Yankees HOPE Week makes big splash

NEW YORK -- Most of the 46,132 people at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday will remember it as the day CC Sabathia struck out 14 Mariners and flirted with perfection.

I will remember it as the day I witnessed a world-class water balloon fight, and got to feel like a kid again.

For that, I owe a big thanks to my good pal Brendan, and to an organization called Tuesday's Children.

Tuesday's Children was founded in 2002, a year after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Its primary goal is to match children who lost a parent or other close relative that day with an adult mentor to spend time with and (hopefully) heal a little bit with.

Two-and-a-half years ago, I was paired up with Brendan, who was just 2 years old when he tragically lost his father at the World Trade Center on 9/11. He's a wonderful young man, and it has been such a pleasure getting to know him and developing a relationship with him the past couple of years.

Normally when we hang out, we'll go to the park to play basketball -- or he will embarrass me in the latest Nintendo Wii or Xbox 360 game he has picked up. But on Tuesday, we, along with several other Tuesday's Children pairs, got to participate in a very special event as part of the Yankees' third annual HOPE Week.

The day started with a surprise party at the South Street Seaport in lower Manhattan -- with special guests Mariano Rivera, Curtis Granderson, Phil Hughes, Luis Ayala, Cory Wade and Steve Garrison, along with former manager Joe Torre. The Yankees signed autographs, posed for the pictures with the kids and even engaged in a couple games of ping pong.

Then things really got interesting. After taking a big group photo that included all the Yankees and all the children, water balloons were distributed to everyone. Now, I had seen the buckets of water balloons earlier and (naturally?) assumed we were going to play a harmless game of water balloon toss -- you know, to see which pair could toss and catch the balloon the longest without breaking it?

Well, was I wrong. Suddenly the balloons were flying through the air at high speeds and in all directions -- kids hurling them at the players and vice versa. I stayed out of the fray, figuring the last thing I needed was to be known as the sports writer who sent a Yankees player to the disabled list with a flying water balloon. But I watched with glee the utter free-for-all that ensued.

Next thing I knew, Rivera was jokingly using a young girl as a shield, before getting drilled in the left shoulder from point-blank range. Hughes was sneaking up on a teammate, Wade, before dumping a bucket of ice water over his head. And Granderson was being chased in circles by a gaggle of screaming children.

You couldn't help but wonder, if the Yankees' trainers were here watching this, would they be laughing, or cringing? But trust me, it was hilarious.

"That was awesome," Brendan told me later. "I couldn't believe they were playing with us like that."

Next we took a water taxi ride, piloted by the Yankees' closer himself. (Just kidding -- but Rivera sounded as if he wanted to when he told the kids how they'd be traveling to the game. "I'll be the driver, the captain," Rivera said. "I can close this. Believe me.")

We sailed first down to the Statue of Liberty, then all the way up to Yankee Stadium. We were given a tour of Monument Park and the Yankees Museum. Then the kids were invited onto the field for pregame warm-ups and batting practice.

One of the drawbacks to being a professional sports writer is being on the field for batting practice isn't nearly as exciting as you might think it would be. Do it enough and it becomes old-hat, even boring; after a while, you lose your sense of awe and wonder. But on Tuesday I got to see the experience through fresh eyes, watching Brendan and his buddies racing from player to player to get their ball or hat signed.

And then I saw something I'd never seen before. When the Yankees moved to the outfield to do their pregame stretching, manager Joe Girardi brought the children along with them. Suddenly, the kids were side by side with the players, doing leg bends, running sprints and high-fiving them at the end of it all.

It was enough to make the most jaded sports writer a little misty-eyed.

At that point, the day was made, as far as I was concerned -- and I don't think I was alone. But we still had a baseball game to enjoy. The crew from Tuesday's Children settled into their seats in Section 122. The icing on the cake? We got to watch one of the most dominant pitching performances, over seven innings anyway, that you will ever see.

Yet, on the train ride home, as Brendan and I reminisced about the day and discussed our favorite moments, we weren't talking about Sabathia, despite how wonderfully he performed.

No, we were talking about flying water balloons.

It was ... well, it was almost perfect.