Man who replaced Munson certain Cardinals will go onPosted: Sunday June 23, 2002 2:46 PM
Updated: Tuesday June 25, 2002 4:43 PM
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Jerry Narron could imagine how Jason Simontacchi must've felt as he prepared to pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday night.
The grief. The sense of loss. The same I'd-rather-be-any place-in-the-world-but-here sensation in the pit of his stomach.
Just as Simontacchi was to take the mound as the Cardinals' starter on the day after Darryl Kile died, Narron took over for the late Thurman Munson the day after the star Yankees catcher died in 1979.
Even 23 years later, Narron -- now the Texas Rangers' manager -- finds it difficult to talk about one of the most gut-wrenching moments in his eight-year playing career -- and, as it would turn out, his only season with the Yankees.
"Thurman was a leader on our club," Narron said before Sunday's game against Pittsburgh. "Everybody looked up to him and everybody was close to him. It was like losing somebody in your family."
Munson, a former AL Most Valuable Player and one of the game's biggest stars at the time, was killed on an off-day while piloting a private jet he had recently purchased.
Narron, then a 23-year-old rookie catcher, remembers where he was when he heard the news and, no doubt, the uneasiness he surely felt when he realized he would replace Munson in the Yankees' lineup the following day.
Narron had caught the five games leading up to the Aug. 2, 1979, accident as Munson, who had a succession of injuries including a sore knee, either played first base or was the designated hitter.
But Munson, in the eyes of the fans, still was the Yankees' catcher. So when the team ran onto the diamond at Yankee Stadium to play the Baltimore Orioles on Friday, Aug. 3, Narron did not immediately take the field.
Instead, during a moment of silence that stretched into eight long and increasingly loud minutes, he stood on the dugout steps, the spot he normally would occupy behind the plate left vacant in an unannounced tribute to Munson.
Narron was told the moment of silence would be brief but, as fans broke into an ovation that grew louder and louder, he recalls it felt more like 15 or 20 minutes.
As Narron talked Sunday, tears welled in his eyes, his voice grew emotional and he paused between words.
"Any time you're on a ballclub for an entire season, it's a very close-knit family and when you lose somebody in the family, it's a huge tragedy," Narron said. "But as a professional, you've got to go out and do your job."
On Aug. 1, Munson's last game with the Yankees, Narron homered, and the rookie had several multihit games earlier in the week. But on the night he will always be remembered for -- the night he replaced Munson -- Narron struck out in his only two at-bats in a 1-0 loss to Baltimore decided by John Lowenstein's homer off Luis Tiant.
"It's tough for everybody, when you lose a teammate that you're close to," Narron said. "It's not easy. You just have to go on with your job and you just can't stop time."
The Yankees, who would go on to lose to division race to Baltimore, followed the wishes of Munson's wife, Diane, by taking the field that night.
An equally emotional night for the Yankees was Aug. 6, the day they attended Munson's funeral in Canton. When they made it to Yankee Stadium in the late afternoon, Bobby Murcer did not feel like playing, but would go on to drive in four runs, including the game-winner, in a 5-4 victory over Baltimore.
Narron is certain the division-leading Cardinals also will overcome all the emotions and feelings swirling about them and keep playing well.
"I really believe the players the Cardinals have, with the leadership of Tony La Russa being there, these guys will get through it. But it won't be easy, there's no question about it," he said.
"Right now, as professionals, they're going to have to stay focused and put things in perspective and just do their jobs. It's very hard ... but it's part of life's turning and you go on."