It was my first baseball game. And it was almost my last.
In the summer of 1972 I was pushing Tonka trucks around the floor in a one bedroom apartment in The Bronx. I noted the wide range of emotions my Dad went through watching a 2 ½ hour baseball game. Happiness, frustration, cheering, despair. I’d casually glance up at the Zenith B&W. Slowly my toys became secondary and I found myself sitting on the sofa next to my father.
There were the multi-colored sport jackets of Lindsey Nelson, the malapropisms of Ralph Kiner and the velvety cadences of gray-haired red-faced Bob Murphy, who my dad said was, “As smooth as a duck’s tuchus.” That made me laugh.
But my dad was the one who taught me baseball. He explained the game to me, the game within the game, the intricacies. And I got hooked. I watched, I listened, I learned
The following season, with some apprehension, he decided to take me to my first game. Watching on TV was one thing, but would this seven year old become distracted and grow restless and impatient? After handing over some change to park our Plymouth Scamp, we got out of the car.
My chin hit the asphalt. I was blown away. The stadium was huge, enormous. It was like the Roman Coliseum and it was right here in Flushing.
Clusters of people–older, younger, boys my age and icky girls–were all walking toward something in unison, moving together as one cohesive unit. For the first time in my life I became a part of something bigger, something that extended far beyond my bedroom and my classmates. I was now one of tens of millions of baseball fans.
With Dad’s hand on my shoulder, he guided me between the throngs of fellow Mets fans, passing blue and orange panels hanging from cables on Shea’s exterior. Dad handed over our tickets to an usher wearing an orange jacket and blue slacks.
“Enjoy the game, son.”
I was too busy gazing around in awe when dad nudged me. “What do you say to the man?”
“Uh…Let’s Go Mets.”
Dad laughed. “Anything else?”
“Oh, yea, thank you.”
Seconds later I was bequeathed something in a wrapper. Whoa, cool! A real authentic plastic Mets helmet. Did they give these out every day? Or maybe just to me since it was my first game. Christmas in April. Little did I realize it was Helmet Day. I tore open the packaging, placed the item on my head…and my lips quivered. It was too big. Dad adjusted the interior settings and now it fit perfectly.
He saved the day.
Before heading to our seats, we walked through the passageway in the Loge level. My eyes bulged out of my head, my heart leapt in my chest. Watching on WOR didn’t do it justice. I couldn’t grasp how gigantic the field was. It went on forever. The scoreboard was colossal. I’d never seen grass so green. The grounds crew watered down the infield, causing brown dirt to contrast strikingly with pristine white bases.
Baseballs, like little round missiles, were rocketing all over the place as players took batting practice. Yeah.., I could get used to this.
“Daddy, daddy!” I shouted, jumping in place nearly wrenching his arm out of his socket. “There’s Rusty!!!”
Rusty Staub was my favorite Met. I don’t know why I took to him. I had yet to grasp the significance of confusing stats and complicated numbers. I didn’t quite comprehend batting average or Earned Run Average and didn’t know if Rusty was good or not. Maybe it was his unique hair color, or his strange batting stance which was upright and stiff with his backside sticking out. Maybe it was the fact he and I shared the same initials or perhaps it was simply due to his cool nickname, Le Grande Orange.
Yea, I definitely could get used to this.
We watched BP for a while before heading to our seats. We went inside the stadium and took the escalator up. And up. And up again. And up some more.
I don’t know what happened, don’t know if the guy who sold dad the tickets gave us the wrong seats. But we were sitting in the very last row in the grandstands, the upper deck. The grating was against our backs. Miles beyond my shoulder was the NYC skyline with the Empire State Building and the Twin Towers that had just opened two weeks earlier. It felt like I was closer to the cement sidewalk four levels below than to the field. Planes landing at LaGuardia were practically on eye level. The players were tiny. I couldn’t tell who was who. Which one is Rusty?
The seats in the stratosphere, however, was secondary. The date was April 21, 1973. It was cloudy, overcast, there was a crisp bite in the air, the wind whipped around with gale force ferocity. Baseball was played in the summer but winter seemed reluctant to release its grip. My hands were shoved deep in my pockets, my feet growing numb, my teeth chattered. I knew the words to the song but right now I didn’t want anyone to buy me some peanuts and cracker jacks. I just wanted a hot chocolate.
Dad lit up a cigarette. (Hey, it was 1973) “You okay?”
“Ss-ss-sure, da-da-daddy, this is gr-gr-great.” I may have been fighting frostbite but I didn’t care. I was at my first ballgame.
Moments later, he tapped my shoulder. “C’mon.” He took my hand and led me down the steep steps. On the walkway he approached an usher. My dad was a salesman and went into selling mode. “Look,” he began pleasantly, “This is my son’s first game. And if I bring him home with pneumonia, my wife will kill me. She’ll never let me take him to another game and you’ll lose a fan for life. You gotta get us into better seats.”
The usher pointed to a different usher a few sections over. That guy told us to speak to someone else. The third guy directed us to someone in an office. We went inside the concourse and hurried to this other guy. My little legs had difficulty keeping up with my dad’s long loping strides.
This new guy informed us we’d need to discuss it with someone different.
Organ music emanated from massive speakers as Jane Jarvis began the opening notes to Meet the Mets.
Along another concourse we went. My dad now jogging, me running alongside.
The voice of the PA announcer boomed across Flushing like the voice of God. “Good afternoon, ladies and gentleman, boys and girls. Welcome to Shea Stadium, home of the New York Mets.”
A roar went up. Fans cheered. But my dad and I were running around like Matt Damon would be forty years later in the final twenty minutes of “The Adjustment Bureau.”
Dad picked up the pace. “C’mon, Rob!”
We went into another office. This guy in a white shirt and tie directed us to an office on the second level.
We took off again.
“We ask you to remove your hats and please rise for the singing of…”
“Daddy!” I shouted.
“What?!” he clipped, understandably frustrated.
“It’s the National Anthem.”
He gave me a look, then couldn’t help but laugh
Oh, Canada, Glorious and Free….
“What’s that?” I asked, scrunching my face.
“We’re playing Montreal. That’s the Canadian National Anthem,” he explained.
“They have a different one than us?”
Moments later, the more familiar, Oh, say, can you see…
I stood motionless, respectfully removing my brand new helmet, patriotically placed my hand over my heart and sung.
And the home of the brave.
And off we went again.
“Here are today’s starting lineups and batting orders. First, the visiting Montreal Expos.”
“Daddy, the game’s starting!” I cried out, gasping for air. My short legs ached, I had sticking pain in my side from running so hard and so fast. I liked running. I was one of the faster boys in my second grade class. But even this was getting excessive.
There was no one around, everyone already in their seats. We bulleted around a corner and were dashing down a wide ramp full speed.
My side was stabbing but not from running so hard. Instead it was cause of my Dad. He was really old, the ripe old age of thirty and I’d never seen him run before. I tried to keep up but was giggling so hard, I pulled up short and angled forward, laughing uncontrollably.
The hilarity of the moment quickly turned to tears when my helmet slipped off my head, hit the concrete and fractured.
Twenty yards ahead, Dad turned, came back and took a knee by my side. He sympathetically lifted my splintered helmet and embraced me. “I’ll get you another one,” he whispered while hugging away the tears.
I’m not sure how he did it but somehow he made sure everything worked out.
With mere seconds to spare before the first pitch we ended up in our own private press box Reporters from local newspapers and TV stations close by. Three booths to our right were the Mets play-by-play announcers. Lindsey’s jackets were even brighter in person. “There’s Ralph,” Dad pointed reverentially, even at thirty somewhat awed by the presence of Kiner’s greatness.
I learned a lot that day.
During the middle innings, Expos manager Gene Mauch got ejected for arguing a call. Dad wasted no time in pointing out, “See what happens when you don’t respect authority.”
The Mets had a pitcher named Tom Seaver who was supposedly pretty good. Dad had stated repeatedly, “He’s gonna wind up in Cooperstown one day.” I guess if you’re good you go to Cooperstown, whatever that means. But Seaver didn’t pitch that day. Neither did Jerry Koosman who was on the mound when the Mets won their only championship four long years ago in 1969. It wasn’t even the lanky fella named Jon Matlack. Toeing the rubber this day was spot-starter Harry Parker.
But that didn’t matter.
My guy, Rusty, didn’t get any hits, but walked three times and scored twice.
But that didn’t really matter.
I got to see some guy wearing number 24. He was supposedly pretty good, too, probably also going to that Cooperstown place. He used to play here in NY with a team called the Giants a long time ago and made some catch in a World Series. Willie Mays went 0-for-3.
But that didn’t really matter either
I got to see my first Home Run, a two run blast in the 8th off the bat of John Milner, The Hammer. The Mets defeated Montreal 5-0. Harry Parker pitched 7 shut-out innings before Tug McGraw recorded the final 6 outs
But no, that didn’t matter either.
What did matter was not the specifics–who won, who lost.
Over the next several decades I was privileged enough to see first-hand many great players. Some like Seaver, Mays, Doc Gooden, Darryl Strawberry and Mike Piazza wore a Mets jersey. Others I saw like Mike Schmidt, Don Sutton, Willie Stargell and Pete Rose did not.
I saw Seaver and Rusty go away, only to return years later. And I saw Tug McGraw and Gary Carter go away, never to return.
I went as a 7-year old with my dad. I’d go with my uncle, with friends from school, with buddies from college, with girlfriends and with wives. I saw one of Mookie Wilson’s first games and one of Jesse Orosco’s last. I went from eating chocolate and vanilla ice cream in little cups with wooden spoons to drinking beer. I saw Shea go from a ‘state-of-the-art’ modern sports venue to an archaic outdated relic. I saw rallies in the bottom of the 9th, bench clearing brawls, grand slam home runs, walk-off home runs, inside the park home runs, championships won, a no-hitter and I even caught a foul ball. I got to see Hank Aaron hit two of his 755 Home Runs.
But honestly, none of that mattered either.
What did matter is that this was my first Major League Baseball game. And despite seats up in the ether freezing my tuchus off, fighting frostbite, and my very first article of Mets attire breaking after only thirty minutes, my dad made it something memorable, something I’ll never forget, something I’ll always cherish. My dad saved the day and made everything better.
Sometimes heroes are not the guys who hit 700 Home Runs or get 4,000 hits.
I still have that same helmet forty three years later. It’s in a box, alongside yearbooks, scorecards, programs, old Mets caps that are frayed and tattered with age, my old glove, a signed Baseball by Davey Johnson—all stored away with memories of my childhood. Despite my dad’s offer to get me a new helmet, I refused. I wouldn’t change a thing from that blustery April day and if I could, I’d go back in time and relive it all over again, relive that very first baseball game I went to with my father.