Lou Piniella Receives Munson Award

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When the first gala was held in Thurman Munson's honor in 1980, the widow of the fallen Yankees captain believed that the outpouring of support might last a few more years, hoping that some good could be done in the community as a result.

As Diana Munson attended her 30th consecutive awards event on Tuesday, held at the Grand Hyatt hotel in New York, she was elated to still be in a position to benefit the AHRC-New York City Foundation, which assists children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

"For 30 years, I've been saying that I'm sure the dinner is going to phase out," Munson said. "The fact that it keeps going on and gets stronger is a true testament to the people of New York and the memory of Thurman. To know that New York never forgets is overwhelming for my family."

The theme of Tuesday's dinner was to honor champions, past and present, and Joba Chamberlain was among those receiving awards bearing Munson's name. The Yankees right-hander was selected in recognition of his various philanthropic efforts, in the New York community and at home in Nebraska.

"It's a very humbling experience to know that my name is going to be with Thurman Munson for a long time," Chamberlain said. "As a fan of baseball, you knew who Thurman was.

"But when you actually put the uniform on, you truly understand what he stood for -- the passion that he had for the game and for his family. It goes a long way, and it's one of those names that is forever going to be embedded in the game of baseball for the right reasons."

Chamberlain's charitable endeavors include participation with the New York Police Athletic League, the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the Camp Acorn for children with disabilities in New Jersey, New Yorkers for Children and the Madonna Rehabilitation Center in Lincoln, Neb.

In addition, Chamberlain will once again fly an underprivileged family from his home state of Nebraska to Walt Disney World in Florida this month.

"Every one I do is near and dear to my heart," Chamberlain said. "I don't do it because it makes me look better. I do it because I truly care. I wouldn't be where I am without the help of other people. That's the greatest thing about this game, is that you give back.

"I don't care how much money you make or how many championships you win, it's the lives that you can affect in a positive way and being able to have that opportunity."

Also receiving Thurman Munson Awards were Knicks point guard Chris Duhon, Cubs manager Lou Piniella, former big league outfielder Darryl Strawberry and two-time Yonkers Raceway champion harness driver Jason Bartlett.

A former teammate of Munson's on the 1977 and 1978 World Series championship clubs, Piniella naturally spoke highly of the catcher, calling him "a wonderful, wonderful young man, husband and family guy. A great player, leader and true friend."

Piniella was honored with the Legend Award for his long and meritorious service to baseball, making him a second-time recipient at a Munson event. He still keeps the first award in his office.

"It brings a smile to my face every time I look at it," Piniella said.

Pressed for a favorite memory of Munson, Piniella recalled a game that exhibited the catcher's tough demeanor, which has become the basis for his legend. After a close play at home plate ended an inning, Munson returned to the dugout bleeding and was about to be removed from the game.

As Piniella recalled, Munson looked at the trainer and growled, "Bring the doc down here and sew me up." They did, and a few stitches later, Munson remained in the game.

"I think that says it all," Piniella said.

Strawberry was honored for his work with the Darryl Strawberry Foundation, which fights to improve the quality of life for individuals affected by autism. Strawberry and his wife, Tracy, do not have children with autism, but they have witnessed first-hand the struggles of families that do, and were moved to action.

"I'm truly honored and truly blessed to be here tonight accepting this award," Strawberry said. "I didn't know Thurman personally, but I know he played for the Yankees, and I know his history. It means a great deal to me."

A native of Mamou, La., Duhon has been focused on helping Louisiana recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, as well as looking to improve the education and recreation benefits of children.

Bartlett, the first harness racer to be honored with a Thurman Munson Award, has been involved in numerous charitable endeavors through Yonkers Raceway, including donating race winnings to Toys for Tots as part of a challenge with another racer.

Established after Munson's untimely passing in a 1979 plane crash, the Munson benefit has raised nearly $10 million since its inception to assist children and adults who have intellectual and developmental disabilities, and has only taken on more importance in the three decades that have passed.

"For something to go on this long, it tells you how much Thurman was respected," Piniella said.

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