First, I need to give a wink and a nod to Thomas Boswell, the late, great sportswriter from The Washington Post. I stole the title of the column from one of his books—one of the finest books on baseball ever written (along with another he wrote, “How Life Imitates the World Series”).
As I sit here on a Sunday afternoon in February writing this column, I have baseball on the TV. It’s a spring training game—Mets vs. Cardinals.
Baseball is in my DNA. It’s been the love of my life since I was 5 years old. For those of you who don’t like it, who think it boring, I urge you to turn the page and maybe go read the legal notices—something you may find more compelling.
Baseball is a complex game. They throw a round ball at you and you have a round bat with which they tell you to hit it square. If you do it 30 percent of the time, you are considered an elite player. Ask the average soul to explain the infield fly rule, and they’ll likely stammer, “Hum-ada, hum-ada” like Ralph Kramden and then bolt from the room leaving a person-shaped hole in the wall.
Did you know there are seven different ways for a batter to reach first base? Can you name them?
Well, let’s save you the brain spasms and panic sweats and get right to it:
1. Base hit
4. Catcher’s (or fielder’s) interference
5. Fielder’s choice
6. Hit by pitch
7. Called third strike not caught
Baseball is filled with subtle nuances—the “game within the game” as they say. And it’s the only game in which the defense is the primary handler of the ball.
I look forward to the start of the season each spring the way kids wait all year for Christmas morning. Usually around New Year’s, when it’s 5-below-zero out, I and my like-minded friends start posting on Facebook, things like “45 days till pitchers and catchers report.”
So, when the first spring training games are televised, I’m kicking back with my favorite adult beverage and ready to soak it all in. Even though it may be below freezing outside, watching those Grapefruit League games played under sunny skies in the shadow of the palm trees warms my winter-weary bones.
I am a Mets fan and have carried that burden for six decades filled with the good, the bad and the aggressively ugly. As I write this, the dulcet tones of Met broadcasters Gary Cohen, Ron Darling, and Keith Hernandez fill the room.
I am home.
I think most kids develop their sports team allegiances through their families. My dad and grandfather were Mets fans. They had been New York Giants fans, and when the Giants left—along with the Brooklyn Dodgers—for the West Coast, it left a palpable void. They both would just as soon vote for a Republican than root for the Yankees. So, in 1962, when National League expansion produced the New York Mets (whose now-iconic blue and orange team colors were taken from the departed Dodgers and Giants) and the Houston Colt 45s (later changed to Astros), they were ready.
Dad and grandpa quickly adopted the lovable losers as their own. With Casey Stengel at the helm, the Mets might have been God-awful, but they were fun.
Grandpa played on a traveling team in the 1920s. He was a catcher and is in the Dutchess County Baseball Hall of Fame. My dad was a Little League coach for 18 years and taught me the fundamentals. I was inducted into the Pawling High School Sports Hall of Fame, as a member of the 1975 Tiger team and later played on a traveling team (18- to 21-year-olds) in a league that saw several players make it to pro ball. As I said, the game is in my DNA. (My brother was a star high school football player, but he play one year of baseball and claims to have led the nation in batting as a sophomore when he batted 1.000. He was 1-for-1.)
When I was about 8 years old, I would walk to my grandparents’ house after school and wait to be picked up there by my mom when she finished work. I remember my grandfather would have the Mets game on his big black-and-white TV and I would plop down on the couch next to him and watch.
“I think this Seavers kid is gonna be something special,” he told me.
That’s how he said it: “Seavers”—with the extra “S” on the end. But he was right. Tom Seaver was something special and became known as “The Franchise.” I have a picture of him above my desk in my office at Mahopac News.
When I got into my 20s, a bunch of us, all friends and Mets fans, always got Opening Day tickets. I would make up some BS story to get the day off from work, and we would head down to Shea Stadium together nice and early—sometimes wearing shorts and t-shirts; sometimes wearing parkas. You never knew in April. We would tailgate in the parking lot—I remember a hibachi grill—and then head in to catch batting practice. During that era, we got to see Doc Gooden up close and personal—another legendary Mets pitcher, until his own personal demons derailed a certain Hall of Fame career.
Now, we have Jacob deGrom. I have his rookie baseball card and I will pass that on to my grandnephew when I head off to that great baseball stadium in the sky—even though he’s a Yankee fan. (I’ve always thought that rooting for the Yankees was like going to Vegas and rooting for the house.)
So, spring training is now underway. Everyone is currently tied for first place. I will be watching carefully for the next out-of-nowhere superstar, or in the Mets’ case, the next debilitating injury that ends a career. Still, hope springs eternal. I’m ready.