“Now batting, No. 44, Mark Feinsand.”
Um … is this real life?
This wasn’t Yankee Stadium, but it didn’t need to be. We were on the field at the Ridgefield Playhouse in Connecticut for the Bernie Williams Breathless All-Stars Charity Softball Game, an event that debuted in 2011.
For the decade leading up to that and several years after, I was a Yankees beat writer, covering Bernie’s final six seasons in pinstripes as well as the bulk of Rivera’s legendary career. On this day, however, we were teammates, united to bring awareness to Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF) and raise money for the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation (PFF).
Bernie’s father, Bernabe Sr., had taught him how to play both baseball and the guitar, two things that would come to define the four-time World Series champ. The elder Williams battled the terminal disease, which has no cure, prompting the Yankees legend to teamed with Boehringer Ingleheim to become the spokesperson for the Breathless campaign as a tribute to his father.
In addition to Bernie, Rivera and Leyritz, other members of the Breathless All-Stars included Bobby Valentine, Mickey Rivers, Darryl Strawberry and sports artist Cortney Wall, whose painting of Bernie and Paul Simon performing during the previous night’s Concert for IPF was on display next to our dugout. We had a pretty good honorary coach, too -- Tommy Lasorda, who hung out on the bench prior to the game.
Also on our team was Patrick Mannion, an inspiring man living with IPF. Patrick had a lung transplant, and despite the presence of an incurable disease, he’s living life to the fullest. He's a pretty good ballplayer, too.
Our opponents were the Ridgefield Playhouse All-Stars, made up of firefighters, police officers and other local professionals from Ridgefield, CT. The Ridgefield team was led by Javier Colon, the winner of the first season of "The Voice" on NBC, who not only had a big bat, but also delivered a tremendous rendition of our national anthem prior to the game.
I had been invited to participate in the 2017 game by Steve Fortunato, who has been managing Bernie’s business efforts for 15 years and was an instrumental part of creating the softball game in '11. Steve -- known as “Fortch” to his friends -- has helped turn this little fundraiser into an annual tradition.
I had a brutal 0-for-3 afternoon as I tried a little too hard to replicate my two-hit performance in the last game. I did make one of my teammates happy, however: As I stepped to the plate for my third at-bat, Rivera shouted to the umpire to call time out, strolling toward the plate with a book in his hand. It was "Mission 27" the book on his 2009 Yankees co-written by me and Yanks beat writer Bryan Hoch.
“Mark, can you please sign this for me?” Rivera asked.
So I did. Another satisfied customer.
Despite my hitless day, our Breathless All-Stars emerged victorious over the Ridgefield Playhouse All-Stars, 21-12. They didn’t need my bat; Rivera hit a pair of home runs and a triple (is there anything he can’t do?) while Bernie and Leyritz had a few hits apiece. Bernie even treated us to a head-first slide into second base, which left us all a little, well, breathless.
“I am so grateful to all who came out to support the Breathless campaign for IPF awareness and raise funds for the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation,” Bernie said. “It means so much to me that my former teammates, baseball brothers and special guests traveled up to Connecticut and took time out of their busy schedules to support me. We all stay in close touch and are always there for each other. It’s a special fraternity, as we are all using this time in our lives to make a difference, contribute to the community and support all of our charities and important causes.”
Bernie laughed, then continued: “Plus, all these guys can still get it done on the field, and that’s why we were able to pull this one out. It took six tries to finally win a game [in 2017], and now it’s two in a row. I can’t wait to do it again next year.”
When the game was over, Bernie thanked everybody within sight, from his teammates to his opponents to the fans that were lingering by the field hoping for a chance to meet their heroes.
Fans at the game received a limited-edition Topps trading card licensed by Bernie depicting his 1996 ALCS walk-off home run. On the back of the card is information about IPF and ways people can spread the word to raise awareness and get more information.
As Bernie mentioned, his five-game losing streak came to an end in 2017 (coincidentally, the first year I played in the game), and we’re now on a two-game winning streak. I’d like to think I have something to do with the turnaround, though Rivera’s thunderous bat has probably been more of a factor.
“You have to keep coming back,” Bernie said, flashing a grin.
Bernie, it would be my pleasure. A great day for a great cause.
To learn more about Bernie and his father’s story, check out www.breathlessIPF.com.
All photos by Scott Vincent.