Sunday, July 22, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

‘With Our Deepest Sympathy, From the New York Yankees’

The Police Department in Yarmouth, Massachusetts, was mourning the death of one of its officers, Sean Gannon, last month when a bouquet of flowers arrived at the station bearing a card with five unexpected words: "From the New York Yankees."

Gannon was shot and killed while serving a warrant in neighboring Marstons Mills, a tiny village in Cape Cod, where the Yankees are considered bitter rivals.

"I’m a die-hard Red Sox fan, and my first reaction was, ‘Call the delivery guy and tell him to take them back,’" said Frank Frederickson, the Yarmouth police chief. "I say that in jest, of course. That is a class move, and it meant a lot to us. All the guys came down and wanted to see it. They were like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ "

Reactions were similar at the sheriff’s department in Lebanon, Indiana, last month and at a home in Fargo, North Dakota, in 2016, and dozens of other locations from Maine to Alaska. For the past three years, the Yankees have been quietly sending flowers to the families and police departments of slain law enforcement officers across the country.

In most of the places, the immediate question was similar: Why would the Yankees send flowers to us? Frederickson initially wondered if it was because Aaron Judge, the team’s slugging outfielder, had played in the 2012 Cape Cod Baseball League season, including many games in Yarmouth.

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Actually, the gesture grew from something the Yankees have done for decades — sending flowers to the funerals of officers killed in the New York metropolitan area. But one day in 2015, Sonny Hight, a former detective in the New York Police Department who is a Yankees vice president and the chief security officer, heard about a police officer killed in another state. Hight said he did not now remember the episode, the city or the date, only that he was moved to act.

"I just thought, hey, this guy deserves to be recognized for his sacrifice," Hight said. "We should at least send some flowers acknowledging it."

The start of the nationwide effort in 2015 coincided with rising national protests against police after a series of deadly shootings involving officers, but Hight said there was no political agenda behind the gesture. It was, and remains, merely an expression of sympathy.

George Steinbrenner surely would have approved. Steinbrenner, the former Yankees owner who died in 2010, had a personal affinity for law enforcement, and for decades many of the team’s security personnel have been hired from posts at the NYPD and the FBI.

In 1982, Steinbrenner helped create the Silver Shield Foundation, which provides money for educational support to the families of police officers and firefighters killed in the line of duty, and the flowers are an extension of the same ethos.

The goal of the project is to deliver flowers to the funerals or station houses of every officer killed in action nationwide, but it is difficult to keep pace. In 2016, 64 police officers were killed by gunfire in the United States, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page. Thirteen others were killed by vehicles; one was stabbed to death.

In 2017, 46 more were shot and killed. There have been 27 such deaths so far this year.

The Yankees’ process for sending flowers is informal. Usually it begins after Hight or someone else in the organization hears about an officer killed in the line of duty. It is then brought to the attention of Todd Letcher, a former FBI agent who serves as the Yankees’ executive director for stadium security. Letcher researches the case and passes the information to Debbie Nicolosi, a Yankees employee since 1973, who finds the names and addresses, and arranges for the flowers and cards to be delivered.

"We don’t even know how many we have sent," Nicolosi said. "It can sometimes be as many as twice a week."

In Lebanon, Indiana, last month, officers at the Boone County Sheriff’s Office received a bouquet of flowers from the Yankees shortly after their colleague Jacob Pickett was shot to death March 2.

Maj. Tony Harris, one of Pickett’s colleagues and a fan of the Chicago Cubs, was so moved by the gesture that he said he went online and bought a Yankees cap and a sweatshirt and put his name and badge number on the back of the shirt.

"They reached out all the way from New York, and with everything they’ve got going on they think of us?" Harris said. "For them to do that was incredibly classy."

While the flowers usually arrive without warning or explanation beyond the message on the card, the gesture can elicit strong emotions. In Fargo, when Officer Jason Moszer was shot and killed in the line of duty in 2016, his 11-year-old stepson, DillanDahl, was devastated. When the flowers from the Yankees arrived, Dillan took them to his room and watered them, trying to keep them alive for as long as possible, said his father, Tim Dahl.

"It was the first time he smiled in days," Dahl said.

Two years ago in Kansas City, Kansas, Capt. Robert Melton was shot while trying to apprehend a suspect. Melton, 46, had three children, and his girlfriend was expecting another child; their daughter, Eloise, was born five months after his death.

Upon receiving the Yankees’ flowers, Terry Zeigler, the police chief, replied with a letter of thanks, one of the many that Hight keeps in his office. Zeigler said in an interview that Melton was the second officer killed in Kansas City in a matter of three months that year, and that before he died he had been asked to draw up guidelines for the parades for fallen officers. He wrote them and placed them in a binder.

"He came into my office, put it on the shelf and said, ‘I hope we never have to use that again,’" Zeigler said. "Unfortunately, we did. But when you’re going through the grieving process and you get that kind of support and kindness from people on the other side of the country, that is meaningful.

"Unfortunately, it keeps happening."

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