Craig Pippin couldn't believe what was happening.
There he was, a Long Island native who grew up rooting for the Yankees (at just 19 years old, he was still kind of growing up), and he was picking up a bat to face the, um, Yankees.
"I remember standing in the on-deck circle, I'll never forget it," Pippin said to me during a recent call. "I saw Chambliss at first, I went around the infield. Chris Chambliss at first, Willie Randolph at second, Bucky Dent at short, [Graig] Nettles at third, Roy White left, Mickey Rivers and Reggie Jackson."
Pippin, a reliever for the University of Florida at the time -- who had never really hit before -- was living his dream. He was playing on the same field as his favorite team -- a scenario we've all acted out during backyard sandlot games as a kid. But today, it was actually happening. How was this happening?
Well, it almost didn't. Here's the story of how it did.
It was Spring Training 1977 and, after paying for the lights for the Florida Gators' field, George Steinbrenner decided the Yankees should play against the college to christen them. It was a nice gesture by The Boss and he probably figured it'd be an easy win for his team. The 1976 Yankees were really good -- they went 97-62, won the AL pennant and then lost in the World Series to the Reds. But the '77 crew, known as The Bronx Zoo, ended up being even better. They won 100 games, the AL pennant and the World Series. Their most notable addition was 1973 AL MVP Reggie Jackson, soon to be a legendary postseason hero and a future Hall of Famer.
Pippin -- a junior at Florida and a North Shore, Long Island, native -- was incredibly excited about the game. It was Florida's first game under the lights -- against his hometown team. His entire family would be tuned in.
"Growing up in Long Island, my family were big Yankee fans," Pippin said. "The transistor radios were on and the family was gonna listen in. From growing up loving the pinstripes and being a part of those summers at Old Timers games and everything at the stadium, it was a big deal."
But when the junior showed up to the locker room before the game, his uniform wasn't there. Pippin was in the midst of trying to transition from a pitcher to a third baseman -- a move the team wasn't fully on-board with -- and he thought this might've been their way of dealing with it. Not letting him play against the team he grew up rooting for.
"I said, 'You know what, I need to step away from this situation a little bit,'" Pippin told me. "This is just the way this is being handled. I'm just gonna step away."
So, Pippin took off. He got in his car and drove down I-75 South, angry and frustrated that he wouldn't be dressed for the game. His whole family was listening in from New York. What would he tell them? He got to a pay phone at a rest stop and called his parents, who were living in St. Petersburg, Fla., to tell them to inform the rest of the family that he wouldn't be on the field that day.
"My father gets on the phone and says, 'You better turn that car north and you get back to that stadium and you -- you be a part of this,'" Pippin remembered.
How could he disobey that?
Pippin drove back north to the ballpark and got there in the first or second inning. The missing uniform had just been a mishap by the equipment manager -- he found it, slipped it on and headed to the bullpen. He didn't know if he'd really get into the game, but at least he was in the same arena with some of his baseball heroes.
And then, in the eighth inning, with Florida surprisingly up 7-4, the Gators' head coach Jay Bergman motioned his way. Bergman knew Pippin had wanted an at-bat all spring and, understanding he was a big Yankees fan, thought this might be the perfect time to get him into the game.
"'Pip, go ahead and grab a bat, we're gonna get you in for an AB here,'" Pippin remembered his coach saying.
It was like walking onto a field of his boyhood dreams. Pippin describes it as "when you look out onto the field and see every baseball card you ever had as a kid." He took a mental picture and stepped into the box against Yanks top prospect Doug Heinold. Having lived his whole life in baseball, Pippin said he wasn't too nervous in the moment.
The first pitch was a ball and then, magic happened: on a slider up in the zone, Pippin hit a homer. He took off, not really knowing really where the ball was going.
"I remember looking to left and Roy White just kept his hands on his knees," Pippin said. "That was sort of surreal by itself because you get a chance to round the bags. I'm running as fast as a pitcher can run -- they don't run real fast. I got to second and I remember Bucky Dent said, 'Slow down, kid, you got it.' I rounded second, got to third, crossed home plate and it was literally one of those things where you can't remember much of anything."
Although he doesn't remember too many reactions at the actual game, Pippin does remember his family going wild after hearing it on the radio way back up north in New York.
"I had an uncle up in Oyster Bay that had been blinded by a baseball throw at some point," Pippin said. "He was sitting at his dining room table in Oyster Bay and he had his transistor on and I remember that was a big moment. They were all gathered around this transistor and it was a pretty cool thing."
The Yankees stormed back and won the game, probably avoiding a vintage Steinbrenner meltdown. Pippin told me he never hit again after that, calling it his "last official at-bat." He was a pitcher the rest of his college career and was drafted by the Royals at that position after his senior season. He was a very solid reliever during 10 seasons in the Minors, but never got the call up to The Show. He now runs a baseball program called Pitcher's Edge, helping young pitchers try to realize their own professional dreams.
Beyond just pitching tips and advice, Pippin has a story to tell that'll inspire his students to never give up.
"I tell kids, 'Never, ever, ever stop believing in what's possible, because one day you might find yourself in the batter's box against the New York Yankees.'"