Baseball is back, but in my family it’s more than a game
Please forgive me for taking a sanity break today to briefly avoid all serious news, from Putin’s horrific war, from one of Trump House GOP cronies calling Zelenskyy a “thug,” for being grateful that my morning commute — a block-and-a-half walk from the cafe — didn’t cost me $4 a gallon.
And from Tina Peters and her imaginary friend Gerald Wood, from the mad rush to unmask during what is still officially a pandemic, from the brilliant but haunting New York Times story and photos of a Ukrainian mother, her two children and a church volunteer guide running for protection from Russian bombs before being killed on a bridge by Russian troops.
I could go on and on, but I’m not here today to depress you, dear reader, or myself. In fact, I’m here to celebrate fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, a grandfather’s gift, a boy’s first love, a grown boy’s long lasting love and, as I will explain, the first time a family member threatened to kick me out of the family.
In other words, to celebrate the news that after 90 days of a labor dispute, baseball has been saved from a landlord lockout and possible loss of a game or, chill, maybe be same all season. The celebration – as told in this column anyway – is also the story of my life, which I have told before, and which you may have even seen before, but it is the only life that I have, so please do me a favor.
I first wrote it in 1982 when my grandfather, my mother’s father and avid baseball fan died. I wrote it the first time because I was overseas and couldn’t make it to the funeral, and it would be my eulogy.
So here is the setup. I’m maybe 10 years old. My grandfather is older (everyone was older then). We watch the Yankees game on TV in the downstairs den of my grandparents’ split-level house. There was only one game on national television each week during those antediluvian days. And it was always the Yankees, who won the World Series on an almost annual basis. So it was me and my grandfather and the Yankees and announcers Dizzy Dean and Buddy Blattner.
My grandfather loved the Yankees. I hated them. (You can’t really be a sports fan, or understand much of this history, if you don’t understand the importance of rooting against teams.) We were living in Virginia at that time, but my whole family was from New York. And on my dad’s side, there were Dodgers fans, on my mom’s side, Yankees fans. I won’t say we took it seriously, but when my mom married my dad and became a Dodgers fan – I think it was in the prenup – it was like she broke up ties with the old religion while breaking it. father’s heart.
I hated the Yankees for the same reason most Yankees haters do — they always won — but also because when I was a kid, the team they beat the most was the Brooklyn Dodgers. They beat my Dodgers, my dad’s Dodgers, his dad’s Dodgers, Jackie Robinson Dodgers, Wait till next year Dodgers, Boys of Summer Dodgers almost every year it seems , in the World Series.
Yes, it was serious. My first dog’s name was Dodger. My mother insisted that was my first word. Later we had Duke, Campy and Sandy.
My grandfather begged me to support the Yankees when they weren’t playing the Dodgers. He said if I wanted to he would support the Dodgers when they weren’t playing the Yankees. Couldn’t I give her that much? I could not. I would not like. I do not have.
Either way, we’re watching. I can’t remember who the Yankees were playing against, but in my memory it was the bottom of the 9th inning, the Yankees were a run or two down, had two men on base and the big Mickey Mantle, the American hero, at the plate.
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My grandfather, who believed, as all true fans believe, that he could affect the game by yelling loudly at the TV, was yelling, one fist curled up in a ball, one hand pointing at the screen, “Come on , Mike! Pop one!”
And the 10-year-old me, who had already learned trash-talking mannerisms, shouted back, “Yeah, come on, Mick. Ride one!”
Mickey hit one, hit it straight. Before the ball could even land in the second baseman’s glove, my grandfather had stormed out of the den, up the short stairway to the kitchen, where my mother and grandmother could see him. heard mumbling swear words as he ran up more stairs to his room, after which we heard a thunderous door slam.
My grandmother rushed to ask me what had happened. I told him the Mick had appeared.
After several decades of marriage, she immediately understood. And when she came upstairs to comfort my grandpa, my mom and I could hear her say, “I’m serious, Sadie, I never want to see that damn kid in this house again.”
Like I said, exiled. To make the Mick appear.
My grandmother came downstairs mocking the supposedly grown man who was her husband and said that even though I hadn’t done anything strictly illegal, I still had to come upstairs to apologize, you know, to maintain the peace in the family.
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I swore I wouldn’t. I swore I couldn’t. My mother begged me. And so I did, trudging up the stairs, fingers crossed behind my back, to tell my grandfather that I was sorry Mick had appeared. I doubt he believed me, but he ended my exile. Years later, I had a better understanding of the situation when my sister, raised like me, married my best friend and avid Yankees fan. She also converted. I didn’t exile her, but it was a close thing.
My grandfather and I had better times. He gave me my first baseball glove – if I remember correctly, a Duke Snider Rawlings – which went missing a long time ago, and I still don’t know who the culprit was.
Maybe the best day we ever had was when I was covering the Dodgers as a young sportswriter and my grandparents had retired to Miami. I took my grandfather to a Dodgers-Yankees spring training game in Fort Lauderdale and introduced him to a few Yankees players. No Mickey Mantle, but hey, I introduced him to Reggie Jackson. He was delighted and proud. I was glad to have made him proud.
And so, now there will be another baseball season, and when the games start, I will watch some of them with my two grandsons, 7 and 3 years old. They’re both already Dodgers fans, and, if the Dodgers and Yankees ever return to the World Series together, I’ll know exactly what to do. I’m going to make sure they both hate the Yankees like I do, like my dad did, just like his dad did, because if I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s is that you can never start too young.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions, and countless mind-numbing speeches in the snow of New Hampshire and Iowa.
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