Baseball – The Inseparable Bond Between Father and Son
It was April 1985. I was six years old living in Old Bridge, New Jersey. My parents had signed me up for Little League and I really didn’t know what to expect. So one afternoon, my father sits me down and introduces me to something on television I hadn’t seen before. All I knew was Sesame Street, Dukes of Hazard, and WWF wrestling. He turned on a baseball game between the New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals and decided this would be the day he exposes me to baseball.
Why was it so important that my dad introduce me to baseball? For some background, my father spent several years of his childhood living in Brooklyn, NY in the 1950’s. His uncle, Barney Stein, was the team photographer for the Brooklyn Dodgers (the book “Through a Blue Lens” chronicles the history of the Brooklyn Dodgers using Barney’s photographs). As a result, my dad had access to some of the all-time great baseball players that no one else had. He has beautiful, professional pictures as a 4-year old with Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, etc. Baseball was in his blood from an early age, and it never wavered.
So I am watching this game between the Mets and Cardinals, and the game is tied and goes into extra innings. From what I remember, my attention was slipping because it was a long game with several periods of inactivity. However, that would all change when Gary Carter stepped to the plate in his first game as a Met since he was traded from the Montreal Expos. Carter hit a homerun to win the game for the Mets in his debut, and watching the crowd at Shea Stadium go berserk was something I will never forget. I ate it up. I loved what I saw. Gary Carter immediately became my favorite player. This would form the foundation for my desire to be a catcher, and ironically, serve as the impetus for ending my active playing career years later.
My Little League career began anti-climatically as I was on a team comprised mostly of kids who were a year older than me. I didn’t play too much, but when I did, I was usually just thrown somewhere into the outfield where no 6 or 7 year old could hit the ball yet anyway.
Then, one afternoon before a game started, my coach asked us if anyone wanted to volunteer trying to be a catcher. All I knew was that the catcher had to wear all of this equipment and stand right behind the hitter who was swinging a bat by his head. After being scared for a second, I then thought about Gary Carter, my new favorite player. I instinctively raised my hand and said I would do it. The coach seemed a little shocked to hear me volunteer. He then had to explain this to my parents and make sure it was ok with them. I will never forget putting the equipment on for the first time and going down the right field line of our Little League field to warm up the pitcher. My parents came over and were standing behind the fence parallel to me and my coach. I could tell my parents were nervous. But I told them not to worry and I would be fine. And I was. I even caught a few pitchers in the air with my huge catcher’s mitt. That was a success for me. Remember, these were 6 and 7 year olds so there was no stealing bases or anything complicated like that. Hell, there was barely even contact made with the bat by the hitters. I survived my first game as a catcher, and I was instantly hooked.
The 1986 season came and went, and I found myself watching as many games as I could (when my parents let me stay up late enough). Then, in October, my bedtime was extended so I could watch the World Series. I still remember seeing Jesse Orosco strike out Marty Barrett and throw his glove in the air.
I was sitting on a brown, leather chair next to my father watching this historic moment. In retrospect, it has so much meaning (and not just because it was the last glorious moment of being a Mets’ fan). I now appreciate the special moment it was to experience it with my father because he was the one who introduced me to the game.
In 1987, my father signed me up for the Junior Mets Club where we got to go to Shea Stadium and sit at field level and watch the players do some hitting, pitching and fielding. I got a special ID card, a Mets shirt, and other paraphenalia that probably wasn’t worth the price that my father paid. But just being at the ballpark and seeing the players up close was something I have never forgotten. The first game I ever attended was in 1987 against the Pirates. Walking through the tunnel and into the stands and seeing the huge green outfield, the immense scoreboard, and the smell of hot dogs, beer and peanuts still resonates today. Maybe that is why I don’t drink beer too often because it stunk like hell.
As time went on and my Little League career progressed, I became obsessed with baseball and my father was always willing to fill my craving with baseball talk. He was the coach of my teams, so pretty much everything I learned about the game I learned from him. But it was the private lessons and talks that cemented my desire to learn the game. When we had spare time, I wanted my dad to quiz me on baseball situations. “Runners on 2nd and 3rd, one out, top of the 7th inning, right-handed batter up, right-handed junk pitcher on the mound…where do you position the shortstop and what do you do if a ball is hit to right field?” Ok so maybe that isn’t exactly the fact pattern, but you get the point that we would talk about any and every possible scenario. This continued to fuel my love for being a catcher because I had to always think about that stuff when calling pitches or giving signs to the fielders.
In 1988, my parents got divorced. While this obviously affected me and changed my life, it did not change anything between me and my father. He still coached every team I played for. We still went to games. We still had that father-son bond. As a way of showing my father how much he taught me, I created my own baseball magazine for him. It was 1989 and I was 10 years old. I had 10 pieces of colored construction paper and a couple of markers. I drew some pictures on the cover, made a table of contents inside, and wrote about six stories regarding the 1989 baseball season. This journalistic classic included stories about the San Francisco Giants’ deadly trio of Will Clark, Kevin Mitchell and Matt Williams; the failure of the New York Mets to reach their potential (sound familiar?); the surprising Baltimore Orioles challenging the Blue Jays for the AL East crown, and Nolan Ryan’s historic 5,000th strikeout. I gave this to my father who kept it in his work office for years until he let me have it back just recently. He still tells me how impressed he was with that magazine. Perhaps I should seek royalties from Baseball Weekly.
Getting back to life in a broken family, in a twist of fate, the divorce allowed us to do certain things we probably wouldn’t have had my parents stayed together. In 1992, we wanted to take a baseball road trip. So we went to the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY to see Tom Seaver get inducted. Being in Cooperstown is like a 5-year old kid being in a candy store. I couldn’t get enough of the Hall of Fame or the whole town which had store upon store of baseball stuff – baseball cards, posters, figures, books, picture frames, bats, balls, hats, helmets, yearbooks, jerseys, shirts, etc. It was amazing. From Cooperstown, my father drove us 7 hours to Pittsburgh where we saw the Mets play the Pirates for a three-game series. The hotel we were staying at happened to be the hotel where the Mets’ players were at as well. The first game of the series was uneventful except for the fact Eddie Murray got ejected from the game. The next morning when my father and I got into the elevator, guess who was in the elevator with us – Eddie Murray. I was both excited and scared because I knew of Murray’s reputation for not being “fan friendly.” He was an intimidating figure, probably 6 foot 3 and 230 pounds. I just stared at him. My father broke the ice and said “The ump blew the call last night…you had every right to argue.” I held my breath wondering if Murray would either respond or kill us. He just turned his head slowly towards my father, and in a deep, grimacing voice said “Yeah.” It seemed like hours before the elevator reached the ground floor. We wished Eddie Murray luck for the game, he said thanks, and that was it. We could now breathe.
When we got back to New Jersey after this trip, my father started feeling some pain in his side and his back. It didn’t go away, so he went to the doctor and discovered that he had a kidney stone. He was sent to the hospital to try and pass the stone. However, the stone would not pass and none of the medication they were giving was dissolving the stone. Being 14, I was not told all of the details by my mother (who was at the hospital too helping out). But she finally told me that they were going to have to operate on my father because his kidneys were turning toxic on themselves and he could die within days if the stone was not removed. I will never forget the pain, fear and guilt I felt. I blamed myself for this because he probably got the kidney stone while we were at the baseball games. Fortunately, the operation was successful and he was fine. However, the 1993 Mets were so bad that it COULD have actually caused kidney stones.
To celebrate his recovery, we decided to plan another baseball road trip – but one for the ages. We looked at the entire MLB schedule and planned out the ultimate trip. We flew from Newark, NJ to Buffalo, NY and rented a car to drive to Toronto. There, we stayed at the Skydome and saw two Blue Jays vs. Twins games. One of the games was a day game and the dome was left open. It was so frickin’ hot in that stadium with the roof open. From Toronto, we flew to Chicago where we spent a couple days seeing games. This was the one time during the season when both the Cubs and White Sox were home on the same days. So we saw the Cubs vs. Giants during the day and then the White Sox vs. Royals at night for two days. One of the Cubs – Giants games was Randy Myers’ Poster Day. Myers, a former Met (and the player traded for John Franco – yuck), was the Cubs’ closer. He ended up blowing a save, and as he walked back to the dugout, Wrigley Field unleashed hell by heaving all of the posters onto the field. Harry Caray had to make an announcement that the Cubs would forfeit the game if the littering continued. There was a 15 minute delay so the grounds crew could clean up the field.
While still in Chicago, we drove up to Milwaukee and saw a Brewers vs. Tigers game at County Stadium (which is where Major League was filmed). That place was a dump. We then drove to Cincinnati where we would see the Mets vs. Reds for three games. I was wearing a Mets’ shirt at Riverfront Stadium, so it was fairly easy to get the players’ attention during warm-ups. As a result, three separate players threw me a ball before one game – Chico Walker, Ced Landrum, and Todd Hundley. The Mets got swept in that series, but I will never forget seeing Frank Tanana hit a three-run triple down the right field line and thinking he would have a heart attack from all that running.
It was around this time that my father and I started doing a salary cap fantasy baseball league called Baseball Challenge, which was published in USA Today. This was my first exposure to fantasy baseball, and I couldn’t get enough of it. Not only would my father and I spend countless hours discussing Little League baseball and Major League baseball, but now we had to find time to discuss fantasy baseball. By doing fantasy baseball, I really learned about players on all teams and not just the Mets and their NL East rivals. Deciding whether to take Pat Listach and Travis Fryman or Gary DiSarcina and Jeff King became the biggest dilemma in my life.
In 1994, we decided to do another baseball trip, but had to make sure we booked it before the pending strike was to begin. So my father and I went out to Denver for a few days to see the Rockies vs. Dodgers at the old Mile High Stadium. The last game we saw was on a Saturday night, the day before the strike began. Sure enough, based on the length of the game, we were at the very last game played before that infamous work stoppage. The next day, the stadium was converted back to football because the Broncos had a pre-season game against Atlanta. We went to that game and sat next to a woman whose son was playing for the Falcons at the time. Sure enough, we were sitting next to former WWE and WCW Heavyweight Champion Bill Goldberg’s mother. Who would have known back then that the 2nd string defensive lineman would go on to be a successful pro wrestler and star of Celebrity Apprentice.
By 1995, my Little League career was over and my knees had given out on me after all those years as a catcher. I was playing ball for my high school, but primarily as a third baseman and DH. I lost a lot of the passion I had for playing because I physically couldn’t be a catcher and I was not the coach’s first choice at third base. As the high school season ended, my father discovered something in the newspaper that would end up being one of the greatest experiences of my life. He suggested I try out for a travel baseball team that would compete in the Maccabi Games, otherwise known as the Jewish Olympics. This was a team comprised of 16-year olds from all over New Jersey to play in a tournament in Los Angeles during the summer of 1995. Initially, I was lukewarm about the idea and not confident I could compete with other talented players given that I hadn’t played much at any other position besides catcher. But my father persisted and eventually I agreed to attend the tryouts. I knew that in order to make this team I had to showcase my versatility and stand out as someone who could do anything. So I started training and building up strength and endurance. I had never been in better baseball shape in my life. So the day the roster was being selected, I anxiously waited by the phone and eventually got a call from Coach Riley who informed me I had made the team. He specifically said he wanted me on the team because of my speed and agility, and he pegged me as the team’s centerfielder with the ability to fill in at first base, third base, and emergency catcher if I could do it. This was the first time in my life anyone complimented me on my speed and agility (and sadly, it was the last time too). I couldn’t wait to tell my father the news and in the same breath admit that I was wrong for not wanting to try out for the team.
Ironically, the other player inducted in 2003 was Eddie Murray. We didn’t get the chance to speak to Eddie and call him out on his behavior in the elevator in Pittsburgh, but 11 years had gone by and we forgave him.
Over the years, my father and I have attended some of the most classic Mets’ games ever played in my lifetime. In 1999, we were at Game 4 of the NLDS against the Arizona Diamondbacks when Todd Pratt hit a game-winning homerun to clinch the series. Just days later, we were at the classic Robin Ventura grand-slam single game. I am a very superstitious baseball fan. I will keep me arms folded or hold onto a pencil for an extended period of time if I felt it would sustain a rally. So at this 1999 NLCS Game 5, the score was tied 2-2 in the 7th inning. My father said he had to get up and go to the bathroom, but I wouldn’t allow him to because I was afraid the Braves would score if he left. Sure enough, the game remained tied 2-2 into the 15th inning. At this point, my dad was going to burst so he got up in spite of my protests and went to the bathroom. Of course, while he was up, the Braves scored in the Top of the 15th inning to go ahead 3-2. When he came back to the seat, I refused to talk to him. In the Bottom of the 15th inning, Robin Ventura came up with the bases loaded and crushed a ball over the right-field wall for an apparent grand-slam. Shea Stadium went berserk and no one saw Ventura get mobbed past first base. Turns out they ruled it a two-run single, but who cared, the Mets had just won. Then in 2000, my dad and I were at Game 4 of the NLDS against the San Francisco Giants when Bobby Jones threw a one-hit shutout to clinch the series.
To this day, I think of my father whenever I watch baseball. The love and passion I have for the game is an extension of his love and passion for the game. I love the fact that no matter what is going on in our lives, we can always talk about baseball. He is also one of the Associate Justices working on Fantasy Judgment’s expert bench. This is not because he is my father, but because he has more knowledge and experience with sports than almost anyone I know and is damn smart enough to express impartial wisdom in coherent written form. I have learned an awful lot from my father about baseball, and now that knowledge is being translated into an entrepreneurial business.
So why did I write all of this? Because now that I am a father to the greatest little two-year old in the world, I want to have a common bond and connection with her that transcends everything else. It doesn’t have to be baseball or sports at all (although that would be nice, and yes, I am raising her a Mets’ fan – it builds character). I want to have a common interest or passion that can always be a topic of conversation or just an unspoken shared nod of the head. It has meant the world to me to have that with my father, and I want to have that with my own child as well.
Baseball is a great game/sport/activity to share between a father and son. It is both physical and cerebral. Its past history is just as important as its present and future. It has a sense of community and country with the National Anthem and God Bless America. Its traditions are sacred and revered. It can be used as a metaphor for life. I think back to some of the most stressful and/or anxious times in my life such as going on my first date, getting Bar Mitzvahed, driving a car on the Garden State Parkway, going to college, taking the LSAT and bar exam, standing in front of a judge for the first time, proposing to my girlfriend, getting married, expecting a child, etc. On each and every one of those occasions, and many more that were not listed, I can equate that to the feeling of being at bat with a full count and the bases loaded in the bottom of the last inning with my team down by 3 runs. The nerves, the pressure, the sweat. That is life. Life is hard and life has pressures, just like being up with a 3-2 pitch coming and the bases loaded. Sometimes you get into a jam and have to figure your way out of it, just like a savvy pitcher who has to hold a one-run lead with the bases loaded and no outs. A better example would be Henry Rowengartner from “Rookie of the Year” having to pitch the Top of the 9th without the ability to throw his super-fastball. He creatively found ways to get three outs when his back was against the wall.
So the life lessons I have learned from my father can all be related to baseball. And even at 31 years old, there is still more for me to learn and more advice to receive from my father. I think THE most important lesson my father ever taught me is a baseball lesson which really is a metaphor for life. “A walk is as good as a hit.” This couldn’t be more true – it doesn’t matter how you get on base, as long as you get on base. Your own statistics are not as important as the team’s. Think of others and not just yourself. Do not be stubborn – be creative. Dad, I heard you loud and clear when I was 6, and I still hear you loud and clear at 31. No matter what, we will always have baseball. For that, I thank you and love you.