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Yankee Doodle Dandy
Mark Bechtel
June 30, 2003
The Bronx Zoo's quirkiest character remains a kid at heart, sharing his wisdom with youngsters in his native Miami
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June 30, 2003

Yankee Doodle Dandy

The Bronx Zoo's quirkiest character remains a kid at heart, sharing his wisdom with youngsters in his native Miami

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The wild rumor was—as wild rumors often are—not true. After a 15-year major league career in which he hit .295 and stole 267 bases, Mickey Rivers did not become a professional bingo player. Nor did he become a professional jai alai pelotari, another rumor that made the rounds. Though if he had made either career choice, would anyone have been surprised?

The only seemingly safe bet was that Rivers would become a professional gambler. In his playing days he enjoyed making wagers on the ponies so much that in 1978 the New York Yankees removed the phones from their clubhouse so Rivers couldn't call in bets to the track. "I remember [pitcher] Ken Holtzman in the bullpen, and he'd tellMickey [who was playing centerfield] if he won or lost a race," says Sparky Lyle, a Yankees reliever from 1972 through '78 and now the manager of the Somerset Patriots of the Atlantic League. "If Mickey lost, he'd be in the outfield like this," says Lyle, trying to demonstrate a man lackadaisically pursuing a ball. "So we told Holtzie, 'Just tell him he won every day. That way he'll run all the fly balls down. Then, at the end of the game, we'll tell him he lost.' "

These days the 54-year-old Rivers, who retired from the majors in 1984, spends far less time playing the horses (or parlaying his money at the bingo hall or jai alai fronton) and much more time working with kids. He lives in his hometown of Miami, near his 14-year-old son, Jonathan, and his two sisters, Sandrell, 55, and Rena Young, 52. (Jonathan lives with his mother.) With Sandrell he has started the Mickey Rivers Outreach Program, which sends him all over the city talking to kids about competing in sports. He also helps coach a handful of youth baseball teams, one of which is the Carroll City Chiefs, made up of 13-and 14-year-olds from north Miami, many of whom have no idea that Rivers was the man who ignited the Yankees' teams of the late 1970s, the Bronx Zoo era.

Kids love Rivers for one reason. "Mickey was a kid at heart," says Lyle. "He still is." He's also as flaky as ever. Writer Roger Kahn observed of John Milton Rivers, "He may well be the only person named for John Milton who has never heard of John Milton." Actually, Rivers is named for his father, not the author of Paradise Lost. Though he has written a book that is scheduled to be published this summer called Ain't No Sense Worryin': The Wisdom of Mick (the Quick) Rivers, no one will confuse Milton and Mick. Milton once asked, "Who shall silence all the airs and madrigalls that whisper softness in chambers?" Rivers once asked, "What was the name of the dog on Rin Tin Tin?"

Then there was Rivers's description of his relationship with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and manager Billy Martin: "Me and George and Billy are two of a kind." One season he said his goals were "to hit .300, score a hundred runs and stay injury prone." The list of his malaprops is long, but Mick also displayed a quick wit. When Reggie Jackson boasted he had an IQ of 160, Rivers asked, "Out of what? A thousand?" Perhaps his most memorable witticism led to his book title. "Ain't no sense worrying about things you got no control over, 'cause if you got no control over them, ain't no sense worrying," he said in 1979. "And ain't no sense worrying about things you got control over, 'cause if you got control over them, ain't no sense worrying."

It's hard to argue with that. In fact, it's hard to argue with anything Rivers says, because getting a word in during a conversation with, him can be difficult. Lou Piniella, the Yankees' leftfielder from 1974 through '84 and now the manager of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, described Rivers's speech as "a funny way of speaking that made it hard to understand him, especially when he didn't want you to understand him."

In the Bronx Zoo no one was immune from ribbing. Before the 1978 season the Yankees signed relief ace Rich Gossage as a free agent despite the fact that Lyle, their closer, had won the Cy Young Award in '77. It was a combustible situation that was further fueled when Gossage gave up a game-winning homer to Richie Zisk of the Texas Rangers on Opening Day. A week later Gossage threw away a bunt, costing New York a game against the Toronto Blue Jays. In another game soon afterward Martin summoned Gossage from the bullpen. Gossage hopped into the bullpen cart only to find his path blocked by Rivers, who was standing in front of the cart with his hands in the air, yelling, "Don't bring him in! We want to win!"

Eventually the Yankees began to win, overcoming a 14-game deficit in July to catch the Boston Red Sox and force a one-game playoff. Rivers contributed that day, but he did so from the on-deck circle. Bucky Dent was at the plate in the seventh inning with two on and New York trailing 2-0. Dent had borrowed a bat from Rivers in the seventh, but it had been cracked in batting practice. Rivers noticed it when Dent fouled a pitch off his foot; when Dent walked toward the on-deck circle to receive treatment, Rivers had a batboy hand him another bat. "Next pitch..." Rivers says.

Dent's homer sent the Yankees on their way to their second straight World Series win, but in 1979 the club was broken up. Lyle was traded to Texas, and Rivers joined him midway through the season in another deal. He retired five years later but made a brief comeback in the Senior Professional Baseball Association in '90. He now makes a living at card shows and fantasy camps, and for several years he worked as a coach for the Yankees in spring training. But the only coaching he does now is in Miami.

After a Chiefs game in June, Rivers was holding court with his fellow coaches. He told the Gossage story, only in this version he threw his body in front of the cart like a dissident in front of a Chinese tank. The kids, meanwhile, were oblivious. You wanted to grab them and tell them to pay attention, that this was history, but they were too busy runing around and cracking wise. Then you realized they weren't disrespecting Rivers. They were paying him tribute. They'd turned their team into the Carroll City Zoo.