“Archie Graham: We just don’t recognize life’s most significant moments while they’re happening. Back then I thought, “Well, there’ll be other days.” I didn’t realize that that was the only day.”– Field of Dreams
In June 2016, I took my dad to the New York Yankees Old-Timers’ Day game. It was the 70th Anniversary of the event, and we were celebrating my dad’s 70th birthday. We decided to make a weekend of it. So, we enjoyed the city, ate good food, and prepared for a full day of baseball. At the game, we saw many of our favorite baseball players from years past. Still, we watched the old-timers’ game and a regular-season game while sitting in Championship seating at the new Yankee Stadium, which my dad had not yet visited. Free food, comfortable seats, close to the field; it was terrific. We’ve seen dozens of games at Fenway Park and the old Yankee Stadium and sat in basic fan seating, but after years of Yankee games, we finally enjoyed this new stadium in luxury seating. We watched baseball in style, even as we reflected on all those games we sat through before.
The Trip that Wasn’t & Father/Son Baseball Bond
My Dad and I had planned to see a Pittsburg Pirates game against the New York Yankees in Pittsburg this past June. But once COVID hit, we immediately canceled those plans. The loss of that trip brought reflection on other times I have seen Yankee games with my dad. The baseball game at Yankee Stadium celebrating his birthday and old-timers’ day seems to be a perfect culmination of years of Yankee memories.
As a kid living in Massachusetts, being a Yankee fan in the 80s and early 90s was tough. There are reasons for this. One, the Yankees sucked during this era, so watching them was like, as many would say, getting punched in the face, although I was so young, I didn’t understand what that meant. Two, we lived in Red Sox country when the rivalry was bitter, loud, and all my friends, teachers, and, well, pretty much everyone I knew cheered for the Red Sox. Even so, baseball was life, and the Yankees were the gods of our fandom. My dad would tell me stories often of the magnificent feats of Yankee greats.
We would go to card shows, even Yankee fan club days in Manhattan, met players and had more Yankee merchandise than I can remember. I wore my Don Mattingly jersey proudly, had multiple team hats, and had tons of baseball cards, especially my Mattingly card collection. In an era when watching your favorite “non-local” team on television was impossible, we had one of those huge satellite dishes in the backyard and were able to get many Yankee games. I am sure many of our neighbors thought my dad worked for a tech company or NASA. Nope, we needed to watch the Yankees! I needed to hear Phil Rizutto on WPIX get excited for no reason.
It always seemed like April was the season of awakening in our home, especially for my dad and me. We have a great relationship, but as kid baseball acted as a type of glue and bonding topic. We would watch every game in the sunroom or living room, chatting about what strategies a team should employ for each pitch, each runner, each significant moment. As a child of the 1980s and early 90s and teenager of the mid-90s, those games meant so much. I can vividly recall so many moments watching Yankee games and just chatting about baseball, life, and more baseball. To sit and enjoy, with your dad, watching your favorite baseball team play, win or lose, are moments that last forever and I am grateful every day for those games on the radio in the car, those games on the television in the sunroom, and those few games that were experienced live and in person.
“Jimmy Dugan: It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard… is what makes it great.”– A League of Their Own
Watching the Yankees in the comfort of our own home was terrific. I am a quiet sports watcher. When my team is winning, I am reserved, and when they are losing, I am emotionally calm. Ok, so when the Yankees lost the 1995 playoffs to the Seattle Mariners and Don Mattingly, my all-time baseball hero would retire without a ring, I might have lost my shit. No word of a lie, I went nuts. I threw my baseball cards and cried for hours. My dad calmed me down and gave me the best advice for that moment; “there is always next year.” Well, the Yankees won it all in 1996, so he wasn’t wrong! But I learned to accept that you can lose, get back up, and try again. Losing is not everything; just a passing moment from which to learn. Then get back to it and try again!
So, I am a quiet fan, around 98% of the time. You see, my dad is the opposite. Not in a bad way, but he is an animated fan. He screams when his team fails and cheers for his team when they succeed and puts down the losing side when they do well, and rubs it in when they lose. He is a genuine fan, loyal and dedicated, but spirited when they win and dejected when they lose. I mean, we are from Massachusetts, just because we are Yankee fans does not mean we won’t act like Red Sox fans, sometimes. Baseball in our home was a part of everyday life from April to September, more so in those years of Yankee failings. In later years, October was our holiday month, as the Yankees won championship after championship. So, while my dad and I are different styles of fans, we loved sitting and watching our team play, winning all of those close games, playable matchups, and World Series Championships. At least from 1996 to 2001, we felt that all those years of watching bad Yankee teams had been worth it. It had always been worth it, but now we had victories under our belt.
Yet, all those nights in front of the television, while a cherished memory, are just one aspect of our joint baseball experience. When it came time for us to see the Yankees live, it was like a national holiday. I have seen the Yankees play in person at least 35 times and observed them lose about four times. So, in going to see live New York Yankee games, I am, at worst, 31-4. That ladies and gentlemen is a solid record. It started at 22-0, so in those early years, my dad would often tell me that the Yankees should hire me to go to games, and watch as they would, according to him, keep winning. As a kid that made me feel good, and as an adult, always brings a smile to my face. Maybe after reading this blog, the Yankees brass will contact me. I won’t hold my breath.
Trips to See the Yankees
It was a yearly tradition for my dad and me to see the Yankees play at Fenway Park. His work had season tickets, so he was always able to get one set of two tickets and would take me. Now, we also took trips to see them play at the Old Yankee Stadium, and we did that often, especially one “infamous” trip with a wonderful family friend Dennis Cabral, who was as much, if not more, of a Yankees fan than my dad or me. I also went to a couple of Yankees games with him at Fenway, each time parking far away from the stadium and bringing our food. No matter, he was a true fan and was always excited to watch baseball. Other than seeing the Yankees with my wife, who is from NY and a diehard Yankee fan (feels the Bern), I have seen more games with my dad than anyone else. We celebrated my 21st birthday watching the Yankees play a three-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals. The Yankees won all three! But, those Fenway games between the home team Red Sox and our New York Yankees probably left the most significant mark on my upbringing and memories of baseball with my dad. It was these games, more often than not, I bring up in conversation with other baseball fans.
“Shoeless Joe Jackson: Man, I did love this game. I’d have played for food money. It was the game… The sounds, the smells. Did you ever hold a ball or a glove to your face? / Ray Kinsella: Yeah. / Shoeless Joe Jackson: I used to love travelling on the trains from town to town. The hotels… brass spittoons in the lobbies, brass beds in the rooms. It was the crowd, rising to their feet when the ball was hit deep. Shoot, I’d play for nothing!”– Field of Dreams
In the late 80s and early 90s, going to see a baseball game at Fenway Park was a completely different experience. No streets shut down outside the stadium for vendors or fun; there were tons of fans waiting for the park to open so they could go in and watch batting practice before the game. On the day of the game, we would get up very excited and drive the hour to Boston at around lunchtime. We usually arrived about 6 hours before the opening of the stadium. Why so early? Well, traffic sucks, and my dad always wanted to make a day of it. I have two older brothers and a younger sister, so these games were our time and a time I cherished. It also gave us plenty of time to go to the merchandise store across the street from Fenway. There I would always be allowed to select one minor league hat to take home. I would usually choose a hat with a fresh and unique logo!
We would get lunch in Boston, usually hotdogs or Italian sausages from a streetcar. But the best part of these games, in the 90s at Fenway, was the fact the Yankees never came by team bus. They arrived in taxi cabs, one after the other over a couple of hours from lunchtime to game time. So, my dad would always bring a baseball and a pen, hand them to me, and we would stand outside the entrance gate that Yankees players would walk through when they were dropped off. It seemed every taxi that stopped, I would run over, usually with a dozen other fans, and wait to see who got out of the car. A lot of times, it was no one of consequence, but it was heart-pumping excitement when it was someone.
I have met a ton of baseball players waiting outside Fenway Park for autographs. Yankees greats and Yankees one and done; it did not matter. I would stand beside my dad, and he would tell me who it was and ask for an autograph politely. I can still remember back to a young me, dressed in a Yankee hat, shirt, and shorts going up to these impressive athletes and asking for an autograph. I met Dion Sanders when he played for the Yankees, and he signed the baseball with “$” in place of an “S” for Sanders. I met Pat Kelley for the third time. I met him at Yankees fan club event in Manhattan a year or two before, and he came to my hometown for a card show my dad helped organize, and I got a picture with him and a signed card, bat, and batting gloves. I even met George Steinbrenner on one of those Fenway Park days. He was getting out of his taxi and dropped a money clip with hundreds of dollars in it. I picked it up and handed it to him. He thanked me and signed my baseball. Steve Sax, Jimmy Leyritz, Kevin Mass, Buck Showalter, Jessie Barfield, and many more. Players that, at the time, were baseball gods to a young kid like me. Even so, there was only one player who mattered, only one I was always looking for and only one whose autograph I coveted. This player was none other than the Yankee’s first baseman, number 23, Don Mattingly.
The Greatest Day
They say, never meet your heroes, you will be disappointed. In the 80s and 90s, Don Mattingly was my hero. My parents got me an authentic number 23 jersey when I was a kid, purchased me posters, baseball cards (I had like 350 unique Mattingly cards), plaques, you name it, and if it was Donny BASEBALL related, I had it! He was baseball to me. For my dad, that was Mikey Mantle when he was younger. All baseball fans, young and old, have their baseball heroes and mine, still to this day is Don Mattingly.
The one thing about waiting for autographs outside of Fenway was that it mattered which game it was. Game 1 and 2 meant that you would have an easier time getting autographs since players were coming to the park and going back to their hotel after the game. But game 3 was the final game of the series, and they would be leaving after the game and traveling to the next city. As you can imagine, they would have luggage, a suit, and a smaller bag. Not something to make it easy for them to sign a young kids baseball. Even so, on this one day in around 1992, it was game 3 of the series, and I had one eye on the taxi cabs, but I had another looking for number 23.
This day was a hot one. I remember that distinctively. The players had been getting dropped off regularly, and they all had tons of stuff with them. Steve Sax signed my autograph but did so holding a bag and a suit, so it was hard to read, but I didn’t care, I just met Steve Sax! So, my dad and I had our hot dogs and got several autographs. Then, as gate opening time drew closer and it seemed a lot of the Yankees had already arrived at the Stadium and passed by us to go inside, I looked down the street and saw a man walking holding a suit jacket over his right shoulder with his right hand, and a bag clutched in his left hand. As the crowd around me followed a taxi cab about 40 feet in the opposite direction, I was left alone, with my dad, as I tried to determine who this guy was. Then, I recognized who it was. It was Donny freaking Baseball, the Hitman!
I immediately ran so fast to him that my dad was confused about who I was going towards, even he had not recognized him. I was alone moving toward my hero to ask for an autograph. When I got to him, I asked for his signature and told him he was my favorite player. Mattingly said that he would love to sign my baseball, but needed to put his stuff down and sign it. So, I followed along with him, my hero, as he walked through security and into a protected area. Oh ya, he did not expect me to follow him, only that he would go put his stuff down and come back. No chance I was going to let him out of my sight, so I followed. Security quickly saw me and stopped me and brought me back to the gate with my dad grinning. But before I was at the front, Don Mattingly was next to me signing my baseball and wishing me the best. I did it, I met my baseball hero, got his autograph, and had a story to tell. Don’t meet your heroes? Screw that!
“BALLGAME OVER! YANKEES WIN! THEEEEEEEEEEEEEE YANKEES WIN!”
As you can see, these yearly games were chock-full of memories and moments I treasure. There were lots of days like that. I met baseball players, attended day games or night games. Sitting in good seats or subpar seats, but it never mattered, it was always about watching a baseball game and talking about the players and measuring that game to all the games that came before. It was like that watching it on television, where we laughed, got silent or screamed, and watched as our Yankees went from terrible to very good to a dynasty before our very eyes. When the Yankees won the World Series in 1996, it was like the world stopped rotating for a little while, and we lived in this weird moment.
We finally watched together as they won the most significant series ever. It might not seem like a big deal to some, but it was everything to my dad and me. Years of road trips and constant heartbreak, we watched the first pitch and last pitch, and…well, the rest is for me. My dad allowed me to skip school, and we went to the New York Yankees’ ticker-tape parade on October 29, 1996, and I will never go to another one. Not because I hated, rather the opposite. What a feeling. Driving to NY city with my dad and older brother and standing, front row, in downtown Manhattan for hours watching as our Yankees rode through the “Canyon of Heroes.” I will never go again because the next time will never measure up to that time. It was flawless, perfection, and a memory that must remain as is.
As you can see, my dad and I have had fantastic baseball adventures over the years. The Yankees have served as a glue that binds us, inspires us, and continues to provide experiences that shape our love for the great American pastime. While our trip to Pittsburg did not take place this year, there is always next year. My dad taught me that fact in 1995! Still, that’s why going to all those games, and Yankee events were so important then. When faced with the terrible reality that life is not normal, and you cannot go to see a baseball game with your father, it is vital that I call upon the “memory” bullpen, connect to those past moments, to remember what it was like to sit with my dad and watch Yankee baseball. It is essential to understand that my dad and I take it one game at a time. After all these years and all these memories, you sometimes have to slow down, smile, and say, let’s play ball.
“They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past… And they’llwalk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again.”– Field of Dreams