We were on the field at Yankee Stadium in June, 1986. It was before the game and Governor Mario Cuomo was hanging around the batting cage, a bat over his shoulder and a Yankee hat on his head…a real one, not some cloth thing with adjustable bands. This one was fine wool, the bright interlocking NY on the front and he looked like it belonged on him. A former minor league ballplayer, the Governor was in his element, despite wearing a dark suit and slick city shoes on the hallowed grass of the old Stadium.
I was there as one of his employees, working for the Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee, the director of some TV spots that were being shot for a program called Athletes Against Drunk Driving. We had collared some real Yankees and the Governor was to shoot a couple of spots with them. I remember Dennis Rassmussen, a good but not great Yankee pitcher (91-77, 4.15 ERA in 13 major league seasons) on some good but not great Yankee teams, was in the spot…can’t quite remember who else, but not the big stars. Still, there we were, on the sacred ground.
I walked over to get the Governor and escorted him over to where we had the cameras set up in front of the Yankee dugout. As we got adjusted, I reached up and took the Yankee hat off of his head. You can’t wear that in the spot, I told him.
He kidded with the pitcher, and though we had painstakingly written out the script on cue cards, the Governor naturally ignored them and said things his own way, making a 30 second spot sound like a prayer, like a perfectly formed speech with a beginning, middle and an end. He did two more like that.
There have been many eulogies of Mario Cuomo since his passing. He was revered when he first came to office in 1982, and especially after his magnificent speech at the 1984 Democratic convention. And he was reviled by 1994, especially upstate, where I coordinated his campaign here in Ulster County and he was drubbed locally (my political acumen notwithstanding) getting only around 30 percent of the vote. It ran the gamut.
Some will say he accomplished little, had a tough time passing budgets, was saddled with terrible economic times, couldn’t decide whether to run for president, etc.
But the man stood for something.
“We speak for the minorities who have not yet entered the mainstream,” he said in that 1984 speech. “We speak for ethnics who want to add their culture to the magnificent mosaic that is America….We speak for women who are indignant that this nation refuses to etch into its governmental commandments the simple rule ‘thou shalt not sin against equality…’ We speak for young people demanding an education and a future…We speak for senior citizens who are terrorized by the idea that their only security, their Social Security, is being threatened. We speak for millions of reasoning people fighting to preserve our environment from greed and from stupidity…”
He spoke to me that day, and he spoke for me, many times.
I held his Yankee hat in my hand all the rest of that day and left Yankee Stadium carrying it. I still have it at home, put it on my head every now and then (it’s a tad small for me) and remember that day and the man.
If I could have attended his funeral this week, I would have given it back.