I wrote an article a few years back that was printed in USA Today magazine--not the newspaper, but the Journal of the Society for the Advancement of Education. I reprise it here on Shea Stadium's last day:
I TURNED Willie McCovey recently. (That's 44 for those of you who don't associate age with the numbers worn by ballplayers on their uniforms.) That's a big year to live up to.
When I was a kid, there were only a few occasions I went to the ballpark. We didn't have season tickets, or weekend season tickets, or even the popular Tuesday-Thursday-alternate Saturday season ticket plan. We needed a special occasion to go, and that in itself made those days and nights exceptional.
My brother and I each got to go to a game for our birthday. Johnny being a New York Yankees fan, we went to the Bronx for his; mine, a seat in the third deck at Shea Stadium, home of the New York Mets. I'm Willie McCovey now, but I have no plans to go to the park for this birthday.
Birthday games had rules. They had to be on a Sunday. They had to be doubleheaders. Mom made bologna sandwiches, with mayonnaise that ripened nicely over the course of a few hours in the sun. We each were bought a hot dog, a Coke, and one ice cream. I do recall a couple of bags of peanuts: I'm sure there was more, but not much more. Certainly, the idea that a cap, pennant, or T-shirt might be coming home with us was nuts. We didn't even think of it, so it wasn't that we were disappointed. It simply was out of the sphere of possibility, as removed from our reality as a trip on the Queen Elizabeth or a visit with the Pope.
We always arrived early--very early. We got our money's worth. We saw batting and fielding practice, and then two games for the price of one. I loved those games. Although my mind would wander sometimes, it was during those Sunday afternoons that I came to appreciate the game and my father.
It's an old story that sons and fathers bond over baseball and, even in the roughest or most awkward of times, men can intergenerationally "talk baseball." I know this is true. Other than "I'm very sorry for your loss," the phrase most spoken by men at funerals is "How 'bout them Mets (or Yanks, or Cubs, or Sox)." I don't know what they do in locales where people seem less substantial, like California, or where major league baseball is so new that its roots haven't taken hold yet, like Tampa Bay, but in real cities, where baseball preceded the designated hitter, it is acceptable to talk baseball anywhere, anytime. I imagine that more than one father, at a loss for any other words as he is handing off his daughter to her groom at the end of the aisle, has whispered "Any score?" and heard his soon-to-be-on-in-law murmur "Mets. 3-2. Top six."
Sunday doubleheaders were wonderful. We picked out our birthday games as soon as the schedule arrived, usually as part of the comics page in the Sunday New York Daily News, which would print out the schedule in color. I got to go to "Johnny's game"; he got to go to mine. This gave us a chance to enhance our two-years-apart sibling rivalry--I rooted for whatever American League team was playing the Yankees, while he became the biggest San Francisco Giants or Pittsburgh Pirates or Cincinnati Reds fan in the world. Dad sat between us to referee.
The games were lazy and fun and hot and drifted along. Dad would point out players, telling us to watch how they adjusted--see where they're playing this guy; look at the fight fielder. You couldn't see this on TV--at home you only saw the standard over-the-pitcher's shoulder-from-center-field shot. Who knew there was all this action going on behind the mound? Going to a game and really observing is like having a view of backstage while simultaneously watching the actors on stage. In later years, I've enjoyed being at the game with semi-fans, or my wife or daughters, and saying, "Look at the shortstop. He'll hide his face, and flash an open mouth or closed mouth to the second baseman so he'll know who's going to cover on a steal." The rest of the inning will be an explanation of the open-mouthed thing. I love it, even if my audience just looks and says, "Oh ... yeah ... I see." Some don't understand, and that's okay. I didn't get a family trust fund; what I did get was lots of love, great doubleheaders, and the behind-the-glove signal. I wouldn't trade--unless, of course, we're talking about a really big trust fund.
At game's end, we piled into the station wagon, prayed that it would start, prayed that it would make it home, prayed that the traffic would let up so we could get home before the next dawn. The car was filled with taunts from the winner, cries of retribution from the loser, the occasional shove, and the not-so-occasional "Knock-it-off!" bellow from Dad. As a father myself, I look back at those days and wonder what in the world he was thinking. Even though the games were only two and a half hours or less, this was a door-to-door 10-hour day with two boys who, while they have grown to be as close as two brothers can be, didn't have much tolerance for each other as kids--in traffic; in the sun; back in traffic; those mayonnaise sandwiches doing their work; the ballpark hot dog helping out. There were times I'm surprised Johnny and I weren't left to wander home on the parkway. "Honest, hon," he could have said to my mother, "it's not that far of a walk."
My dad worked a while for Pergament, a home improvement and paint chain. I was young, maybe Ed Kranepool or Yogi Berra. He'd get the company box once a year. Oh my God, were those great seats--at Shea; yellow seats: eight rows behind the visiting dugout. You could see into the Mets' dugout and watch the players; heck, see the players! Best of all--they were night games. For a seven- or eight-year-old, night games meant only one thing--pure magic! Dad received four tickets. It was the three of us, and usually my grandfather. I saw the Mets beat Sandy Koufax of the very hated Los Ang ... actually, we could refer to them as the Dodgers, but I don't think we were allowed to mention the city they were playing in. Some wounds take a long time to heal, and the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn for California was still very fresh when I was Willie Davis (3) for my Dad. It still hasn't healed, and he is approaching Carlton Fisk (72).
I also went to one game a year with the Little League. It was meet at the school, in your team shirt and cap; get into a bus with 40 screaming kids; go to Shea; listen to screaming for two hours; then ride back home. The game was better watched on TV. I always knew it was missing something, even if I wasn't sure what it was. I know it now. When Johnny and I went to the game with Dad, it was special. It was our time--with our father. The stadiums were quieter then; the fans didn't need to have bad rock `n' roll blasted at them from crappy speakers between innings. They didn't need to cheer on the cartoon planes as they "race" around the scoreboard. Instead, people talked. Dad always found a guy or two around him, someone who knew the old Dodgers like Carl Erskine or Pee Wee Reese. It was somebody who also couldn't understand why the manager was leaving the pitcher in: He's already run the count three balls on the last four hitters. Look out; a double! Didn't I tell you?
Little League games, though, were anything but quiet. They were filled with kids who weren't watching the game. How could you not watch the game? Why are you here? Don't you know how special this is? Why would you open your mustard pack and run it along the back of the seats? My mother is going to kill me when she sees the stains on the legs of my dungarees. Why are you flicking globs of ice cream at us younger kids from the rows up above? Why do we have to go to the bus in the eighth inning--the game isn't over?! It was like watching kids skateboard on the altar at church.
The seats we had were the ones nobody else wanted, all the way up and all the way out. The players look mighty small from up there. At Shea, there are only a few seats in fair territory, way out in left and right field. Except for one player's four times at bat, I hated those games.
It seems like every game we went to with the Little League was against the Giants. Their star first baseman was McCovey, who was left-handed--and powerful. Luckily, we seemed to most always sit in right field, where a left-hander naturally hits home runs.
McCovey hit 521 home runs in his Hall of Fame career, the same as Ted Williams. I swear I saw at least 80 of them. Four times a game he'd get up--four moments that would stay with me, make the miserable day worth it and more. He always seemed to send one towards us, fair or foul, but more often fair. Glorious, towering arcs, streaking fight at us, upper deck, right field. It made those the best seats in the house. I still get shivers.
I don't enjoy baseball games much anymore. I don't have a young boy's knowledge of the players; there are too many teams; and I never was into rotisserie baseball, so I don't know who plays third for the Houston Astros. I guess that's normal with age and the pressing of other responsibilities. When my summer was spent playing whiffle ball with Johnny in the backyard, a "borrowed" shopping cart as the strike zone, I had the chance to memorize the hated Pirates' lineup, batting left-handed and right-handed as appropriate, making sure that their light-hitting shortstop didn't pop any over the house for a home run. Those games were fun, though they instigated as many fights as extra-base hits. Years later, when I pitched for my high school freshman team, the coach questioned my pitching form. "Your follow-through is okay most of the time, except when you have two strikes on the batter. What gives?" I replied, "Simple, Coach. Whenever I struck my brother out, he threw the bat at me. So when I throw a pitch to a guy with two strikes, I just naturally duck." Not surprisingly, I didn't play varsity.
It's funny how it goes. When we were limping into the parking lot in that old station wagon, I was aware of the car, thankful it got us there. Now I zip into the lot with a nice, expensive, middle-age-appropriate vehicle and I don't think of it at all. When there was one "Game of the Week" I rarely missed it, even on sunny Saturdays. Now, cable brings me dozens of games I skip through on my way to the Food Channel or a movie. I get tickets when I want and sit in great seats, but there's no rush of adventure, like when I used to spend hours picking out just the fight doubleheader, or thrill like that first night game.
Today, I find the whole at-the-game experience loud, nasty, and money-grubbing, like some kind of high-tech, amplified Persian bazaar. I appreciate very much the games I go to with my dad, wife, and girls, for the time I spend with them. However, with yelling to them to be heard over the blaring, "We will, we will rock you" music in the second inning, even though there are no men on base; cringing at some drunk's obscenity-laced diatribe against their fight fielder, our third baseman, or the beer vendor; surviving through a three-hour-plus get-in-the-damn-batters-box-and-hit marathon; or watching some steroid-filled millionaire stand in the box and preen after hitting yet another meaningless home run, it just isn't the same. I guess that's the kind of thing you say when you reach Willie McCovey.