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Yeah, I would definitely have to say that throwing out the first pitch and kicking back in the Yankees’ farm team’s dugout pre-game was the highlight of my 31st birthday weekend.

Disclaimer: my birthday weekends almost always involve the Yankees. Ironically, the most memorable was the year people seem to forget the most: 21. I hit legal drinking age on June 6, 2006. The Yankees hosted the Red Sox at the old Stadium and I had bleacher seats, which provided a great view when Melky Cabrera robbed Manny Ramirez of a home run. The Yanks went on to win.

Actually, I can’t ever remember my team losing on my birthday or on the game I attended nearest to the date. For number 30 last year, I watched with friends and family in the Bronx as the Yankees beat the Angels. Coincidentally the exact same thing happened this year on June 6 but because my birthday fell on a Monday I didn’t attend; I do have a job after all.

That’s what led me to celebrate on Saturday, and with the Yanks in Baltimore for a three-game series, I took a bus to Scranton, Penn. My radio show airs in Northeastern Pennsylvania, and thus it made perfect sense for me to make an appearance at PNC Field and throw out the first pitch before the Scranton/Wilkes Barre RailRiders hosted the Columbus Clippers.

PNC Field is only a couple of years old and is absolutely gorgeous. There are great seats throughout the park, a club and suite level, a solid selection of concessions and even a lawn area similar to what you would see at an outdoor concert venue. Pre-game festivities include giveaways and a live band, and the in-game experience is a lot of fun.

It also doesn’t hurt that the RailRiders have a bunch of solid prospects and familiar faces on its squad, from 2009 World Series champion Nick Swisher to promising outfielder Aaron Judge.

Another great thing about the RailRiders: its management is making a conscious effort to link the rich history of the Yankees to its Triple-A franchise. This year, the minor league team is staging a “Legends Series,” where past Yankees come to the park and sign autographs. And on Saturday, former Yankee greats Bucky Dent, Chris Chambliss and Roy White were all in attendance.

Yeah, I wasn’t just happy to be there, I was pretty excited.

The RailRiders marketing staff, which by the way could not have been more accommodating, brought me down to the field around 3:20. A little over 10 minutes later, the PA announcer addressed the audience.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we direct your attention to the pitcher’s mound for today’s ceremonial first pitches,” he echoed throughout the ballpark. “First up, Ralphie from 97.1 BHT!”

And with that, I slipped my phone in my back pocket, gave a quick wave to the crowd and fired a strike to Barry, Director of Game Entertainment.

Little did I know, the fun was just getting started.

As a group of little leaguers began to proceed around the warning track, the marketing staff was kind enough to allow me to sit in the dugout for pregame ceremonies.

This led to me sitting in on the manager’s spot of the bench, right next to the bullpen phone, while chewing Double Bubble with Dent, Chambliss and White, who were also there waiting to throw their first pitches.

I clearly had the look of someone turning 11, not 31, based on one RailRiders staffer saying, “You’re having the time of your life, huh?” I replied that I loved baseball and was a diehard Yankees fan. “Well, you get to do all of the cool entertainment stuff. We have the sports.”

And on the weekend before my birthday, I felt pretty fortunate that I sometimes get to experience both.

Considering this story won’t really resonate with most of my loyal readers, I’ll attempt to keep it brief. However, the following exchange affected me so profoundly that I’d be remiss not to share.

Reggie Jackson is known in baseball as “Mr. October” for his clutch play in the most important month of the baseball season. He once hit three home runs in a World Series game… on three consecutive pitches. ESPN even made a mini-series about that team, the 1977 New York Yankees, entitled, “The Bronx Is Burning.”

Last Saturday, I traveled to the swamps of Secaucus, NJ for “Yanks For The Memories.” The event featured mostly former and a few current Yankees baseball players, and for nominal fees, you could meet the stars and obtain autographs and inscriptions on pre-purchased items. I went essentially to meet Jackson, who I look up to as a professional, although I also paid to meet Bucky Dent, Mel Stottlemyre, and David Wells.

I arrived at the event with about an hour left in the Jackson autograph session. My friends, including Cousin Tony, already met the Hall of Famer – and warned me about his terrible demeanor, especially compared with the other Yankees players. Nonetheless, I was unfazed, as I’m used to dealing with these types of people on a daily basis.

Fast forward to meeting Jackson. I wanted him to sign “The Straw That Stirs The Drink” underneath his famous cursive autograph. The quote was allegedly misattributed to him by a reporter in the late 70’s – although two sources lay the statement to Jackson at one point or another. The phrase, no pun intended, stirred up a controversy amongst the team, which though of it as overzealous.

Jackson refused to sign “The Straw That Stirs The Drink” or “The Bronx Is Burning” on the photo.

“I don’t want to be associated with that stuff,” the Hall of Famer told me. “A lot of people come up to me and say that they loved The Bronx Is Burning. But I was embaressed by it.”
He eventually relented to offering me two inscriptions for the price of one. So the photo reads: “To Ralph – Reggie Jackson, #44 – Mr. October.”

I offered up the original requests for two reasons: “The Straw That Stirs The Drink” is a quote I live my career by. Who doesn’t want to be “the man”… “the go-to-guy”… “Mr. Clutch”? 

Second, I wanted my autograph to be different, unique – something that carried more than just a monetary value.

But at the end of the day, Jackson satisfied my second reason. Now whenever I look back on the photo and experience, I’ll think about the man that I thought epitomized “swagger” – and how it was all manifested by the media.