When Gerald Watkins of Birmingham, Ala., and his wife, Sandy, attended a charity auction two summers ago, one item up for bid grabbed his wife’s attention. It was a chance to play in the annual New York Yankees Legends Game alongside the likes of Reggie Jackson, Don Larsen, Bucky Dent, and other renowned former Yankees.
She wanted to win it for Gerald, and with family and friends cheering her on, she did. A lifelong fan of the game and its history, Gerald says he practically taught himself to read studying the pages of Sports Illustrated—making this opportunity like a dream come true. “It was the greatest gift I’ve ever received,” he says.
Using Baseball to Do Good
Even beyond the chance to become a Yankee for a day, another aspect of the Legends Game made it special for Gerald. Set for June 21 just outside Scranton, Pa., the event, in which retired players would divide into two teams and play each other, was being held in honor of Brian Doyle—a former Yankee and member of the 1978 World Series Championship team who had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. A portion of the proceeds—about $40,000 in all—would benefit the National Parkinson’s Foundation and the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.
Though he had not been involved in Parkinson’s fundraising specifically, the significance for Gerald is that he has a long history of parlaying his love of baseball into a way of helping others. For the past 15 years, he has served on the local board for the American Baseball Foundation, which promotes research into the causes and prevention of sports-related injuries, holds after school and summer programs for under-served children, and provides an annual college scholarship. Under the leadership of renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews, the foundation holds an annual fundraising banquet for which Gerald has been instrumental in recruiting famous baseball players to appear, speak, and sign autographs. “My association with the foundation has been very rewarding,” he explains. “The baseball side of it is great, but it is a wonderful feeling to see the positive effect we can have on children’s lives.”
Gerald also serves as chairman of the board of Friends of Rickwood, a group dedicated to the preservation of Rickwood Field, the nation’s oldest professional ballpark still in use today. One of their major fundraisers is the annual Rickwood Classic, in which the Birmingham Barons return to the historic ballpark to play one of their games and celebrate Rickwood’s rich history. In the last two years alone, Gerald has played a key role in bringing former Mets and Yankees stars, Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, to appear at the Classic. “My time with them was special in that they were humble and respectful of everyone,” he remembers. “They signed tons of autographs, posed for pictures, and genuinely seemed to enjoy their time here.”
Meeting More Legends—Now on Their Turf
The Rickwood Classic was on May 27, and less than a month later it was Gerald’s turn to be on the receiving end of some baseball hospitality at the Yankees Legends Game. The game was held on Father’s Day weekend, so he brought along his 22-year-old son, Jack, to make it even more memorable.
On June 21, he arrived at the stadium near Scranton at 11 a.m. as instructed and was directed to the locker room where he received a full uniform and found a locker with his name on it—right next to Reggie Jackson’s.
Then Gerald set out to introduce himself and shake hands with the sports greats who were to be his teammates for the day. “The room was filled with baseball cards come to life,” he says. “There were probably 30 to 40 former Yankees there.”
One was fellow Alabamian Oscar Gamble; Gerald had helped spearhead the successful lobby for his upcoming induction into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. “Oscar and I are friends, and he made sure that I met everybody. He even made sure my son was allowed back into the locker room to meet the players, too.” Gerald says. Overall, Gerald was moved by the players’ graciousness in welcoming him as one of their own.
After lunch with the team, Gerald stood with his teammates for the National Anthem before being directed to left field, where—in front of some 9,000 fans—he caught two fly balls. He also batted three times and got one hit. “When I got my hit, my teammates called a time-out and had the game ball tossed aside for me to keep,” he remembers. To top it all off, Gerald’s team won, 8-2.
A Gift That Comes Full Circle
“I made new connections with many of the players, including getting contact information,” he notes. “This will surely help with bringing in players for future events.”
Though the game itself was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Gerald, he says he won’t be shy about using his new contacts in the future as he continues his work enticing big-name players to come and support worthy causes back home. It will also give them something novel to chat about. “Being part of this game honoring Brian Doyle and benefiting the National Parkinson’s Foundation was such a great experience that I could talk about it for days. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
Gerald Watkins is an associate of Regions.