Saturday, April 4, 2009

Let the eagle soar: Challenger returns to Yankee Stadium

The bird is the word. After six years in the wilderness, Challenger the Eagle is making a triumphant return to Yankee Stadium. He will fly into the new ballpark before today's game.

In an exclusive interview with Subway Squawkers, American Eagle Foundation president Al Cecere told me he and Challenger are "very happy and pleased to return to Yankee Stadium after a nearly six-year layoff."

While the eagle was unavailable for comment, Cecere, his handler, said that he and the bird are "looking forward to an enthusiastic welcome by Yankee fans." He added, "we're going to raise a little American spirit."

Cecere continued, "we hope this will be the start of something big for the Yanks this year! Challenger will do his part if the Yanks do theirs."

Challenger, the only eagle in the world trained to free-fly into stadiums, used to be as much a part of Yankee pomp and circumstance as Yogi Berra and Ronan Tynan. But the bird hasn't gotten to soar in the the Bronx since the 2003 playoffs, when he flew a little too close to Derek Jeter for Yankee management's taste.

Coincidentally, or maybe not-so-coincidentally, the Yankees haven't been in the World Series since. So for the past few years, this Swan has been squawking to get the eagle back into circulation in Yankeeland. I even wrote an article for the New York Daily News last fall (see below) asking that Bomber management invite Challenger back for the old stadium's finale.

While the Yankees didn't bring the bird back for that event, the prodigal eagle is flying in today. I can't tell you how excited I am that Challenger is back! For once, something I crusaded for actually came to pass. Hooray!

I won't get to see the eagle's return live - I will be at Citi Field today with Squawker Jon - but I will tape today's game and watch it later.

In honor of Challenger's return, here is the original piece (this article was edited and shortened for publication) that I wrote in the eagle's defense last fall:

* * *

Eagle should land at Stadium again

This Yankee season has been for the birds, but now it's time for the Yankees to do something for one bird. Bring back Challenger!

The bald eagle has been animal non grata at Yankee Stadium ever since he swooped a little too close to Derek Jeter at the 2003 ALCS.

Despite the fact that the majestic eagle made dozens of free-flight appearances at the ballpark, most notably after 9/11, bird brains in Yankee management apparently banned Challenger after what his handler, Al Cecere of the American Eagle Foundation, called "one bad night."

The bald eagle hasn't been invited back to the stadium since that ill-fated evening, although the bird's handler says that he "would love to" have Challenger fly one last game at the stadium before it closes.

"Challenger took a bad rap," says Cecere. "(The media) quickly jumped to conclusions about what actually happened."

And Cecere says that until now, nobody had ever asked him for his - or Challenger's - side of the story.

"For the record," Cecere said, "Challenger was not spooked by the Tomcat Navy jets [flying overhead at Game 1 of the 2003 ALCS.] What happened was that as the eagle tried to approach Cecere, his handler, after his flight,"the jet stream created by the low-flying jets were preventing the bird from smoothly soaring into his landing spot."

The handler said that "Derek Jeter and Jason Giambi ducked when they saw the eagle flying above them," but Challenger never landed on them, nor proved to be any danger.

"As the jets passed over with all their noise and wind current, Challenger was actually getting sucked backward a bit as he was trying to fly forward," said Cecere. "Rather than trying to fight the wind, he decided to land on the grass just short of the pitcher's mound." He said that "Jeter and Giambi were not a target in any way, shape or form, nor would Challenger ever attempt to land on them."

Earlier this year, Jeter confirmed Cecere's account of the encounter. The shortstop told the News, "The planes came and someone said, 'Turn around,' The bird was right there. I ducked and he missed me. I think that was his last time here."

Challenger still appears at sporting events and was recently honored with his name and picture on a commemorative coin sold to help save eagles.

As for the Yankees, 2003 not only marks the last time Challenger appeared at Yankee Stadium, but the last time the Yankees appeared in the World Series.

So, it's time to let flygones be flygones. Maybe removing Challenger's ill-eagle status and restoring him to his proper place in the Bomber pecking order could help the Yanks fly high again. Or at least have them soar above the Blue Jays.

What do you think about Challenger? Leave us a comment!

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