“Play ball!”: when used in combination, are there any more magical words in the English language? – especially on a sunny, warm, and windy early fall afternoon, when clouds are moving so fast their shadows look like a time-elapse video as they cross the field.
Baseball seems to run in families – and I’m not talking about the Alou brothers, the Niekros, or the extended Bonds family. I’m thinking more of my own family.
Mom was a Brooklyn Dodger fan who had the misfortune to live in northern Manhattan, in close proximity to the Yankees and, in those days, the even-closer Giants. Family legend tells of the time Mom and our cousin Cliff nearly got lynched at the Polo Grounds when a Dodger hit a game-winning home run and Mom leapt to her feet with a roar, accidentally showering the row in front with the contents of a bag of peanuts. She never reconciled to the loss of the Dodgers, and my younger brother and I were nurtured on tales of Dodger exploits, particularly those of her beloved Pete Reiser being carried off the field after yet another collision with the outfield wall, and her continuing regret over what his career might have been, if only outfield walls had been padded in those days.
A family predilection to root for the underdog kept us from being Yankees fans, although my brother and I did eventually, and somewhat reluctantly, develop a fondness that finally blossomed fully in the years of Jeter, Posada, et alia (and after George Steinbrenner began stepping back a bit). [I still remember with what impatient and delighted anticipation I waited for my brother to get home from school the day the Yankees hired Billy Martin to manage for the third (or was it the fourth?) time. Ensuing conversation: Me: “The Yankees have hired a new manager.” Brother: “Who?” Me: “Billy Martin.” Brother: “No, really, who?”]
With the birth of the Mets in 1962, Mom, like so many others, finally found another hapless team to which to transfer her allegiance, and my brother and I were raised to be Mets fans (within the family, it is not necessarily considered an accident that my brother was also born in 1962, although there is some feeling it might just be kismet).
My brother’s and my very first live baseball game was at the new Shea Stadium, when our uncle, who worked for the Daily News, got us press seats to see the Giants and Mets. Press seats! Willie Mays! Heaven! We could all barely contain ourselves on the bus out to Shea. Our rapture was only somewhat tempered by the discovery that press seats should be accompanied by oxygen and a Sherpa.
With families natal dates running from late July to early September, birthdays were often celebrated at the ball park. Dad was not particularly a baseball fan (soccer was more his style), but he would often accompany us to games, living in hope that one of the vendors, instead of yelling “Hot dogs!” would yell “Franks!” so that Dad could respond, “You’re welcome!” (This tells you much about our personal “life with father.”)
Although we could walk to Yankee Stadium [well, it was about a mile and three quarters, but we’ve always been a walking family and it took about the same amount of time as sitting on a bus in traffic for the Macombs Dam(n) Bridge], we went more often to Shea, a place of milestones and memory for us:
The time Tom Seaver was stuck in traffic in back of our post-game bus, and my pig-tailed, Mets-capped teenage self waved hysterically from the back window until traffic finally released the poor man to change lanes (the family held me personally responsible for Seaver’s multi-game losing streak that followed).
• My brother, me, my best friend, sitting in outfield seats when a foul ball flew in our direction, and we did our own baseball version of the Three Monkeys: my brother, glove on hand, stretched for the ball; I reached out cupped hands, but flinching, turned my head; my best friend ducked and covered. (In the end, it wasn’t really that close, and the prize went to someone else.)
• Getting almost field-level seats (back when those were still affordable, before they became the exclusive purview of the corporate world) to celebrate the team’s ballyhooed rookie at Strawberry Sunday.
• Players dear to our hearts: Cleon Jones and Tommie Agee, splashing through a wet outfield and making the sliding, tsunami-inducing catch; the cerebral (and beautiful) Ron Darling; Mom’s beloved Rusty Staub refusing to wear long sleeves, no matter the temperature; long, drawn-out chants of “Moooo-kie” and that world-lighting grin.
• The year we went to opening day and the stadium’s staff were totally unprepared, with food lines so long the bathroom doors were perpetually whacking whoever had the misfortune to be last, food ran out well before many of us made it to the front, and I wrote a scathingly sarcastic letter (I ran across a copy of the draft last year in a box of old papers) that scored us two tickets to a game of our choice later in the season.
• The game whose start was so long-delayed by rain that, when they finally got around to the Star-Spangled Banner, either the scoreboard or its operator were so well-lubricated by rain (or other liquids) that the posted lyrics were totally garbled, and my brother insisted on singing them as shown.
• The way we two Episcopalians so often have found ourselves accidentally at “Jewish Heritage Night,” with a resulting collection of t-shirts that say “Let’s go Mets” in Hebrew (although, our great-grandfather having been Jewish, it’s not entirely inappropriate).
• The time we had to wait outside for well into the game for a tardy friend whose ticket we had – a wait compensated, in large part, by getting to see a group of college-age young men with a copier-paper carton full of ice and bottles of beer whose co-conspirators entered first, lowering a rope down the open side of Shea which was tied around the carton so it could be hauled, hand-over-hand, up the side – losing only one bottle in the process – before the “ground crew” entered the stadium themselves, to enthusiastic applause of bystanders (an anecdote I wrote up and was published in the New York Times’ “Metropolitan Diary” column during Shea’s last season).
• In the days before the seventh-inning beer cut-off, an afternoon slugfest where the section next to ours in right field, upper-deck seats contained a large group, half of which were rooting for the visiting team. Each time a home run was hit, the other side’s fans would buy a round for the whole group. The wonder was, no one was died or was grievously injured navigating the stairs on the way down – at least as far as we could tell.
Mom and Dad are long gone, alas, viewing games now from an even higher (but presumably better) vantage point, but my brother and I, with no children of our own to torture, re-tell these stories to each other (and any long-suffering friends who accompany us) every summer at the ball park. There are no equally good Citifield stories yet, but we are working on it — the year Citifield opened, we made our first visit on my brother’s birthday, and I had the scoreboard flash his name in the group greetings. It’s a nice park, much homier than the new Yankee Stadium (which in my humble opinion looks like a cross between something that would have done Albert Speer proud and a luxury suburban shopping mall). We have high hopes for it.
It’s not as easy to get to games as it was, between our crazy schedules and current economic realities, but this year we were generously gifted with tickets to four games, two of which they actually won, and a third of which was a great game for eight and a half innings. This past Saturday was the last of these, and the best: conditions, conversation, and company, and all were wonderful (about the only down side to the day was I lost my Mets cap somewhere en route).
We even got to see the hot knuckleballer R. A. Dickey (if one can use the term “hot” for a pitcher whose fastest pitch occasionally grazes 80 m.p.h.). We both have a soft spot for knuckleballers, as is at least one of my brother’s friends: Conversation with friend at an earlier game when we also saw Dickey pitch: Me: “Has there ever been a knuckleballer with a bland personality?” Friend (after long pause): “No, I don’t think so.”. We were disappointed when a tiring Dickey was pulled in the ninth, but, three Florida runs scored later, the Mets still emerged with a 4-3 win, no thanks to the reliever. As the last ball was caught and we breathed a sigh of contented relief, my brother said with some disgust, “There ought to be something to call that other than a ‘save’,” to which I responded, “Sustained.” My brother says we ought to remember that term.
It was our last baseball game of the season, and I didn’t want it to end, but like all good things, it did, and soon the season itself will be over. The Mets won’t be going to the playoffs this year, but we’re Mets fans; we’re used to that. And after all, there’s always next year.