Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Your First Time

They are 25-year-old men and women, born and raised in Wisconsin. They’re three years out of college, perhaps even married by now - maybe even parents. And yet they’ve never seen their state’s pro baseball team in the playoffs. That will change, at long last, tomorrow.

There is no resident of Tampa or St. Petersburg who can tell you about the last time their hometown team was in the Major League Baseball playoffs, because it’s never happened. In the 105 years since the first World Series, there is no listing of a “Tampa Bay” among any season’s postseason clubs. That, too, will change this week.

For all the hand-wringing and teeth-clenching that often accompanies the elimination of teams from playoff contention in September, there is also the indisputable fact that somewhere, there are people weeping with joy at the surprise realization that their own favorite team will warm the October chill with a trip to the playoffs. This fall, two such Cinderella teams have brought their fans immeasurable joy this past week. And although this fall’s prime story is the Chicago Cubs and their attempt to win a World Series for the first time in 100 years, there are two other sets of fans who have had to wait much longer than the Cubs to see their team in the playoffs: They are fans of the Milwaukee Brewers and Tampa Bay Rays.

For the Brewers, this year marks their first playoff appearance since the American League pennant season of 1982. For the Rays, this year marks their first season over .500, let alone in the playoffs. Both teams have spent the majority of their history in the lower levels of their respective leagues. The fans in Milwaukee and Tampa Bay are used to watching their teams lose out on the glory. That’s what makes this season so special for them.

I can only imagine what it must be like for an 8-year-old fan of either team. Or even a 28-year-old. In these weighty days of economic turmoil, widespread international crises and high-stakes politics, there are some frivolous things worth thinking about for a few minutes. I won’t have the time to watch all the postseason baseball games this fall. But I will sneak a peek at the Brewers and Rays games when I can. And I’ll think of the kids in those two cities, knowing that they’re feeling that lump in their throats when they see the bunting hanging from the fa├žade in their team’s stadium, or when they watch their favorite player come up to bat with a man on second and two out in the ninth. I hope they’ll enjoy it all, and remember the feeling.

There are some people in Wisconsin and Florida gaining a memory or two this week that will frame their childhood – and perhaps even their life – in some small way. That’s worth something.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Friends and Enemies

When I lived in Massachusetts, I used to go out for jogs wearing my Yankees cap backwards. That way, by the time the Red Sox fans noticed what I was wearing, I’d have passed them by already. We lived on the North Shore of Boston from 1999-2004, during the heart of the modern-day Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. My jogs through Salem and Marblehead may have shielded me from the Boston baseball fans, but other social interactions brought me face to face with the Fenway faithful.

Red Sox fans are not the type to hide their passions. By the turn of the century, Red Sox fans my age had spent their lives rooting desperately for men like Carl Yastrzemski, Dwight Evans, Mike Greenwell, Wade Boggs, Roger Clemens, Mo Vaughn and Nomar Garciaparra. They had watched these men perform majestically, only to fall just short at the finish line or in the playoffs. And when a flamethrower named Pedro Martinez arrived in Boston with a glimmer in his eye and a championship in his sights, these fans began filling Fenway Park every day and night, no matter the month or the weather. They began, in some small way, to believe.

They were rooting for and believing in my least favorite team in baseball, and I watched their passion with no small measure of dread. I, like so many Yankees fans, had reveled in the fact that New York had won 26 titles since acquiring Babe Ruth from the Red Sox in 1920. I had come to see Boston’s annual autumn fade as a seasonal rite of passage, and as validation that I was on the right side of the greatest rivalry in sports.

But then I got to know large numbers of Red Sox fans. I worked alongside them in public schools, I worshiped beside them in the pews of my church, and I shopped alongside them in supermarkets and shopping malls. And as I met these people and talked with them, I found myself making genuine friendships with people who wore that Old English “B” on their heads. I found myself going out to eat with them, inviting them over my house, and even going on weekend vacations with them. And while we engaged in some trash-talking when it came to baseball, the rest of our time together was spent talking about other things – the kids we taught in school, or the kids we raised at home, or the world events around us.

It is late September in 2008, and the landscape of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry has changed dramatically since I moved back to the New York area in July of ’04. Three months after we moved, the Red Sox pulled off the greatest comeback in baseball history to defeat the Yankees for the league pennant, then went on to win their first title in 86 years. Three years later, Boston won the World Series again. This year, they’re on their way to yet another postseason. The Yankees and their vast history of success are taking a year off from postseason play in ’08, and they haven’t claimed a title in eight years.

I still keep in touch with several of my Red Sox-rooting friends. When we talk, I wish them the best and tell them their team is great. At 37, I have come to a place in life where my emotions are not guided by the successes and failures of baseball teams. I have reached a point where I can watch the Red Sox win a championship, and instead of feeling bitterness I can think with affection of the friends I know who are filled with joy at that moment.

I would still prefer that the Yankees be the ones winning, and I’ll still root for the other 28 teams over Boston any day. I still like to pick certain Red Sox players and envision them as evil incarnate (my current choice: Kevin Youkilis). But that’s just for fun. The Sox are a baseball team, and I don’t even know the players personally. The friends I have, however, are true and genuine. I know that. And I think there’s something pretty cool about them feeling some thrills when their favorite team wins.

So on we go, into another October. I’ll read about the Yankees’ plans for off-season moves. And, if the cheers from New England reach my ears, I’ll fire off another congratulatory e-mail to some delirious friends in red and blue.

Friday, September 19, 2008

A Wag of the Tail

We bought her in September of 1997, and carried her up the stairs to our tiny apartment on Staten Island. During her first week at the house, I can recall trying to potty-train her while hosting a house full of friends and family for Game 1 of the Yankees-Indians Division Series. During those early days of house-breaking, she’d get so excited when company arrived that she’d pee on their sneakers and leather shoes while greeting them at the door.

We named her Pumpkin – not a bad moniker for a golden retriever with plenty of orange-colored fur. We hoped she’d enjoy us, and perhaps even teach us a thing or two about parenting in advance of the real thing. We didn’t expect her to become a subject of devotion for four generations worth of family members. But that’s just what she did. She became a therapy dog of sorts for my grandparents, going for long walks with them in their final years of activity and allowing them to pet her for hours after the walks. She was an invaluable companion to all of our parents, staying with them when we went away and greedily munching on the treats they fed her. When Amy and I had kids of our own, Pumpkin even went away for “vacations” of her own with our parents, so she could be treated like the only kid in the house for a few days, and our folks could feel her warm body at their feet while sitting on the couch at night.

And, of course, she was an ever-present companion to Amy and to me. Whether it was a jaunt to the park, a gallop through the backyard snow, or just a lazy day around the house, she always had a way of making you feel as though she needed you and adored you for the care you gave her. Even when my own kids tried to ride her like a horse, she hung in there, trusting that we’d keep her safe. As she grew older, she lounged more, but always wagged that tail when we greeted her, and never failed to let us know when it was time for her meals. Even when we ignored her for too long in the midst of our hectic days, she never complained, and leaned her back toward us when we finally sat down to pet her. She never, ever gave up on us.

Last week, they found a mass on her spleen, the size of a softball. We talked it over, and decided that we would have the surgery done. She got through the operation well on Tuesday, but then there were some heart troubles on Wednesday. These seemed to subside, yet the following day her body began to fail her. Amy got to the hospital in time, and sat with her in her final moments last night. She told her that my grandparents were up there waiting for her, ready for another brisk walk – maybe this time through the clouds.

I had never had a pet before, and had no real idea what to expect from Pumpkin. I now know that an animal can ground you and give you a truer understanding of unconditional love – of what it takes to never waver in your dedication to family, even when they walk right past you or step on your tail. She taught me that it takes patience to love another fully, and that by simply being there for those you love, you can make their world so much more complete.

Caring for Pumpkin this week cost as much money as some of those pricey tickets for Sunday’s final ballgame at Yankee Stadium. I won’t be in the South Bronx on Sunday –I’ll be at home instead, watching the game on TV. It’s a week for goodbyes, I suppose.

Money is money – it comes and goes. Ballparks – even the great ones – reach an end, too.

Dogs die as well.

But love lives on forever. Pumpkin could have told you that, with one wag of the tail.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

October 1993

It was the fall of ’93, and I was busy typing up resumes and cover letters in my parents’ basement as my stereo pumped out the music of Pearl Jam and Nirvana. I had just graduated from college, and was hungrily looking for my first newspaper job. With our country crawling out of a recession, I was casting a wide net, firing out resumes to papers in every mid- and major-size city in America, as well as to papers in Ireland, England and Canada. It was a time of anticipation and hope for a 22-year-old. While doing all this, I had half an eye on the TV screen, where the Chicago White Sox were playing the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League Championship Series, and the Philadelphia Phillies were taking on the Atlanta Braves for the National League pennant. Bo Jackson was challenging his White Sox teammates to bring their games to a higher level, while the Phils’ Curt Schilling was pitching like a man who knew what the postseason was all about.

I’ve been thinking of that period, 15 years ago, as I reflect on the impending reality that 2008 will mark the first autumn since’93 that Major League Baseball is holding a postseason and the Yankees are not a part of it. Like any baseball fan, I’m disappointed that my favorite team doesn’t seem to have enough muscle to push their way into the playoffs. And yet, as I think back on 1993, I remember surviving that year just fine. So as I think ahead to next month, I also see much room for personal fulfillment even without a Yankee playoff game.

As a baseball fan, I’m eager to see young teams like the Brewers, Twins, Rays, Diamondbacks and Cubs vie for a playoff spot and a title. As a Yankee fan, I’m looking forward to watching the team unload some of the high salaries and re-tool. And I must say, some of the New York playoff rituals were getting a bit tiresome – the Irish tenor singing “God Bless America,” Rudy Giuliani clapping from his seat behind home plate, the Joe Torre investment commercials, even – dare I say it – the Jeter fist-pump.

When I think back to ’93 and the Yankees, I remember that being a year in which the team’s future started to unveil itself. We realized that year that it wouldn’t be long before New York returned to the playoffs for the first time since ’81, as the superb young players they’d grown from within had actually not been traded during George Steinbrenner’s two-year exile from baseball. The organization had realized that if you drafted great talent and nurtured it, you could be in pretty good shape once you added the right mix of veterans. In 1993, no Yankees player epitomized the future more than the guitar-playing center fielder, Bernie Williams.

Number 51 was still figuring out how to avoid pickoffs on the bases and when to lay off the breaking pitches at that time. But man, he could hit and run. And as time passed, we realized that this man possessed a brilliant combination of talent and class. He was the kind of player who could hit a walk-off home run in a tension-filled playoff game, then put his head down and run the bases without showing off the opposing team. He was a man who seemed to know that his intense passion on the field would only be maintained by having other interests (such as classical guitar) off the field. He never showed up the fans, and always maintained his cool under the hot lights.

As the Yankees close up their old ballpark and prepare for the new one, there has been no tribute to Bernie Williams. The old center fielder last played in the major leagues during the 2006 season and had a falling out with the team during spring training last year. Whatever was said during that time, the Yankees organization should be fully capable of moving beyond it and retiring No. 51 before the stadium closes. When a man helps his employer make billions of dollars with skill, effort and integrity, he deserves to be honored. When he’s not, the employer looks ungrateful.

Until I see No. 51 hanging up in left field with the other retired numbers, I won’t be too teary-eyed about the Yankees missing out on any playoff series. I’ll keep an eye on Ryan Braun, Alfonso Soriano, Evan Longoria and Chris Young, as they vie for a title. I’ll listen to my music – more Wilco and Beck these days than the grunge music of ’93. I’ll keep up my writing and my teaching. And life will indeed go on.