Fernandez tragedy brings echoes of Munson

September 26th, 2016

The public mourning of the death of Marlins pitcher will last a few days. The memory, however, will linger forever, particularly with his teammates.

"When you go through that, it's a complete shock," said Jerry Narron, the rookie catcher whom the Yankees put in the lineup the day after Thurman Munson was killed in a plane crash in August 1979. "You don't want to believe it, but you never get over it. It's with you the rest of your life."

There is a bond that comes for the men who share a clubhouse. They grow up in different cultures, but they are brought to gather by baseball.

:: Jose Fernandez: 1992-2016 ::

Lyman Bostock was an African-American born in Alabama who spent his youth in Gary, Ind., and the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Baseball was his escape. It also was his demise.

After breaking into the big leagues with the Minnesota Twins, he signed a free-agent contract with the Angels prior to the 1978 season. Then, on a Saturday in late September that year, after a game against the White Sox in Chicago, Bostock made what turned into a fatal trip to Gary for a family picnic.

Riding in the car of his uncle, who was taking a girlfriend and her sister home from the picnic, Bostock was shot to death by the estranged husband of the sister.

Like the Yankees, the Angels played the next day, not getting the chance to take a day off and regroup like the Marlins did on Sunday, and Nolan Ryan was the Halos' starting pitcher. It is the one start of the 773 games Ryan started in the big leagues that he didn't want to pitch.

"I don't believe I had to pitch a tougher game than that one," said Ryan. "I remember not wanting to pitch, wanting to just be left alone. Lyman was very well-liked by his teammates."

Bostock and Ryan, the small-town kid out of South Texas, had a unique bond.

"I remember going to the funeral in Watts, where he grew up," said Ryan. "It was a very emotional, draining day."

Before each game Ryan started, he would sit at his locker, and with a sharp knife remove the excess skin from the fingers on his pitching hand to limit the possibility of developing a blister. Kenny Rogers' song "You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me Lucille," would be playing on the portable stereo sitting next to the locker.

Bostock would turn it into a duet, serenading the future Hall of Fame right-hander.

"He was such a likable guy and such a competitor," said Ryan. "He suffered through a tough season that year with the Angels. He signed that [free-agent] contract and didn't feel he did what he was paid to do, and it ate at him."

Bostock initially declined his paycheck that April because he felt he didn't live up to his end of the bargain. Halos general manager Buzzie Bavasi paid him anyway. Bostock donated the money to charity.

"It was such a shock," Ryan said of being informed on that Saturday night in Chicago of Bostock's death. "He was [27], in the prime of his life. You just don't think of things like that happening."

But it did. Slightly more than 10 months later, on Aug. 2, 1979, Narron had a similar experience.

A rookie with the Yankees, he and Ron Davis, his roommate, were watching television at their New Jersey apartment, relaxing on an off-day, when the new flash went across the screen that Munson had died in a plane crash.

"Ron and I just sat there, in silence, not believing what we were seeing," said Narron. "It was unreal."

The reality set in the next night at Yankee Stadium, Aug. 3, 1979. The Yankees hosted the Baltimore Orioles. Narron, a 23-year-old rookie, was the one who had to step in behind the plate for "The Captain." Filling in for Munson was part of Narron's job, but the finality of what happened that led to his start on that night was an emotional challenge.

"The night before [Munson's death], he played first base and I caught," said Narron. "His knees were bothering him. The game before that, he played a couple innings and then they took him out early. The plan was to give him a few days off from catching.

"But that night at Yankee Stadium, that was different than any game I ever played."

Back then, the players would take their position in the field for the playing of the national anthem. That night, every starter in the Yanks' lineup was in position, except Narron. He stood in the dugout, next to Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, leaving home plate empty, a tribute to Munson ordered by owner George Steinbrenner.

"It told you how sacred Thurman was to George," said Narron.

But it wasn't just Steinbrenner who held Munson in high regard. Everyone associated with the Yankees had special feelings for the man who had been the first player given the honor of the Yankee captain since Lou Gehrig.

"That day at the ballpark, there had been a death in the family,'' said Narron. "'Solemn' doesn't begin to give you a feeling for the emotions."

Instead of flying home from Chicago with the rest of the Yanks after their Aug. 1 game against the White Sox, Munson decided to spend his off-day with his family in Akron, Ohio. A private pilot, he was practicing takeoffs and landings at the Akron-Canton Regional Airport when his Cessna Citation crashed.

Munson never returned to Yankee Stadium. His memory, however, lingers in the Bronx to this day.