Al Downing happy to be part of the Yankees tradition

A half-century after his debut, Downing is still living the legacy of the pinstripes
07/11/2014 10:27 AM ET
By Lou DiPietro

Al Downing (right) clowns around with David Cone and David Wells during 2011's Old-Timers' Day festivities.(AP)
Al Downing turned 73 years old just days after the Yankees held their 2014 Old-Timers' Day festivities, and while his age won't stop him from coming, don't expect to see him take the mound alongside guys like David Cone and El Duque anytime soon.

"I've retired from throwing; my arm told me it was time to stop," he laughed as he watched batting practice prior to this year's Old-Timers' Day Game. "I can think about it, but it's time to stop."

And that's okay, as Downing pitched 2,268 1/3 innings over 17 years in the Majors, even if it wasn't as smooth a career as he would've liked.

"As long as you can complete a season healthy, every year is a good year, just some are better than others," he laughed, "but I always took the optimistic point of view; when my arm was healthy, I didn't care if I threw 80 or 90, I felt I could always get a batter out."

Downing can relate to what the current Yankees pitching staff is going through, specifically having four starters on the DL and at least two of them likely out for the year - and he also has a cautionary tale about what it means going forward, too.

"When I got hurt in the second half of 1967, I never recovered the rest of the time I was here," he remembered. "I was finally better in 1969, and then I was traded that winter, so when I went to the National League, I started really a new career."

In that "new career" Downing had some highs (a 20-win season in 1971 and a third World Series appearance in 1974 among others) and some lows (he is, after all, the man who gave up Hank Aaron's then-record 715th home run), but the nine years he spent with the Yankees taught him all he needed to know about success - and he still learns more every time he comes back for Old-Timers' Day.

"Old-Timers' Day reinforces what this tradition is all about. I just saw Yogi (Berra) and Whitey (Ford) and (Don) Larsen inside, and when you see these guys, you know they represent a tradition from long before I got here," he said. "We were keepers of that tradition, and now that's moved on to the guys like (Johnny) Damon and (Hideki) Matsui, and soon to the guys like Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte - and that's great, because it means that you have the right people here who understand what the Yankee pinstripes are all about."

During Downing's time in pinstripes (1961-69), the Yankees were at the tail end of a dynasty and in reality, a transition period; they won the World Series in 1961 and 1962 (years in which Downing was not on the postseason roster) and reached the Fall Classic in both 1963 and 1964, but from 1965-68 they finished no higher than fifth in the American League and, in the debut of divisional play in 1969, placed fifth out of six teams in the AL East.

Whether worst or first, though, Downing knows the Yankee legacy is about more than just the total in the win column.

"It's not so much about the success, it's about the striving for that success, so you know you have to uphold that legacy," he said. "These guys before us won a lot, so you know that you have to win a lot. Being ordinary is not acceptable."

There's one current Yankee (and sadly, soon-to-be "Old-Timer") that exemplifies that, and Downing believes that the Captain, Derek Jeter, even transcends baseball in that realm.

"You have to go beyond the team and ask what Jeter has meant to baseball, and what he has meant to Americana," Downing said. "When we think about Derek Jeter, you wonder who in our lifetimes has gone beyond baseball to be talked about like that. Babe Ruth, and that's about it."

To Downing, as with many others, it's the Captain's never-say-die attitude and class in any situation that makes him so special, at least on the field.

"Derek embodies character and playing to the greatest of his ability at the highest level he can play, and nothing kept him out of the lineup," Downing said. "As a competitor, you see that smirk he has, and it's like he's feeling that 'I've got you where I want you, and I'm gonna beat you.'"

That said, though, Downing wouldn't classify Jeter as the greatest shortstop ever - and not because of anything related in the slightest to baseball ability.

"I don't qualify talent, I qualify the person, and as a person, he would've been great no matter where he played," Downing said of Jeter. "To try to compare positions isn't fair because you play in different eras and situations; for instance, Derek never really played much on Astroturf. But, he's a very successful competitor and a highly competitive athlete - and one we were very lucky to have (in New York)."

Come 2015, Downing may get to stand alongside the soon-to-retire Jeter as an Old-Timer, but until then, as he says, he's going to "keep doing what people are supposed to be doing at my age!"

And whether he's standing on the field next June with one or more of the Core Four or just any four ex-Yankees in general, Downing will for sure be back, because to him, there's no better feeling.

"Putting on the pinstripes again is great; it's like having a cashmere coat, suede shoes, and a fedora hat…uptown, Jack!"

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