What ‘s your most memorable scene from a gangster film?
Don’t rock the boat.
Everyone was saying that in August 1974 – it was from one of the most popular songs that summer. I wanted more than anything to get called up and play for the New York Mets. I had 11 home runs, among the league leaders that year for AAA Tidewater, tops on my team. I felt I was ready. I didn’t speak up much that year, but when I was with my teammates, I would tell them how I felt, in the dugout, our small clubhouse, in the local bars of Norfolk, Va, where you could hear the song. Their response was always the same; you will get to New York very soon.
Don’t rock the boat.
The whole organization was having a tough season. The parent club had just come off an amazing 1973, coming within a game of the World Championship against the Oakland A’s. The next year, the bullpen was much worse, Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman had off seasons. Jon Matlack may have been the best pitcher in baseball, but the bullpen and batting order let him down again and again. The team was really out of the pennant race by the middle of August. Soon it would be time for them to call up players from Tidewater. I tried to be as patient as possible, but it wasn’t easy.
I arrived at Metropolitan Memorial Park in the early afternoon on August 27th, 1974. The ballpark was ideally located very close to the airport in Norfolk. This was the first thing on my mind right after my manager John Antonelli called me into his office.
“Benny, you’re in the starting lineup for the Mets tonight,” he said, “There’s a plane ticket waiting for you at the airport to Queens. Go right now.” It was calling it very close for an 8:05 game time in New York. No cell phones to call loved ones from the car to let them know what’s happening. No time to grab my glove & favorite bats. Only time to shake my kind manager’s hand and offer a sincere “Thank you.” Antonelli shook my hand and pointed to the door.
“Go now,” he smiled, “The game starts in four hours.”
* * * * * * *
It’s an old joke about the planes that pass over Shea Stadium. If you go to enough games, you’ll at see or hear a jet fly across the top of the park. I bet you never wondered about what the people see from their seats as they come in for a landing at La Guardia Airport, which is close to Shea. I looked down from my plane and I saw my dream coming true.
I was actually familiar with New York before my first game. I was born in a small town in Puerto Rico called Yauco, very close to Ponce, in 1951. My family moved to Queens when I was five to make a little more money and build a house back home. It took us five years, but we did it. Growing up in our new house in P.R., my Dad took me to the winter baseball games around Puerto Rico when he wasn’t working. All of my friends loved baseball as much as me, and they all had their favorite player, the same player.
Roberto Clemente was the hero of the entire island. Much has been written about what a wonderful person (and player) Clemente was, how he inspired so many young people. Yes, Clemente was “Momen,” Spanish for “The Great One,” but Frank Robinson was my true baseball idol.
Robinson played in the Winter Leagues every year when I was teenager. He also was one of the most respected managers in Puerto Rico baseball. I saw Robinson at many games I attended. I wanted to hit home runs just like him. I wanted to throw runners out like him. I wanted to play the game exactly like him.
* * * * * * *
I really think the greatest feeling in our world is that moment when you realize your dreams come true. As my plane touched down in Queens, it was like Christmas night in America – I felt so nervous because everything I wanted in life was about to be given to me. It’s a simple feeling but it’s very complicated, too. You’re being offered a chance that not everyone gets – what happens if you fail? What happens if this is only a cup of coffee rather than a lifetime of five-course meals in the big leagues? That’s what went through my mind as Luis Alicea (not the Cardinals player from the ‘80s), one of the men who worked in the Mets Public Relations department, yelled out my name as I made my way through the gate at La Guardia Airport. No more thoughts and what ifs. Now I had a job to do.
We arrived at Shea Stadium. This was my first time at the park. I stepped out of the car – I didn’t stop and stare, but I was a little intimidated by this monstrous building. Nothing like the Tidewater ballpark, much less the fields in Memphis or Visalia. As much as I tried, I couldn’t stop being nervous.
Walking into the clubhouse, I was greeted by the Mets Equipment Manager Herman, who gave me #18. Felix Millan, another Puerto Rican player, came up to me, greeted me with a smile and handshake, welcoming me to the club. In many ways, it was very much like every other clubhouse I had been a part of. A bunch of young guys (and some older ones) laughing, smoking, joking around with a bat or a ball in their hands. Oh, was it different, though.
When I first stepped into the dugout, I saw that I was batting sixth in the lineup. All through the minor leagues I batted cleanup or fifth, but who was I to complain? It was my first game in the majors. I never saw so many fans, even if the stadium was a little light. There were only maybe 20,000 people in their seats, but it might as well have been two million to me. The only problem I felt was that the two fans I loved the most weren’t at the game. I didn’t have a chance to call my mother and father in Puerto Rico and let them know I was going to the majors. The day didn’t feel perfect because they weren’t there. Sometimes, you need to take the good with the bad, I guess.
They say that fans in New York are very tough, and I would hear the boos as the Mets’ tough season continued into September, but they are fair fans and willing to give you a chance. As the stadium lights popped on, it was something I imagined the first night of a Broadway show would be like. The lights go up and there I was walking onto the green carpet for my Major League Baseball premiere.
In the bottom of the second inning, Wayne Garrett hit a small fly on the edge of the infield grass for the first out. Now it was my turn. I tried to be as professional as I could standing in the batter’s box and boy, was I nervous. Tom Griffin was on the mound. He was a well-respected pitcher, but I had waited for this moment my entire life. I wasn’t going up there to take a walk.
Griffin started me off with a hard fastball right over the plate. I swung and fouled it off down the right field line. It almost felt like he was challenging me to hit his best pitch. I stood in again and Griffin gave me his heat right down the middle again. Fouled it again down the right field line. The count was now 0-2. Yes, I was one strike away from whiffing in my first major league at-bat. Here’s the thing – sometimes fouling off pitches is good. Sometimes it gives you a chance to time his throws, to see the best pitches he has. Griffin once struck out 200 batters in a season. This was a major-league pitcher. A couple years in the minors I got a lot of walks, but I really wasn’t a guy known for working his way on base. I was a free swinger. Maybe if he threw me something low and away, I probably would have swung at that, too. I felt this was going to be different. Something told me he was looking to throw it by me. Like an old-time gunfighter and his right-hand man behind the plate showing everyone in town who was boss. This was a duel between Griffin, his catcher Milt May and me.
Griffin stared down at me from atop the mound, rubbing up the ball. I stepped out of the box, buying time with a practice swing. I looked away and into the crowd, making eye contact with the fans one by one, in their blue and orange caps, their hopeful faces anxiously waiting to see what kind of ballplayer Benny Ayala would be. I glanced at the catcher, who studied my every move to get an edge on what to throw. Was very humid in the ballpark that night; maybe he thought the sweat on my forehead was a sign of fear. Griffin wanted to strike me out – so did May. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s how I felt. I also felt I had him timed. I wasn’t thinking waste pitch. Griffin steps back on the rubber, waits for the sign from May. I have blocked out all the noise in the park now – just the three of us, the wise veteran, his smart catcher & me, the rookie.
Griffin nods, brings his arms to his chest – I hike the bat behind my head, just a little tighter to get extra speed off my swing. “I know I can get around on him,” I think to myself as the duel is about to continue. My eyes meet Griffin’s-
May sets the target with his glove.
I move higher in the batter’s box to catch up on his fastball because my guess is that’s what’s he's throwing.
Griffin winds up.
I finish my stance.
I hear nothing.
The pitch comes.
I swing at something white……
Home run. Felt it from the moment bat met ball.
I still ran as fast as I could down the line, but the crowd’s happy roar confirmed the good news as I rounded first base. I found out later the ball flew into the second deck on the left field side. I hit home runs before, many home runs, so it was no big deal in the moment. Once I got back into the dugout, the scoreboard flashed that I was the first New York Mets player to hit a home run in their first Major League at-bat. My new teammates were there waiting for me as I returned to the dugout, especially my new manager Yogi Berra with a face-wide smile.
It hit me once I sat on the bench. Griffin tried to throw me a high fastball; didn’t want to waste one outside but tried to blow it by me and take advantage of my hard swings. The pitch stayed low and I slammed it. Once I returned to left field for the top of the third inning, the fans in the stands cheered my arrival, like a hero who just defeated the town villain.
For tonight, the duel was mine.
We ended up winning the game 4-2. Griffin struck me out in my second at-bat, but I worked out a walk and scored in the eighth inning to give us some insurance. Inside the clubhouse, Felix was talking with me when one of the production assistants for WOR Channel 9 ran over to us.
“Benny, they want you on Kiner’s Korner right now,” the young man said quickly, in a rush. I looked up at Felix as if to say, “Can you help me with this?”
Felix laughed a little, then nodded his head and off we went to Kiner’s Korner.
Ralph Kiner had spent a lot of time with me down at St. Petersburg in the offseason instructional leagues working on my swing, so we knew each other well. This was an honor to be part of the talk show they aired after the game. During the interview, Ralph asked me about the home run. Felix came on as well to interpret my Spainsh. I was even more nervous than during the game. Trying to present my thoughts in my best English, I think I said “I saw something white.” Ralph and Felix thought that was funny. When I returned to the clubhouse, the first voice I heard was Tug McGraw’s, who was the starting pitcher of the game.
“Hey, Something White,” Tug called me, laughing the whole time. For the rest of the season, whenever my name was called, “Something White,” was said, too.
Even though my parents weren’t there to see my Home Run, my uncle was in attendance to cheer for me and I was still too shy to go out into New York City with my teammates and visit the bars and small discos that were starting to show up around town. Where my uncle took me was a little better. We ate at La Jueyera, a restaurant in Spanish Harlem. The scent of home-cooked rice, beans & platanos hit you like a 100-MPH heater to the face as you entered. I felt right at home.
Driving back over the Harlem River Drive later in the night to my hotel near LaGuardia Airport, I stared at the New York skyline, still amazed at my first day in the big leagues. The wonderful Mets fans, their cheers, their smiles, their clapping. It was one of the greatest nights of my life.
My time with the Mets was short and I never rocked the boat in the clubhouse, but for one magical night in New York, “yo sacudido la casa,” which in English means, “I rocked the house.”
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