“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball.” 1
As I said in my previous post, I plan to take a break and consider a new existence. However, since this break can entail almost anything, why should I devote my energy to collecting ballparks? Most people would likely find it excessive to focus an entire year on baseball. Excessive even if I raise money for youth baseball and softball.
There are a lot of places to go, things to see, and experiences to have. Do I need to devote my time and money to baseball?
Baseball has been a constant source of joy in my life. Consequently, this trip has become one of my dreams. Is it that the game reminds me “of all that once was good and could be again?” 2 Will the trip make me feel young again? What is it about baseball that compels me to make this trip? I don’t have answers that I can verbalize. However, I feel like I’ve been on a trajectory to take this trip for a long time. Of course, part of the path is a result of my career choices and where they have led. My career and the questions that I have at the age of 61 can wait for another day. For now, I’ll focus on my lifelong enchantment with baseball and why this trip is my next logical step.
You see, I trace my life story in terms of my baseball awareness. It’s a story that has only one logical ending – my quest to find baseball’s essence and my reason for being. I need to experience each stadium and baseball’s wonders. As my father used to say, I need to “collect ballparks”.
I Probably Should Be a Yankee Fan
As a Bronx native, I guess I should be a Yankee fan. I was born just a short 1.7-mile walk up the Grand Concourse from Yankee Stadium. It’s an even shorter trip on the #4 train. It’s only three stops to the Mt. Eden Avenue station and a five-minute walk to Lebanon Hospital on 173rd street.
However, I have decidedly National League roots as my father (an ex-catcher) was a Dodger fan. I arrived in the winter of 1957 when he was still distraught that “Dem Bums” moved to California that winter.
Frequent Trips to The Stadium
When I was five, we moved to St. Petersburg, Florida so my father could further his career in aerospace. Every summer we returned to the Bronx to visit my grandparents and other family members. On every trip, I found myself with him at Yankee Stadium almost as soon as the plane landed. We returned to the sanctity of the Stadium many times during the visit. I acquired my early love for the game on these excursions. In classic style, a devotion for baseball passed from father to son at the ballpark.
I assumed it was a common practice to quickly say hello to relatives and then leave for the ballpark. I later realized that this behavior was not the standard arrangement and we were not a typical family. Instead, my parents were embroiled in a lousy marriage with much anger on display. My father’s haste was likely due as much to his antipathy for his in-laws as his love for baseball.
At the time, the Stadium was what the cognoscenti now call Yankee Stadium 1. It was the “House That Ruth Built,” with the monuments, the façade, and the pillars that could block your view. I spent my time learning about the Yankees glorious history with so many crucial moments happening at the Stadium. As I did so, Yankee Stadium transformed into a massive baseball cathedral that held all the wonders of the game.
I’m sure I saw Mickey Mantle and other greats but don’t remember too much from those early days. However, I will always remember when Frank Robinson dove into the stands
The National League, Willie Mays and The Mets
After a few years watching the Yankees, my father announced that we needed to see national league ball. Since I wanted to see my new hero, Willie Mays I was happy to do so. There was a national league team playing in Queens, in a place with a funny name, “Flushing.” What was a “Met”? I’d soon find out.
I believe we made my first trip to Shea Stadium 1965 to see Willie Mays and the Giants. From the Bronx, we likely took the #4 train past Yankee Stadium and transferred to the #7 at Grand Central. It was a much longer trip, at least an hour’s journey to Shea.
However, all I remember is that we were there and my hero was signing autographs for kids leaning over the dugout. I remember watching Willie in center field, commanding my attention.
I also remember seeing Joe DiMaggio, possibly playing center field for an inning at an Old Timer’s Game. At the game, a woman dressed in a long antebellum dress escorted Casey Stengel onto the field. Casey, of course, stepped on the hem and the dress fell off revealing long skirts underneath. All good fun.
Spring Training With The Cardinals
The St. Louis Cardinals and the Mets trained in St. Petersburg. Each year, we went to Al Lang Field to see Spring Training games. In those years, the Cards were an outstanding, championship team and the Mets were still a joke.
So I became a nominal Cardinals fan, regularly listening to my LP of Harry Carey and Jack Buck calling critical parts of their championship 1967 season. I saw the characters described on the record at these games, Lou Brock, Curt Flood, Orlando Cepeda, and Bob Gibson. One night, third baseman (and now broadcaster) Mike Shannon appeared in our kitchen and was talking to my father. I never knew why he was there or how my father knew him.
Yes, it was only Spring Training, but in 1969, we saw Bob Gibson pitch against 31 game winner Denny McClain. A World Series rematch that was meaningless to most, but memorable to me.
Meet The Mets
The Mets opened a training facility behind my junior high school. I remember r
More importantly, I followed the Mets progress as they started to improve. Tom Seaver was a real star. That year, I was in Mr. Wilson’s earth science class when they announced that the lowly Mets were World Champions.
The Mets winning the World Series was considered impossible. All of a sudden the Mets mattered and our long, somewhat troubled romance began.
Back to New York City – “Ya Gotta Believe”
In the early seventies, my parents finally divorced, and my mother took us back to New York.
Almost as soon as we arrived, I promptly broke my ankle in true baseball fashion. It was Father’s Day, and I was playing a friendly ball game at the park with my cousins. Feeling aggressive, I slid back to the tree we were using as first base. I caught my foot on the roots in so doing, twisting and breaking my ankle.
I spent the summer of 1971 on crutches and watched games on television. At the same time, my sister followed our cousin’s lead and developed an interest in the Mets.
The next year, when I was healthy, I started going with them.
I remember sneaking out to Shea on opening day to watch Seaver pitch against Steve Carlton. Thanks to Google I know that the Mets won 3 – 0. My memory is not good enough to remember opening day scores. However, I do remember being there the day that Tug McGraw announced “you gotta believe” after a team meeting. This proclamation was the mythical start to the Mets push for the pennant and their rallying cry.
The Mets ended the season with a very mediocre .500 record, yet almost won the World Series! I was able to see one of the games at Shea but losing game seven was heartbreaking.
In College, I Had Other Priorities
Baseball lost a little luster when I was in college in the latter half of the 1970s. My lack of attention may have been because, each year, the Mets seemed to be competitive only through May. At that point, they would be swept (in my memory, usually by the Phillies) and they were done.
Although I had other priorities, I do remember these highlights:
- I “borrowed” my freshman roommate’s television so my friends and I could watch game six of the ’75 Series. He wasn’t pleased.
- The Yankees were good, and the Mets weren’t. I rooted for the Red Sox to beat them. Imagine the heartbreak of being a Met’s fan, rooting for the Red Sox to beat the Yankees and Bucky Dent! Bucky Dent, forever known in Boston as “Bucky F’ing Dent,” hits the home run to win the 1978 playoff game.
- Reggie Jackson went nuts in the ’78 series. The Yankees beat the Dodgers a guy down the hall shed tears of joy. However, I was not pleased.
The Early Eighties I Realize That Baseball Is A Performance Art
By the early eighties, I was married and living in New England. Marcy and I lived in Portsmouth, NH and occasionally after dinner took walks and watched snippets of little league games.
I found that I couldn’t escape the joy of watching a game – any game. I loved it all and couldn’t get enough.
The fact is that I realized what my father once told me was true. He always said that Baseball was performance art.
It doesn’t matter who is playing, the players’ age or skill level. The art form is always on exhibit. Since the ballparks are all different, they help mold the experience.
I escorted Marcy to her first live game – the July 4th doubleheader at Shea in 1980. The Mets split the twin bill with Expos. One game was close, and the other wasn’t. There
We married in 1982. On the way to the wedding in New York City; we visited Cooperstown for the first time. We’ve been back many times. It’s a great trip, with many things to do, everyone should add a visit to their “bucket list.”
Stirrings in Flushing
The Mets started to win! They brought up Doc and Straw and won some more. Then in ’83, they traded for my personal favorite, Keith Hernandez – evidently only the “Cardinal’s second-worst trade.” They were getting closer. Then in ’84 came the Gary Carter deal and for a moment the Mets were the best team in baseball.
The Mets were up and comers in ’83 and ‘84, came real close in ’85 won big in ’86 (when the Red Sox victory parade went up Beacon turned left and got lost between Billy Buckner’s legs)
Before the ’86 season, we were sure that the Mets would win and got “Mets ‘86” license plates. For context, remember that we didn’t live near New York, we lived in Old Orchard Beach, Maine – Red Sox country. Who knew the Red Sox were going to be that good and would face the Mets in the Series? I didn’t.
Marcy was pregnant with Leah and was driving the “Mets ’86” car to work in Durham, N.H, about an hour’s drive. She didn’t experience road rage, but did hear many horns and saw more than her share of middle fingers. These gestures got more frequent during the World Series and its aftermath.
The harassment continued occasionally until we moved to St. Louis in 1988, often with the infant version of Leah in the car. Yes, the Mets fan moved from Red Sox country to the home of our arch nemesis the Cardinals.
Pond Scum and The 90’s
We had a short stay in St. Louis between 1988 and 1990. There was a corporate box in Busch Stadium that we used occasionally. I worked in an office filled with Cardinals fans and got more than used to the term “pond scum” in reference to the Mets, their fans and I. One guy, an ardent Cardinal fan called gave me the nickname “TBK” (Total Baseball Knowledge).
A memorable night entailed dining with my father at Charlie Gitto’s and then searching The Hill for Yogi Berra’s house. We asked a guy on the street for directions assuming that everyone would know such things. I don’t believe we ever found the home although my father would tell you different.
We left St. Louis, for a brief stint in Allentown, Pennsylvania and then moved to Rochester, NY. I spent the ‘90s, and early ‘00s focused on career, being a good father and husband and observed baseball from afar. The Mets weren’t much, and I had other priorities – but the game was always close to my heart.
There were some great moments:
- The afternoon that my father and I drove through Brooklyn looking for where Ebbets Field used to be
- Larry, Ted (my brothers) and I took my father on his only trip to Cooperstown.
- Leah saw the green monster for the first time, after watching the 1999 All-Star Game on TV and exclaiming “I want to go there!”
The Best Week of the Year
In 2004, a friend and I did something we had been talking about for a few years – Spring Training. The weeklong tradition called “the best week of the year” is now fifteen years old and going strong.
We stay in Jupiter, Florida, which hosts both the Cardinals and the Marlins. The location is even better now since the Nationals and Astros recently moved to a facility in West Palm Beach. West Palm is about 15 minutes away, and the Mets are only 30 minutes in the other direction. Not only do we have plenty of baseball choices, we like the area. The restaurants are excellent, the lines aren’t too long, and it’s easy to get around.
Our usual and now time tested routine is to fly down on a Friday evening. We stay in a cheap hotel near the airport that night The next morning; we go to the game, then check into our hotel and have a nice dinner. Each day, we work out in the morning, then go to a game. The day ends with a dip in the pool, time at the bar and an excellent meal. We follow this pattern until we fly home the following Saturday after seeing eight games in seven days. Our final statement when the trip is over is “only 51 weeks until we can go again.”
Thus, I’ve started each baseball season by immersing myself in the game, for a very long time. In fact, for a very long time, I’ve wanted to continue the trip into the regular season. But, in previous years, I returned to work – as we all must do.
In addition to Spring Training, the road to this current experience was gaining momentum in other ways.
I earned my M.B.A in 1998 and started working with a small marketing consultancy. Soon, I was assigned to a new project that required me to drive to Cleveland frequently. Coincidently, my father moved there a few years earlier with his second wife, a Cleveland native.
There were times I was there almost every other week. The visits enabled dad and me to frequently go to Jacob’s Field (“the Jake”) – now “Progressive Field.
In contrast to when he took me to ballgames when I was young, I was now taking him. What started as the father holding his son’s hand ended with the son pushing his father’s wheelchair. Baseball was the constant.
I also started to travel more and could visit ballparks around the country. My father would say, I started “collecting ballparks.”
San Francisco conference? Catch a game at AT &T. A meeting in Seattle? Easy ride to Safeco. In addition to Cleveland, family adventures took me to Comerica in Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Boston, and Baltimore. We go to Citi Field every year, and one July 4th went to the “NEW” Yankee Stadium
Over the years I have ” collected” about 12 or so ballparks, with 18 left to see. However, it’s not fulfilling enough. No matter how much time I spend at ballparks, I feel like I am missing something. I want more. It’s time to see all the ballparks and have other baseball experiences along the way.