“When you arrive at a fork in the road, take it.”
My dad loves baseball. From as far back as I can remember, he’s been a Yankees fan. He tells me he was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan until they broke his heart and moved to the West Coast. That was the 1950s and long before I knew him. His grandfather was a Yankees fan, and his parents are Yankees fans. Naturally, the man I chose to marry is a Yankees fan. But I don’t really remember anything about the Yankees before their comeback year of 1996. With a new manager, Joe Torre, who had never won a championship in his thirty-two-year career as both a player and a manager, the Bronx bombers began to live up to their pinstripe glory once again, winning their first world series since 1978. We followed every single game.
We didn’t own a television in 1996. When our third child was born in March, a few weeks before baseball spring training and a couple months before my husband completed his bachelor's degree in education, we were paying our bills with his substitute teacher income. We had no health insurance, no vacation time or sick pay, and made ends meet by picking up extra work cleaning houses. We’d put all our hopes in a college degree landing him a teaching job in the fall. Evenings in our second-floor apartment, after we put our two sons to bed, we’d tune into the game on our radio. While I sat on our hand-me-down sofa to nurse my daughter, Brian sat across the room writing résumés on our clunky IBM personal computer. It doesn’t take a therapist to figure out that we’d associated our own underdog story to the scrappy team fighting for a win, night after night, a couple hours south of us in the Bronx.
The 1996 season introduced Yankees fans to Joe Girardi (catcher), Derek Jeter (shortstop), and Mariano Rivera (relief pitcher), among others. It’s the season we rooted for Darryl Strawberry to rise above his drug history, and he did. We worried about pitcher David Cone’s surgery to remove an aneurysm and rallied behind him when he promised to come back by the end of the season. And he did—in time to pitch a winning game in the World Series. It’s the year I discovered the joy of befriending radio announcers John Sterling and Michael Kay. Even though I’d never meet them in person, they felt like guests sitting in our living room, passing the time with warm conversation for hours each evening. We began to relish the ritual of sportscasting, loving each Yankee home run not only for the score, but also for John Sterling’s patent call: “It is high! It is far! It is gone!” Over time, he would embellish his trademark home-run call with wordplay for each player’s name. Center fielder Bernie Williams hits a run, it’s “Bern, baby, Bern!” from the announcer’s booth; first baseman Tino Martinez cracks one over the fence, “It’s the BamTino!” and so forth.
After a long, uncertain summer, we celebrated our team’s October World Series win almost as raucously as we’d celebrated the teaching job Brian received in September. We earned a salary, and the Yankees earned a championship.
Fast forward nearly twenty years, most of our circumstances had changed. ...
BONUS FEATURES: 2 extra deleted "chapters" that include my own very humbling unsportsmanlike behavior + a whole bunch of cute photos of my kids repping the Yankees over the years
“Little League baseball is a very good thing because it keeps the parents off the streets.” -- Yogi Berra
My Dad played baseball through high school and college. By all accounts - mostly his and a couple of yellowed news blurbs clipped from the paper - he was a pretty good player. Naturally, he’s never given up hope that one of his 6 kids and 18 grandchildren might take up the sport with the same fervor. As the oldest child, I did my part in disappointing this fatherly wish with a couple of seasons of town softball. I recall these years in snatches of terror and embarrassment. Somehow, I never quite understood what was expected of me as an outfielder (wayyyy out in the field) my few times off the bench. As far as my stats at the plate, I ask you: Is there anything more humiliating than swinging a big stick at the air? The answer is no, no there isn’t. I fared slightly better on the school soccer team, not because I was any more talented, but because I could at least run around a lot between the goal and half field, and make it appear I had what my Dad called “hustle”. Although, I have a clear memory of a burly coach yelling in my direction while our team ran laps, “Hill! Can’t you make your stride any longer?!?” By that time, I’d already reached my adult height of 5’2”, and felt my stride was doing its part adequately.
During the springtime of the town league softball games, a kind, older cousin showed mercy on me, teaching me how to V my thumb, fore, and middle fingers along the leather stitching of a baseball, cupping the ball just so, and then releasing it in the generally correct direction. As far as I can remember, no one even attempted to address my incompetence with a glove.
When our own four kids were of the age for town sports, they each took a turn at T-ball, softball, or Pony League. One son got as far as relief pitching, but he quickly realized it felt like stress instead of fun, and he took up the guitar instead. All my kids leaned toward artistic, rather than athletic, pursuits. While our neighbors were schlepping their kids to the ball field, ours were making a holy rock’n roll raucous in the basement, instead. This was a development that rather pleased me - even if it was noisy.
Still, we kept up with the Yankees. Not playing baseball in the spring actually gave us more time to enjoy watching and listening to each game. We began a family tradition of giving each of our kids their own first trip to see a live game in the house that (Babe) Ruth built. We took our oldest son when he was only 5 years old, and it’s one of our happiest memories. We spent the day sightseeing the city as far as his little legs would carry him, stopping only to crane his neck upward to take in the skyscrapers. One photograph captured the image of of Brian and Andrew staring up at the Twin Towers. In the evening we sat through all nine-innings of the 1996 Yankees. Andrew’s inagural stadium trip coincided with Derek Jeter’s rookie year. The photo I’ve kept of our second son is a close up from nosebleed seats. He’s smiling at the camera, waiting for the game to start, miniature Yankees cap shoved down on his head so far his ears are jutting out either side of his face. A little over a decade later, he and Brian would attend the final game of the 2009 World Series in the Yankees new stadium. They’d watch the home team beat the Philadelphia Phillies 7-3, and win one last title for the "core four" of Pettitte, Posada, Rivera and Derek Jeter. Alex would cheer as gently as possible because he was suffering a tooth infection, and was scheduled for a root canal the following morning. If you asked him, he’d still say it was totally worth it.
On one of our daughter Kendra’s first trips to the stadium she’d get the thrill of a player, Ramiro Mendoza, handing her a baseball after batting practice. She’d lisp “thank you” through her missing teeth, and later give the ball to her Dad as a Father’s Day gift. It now enjoys a treasured spot on the bookshelf in his office.
Natalie, as sometimes happens with a youngest child, would wait until she was a bit older to visit the stadium, and she wouldn’t be by herself. Our whole family would be with her, because a kind church friend gave us free tickets. But we managed to get a photo of her, cheering from the railing of our upper deck seats, taking in Brett Gardner’s first hit and first RBI in the seventh inning. Gardner went on to steal second and eventually score in that inning.
This year, the 2017 season that Natalie is living back home with us, Brett Gardner is a much-needed veteran on a team of new kids, known affectionately as the Baby Bombers. Now that we live about an hour north of the Bronx, Natalie and Brian have been to the stadium three times together this season. Thanks to generous church friends, again, she’s enjoyed great seats - most notably along the right field line within shouting distance of #99, right-fielder Aaron Judge. At that game she made it to the jumbotron, with her giant, hand-letter sign, “I’ve got 99 problems, but A. Judge isn’t one!” The home-run-derby king’s gathered a huge fan club this year, but I’m positive none more earnest than my daughter. He should be so lucky.
“It ain't the heat, it's the humility.” -- Yogi Berra
I’m a fairweather stadium attender, myself. I mean that literally. The older I get, the more comfortable I am insisting on my own comfort, and, in my book, that includes forgoing the experience of sitting thigh-bone to sweaty thigh-bone with over 50,000 people stewing in stale beer underneath the blazing sun. I no longer feel the need to physically suffer for the love of the game.
I’d like to blame the physical discomfort of a hot, crowded stadium for one of the most epic moments of my own humility, but the truth is the weather was decent that night, and we were only sitting in our town’s double-A minor league stadium, which at capacity seats only 6,000 people. And that night we were not even close to capacity, but I was feeling clausterphobic anyway.
Here, let my son tell you in his own words (the ones he wrote for a senior-year Public Speaking class. Lord, have mercy.)
"Baseball game are rarely fun when you're sitting near drunks. That was the situation I was put in about five years ago at a Binghamton Mets game. Behind us where the drunks; in front of us were the smokers.
The drunks were mad at the smokers for smoking. They said their kids -- John, Ashley, and you know, what's-her-face (they couldn't remember because they were so drunk) -- were crying and scared because the smoke from their cigarettes were drifting upwards towards their row.
This was obnoxious to me because the drunks were obviously looking for controversy for controversy's sake. It was also obnoxious that the smokers were fighting back. They weren't drunk, and they should've had the common sense to just move up to the dozens of empty rows in front of them. It's a B-Mets game, after all. There are going to be empty seats.
The person who broke up the tiring feud was my mother. She looked back, and I swear the second before her mouth opened I could see lightning strike behind her profile. She screamed 'Shut Up!' at the drunk parents, whose little kids were now crying only because the adults were so angry at each other. She was so scary that the two rows ceased their arguments.
A couple of fighters on each side ended up speaking to each other, just stubbornly apologizing for their pointless fight. My brother and I actually spoke to each other because we could finally hear each other without all the shouting. And no one, absolutely NO ONE, spoke to my mother. And I have a feeling she was okay with that."