Mickey Mantle will always be my favorite baseball “name” but “Zack Monroe” isn’t too bad a moniker for a ball player either. Both names ended up appearing on Hall of Fame plaques. Of course Mantle’s plaque is in Cooperstown while today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant’s can be found in at the the Greater Peoria Sports Hall of Fame.
This native of that city in Illinois was a two-sports star at home-town Bradley University when the Yankees signed him in 1952. He then played just one season of minor league ball before doing a two-year hitch in the military during the Korean War. He returned to the Yankee farm system in 1955. The right-hander put together two straight 16-win seasons for the Yankees’ single A affiliate in Binghamton and was a stellar 10-2 for their triple A club in Richmond when he got the call to report to the Bronx at the end of June, during the 1958 season. He made his big league debut against the A’s on June 27th of that year. He held the Kansas City lineup hitless in his three-inning relief stint but he gave up four bases-on-balls. It was that inability to throw strikes at the big league level that would come back to haunt him.
Five days later, Casey Stengel gave Monroe his first start in Baltimore and he gave up just one run (and 5-more walks) during his eight-inning appearance against the O’s to earn his first big league victory. He ended up winning four of his five decisions during his rookie season and posting an impressive 3.26 ERA. That was good enough to earn Monroe a spot on the Yankees’ World Series roster that year, but in his only relief appearance against the Braves, he was shelled for three runs in the single inning he got to pitch. That bad October inning against Milwaukee, the 27 walks he issued in the 58 regular season innings he pitched that first year, plus the fact that he was already 26-years-old at the time, most likely soured his long-term potential in the eyes of Stengel and the Yankee brass. Though he made New York’s 1959 Opening Day roster, he found himself back in Richmond in early May, after two straight bad relief outings. He never again pitched in the big leagues.
Monroe shares his birthday with one of the Yankees greatest fourth outfielders of all-time and this one-time Yankee prospect.
Kevin Russo impressed Joe Girardi with his hustle and versatility during the team’s 2010 spring training season. That’s why when Nick Johnson made his much anticipated trip to the DL in May of that season, Girardi asked for Russo to be added to the big league roster. It sure looked like a stroke of managerial genius at the time, because in his first-ever start as a Yankee, Russo drove in both runs in the New York’s 2-1 victory over the crosstown Mets. Unfortunately, that turned out to be the highlight of Russo’s first tour in the big leagues and unless something drastic happens, this West Babylon, NY native, who was raised in Colorado, will probably not be returning to the Bronx in a Yankee uniform.
He can play second, third and anywhere in the outfield but his offensive skills, though sufficient for Triple A level play, are not quite good enough to keep him in the big leagues. He also turns 28 years old today, which is considered young in most professions but bordering on senior citizenship if you’re a minor league baseball player. I just checked his 2012 stats and he’s hitting in the high .280’s in Triple A with 79 hits, 13 stolen bases and 35 runs scored in the 68 games he’s played thus far this season. But the Yankees this year seem to have decided that they will use their farm system when they need pitching but if the need to replace a position player, they prefer signing out-of-work big league vets like Jason Nix, DeWayne Wise and most recently, Darnell McDonald.
When I was a boy, my uncle would take me and my brothers to at least two Yankee games every season. We’d make the four-hour drive down to the Bronx in his old Lincoln sedan early, early in the morning and arrive at the Stadium parking lot about 8:00 AM. We’d go to Jerome’s for coffee and wait for the Stadium’s ticket kiosks to open. Once my Uncle purchased the tickets we’d often jump on a subway to midtown where we’d quickly walk a few streets of Manhattan, eat a hurried breakfast-time lunch at the old Oyster Bar restaurant that used to be located in Grand Central Station and then head back to the Stadium on the subway, usually right around 11:00 AM. On one such return trip from midtown, our train made a stop at one of the stations, the doors slid open and a dark-skinned, well-built guy entered our car carrying a pair of spikes and a real nice baseball glove. He sat down across the aisle from me. Due to the facts that I was an avid baseball card collector, memorized every page of every Yankee yearbook I’d ever owned, and faithfully purchased the photo-pak of 5 x 7 black & whites sold each year at the Stadium, I immediately recognized the new passenger. It was Yankee outfielder, Hector Lopez.
I whispered to my Uncle that this guy was Lopez but he insisted that Yankee players don’t ride the subway to their games. I knew different. I just stared at Lopez during the entire ride and he kept his eyes closed as if he were taking a nap. When the train reached the 161st Street station in the Bronx, he and I got up from our seats at the same time and I ended up just inches in front of him. My Uncle would always grab my hand when we exited the train and as he pulled me toward the door that morning I built up enough courage, turned my head and said, “Are you Hector Lopez?” He looked right at me, winked his eye and smiled.
I had not been a fan of Lopez before that, mostly because if he was playing it usually meant that my favorite Yankee, the oft-injured Mickey Mantle would not be. But that morning, I became a Lopez fan. Hector spent the last eight seasons of his twelve-year big league career in pinstripes. He was a key bench player on those great Yankee teams of the early sixties that appeared in five straight World Series, winning two of them. When Mantle was unable to play the final four games of the 1961 Fall Classic against the Reds because of an abscess, Lopez took his place and drove in 7 runs and averaged .333. He could have started in the outfield of most other big league teams back then but with the Yankees, Lopez spent his time filling in for better known, higher paid teammates and evidently riding the subway to and from Yankee Stadium. He turns 83-years-old today.
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|KCA (5 yrs)||586||2383||2134||298||593||99||16||67||269||9||194||281||.278||.337||.433||.771|