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'Greatest moment of my life'03/13/2008 7:40 PM ET
By Chris Girandola / Special to MLB.com
TAMPA, Fla. -- It was almost a blockbuster hit in the making.
Billy Crystal -- star of movies, television and Broadway -- was cast in a real-life role as the leadoff batter in the Yankees' lineup on Thursday against the Pirates. And on the second pitch he saw from left-handed starter Paul Maholm, Crystal, who batted .348 as a senior captain of his Long Beach (N.Y.) High School baseball team, almost thrilled the sold-out crowd at Legends Field by banging a ball down the first-base line.
The ball tailed foul, and four pitches later, Crystal struck out swinging on a cut fastball from Maholm.
For everyone involved, though, it was a moment to be cherished forever.
"It was surreal more than anything else," said Crystal, who grew up on Long Island, N.Y., and has been a lifetime fan of the Yankees. "It was unbelievable and the greatest moment of my life. I don't really know how to describe it. It was intensely good."
The two-day dream come true began as a reflection on life back in December, when Crystal happened to see Yankees captain Derek Jeter on the beaches of Costa Rica.
"For Christmas vacation in Costa Rica, we ran into Derek, and we were talking about it, laughing, and then he said, 'Let's make it happen,'" Crystal recalled before Thursday's game.
Jeter arranged the one-day contract with the Yankees' brass, and Crystal arrived in town on Tuesday to take part in Spring Training with the rest of the club.
"I've been waiting 50 years for this call," Crystal said upon his arrival. "I'm overwhelmed by the generosity of the Yankees and Commissioner [Bud] Selig. I know this will be tougher than the Broadway Softball League, but I'm looking forward to helping the younger players, which, by the way, is all of them."
After Wednesday's preparation, in which he took batting practice with Jeter and Jose Molina, Crystal arrived on Thursday to find he had officially been welcome to the Yankees fraternity with a little rookie hazing.
"When I walked into the clubhouse, they had taken the toes out of my socks, all my laces were gone and there was hot stuff in my cup, so I knew it was going to be a good day," said Crystal. "I couldn't remember my high school song, though. But other than that, everything was great."
Crystal spent time with many of those younger players, some of whom had lockers either adjacent to or across from the Hollywood icon, including infielder Cody Ransom and pitchers Dan Giese and Heath Phillips. Ransom had been wearing the No. 60 throughout Spring Training, but he gave it up to his locker neighbor for a couple days in honor of Crystal's 60th birthday, which will come on Friday.
"It's been a thrill to just meet him and for him to be doing this," said Ransom, who received a box of autographed balls in addition to "monetary gifts" typical of what a baseball star trades for a number as appreciation. "He held up his end of the bargain, let's just say. But seriously, he's been great and he's been just like one of the guys. He definitely knows how to be a baseball player."
Coincidentally, Ransom, wearing No. 67, homered in the game.
Before the game started, Crystal was in player form, chomping on a wad of gum as he took part in warmups and stretches with the rest of the team. During warmups, he sided up with Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada, joking with the All-Stars -- further proof he was part of the boys of summer.
"Some of these guys look like they should be Hollywood stars," Crystal said.
With his wife of 37 years, Janice, videotaping his every move, Crystal joined the group of Jeter, Rodriguez, Posada and Bobby Abreu for pregame batting practice and took 32 swings in the cage, several of which were line drives to left field. The seven-time host of the Academy Awards showcased his baseball skills even more after his at-bats by fielding ground balls at second base and turning double plays with Jeter.
"Probably the closest thing that compares to this is when he first hosted the Oscars," said Janice Crystal, who was in attendance with Crystal's two brothers, Richard and Joel. "But this is major. We've been Yankees fans forever, and for him to be doing this, it's major."
Crystal was all business as he prepared to take part in the greatest thrill of his life. It was Jeter who played funnyman after batting practice, as Crystal stood somewhat in awe and admiration of what he was doing, with the rest of the Yankees picking up the balls on the ground.
"Don't worry, Billy, we got it," joked Jeter, as he and the other Yankees scooped up balls and put them into the bin.
When Crystal was finally announced to the crowd, which included good friend and fellow comedian Robin Williams, he received the loudest cheers of the day and a standing ovation. Before approaching the plate, Jeter gave Crystal a fist-bump, which drew even more applause.
"I kept yelling, 'That's my boy, that's my boy,'" said Williams, who participated in the game himself later, when a foul ball landed in his section. "I was proud of him, and he looked real good. But the only thing they'll have to test him for is Maalox."
When Crystal stepped to the plate, the announcement of his name and number nearly brought the business-minded actor-turned-athlete to tears.
"It was supremely good," said Crystal, who was followed in the order by Jeter, then other regulars Abreu, Rodriguez, Hideki Matsui and Robinson Cano. "The crowd was something else. To hear my name announced as the leadoff hitter for the Yankees is something that I'll always have. I got really emotional. I had to pull it back. It's everything that the game means."
After digging in and taking a few practice swings with his 33-inch black maple bat and adjusting his two shiny white batting gloves, Crystal received a first-pitch outside fastball from Maholm, which Crystal took for a ball.
On the next pitch, a hard fastball, the movie star almost created a blockbuster hit by lining one down the first-base line that barely went foul past Pirates first baseman Adam LaRoche, drawing a huge applause from the Yankees faithful.
"The first pitch was way up, and I was like, 'Hey, I'm in this -- all right, all right,'" said Crystal, who has a batting cage at his home in California. "The next one, I fouled one off, almost took my head off with the bat. But then I calmed down and felt like I was in there fine."
Crystal was buzzed by an inside fastball on the next pitch, which drew jeers from the crowd, and he then took an outside fastball for the third ball.
With the crowd cheering in anticipation, Crystal dug in for Maholm's next pitch, a cutter on the inside part of the plate. The former all-county baseball player swung and missed.
Then, with a 3-2 count, Maholm tossed Crystal another cutter, which Crystal swung over, ending his at-bat.
"I was just trying to give him some strikes to hit, and fortunately, he was swinging and I didn't have to walk him," said Maholm, who joined Crystal during the movie star's news conference following the game and gave him an autographed ball with the inscription "You looked marvelous."
Maholm, though, was impressed by the actor's efforts.
"I didn't want to throw too hard to him, but I still wanted to go after him. I was just trying to lay it in there, but for some reason, the ball kept cutting, and thank goodness he was swinging. If he had gotten a hit, I would have heard it the rest of my life. But he looked good. It wasn't like [the movie] 'Rookie of the Year,' where he was in the very back part of the box."
With Crystal walking away from the plate, the crowd rose again and gave him another standing ovation, to which Crystal responded with a wave to the entire crowd. Crystal received another fist-bump from Jeter before giving high-fives to Rodriguez and other Yankees players.
Crystal spent the rest of the game cheering on the Yankees, who -- after taking a 3-1 lead in the seventh inning, due in part to Ransom's home run -- lost, 5-3.
But it's Spring Training, and the players know that, which made this game special.
"You don't have days like this during the season," said Mike Mussina, who started the game for the Yankees and pitched five innings without allowing a baserunner. "Today was fun. I was kind of surprised myself at how he did. He had some pride out there. It turned out pretty well, considering everything that could have happened."
The one who made it happen was even more impressed.
"He's got a good eye," Jeter said. "I told him to swing early in the count, and he looked good. [Maholm] threw hard to him, too. He threw harder to him than [to] me. [The cutters] are tough to hit, even for a player. But the main thing is you want to have fun, and we all did."
Crystal, who thanked several Yankees players prior to the game by signing bats, balls and hats with an autograph that read "Your teammate, Billy Crystal," made his manager-for-a-day just as proud.
"He saw a lot of pitches and made the pitcher work," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "He had some pretty good swings, too. I don't know if I'll [be able to] do that at 60 years old. I was actually impressed."
Crystal, who promised to take the entire team out to dinner in celebration, took solace in the fact that he had completed his dream, but he still believed there might be more in the tank.
"At my age, a walk is nearly close to wandering off," said Crystal, who met with and thanked Yankees principal owner George Steinbrenner and his family during the game. "I worked hard and I hung in there. I felt like a baseball player. I hate to leave. It was really amazing. I could imagine signing with a team in the Rookie League and doing this for a season. But you never know after the way my hamstrings feel."
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.