Saturday, March 31, 2012

On the True Meaning of Baseball

("What Baseball Does to the Soul")

The first thing I did was focus on the image that accompanied your story. It was a picture taken 50 years ago and is captioned "New York City, 1962 Yankee Stadium." That could have been me and my dad, looking into the distance to see where that foul ball would land in the stands.

I grew up in Teaneck, a town that sits only a few miles from the George Washington Bridge, and from there, only a few minutes to the House that Ruth built.  A half century ago, ballplayers made a living, not a fortune, and the first black ballplayer on the Bronx Bombers, Elston Howard, resided modestly in our midst.

In later years, I moved to Tenafly, even closer to the Stadium.  Here Don Mattingly, and then Tino Martinez, lived in a house that sat not much more than a Mickey Mantle home run off Chuck Stobbs from me. There was something surreal in the fact that Mattingly handed off not only his position, but his residence, to his successor at first base. But unlike the saga of Kekich and Peterson during a dismal time in the team's history on and off the field, this transfer was only of houses, not lives.

I grew up with a baseball glove on my hand. The sport was not as much a part of my soul as it was a part of my physical being. My throwing hand was normal in size, but the other one was huge and webbed. This piece of equipment was not appended to me. I was attached to it.

My last waking thought, on those days when the Yankees were playing well past my bedtime, was my hope for victory. And in the morning, before the rest of the world intruded, I would run to the television set to see if my wish had been granted. If it had, I would watch repeat cycles of the news, just to hear the words of glory once more. The television would  instantaneously go dark if I was informed of a defeat that would throw me into momentary depression.

And my closest companion on this journey was my father. We spent endless hours in the backyard playing catch. He would forever compliment me on my skills and the speed and accuracy of my pitches, as he crouched down behind the imaginary plate, much as Elston Howard might do, on those days when Yogi Berra was not catching. What team ever had such a wonderful pair at this position? Poor Johnny Blanchard never had a chance to shine as his star was dwarfed by these two luminaries.

My father's law practice in New York City took a very distant second place to being a part of everything that was baseball in my life. As I prepared myself for my Little League games, I would see him head over to the field, his tie loosened and his jacket draped over one shoulder. He would soon have on the team hat, and in his role as assistant manager, be stationed at third base shouting words of encouragement and instruction. In that glorious season of 1964, with the marvelous Marino at shortstop and with me alternating between second base and the pitcher's mound, we began the season with 17 wins and just 1 loss. While my dad's career may have suffered a little bit, I am certain that the man standing in the coaching box cared not at all about anything more than the joy that was constantly on my face.

Yankee Stadium was the mecca for me, and by necessary extension, for him. A half century ago, in 1962, when that picture was taken, the great home run race to end all home run races had just concluded. The House that Ruth built, but Mantle owned, had been witness to an assault on a 34 year old record. Eventually, it was the outsider, Maris, who would catch the Babe. I wonder whether that asterisk would have been so pronounced had it been our home grown hero, the farm boy from Oklahoma, who had reached 61?

1962 was a time before the team would suddenly grow old. In the stands that day when the photo was taken, were many like me who believed that the group that was assembled was the finest to have ever played the sport. The lineup was filled with greatness and these men were being favorably compared to the Murderer's Row team of 1927 that had been led by Ruth and Gehrig. It was a compelling moment, and a glorious time to be a father and son in a relationship with this sport and with the great and wondrous Yankees.

And so, I study that photo that accompanies your story, hoping for a small miracle that I can once more see my dad and me together doing what we most loved to do. But the truth is that I do not need to see a picture to feel what baseball and my father mean to me. I am today, at nearly 60, still that little boy with the  glove woven in to my soul. And my father is still crouching behind that imaginary plate, complaining about the pain caused by the velocity of my throw.  And smiling his slightly crooked smile.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful piece. Better than the one in the Times!


Anonymous said...

Magnificent, I could read your Yankee prose all day!

Anonymous said...

What a treat! Thanks, Rob. You're writing is so vivid, I too could see Uncle Dick tossing the ball back to you with his great smile -- as if it were yesterday, not 50 years ago.


Anonymous said...

A very moving and well written piece which I enjoyed immensely.


Anonymous said...

It took me back to our years together and instilling the love of baseball to our kids.