The Baseball Pastoral

There’s a scene in City Slickers where Billy Crystal, in the midst of the midlife crisis that has taken him out West, recalls with near-reverence his first visit to Yankee Stadium: his first glimpse of the field as he and his father emerge from the tunnel, the brilliant blue sky, the blinding white of the uniforms, the rich green grass.

That scene hit me with special force, because I had written almost exactly the same scene in a widely unread book I’d published nearly twenty years before City Slickers hit the screens. Plagiarism? Hardly. Coincidence? Much more than that. If my friends and contemporaries are any clue, this is something close to a collective memory as pervasive and as powerful as a memory of a first love, or first glimpse of Paris at night. It is so powerful, in fact, that it survives the most earnest, heartfelt, painful efforts of the belles-lettres crowd to pound the game over the head with Meaning.

I’ve had my own innings at infusing Great Thoughts; decades ago I proudly concluded that the reason baseball was the classic American pastime was that it paid joint homage to our two historic eras: the outfield, unbounded by the strict dimensions that apply to other sports, was our tribute to our agricultural roots. The batting order and method of scoring, on the other hand, were rigidly linear; unlike any other sport’s players, batters had to proceed in exact order, and the movement around the bases was modeled on the assembly line, and thus, this aspect of the game saluted our industrial era.

I know, I know. At least I have the solace of knowing I am not alone in my ventures into the portentous: I’ve seen otherwise admirable writers produce enough hot air to melt the polar ice caps with talk of “the agora” and the mythological dimensions of players past—a tendency Philip Roth not-so-subtly skewered in The Great American Novel, his account of the nonexistent Patriot League of the 1940s,in which he named his characters, such as Gil Gamesh and Tris Mesgistus, after mythic figures.

I now define the game’s hold on me in more personal, less cosmic terms. At its simplest, many of my most powerful memories are rooted in the ballpark. And the reason may be laughably simple: I can trace those memories back further than almost any other part of my life. And, with just a couple of exceptions, they are memories of the same ballpark.

My father first took me to Yankee Stadium when I was five years old, well over half a century ago. It was a game against the St. Louis Browns, a game so bizarre the late sportswriter Tom Meany once chronicled it as one of the weirdest he’d never seen. The final score was 20-2. All three Yankee catchers—Yogi Berra, Charlie Silvera, and future manager Ralph Houk—were beaned by opposing pitchers. (I believe outfielder Hank Bauer wound up as the final catcher, but I could be wrong). I’m pretty sure Joe DiMaggio hit a bases-loaded ground-rule double into the bleachers. I know my father kept telling me, “You know, this isn’t really like most baseball games.”

For the next several years, trips to the Stadium became a regular father-son outing, always following the same ritual. My father was a highly punctual man, and back in the 1950s, there were far more general admission seats than there are now, so an early arrival meant a choice of excellent upper-deck seats behind home plate. We sometimes arrived at the Stadium as the grounds crew was setting up the cage for batting practice, which was fine with us; it left plenty of time for me to memorize the statistics that filled the sports pages of the Sunday New York Times, while devouring the tuna-on-white sandwiches my mother had prepared. (On a warm summer day the oil slick that formed on the brown paper bag was enough to chill the heart of any self-respecting environmentalist.)

My father was a good and kind man, but like most men of his time, was not comfortable sharing his feelings, and I’m pretty sure I would have found any effort on his part more than a little strange. But we talked a lot of baseball on those Sunday afternoons. He was a passionate Brooklyn Dodgers fan, probably because he’d spent a lot of his childhood in Brooklyn, and his parents owned a candy store near Ebbets Field, where some of the Dodgers used to drop in on their way to work. (I don’t know how many times he told me about the day Pee Wee Reese, off to join the navy in World War II, bought enough “good luck” candy bars to get him through the war. Apparently they did the trick.) So we’d argue the merits of Reese versus Rizzuto, Berra versus Campanella, even Duke Snider versus DiMaggio.

And even when World Series time came around, we’d wind up at the Stadium, if only in the bleachers. I don’t know how hard it was to get tickets in those days, but I knew he was determined to get us in the ballpark. They may not have been the best seats in the house, but we were there for the fifth game of the 1953 World Series, an incredible eleven-inning 6-5 Dodger victory highlighted by spectacular late-inning, home-run-saving catches by Dodger outfielders.

Over the years, the memories of these games, and of the games I attended with my friends when I grew old enough, formed as solid a core of my past as any experiences I ever had. No matter how long ago they were, they come back to me every time I’m at the Stadium. For instance, there has not been a game in the last forty years when I haven’t looked out to rightfield, where the tiara-like façade used to be, and remembered a 1956 game when Mickey Mantle hit a ball that kept rising, and rising—until a cheer from the fans in rightfield, like nothing I have heard before or since, exploded throughout the park. The ball had hit a mere eighteen inches below the top of the roof—the closest any player has ever come to hitting a fair ball out of the park during a ball game. (This was the first game Billy Crystal ever attended, a story he tells in his brilliant one-man show, “700 Sundays.” When I met Crystal backstage, I remembered that I’d saved the scorecard from that game for thirty years; I’m still sorry I threw it out. On the other hand, I’m glad I stopped keeping score somewhere in my middle forties; you get to see a lot more of the game when you’re not noting down the hieroglyphics required for accurate record-keeping.)

When my children came along, the memories grew to stretch back and forth across the generations. When my daughter Casey was about nine, I got three tickets to a box seat next to the visiting team’s dugout, and brought Casey and my father to the game. When the three of us walked out of the tunnel into the stands, I found myself close to tears. A few minutes later, I was struck by less pleasant memories when my father, who has always believed in Behaving the Right Way, became progressively more annoyed by the young fans crowding the railing in front of him looking for autographs or baseballs, even though the game was about an hour away from starting. (The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree; to this day, I channel his spirit when the yahoos in front of me decide to jump up every time a Yankee pitcher gets two strikes on the opposing batter.)

My son, David, came into sports-fanhood in the late 1980s and early ’90s, when both the Yankees and the Mets were struggling. Basketball was his passion—we’ll pass over his blessedly brief flirtation with pro wrestling, except to note that my paternal devotion was such that I took him, in person, to two WWF events at Madison Square Garden, and planned to tell anyone who recognized me that we were on our way to a porn store. Baseball, for Dave, was too slow, too stately.

And then something happened: maybe it was the onset of wisdom. Maybe it was that the Yankees began to win. But suddenly, he became a fan; and by the time he was ten, he’d learned to appreciate not just the game, but also its history. When he’d swing a bat in our yard on weekends, my job—apart from pitching to him—was to announce the lineup of major league All-Stars, past and present. I knew the history had taken when he began to ape the distinctive swing of Stan Musial, or reenact Babe Ruth’s “I’m calling my shot” gesture from the 1932 World Series.

In our years at the Stadium, Dave and I have collected more than our share of memories. In 2001, we were part of the dispirited crowd that was preparing to leave in anticipation of a devastating Game Four loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Yankees were two runs down with two out in the ninth and a runner on first. We had put on our coats, but Dave had long since become a firm adherent of the game-ain’t-over-till-the-last-man’s-out school of thought. When Tino Martinez slammed a game-tying homer off reliever Byung-Hyun Kim, the roar of the crowd was otherworldly; when Derek Jeter won the game with a two-out homer in the tenth, I told Dave he’d likely never experience anything so dramatic ever again. And my prediction held true: for twenty-four hours. The next night, the Yankees were two runs down with two out in the ninth, and a runner on second.

“Put on your coat, Dave,” I said.

“We’re not leaving,” he said.

“No, of course not, but if you put on your coat, Brosius’ll tie the game up with a homer.”

We did—and he did. As much as I remember the sound of Yankee Stadium slowly leaving the gravitational pull of the earth, I also wanted Dave to see reliever Byung-Hyun Kim on the mound, sinking to his knees in utter despair. When you’re in the midst of exultation, it’s good to remember someone else is in pain.

We learned that lesson well—not just when Arizona won the next two games and the Series back in Phoenix, but in the coming years. In 2002, I paid an extortionate amount of money so Dave and I could attend Game Six of the Series against the Florida Marlins. Inning after inning, as young Josh Beckett shut the Yankees down, the fans began cheering again, certain that the magic of 2001 would repeat. When the game—and the Series—finally ended, after a masterful shutout, the silence was as profound as any sound I’ve ever heard.

Two years later, we were in the best seats in the house—the gift of a very well-connected sports figure—for Game Seven of the American League Championship Series. Surely God would not let the Boston Red Sox fall behind three games to none, and then actually win. Dave and I swapped tales of the great Sox foldos of the past: Enos Slaughter’s trip around the bases in 1946, Bucky Bleeping Dent’s home run in the ’78 playoffs, Buckner’s bobble of a Mookie Wilson ground ball at Shea in ’86, Pedro’s collapse in ’03. Heck, we’d been at that classic twelve-inning Red Sox–Yankees game in July, when Derek Jeter had flown head first into the stands to catch a critical short fly ball.

Our euphoria lasted all the way into the top half of the first inning, when David Ortiz hit a two-run homer with two outs. An plate. From our splendid seats in the first row just behind home plate, I remember watching Kevin Brown let the pitch go and muttering, “look out!” just before Damon hit the grand-slam home run that effectively ended the game, giving us a fine seat for the longest funeral in Yankee Stadium history.

And in a funny way, I’m as happy Dave and I were witnesses to the losses as I am that we saw those incredible back-to-back comebacks in 2001. It doesn’t require any pompous fatherly instructions to figure out what you take away from games like those.

Those trips to the Stadium bond us in ways the scoreboard doesn’t report. Dave is something of a sports polymath, and I get a kick out of watching him engage other fans in conversation. When he overhears fans exchanging massive amounts of blatant misinformation, there is a glint in his eye as he stores the howlers away for later examination. He even indulges my memories of Mantle and Berra, and Vic Raschi and Allie Reynolds—up to a point. And there are times when I’ve brought Dave along on reporting gigs for ABC and now CNN, not just because I thought he’d get a kick out of being on the field, but because he’s simply better than I am at recognizing the players I might want to interview.

And on my office wall is a picture, more than twenty years old, of a summer softball group I’m part of that got to play a softball game at Yankee Stadium, thanks to Tom Brokaw. Dave is on my shoulders, and I’m getting ready to play in my first and last Stadium appearance. I dribbled a soft ground ball down the third-base line, and beat the throw to first. As I tell it, I have a 1.000 batting average at the Stadium, and if my listeners imagine me slamming a ball into the power alley—shades of Jerry Coleman winning the pennant against the Red Sox in 1949—I am not about to disabuse them.

About the Author

Jeff Greenfield

Jeff Greenfield is a senior political correspondent at CBS, host of PBS’s CEO Exchange, and the author of a dozen books.

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