There's a link between us and the U.S. Military Academy that goes back a long way,” Cashman said. “So much respect the Steinbrenner family has for the military, so it's appropriate, and we're really pleased we're here today, we really are. And I can tell you our players — watching these guys on the tour — you could just tell they were soaking it up. And it was impactful.”
After the tour, the team ate lunch in the mess hall with a group of cadets.
“They asked me what it was like to be in the big leagues, the normal stuff,” Yankees left-hander Andy Pettitte said. “Everyone is different, and it takes a special person to be able to go through and do what they have to do. Thank God for them.”
“Just being here and eating in the mess hall was a lot of fun,” left-hander CC Sabathia said. “It's been a good experience. One of the kids at the table hasn't left campus in a couple of years. The work ethic they have is crazy.”
When ace reliever Mariano Rivera began to climb the steps of Washington Hall for lunch, he was stopped by cadet Mario Cortizo, a senior from Panama. They chatted briefly in Spanish, and Cortizo gave Rivera a handmade cup from their homeland.
“This is wonderful, the history. I'm glad I'm here,” said Rivera, who threw out a ceremonial first pitch before the game. “This whole thing is great. I was proud of him, knowing he also comes from Panama. I bet he didn't have that much money to be here. That's a blessing. He's graduating this year and I got invited.”
“We all love him,” Cortizo said, a huge smile creasing his face. “I told him it was great having him here.”
Army began playing professional baseball teams in 1914, losing 7-2 to the New York Giants. The Black Knights have won four of 69 games against the pros — two each over the Brooklyn Dodgers and Montreal Royals.
The Yankees improved to 22-0 in a series that dates to 1927, when Babe Ruth led Murderers Row to West Point. The teams hadn't played since 1976.
“It was a longstanding tradition,” said Bob Beretta, executive athletic director. “(Former Army football coach) Red Blaik was great friends with Leo Durocher, so they (the New York Giants) would come up here and play. We'd love it to be an annual event. Bringing this game back to West Point is an honor.”
The Black Knights regularly visit the Yankees' spring training complex in Florida. To have the team return the favor was almost mind-boggling. The players found out in November, and though there wasn't much talk, Army coach Joe Sottolano knew it was all his players had been thinking about for a long time.
It was difficult to figure out who was more impressed — the Yankees or the Black Knights — on a picture-perfect day. An overflow crowd of 6,127, boisterously cheering the home team when the Black Knights scored, attended as sets of bleachers were transported to a stadium that normally seats 800.
“I've been dreaming of something like this since the day I was born,” said sophomore right-hander Andrew Flaherty, who started for Army and took the loss. “I'm definitely honored for them to come out here and support us.”
The Yankees also took turns spending time in the Army dugout during the game, chatting with the Black Knights.
“These gentlemen are going to go through some hard times, whether it's in life or in the Army,” said Sottolano, who had to worry about Sunday's doubleheader against archrival Navy. “But they'll always have this memory and they'll be able to tell their kids about it and they'll never forget it.
“They made us feel special,” Sottolano said. “They're not going to see their families much, and tomorrow's Easter Sunday. They gave us that time.”
The Yankees scored five runs in the second and the Black Knights came back with four in the third before giving up two runs in the sixth on a throwing error.
“We don't want to embarrass ourselves. We want to go out there and put up a game,” Army catcher Andrew Johnson said. “When we put up those four runs and got a couple of shutdown innings from our pitchers, we had them 5-4 until the sixth inning. We looked at each other and said, ‘Let's get this. This is the one chance.'
“It wasn't just going out there and having fun,” he said.
Cashman said the roster was complete. He said he still had to make room for Lyle Overbay, and that had to be done by 3 p.m. EDT Sunday.