Monday was a two-time All-Star

4/25/2006 - MLB

Maybe it's because my father was a World War II veteran who grew up during the Depression, fought for freedom under Patton, then returned home to help build the most prosperous society in human history.

Maybe it's because one of my childhood chores, as the only son of a proud member of the aptly named Greatest Generation, was to raise the flag outside our house each morning, then take it down at dusk and properly fold it into a triangle, so that only the stars were showing.

Or maybe it's because my dad was a 50-year member of the American Legion and never let me forget what that flag stood for.

But this much I know: The way I was raised had more than a little to do with Rick Monday's being one of my all-time favorite baseball players.

And he should be one of yours, too.

Not because he played in the major leagues for 19 seasons and was a two-time All-Star.

Not because he went on to become a terrific broadcaster for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Not because he's one of the good guys in sports.

Monday ought to be one of your favorite baseball players because 30 years ago -- on April 25, 1976, in the fourth inning at Dodger Stadium -- he refused to stand by and allow two protesting punks to burn the American flag on the outfield grass.

"I don't know anybody who wouldn't have done the same thing, if they were in the same position," Monday was saying the other day from Los Angeles, where he threw out the ceremonial first pitch Sunday as the Dodgers celebrated the anniversary of his heroics with a video tribute. "I'm just glad I was close enough to do something about it.''

Do something? Monday did plenty.

And he vividly remembers every detail.

He was playing center field for the visiting Chicago Cubs when he noticed an unusual buzz in the crowd.

"Ballparks have their own personality, and all of a sudden the personality of Dodger Stadium changed," Monday recalled, obviously replaying the scene in his mind. "There had to be some kind of commotion, because the noise came at the wrong moment, when there was nothing happening on the field. So I knew something was out of kilter. I didn't know what it was, but my first thought was, 'Oh, here we go again.'

"You've got to remember: Back in the '70s, we had all kinds of people running onto the field. Streakers, drunks, people doing it for a bet ... But I could tell from the crowd that this was different.''

So Monday looked around, and that's when he noticed that two dolts had jumped the outfield fence and one of them was carrying an American flag.

It wasn't until he saw that these depraved dirtbags had stopped in left-center field, knelt down and were dousing the flag with lighter fluid, however, that he sprung into action.

"Fortunately," he said, "the first match blew out."

Fortunately, Monday arrived as the second match was lit. He angrily shoved the amateur arsonists and snatched the flag away.

"You're darn right, I was mad," Monday said. "What they were trying to do was wrong. It was wrong in 1976, and I still think it's wrong today. And it's wrong for a lot of reasons. That flag represents all the rights and freedoms that we have in this country. If you desecrate the flag, you desecrate the efforts of all the people who fought and died to protect those rights and freedoms.

"I'm sure those feelings were reinforced by six years in the United States Marine Corps Reserve, but I just couldn't let that happen.''

And judging by the public's response to his rousing rescue, most of America was thrilled that he didn't.

Monday, 60, has received thousands of letters from people across America -- especially from war veterans and active members of the military -- praising his patriotic performance. Even now, three decades later, the mail keeps coming. Many of the letters are written by fans who weren't yet born when the incident occurred.

"There were something like 30,000 people in the ballpark that day," Monday said, "but I've gotten letters from 220,000 people who said they were there."

Thing is, Monday's heroics weren't shown on TV. WGN televised the game, but in accordance with station policy, the producers didn't cut to the dim bulbs that ran onto the field. So the only visual evidence of the event was a now-famous photograph taken by James Roark of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner.

Or so Monday thought.

But in 1984, the final season of his playing career, he was informed that a fan had captured the entire sequence on film with a handheld, 16 mm movie camera. And Monday now owns a copy of the footage, along with a copy of Roark's photo, along with a recording of Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully's play-by-play of the episode.

He also owns the flag, which was presented to him during a pregame ceremony at Wrigley Field a week after the incident -- and which hung in his Vero Beach home on Florida's Treasure Coast until the summer of 2004, when the house was damaged by Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne.

The flag, which is insured, now rests in a safe-deposit box.

"Somebody made me an offer to buy it a few years ago, and for a mind-boggling amount of money," Monday said. "But it's not for sale."

And it hasn't been forgotten: The Baseball Hall of Fame included Monday's flag rescue on its list of the 100 Classic Moments in baseball history.

"A lot of people have asked if it bothers me that, after everything I did in 19 years in the big leagues, most people know me as the guy who saved the flag," Monday said. "Honestly, it doesn't. It's not a bad thing to be known for."

Not in my house. Not when I was growing up.

I can still see my dad reading newspaper accounts of Monday's heroics and nodding.

"These guys say they've got a right to burn the flag," he said. "I say you've got an obligation to defend it."

Note: Rick Monday and his wife, Barbaralee, are writing a book about the emotional impact of his flag-rescuing incident 30 years ago at Dodger Stadium.

If you want to share your thoughts and/or photos, send a message of 500 words or less to mvpsportscorp@aol.com or by mail to MVPSPORTS, 505 Beachland Blvd., Suite 1-220, Vero Beach, FL 32963. Please include your name, address, telephone number and e-mail address.

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Ray McNulty is sports columnist for Scripps Treasure Coast (Fla.) Newspapers, The Stuart News, Fort Pierce Tribune and Vero Beach Press Journal. On the Web at www.tcpalm.com.