There is no sports organization that has a history as rich as the New York Yankees and there is no day that embraces the legacy of the Yankees as much as Old Timers Day. Each year, thousands of Yankees fans of all ages gather to watch their favorite all-time players compete in an exhibition game. For fans like myself who grew up in the 90’s, seeing favorites like Bernie Williams, Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez and David Cone is well worth the price of admission. For the older generation of fans, seeing Yogi Berra and Don Larsen wear their pinstripes each and every season brings back such unbelievable memories of years past. For two plus hours every season, the Bronx faithful stand, chant and applaud their heroes and honor them in a manner that only Yankee fans are capable. Yesterday was especially memorable for a little known Yankee who played on the team for less than a full season. Though he didn’t receive the greatest ovation of the day, Aaron Small had to overcome the greatest of all obstacles to find his way into Yankee Stadium yesterday.
Most casual Yankee fans probably don’t know very much about Aaron Small. He was a pitcher who spent half of his career in the minors, as he appeared in only 172 games tossing 321 innings in his entire career. The list of teams he played for includes the Blue Jays, Marlins, Athletics, Diamondbacks, Braves and last but not least, the Yankees. Primarily used as a middle reliever for the majority of his career, Small didn’t appear in any major league games from 1998 until 2003, except for 1 inning pitched for Atlanta in 2002. However, Small never lost hope in his ability, worked hard and eventually in 2005, he found himself in the right place at the right time.
Due to injuries to the Yankee rotation, Small was called up from the minors and asked to fill in while their proven pitchers were rehabbing. Small turned one successful sport start into a regular rotation spot and didn’t look back. He came on to go 10-0 and was one of, if not the main reason the Yankees were able to win their division and make a postseason appearance. He finished the 2005 season at 10-0 with a 3.20 ERA. The next year the Yanks brought him back and gave him a role in the bullpen, but after a tough 0-3 start with a 8.46 ERA, the Yankees realized they caught lightning in a bottle the year before and Small’s big league career came to an end.
Although Small’s performance in 2005 was quite remarkable, it does not even compare to the challenge he overcame this calendar year. Small was at his home on Saturday, June 5th when his wife found him in the bedroom with a towel over his head. Small complained about not feeling well and said he’d shower and go to sleep. The next morning, Small’s condition worsened and his wife called 911. The Small family and EMT personnel has to wrestle and sedate Aaron to get him into the ambulance, as Aaron describes the situation by saying “they said I was wild, like a wounded animal.” Eventually Small was taken to a Tennessee hospital where he fell into a medically induced coma.
After tests were run, Small was diagnosed with encephalitis, a virus which causes swelling and inflammation in the brain. He woke up out of the coma, looked around the hospital room and asked “what am I doing here?” As a result of the virus, Small lost the ability to walk as well as perform all other motor skills. Breathing was a struggle and he was unable to talk due to a tube that was placed in his throat. Recovery involved him using a walker, feeding tubes and vocal chord exercises. Small lost 23 pounds while in the hospital. In case you missed it earlier, this all happened to Aaron Small on June 5th, about 4 weeks ago. The man who pitched the Yankees to the 2005 postseason lost all bodily abilities in a matter of minutes.
However, as June crept by, Small began recovering slowly but surely. The vocal training began to bring his voice back, feeding tubes were removed and he began physical therapy and gain usage of all his motor skills. He was originally planning on playing in yesterday’s Old Timers Day at Yankee Stadium, but as a result of the illness, he was forced to modify his plans. His new goal was to walk out under his own power. In doing so yesterday, Small demonstrated the same work ethic and self-belief that allowed a career minor leaguer to go 10-0 in the heat of a pennant race. Though Aaron Small didn’t hit any clutch home runs, win any World Series or play long enough to leave any long legacy in Yankee lore, he deserved the loudest of all ovations yesterday. In the past 4 weeks he has shown more determination than any of us can even fathom and I have a feeling that next year we will likely see Aaron Small take the mound on Old Timers Day. Personally, I can’t wait to go to the Stadium to pay my respects to a legend. A legend who has earned that title in many ways that are unrelated to baseball.