Yankees pay tribute to Hunter

NEW YORK -- Looking down at a black armband around his left sleeve, New York Yankees coach Chris Chambliss spoke fondly Friday of the last time he saw his friend and former teammate, Catfish Hunter.

"Mostly, he talked about the old times," Chambliss recalled of the March visit in spring training. "About the years we played, the World Series we played in.

"He still had his sense of humor. He always had that," Chambliss said. "But it was difficult. He was a man who was losing strength in the very arm that won so many games."

Diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease last September, Hunter died Thursday at home in Hertford, N.C. The Hall of Fame pitcher who helped the Yankees win championships in 1977 and 1978 was 53.

"We knew it was coming, eventually," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "But we didn't expect it so soon."

The Yankees paid tribute to Hunter in several ways. There was a moment of silence before New York played Boston, with public-address announcer Bob Sheppard telling the sellout crowd, "Jim Hunter was more than a Hall of Fame pitcher. He was a Hall of Fame human being."

Black armbands were placed on the uniforms, right below the "5" that honors Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio, who also died this year. Flags at the ballpark were flown at half-staff, and the marquee outside Yankee Stadium read "Catfish Hunter, 1946-1999."

Prior to the first pitch, highlights of Hunter's career were shown on the video scoreboard. Chambliss and coach Willie Randolph, who also played with Hunter, applauded from the top step of the dugout.

As of Thursday, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner planned to attend the funeral Sunday in Hertford.

The AL East-leading Yankees have been beset by illness and death while trying to defend their World Series championship. Torre underwent surgery for prostate cancer during spring training and outfielder Darryl Strawberry spent time recovering from colon cancer.

"Sometimes, a lot of these things make the team come together stronger," Chambliss said. "The club has overcome a lot of tragedies in that way."

Hunter pitched for the Yankees from 1975-79, joining the club after leading Oakland to three straight World Series titles.

When Torre took over as manager in 1996, Hunter helped the team during spring training.

"He was there with Ron Guidry, and I named two of the intrasquad teams after them. It was Catfish versus Gator," Torre said.

Torre, who said he once popped up against Hunter in an All-Star game, also warmly remembered the former pitcher's visit this spring in Tampa, Fla.

"I think he made everybody feel comfortable around him," Torre said. "I think that was his goal -- not to have people feel uncomfortable because of his condition."

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