Matthew "Pop" Shortell meets sluger Dave Winfield.
I cover schools, but every once in a while I get to work baseball into my job — and it creates memories of a lifetime.
I was working for the Bridgeport Post in Connecticut back in 1987, and a local man, Matthew "Pop" Shortell, was named "Sports Nut of the Year" by a nut company.
Shortell was one of those people you seem to only find in small town America. A lovable, large older man from blue-collar Ansonia, he seemed to be the referee at every high school football and basketball game, and was famous for yelling out the name of the pitcher and catcher at the start of every youth baseball game he umpired.
He also was famous for his devotion to the New York Yankees. And after hearing about the nut company’s promotion, the team invited Shortell to Yankee Stadium.
My colleague and buddy, Rich Nangle, was going to cover the event, and I was able to tag along, ostensibly as the photographer. Shortell is a nice guy and all, but we were thrilled because this was an opportunity to attend a game for free, run around the stadium with our press passes and sit up in the press box.
Before the game, the Yankees public relations manager led Shortell — with us in tow — to the corridor outside the Yankees clubhouse, which is off limits to anyone except the media and sick children.
The staffer ducked into the clubhouse, and walked out with star pitcher Ron Guidry, who came over, thrilled Shortell with some small talk and posed for a photo.
"Pop" Shortell meets Ron Guidry.
The staffer went back into the clubhouse and came back with reliever Dave Righetti, who, like the Gator, was very pleasant and Shortell was beside himself that these guys would take a couple minutes to meet him — not realizing that they probably do this kind of thing a couple times a week.
Dave Raghetti can't bare to watch.
The staffer said, "Hold on, let me see if I can get one more guy" and headed back into the clubhouse. This was already pretty impressive, since Raghetti and Guidry were two of the team's biggest stars. It took a couple minutes and we wondered what was happening.
The clubhouse door slammed open, startling everyone. We heard a booming voice. "WHERE IS SHORTELL? I WANT TO MEET POP SHORTELL RIGHT NOW!"
Future Hall-of-Famer Dave Winfield turned into the tunnel swinging a bat, and compared to Guidry, was HUGE. He walked up to the old guy, gave him a bear hug and told him how glad he was to meet him.
"Pop" was near tears, showed Winfield photos of his late wife and daughter — he had 11 kids — in his wallet and had the time of his life.
I was impressed. Winfield easily could have done what Rags and Gator did -- both of whom where friendly, respectful and polite -- and everyone still would have walked away very happy. Instead, he put on a major show for the guy and made him feel very special -- pretty much rewarding him for a lifetime of fandom.
Once that was over, we made our way up to the press box. Located behind home plate, the box has several rows of seats behind narrow desks with telephones and places for reporters to plug in their computers, which was pretty complicated at the time. There were staff members on hand to look up stats and other materials reporters might need and a guy walked through with a food cart occasionally.
Seemed like kind of a cushy gig. I covered schools and Rich covered city governments. No one ran to answer our questions or walked past with a snack cart.
We were enjoying being around the big New York sportswriters and tried now to look like we belonged there.
Yankee Stadium actually has two press boxes. One is for the established local reporters and media from out of town. The other, called the auxiliary box, is smaller and separated by the radio and television broadcast booths. It’s for the smaller media types and people who don’t normally cover games — like us.
Somehow, we were assigned seats in the main press box and were very happy to see the reporter from our competition, the Ansonia Sentinel, in the auxiliary box.
About halfway through the game, the Sentinel reporter came over and said "You guys are missing out. We’re having fun over there."
"Ah, no. We’re in the main box," I said. "Maybe we can get you a hot dog."
"We have Nixon sitting with us," he said.
We jumped out of our seats and walked quickly along the narrow hallway that ran behind the press boxes. Next to the auxiliary box there was a small section of seats separated from the press boxes by a thick glass wall — a VIP section for sure.
And sure enough, there sat the 37th President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon. I sat there in awe. We went to the main box, picked up our stuff and moved to where we could keep and eye on the president.
All this while, Rich was working on his story and it was time to dictate it to the editors in Bridgeport. He picked a phone in the last row and started talking while I leaned against the wall of the hallway. The glass wall between the VIP box and ours ended at the hallway, and there was only a velvet rope and guard to keep people out.
I noticed Nixon get out of his seat with an empty glass, walk up the aisle into a room, presumably to get it refreshed.
He appeared again shortly. We made eye contact and I held up my hand and gestured that I would like to shake his. Much to my great glee, the president walked my way, reached out and took my hand. I remember that he looked shorter and grayer than I imagined.
I was completely star struck. "Mr. President, it’s an honor to meet you."
"Great night for a ballgame, isn’t it," he responded.
Rich, who was about three feet away dictating, dropped the phone and joined us.
I had seen Ronald Reagan from a distance three years earlier, but this was the first time I had ever shaken the hand of a president. It lasted just a few moments, but I’ll never forget it.I don’t know who enjoyed the night more, Pop Shortell or me.