Vincent & Bernie Williams
The Journal News – Sunday, April 11, 2010

Journal News Columnist

Baseball legend honors late fan’s devotion

To the family of Suffern High School baseball player Vincent Crotty, the presence of Bernie Williams at the team’s game Thursday seemed like the response to a letter written, but never delivered, the fulfillment of their son’s devotion to his idol and his brother’s love.

In fact, the former Yankees centerfielder was there when Suffern High School honored Crotty and teammate Chris Konkowski, who died together in a March 30 crash on their way to practice, because of a Crotty family friend. His efforts made Williams aware of the tragedy and of Vinny Crotty’s devotion to the player he met as a young boy and who kept finding his way into the Crottys’ lives.

Vincent’s parents, Peter and Jean Crotty, and his brother Sean shared the story leading up to what they say would have been the best day in Vincent’s life – having his idol at one of his games.

It started when Vincent was just 4 and his dad took him to a Yankees night game. Pete Crotty waited, his son on his shoulders, while players streamed past after the game, heading to their cars.

Bernie Williams, he says, was the last to emerge, but after being surrounded by fans, he, too, walked off to his Lincoln Navigator.

“A police officer – I think his name was Torres – saw that Vincent was upset that he hadn’t gotten to meet a player,” Crotty says. “He told me to put him down and took Vincent by the hand and walked him down to Williams’ car, motioning for me to stay where I was.”

When the officer tapped on the window, Bernie Williams got out of his car, took the Yankees hat from Vincent’s head and used the officer’s pen to sign it. He played with Vincent for a minute before the officer walked the young boy back to his dad.

The Crottys never forgot the act of kindness by the officer and Williams. That moment stuck with their son for the rest of his life.

It was fueled when Vincent was about 10 and he and Sean attended a baseball clinic at Yankee Stadium. The family won a door prize that turned out to be an autographed Bernie Williams No. 51 jersey. Once framed, it became a centerpiece of a growing collection of posters, photos and other Williams memorabilia that fills Vinny Crotty’s room.

Now, mom Jean Crotty says of her son’s room, “He created his own little shrine for us to visit.”

Family, friends and even salespeople the Crotty’s dealt with came to understand Vincent’s obsession with Williams and his No. 51, which Crotty would wear on his uniforms whenever he got to pick his own number.

Even a salesman at the Thomas Kincaid Gallery in Paramus knew about it, and when Kincaid painted Yankee Stadium, the salesman put aside number 51 in the limited series of 385 prints. It hangs now in the Crotty home.

That little boy’s Yankees hat grew into a centerpiece display, too, along with a batting glove Vinny caught several years back when Bernie Williams tossed it into the stands. When a friend caught a Nike wristband Williams tossed at another game, he gave it to Vinny, who added it to the glass-faced shadow box.

As Vincent Crotty’s room filled with more and more Bernie Williams items – and some from his favorite Cincinnati Bengals – he became so focused on the number 51 that he even saved dozens of little number tabs from delis and bagel stores, sometimes pulling off a few tabs so he could be customer 51.

Suffern retired Crotty’s No. 19 and Chris Konkowski’s No. 7, which they had been assigned. Their travel teams, the OTB Pirates and the Suffern Blue Devils, are retiring Konkowski’s 7 and Crotty’s chosen 51.

Back on March 13, for a school assignment to write to a famous person, Sean Crotty wrote a letter to Williams, recounting that chance meeting when Vincent was 4 and asking for an autograph for his brother.

“Vin is going off to college this year,” Sean Crotty wrote. “I would love to give him a gift from you before he goes.”

Williams never got the letter. It came back undelivered because of a problem with the address. Pete Crotty found it in their mailbox Wednesday, when they got home from Chris Konkowski’s funeral.

That night, Peter Crotty learned that Joe Marino of Ridgewood, N.J. – a friend he had mentored in the insurance business but hadn’t seen in years – had worked for two days to get in touch with Bernie Williams’ representatives.

Thursday, Williams met with Suffern players and the Konkowski and Crotty families, took part in the pre-game ceremony and spent three innings in the Suffern dugout.

He later visited the Crotty home for 45 minutes, stepping into Vincent’s room, finding himself surrounded by a fan’s love.

Williams was touched, Pete Crotty says, by that 4-year-old’s Yankees hat and especially by all those deli numbers on the slide that pulls out from Vinny’s nightstand.

Before he left, Williams autographed a Vinny Crotty No. 19 jersey, inscribing it “To Vinny, God Bless.” It will soon be framed and take a spot next to Williams’ No. 51 jersey – just where Vinny Crotty would have wanted it.

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