Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Rounding Third

As the 2009 Major League Baseball season comes to a close, it’s difficult to avoid drifting back to past seasons that have come and gone. Some of our most vivid childhood and adolescent memories are tied to the game that we cherish. Growing up in the outer boroughs of New York City, my memories of early fall are full of baseball.

A nine year old in 1977, I witnessed the return of the New York Yankees to prominence, and so many other memorable events that remain with me today. The wonderful world of baseball was exploding for this Jewish kid from Fresh Meadows, as I became completely immersed in the game. The thrill of leading off and playing shortstop in the Fresh Meadows Athletic League was my true passion.

It’s amazing which baseball memories maintain their vividness over time. Although we recall which players dominated past eras and the teams that triumphed each year, it’s the personal events that shaped us that continue to resonate decades later.

The prominent players of my youth were guys like Rod Carew, Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt, and Dave Parker. In the seventies, there were a small number of teams that dominated the Wild Card-less playoffs. Much as today, the Yankees, Dodgers, and Phillies were frequent visitors to the post-season party. Many of us remember the players, teams, and the statistics that were on the back of the Topps baseball cards we devoured. I remember so much more.

On a Sunday morning in 1978, at Temple Israel in Jamaica Estates, I recall Matthew Benson running up a flight of stairs as he delivered the news that California Angels star outfielder Lyman Bostock had been killed by a bullet to the head.

The following summer, as I stood behind the backstop of the Rufus King Public School baseball field, watching the men play arch-pitch softball, the news came that Yankee captain Thurman Munson had perished in a plane crash. In less than five minutes, I was home in front of my television eager to see if the horrible news was true.

There are however, many more pleasant memories for me, than those of the tragic events that involved two of the seventies biggest baseball stars.

I had the good fortune of growing up in a neighborhood loaded with both fenced and make-shift ball fields to play on. When we weren’t playing organized baseball, we were choosing sides for pick-up games, or playing stickball on the Public School handball courts. Of course we all did our best to imitate the unconventional batting stances of some of the game’s best including Joe Morgan and Carl Yastrzemski. My younger brother Darren and I would frequently play head-to-head at P.S. 26, each of us choosing a lineup of our favorites MLB stars. Naturally we were required to stand in the box and swing exactly as those players did on the Big League diamond.

In those days, baseball card collecting was affordable for kids. It was also done primarily for the thrill of ripping open a fresh package of Topps, which included a rock-solid stick of gum, covered with powdered sugar. One of those pieces of gum found its way onto a 1978 Pete Rose card, which became known as the Pete Rose “gummy” card.

Perhaps the most valued memories that I have were shared with my father Richard, who moved on to the great diamond in the sky, a hard-to-believe 22 years ago. As millions of American fathers and sons do, we spent countless hours tossing the ball back-and–forth, and working on the fundamentals of the game. What separated my Dad from many others, I believe, was his dedication to consistently manning the bleachers, as I played my heart out each season. My father was at all of my Little League games, and even volunteered to forgo that joy one season, to manage another team as I had wanted him to represent our family in a coaching capacity.

(In our local league, fathers were not permitted to coach their own kids, as favoritism was a problem at the time)

Although I will never forget that I destroyed a Hank Aaron autographed baseball that my Dad let me play with (against his better judgment), and in later years, proceeded to lose the Wilson A2000 glove that he gave me, these and other not-so-tragic baseball memories and life-lessons are priceless.

In 2009, my son Jack is two years old, and swinging away at Wiffle balls in our backyard in of all places, Atlanta, GA. While I never envisioned a life in the Southeast, I have no doubt that as the time goes by, Jack and I will enjoy season after season of baseball together, and create countless memories to reminisce about.

Jack is just a few years away from mastering a perfect Tommy Hanson style fastball delivery that he will never forget working on.

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