Saturday, October 17, 1998
NEW YORK–As ace Yankees relief pitcher Mariano Rivera punched out the final Cleveland batter last week, tears welled up in Fred Bengis’ eyes.
“Are you OK?” Terry, his wife, asked.
“I’m just happy,” he said.
And as Yankees jumped in joy, an image of James D’Angelo, the 14-year-old honorary bat boy during the league championship series against Cleveland, flitted across their television set, and Terry turned to her husband:
“If you could say anything to that kid right now, what would you tell him?”
Bengis didn’t hesitate.
“I would tell him, ‘Kid, this is the very best time of your life. You should really take it all in and enjoy it.”‘
Bengis should know. His entry into the Yankee family began as a 14-year-old bat boy with the legendary Yankee team of 1960. He would stay through the ’61 and ’62 World Series-winning teams.
“The years that I was with the Yankees were, beside being with my family, the most exciting years of my entire life,” Bengis said.
He is 54 years old now, a resident of Yorktown Heights in Westchester County and a national accounts manager for a Maryland-based microbrewery. But those teenage days are as vivid today as when he worked with Yankee greats like Roger Maris, Whitey Ford and Tony Kubek.
The pinstripes, he said, feel like part of his skin, and putting on the uniform today still brings back memories of the first time as a 14-year-old.
Bengis grew up in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, on Morris Ave. about 10 blocks away, and idolized Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth. So, when Lou Zaklin, a scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates, opened Lou’s Sports Store on 170th St. and Grand Concourse Bengis started frequenting the store. Pretty soon, he got a job as a stock boy.
Zaklin found out from his friend Pete Sheehy, the long-time Yankees clubhouse man, that the Yankees needed a bat boy during the 1960 season. He sent young Bengis along for an interview.
“It was unbelievable,” Bengis said. “When he told me he was going to hire me, I started to cry. My father had tears in his eyes.”
Headier days were to come: Being tongue-tied on first meeting Mickey Mantle; traveling on the road with the team, and becoming a celebrity in his own right. He appeared on television shows and was profiled in Sports Illustrated.
The best part was befriending Maris, he said.
“I just had a lot of fun with him, and I respected him very very much,” Bengis said. “I liked the idea that he was a major-league ballplayer, but he was a down-to-earth, real nice human being who had deep feelings for people. He appreciated my nervousness, and he helped me.”
(c) 1998, New York Daily News.