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My Tragic Love Affair with Baseball

August 15, 2011

When I was a kid, I had a crazy mad love affair with baseball. This was the 1950s when baseball truly was America’s Pastime. Growing up in New Jersey, I became a huge Yankee fan (somewhat of an act of treason to half my family who were from Brooklyn and thus Dodger fans). Though I never went to see a game in the  stadium, I listened to them faithfully on the radio and watched on Channel 11 (for free!) once we finally got a TV. The voice of Mel Allen was as familiar to me as that of any in my own family.

Yes, I was the most diehard of Yankee fans back then. And what a time to be one of those. Mickey Mantle in the outfield, Yogi Berra behind the plate, Whitey Ford on the mound, and Casey Stengel in the dugout. The names go on and on, even in the supporting cast, from the clean-cut Bobby Richardson at second to the hulking Moose Skowran at first to the diminutive but effective Luis Arroyo in the bullpen. Man, what a team, all heroes in the eyes of so many twelve year olds like me.

Aside from being a fan, I was an avid player, or at least I fancied myself as one, never having actually been on a single organized team. However, my neighbor Julius Alberici and I would head out to the softball diamond across the street from my house at Memorial Field in Bergenfield and play two man baseball for hours on end during the hot days of summer vacation. Since I lived right there and Julius just a half block down the nearest side street, it was an easy task to meet at the drop of a Yankee cap.

Rules were established as we went along to accommodate our lack of manpower. One of us would be up at bat, hitting the ball from a toss of our own hand. The other would be in the field playing a modified deep shortstop. The ball had to be hit between third base (usually a piece of wood or cardboard found in the area or, in desperate times, a rock) and a line arbitrarily scratched in the infield dirt three quarters of the way to second base. Ground balls caught were outs. If the ball was hit in the air over the head of the fielder, it would be scored according to its depth, force, and placement, usually after a great deal of debate. Anything hit beyond the weeping willow tree down field just outside the left field line was an automatic home run after, of course, the mandatory argument over whether or not it was deep enough. Squabbling, after all, was a major part of these games. Now, it would seem to be an easy task to get a hit since the batter was basically in total control, but our skill level was such that this was not the case. There was even the occasional strikeout, much to the red-faced chagrin of the batter,  accompanied by gales of laughter from the fielder.

We would play all morning until hunger beckoned us to lunch. After a quick sandwich, we returned to the park. Games of one sort or another (we had several variations on this theme) would continue either until the supper calls of my mother from our front stoop or one of us got so angry about some outrageous call by the other that we’d stomp off in a huff. The next day, however, would always find us back. The two of us progressively turned a darker and darker shade of brown as the summer wore on, partly from the dirt accumulated in layers from the dusty diamond and partly from the continuous sun exposure to our already predisposed Italian skin.

This continued for several summers through the heart of my Yankee fandom until three critical incidents occurred. The first was an argument of monumental proportions — I don’t remember the reason — that caused an irreparable rift in my friendship with Julius. The second was the arrival of Bobby Ackerman in my life. Bobby lived outside my immediate neighborhood, basically making him a foreigner at that time — very exotic. He was also a tougher kid than Julius, which of course in sixth grade made him way cool. He and I started hanging out more, and that put the squeeze on Julius in the best buddy race.

The third was when my beloved Yankees broke my heart (and my bank). The year was 1960, and the Yanks, as usual, found themselves in the World Series. They would be playing the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates! How could we lose? So sure was I that my always dependable Bombers would emerge victorious that I placed a major bet with my parents on the series. I had every penny of my hard-earned paperboy money riding on this baby. But not to worry, I thought, this was a sure thing.

I was incredulous, to say the least, when it came down to the seventh and final game, one that will live in Yankee infamy, the game when tragedy would strike the soul of this young Yankee fan. First, there was the grounder to short, a sure double play ball if there ever was one, that took a bad hop with the ball striking Tony Kubek’s Adam’s apple instead of his trusty glove. Then, doom; the dagger to the heart in the form of the light-hitting Bill Mazeroski’s home run. Final score: Pirates 10, Yankees 9.

It was all over. I felt like I had been betrayed by a trusted friend. I couldn’t bear the shame of this defeat, especially in the face of the teasing I was forced to endure in my own home. I was broke and broken. Baseball became a source of bitterness, and since I was no longer playing the game myself because of my change in friends, it grew more and more distant. Julius moved to Queens. I moved on to Junior High School. As time went on, I developed other sports interests, and my hours of baseball were replaced by pickup games of touch (which sometimes turned into tackle) football at Memorial Field. Disillusionment turned into dispassion, and to this day, when I see the excitement of current friends and family over a Yankee game, there isn’t even a flicker left inside me. As happens with love, when your heart is broken, it heals in time, and there are new loves. So it is with baseball. So play on, Derek Jeter. Collect that giant pay check, A-Rod. I don’t begrudge any fan his or her joy. But take care, because heartbreak may be just around the corner.

So, who did you say the Phillies just acquired?

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