Tag Archives: memory

Monday Musings: The Day I Fell In Love With Baseball

I was seven years old, the youngest child by far in a household that revered baseball. I didn’t remember the exact date, but today we live in an age of marvels, and all I had to do was Google a few key phrases from the storyline of the game. August 30, 1970. That was the day I fell in love with baseball.

We were a family divided. My sister, Liz, and my brother Jim, the siblings closest to me in years, both rooted for the Yankees. Liz was — and remains — a fanatic. Jim cared less than the rest of us, but in our household, at that time, one chose a team. My oldest brother, Bill, had been a New York Giants fan until their relocation to San Francisco. He idolized Willie Mays all his life. He attended college in Boston, remained there after graduating, and — to this day, I struggle to speak the words — became a Red Sox fan. In the battle of New York teams, though, he and my father rooted for the Mets. Bill hated the Yankees the way my father hated Richard Nixon. Only my mother remained above the fray. I believe she refused to root for one particular team because she didn’t want to appear to favor one child over another.

Liz and Jim convinced me that I liked the Yankees. Jim lived at home; Liz was in college, but came home with some frequency. I attribute their victory on the battleground of team loyalties to proximity and, in Liz’s case, her single-minded determination that I. Would. Be. A. Yankees. Fan.

In that summer of 1970 I was still learning the game. I have no memory of having watched baseball before then, though no doubt I did. My baseball consciousness dates from that summer, from that day. August 30th.

Why?

Because on that day Mickey Mantle, our household’s Most Beloved Yankee, made his debut as a Yankee coach. He’d retired the year before, after a Hall of Fame career foreshortened by knee injuries and, the world later learned, excessive drinking. Mantle’s return to Yankee Stadium, and in particular his appearance in the first base coach’s box in the fourth inning, was a big deal in New York. So much so, that I resolved to watch the game. We had a color TV at that point, but it was downstairs in the family den, and clearly my father and mother were watching something else on the good set.

I was exiled to my parents’ room, home of our old black and white television. The game was on WPIX, channel 11, the Yankees’ local affiliate. It was sponsored, like all Yankee games at that time, by Schaefer Beer — “The one beer to have when you’re having more than one.” Yes, that was really the slogan. Quite a distance from “Please drink responsibly.”

Roy White, Yankees # 6, LF. 1972 Topps cardThe Yankees were playing the Minnesota Twins, a powerful team lead by perennial all-star Tony Oliva and future Hall of Fame slugger Harmon Killebrew. The Twins jumped out to an early lead, gave a run back, but still led 2-1 in the fifth inning, the second inning of Mantle’s stint as coach. The Yankees managed to load the bases and, with two outs, their left fielder, a guy named Roy White, stepped to the plate.

At this point, I was riveted to the game. I was in the process of realizing that I really, really liked baseball. I enjoyed following the broadcast on my own, without anyone else trying to explain stuff to me. But, of course, I was desperate for the Yankees to tie things up or take the lead. It didn’t seem right that Mickey Mantle should lose his first game as coach.

The Twins pitcher was a nineteen-year-old rookie named Bert Blyleven. I later learned that he was from the Netherlands, like both my grandparents on my father’s side. For much of his stellar career, he was the only Dutch player in the Major Leagues. He won a lot of games and struck out a lot of players with a strong fastball and a wicked curve. He, too, was eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame. In 1970, I knew none of this, and wouldn’t have cared. We needed runs!

Roy White hit Blyleven’s first pitch to what was known in New York as Death Valley, the vast expanse of Yankee Stadium’s left field. Oliva, a fine defensive player, drifted back to the wall, but could only watch as White’s fly cleared the fence for a grand slam home run. Yankees 5-2. I am certain that I cheered and jumped up and down, no doubt earning a rebuke from my father downstairs.

That proved to be the final score. Mickey had his first coaching win. And I had a new favorite player. From that time until his retirement in 1979, Roy White was my hero. He wasn’t as well-known as some other Yankees, but he was quietly consistent. He got his share of hits, drew a lot of walks, hit the occasional long ball, played a solid if unspectacular left field, and always comported himself with class and dignity.

My memories of that day fifty years ago are remarkably clear, but the game as I was getting to know it then feels a long way removed from where we are now.

With baseball’s return this past weekend, to empty stadiums with pre-recorded cheers and, in some cases, cardboard cut-out fans, I feel especially nostalgic for the baseball of my youth. I still love the game, though I find my affection for it tested by too many strikeouts and an over-reliance on the home run, by unbearable delays in play and rule changes that rankle, by steroids and cheating scandals, by labor disputes between millionaire players who are barely older than my children and billionaire owners who seem to care only about their bottom lines.

I haven’t stopped rooting for the Yankees, although I will admit to a brief flirtation with the Mets in the mid-80s, when their young, dynamic stars were New York’s darlings. I tend to attach to players as much as to teams. Roy White. Dwight Gooden and Daryl Strawberry. Derek Jeter. Now Aaron Judge. But it is the game itself that I love. Yes, I complain about the pace of play, but part of what draws me to baseball is the absence of a clock. Time is meted out in pitches and outs and innings — the perfect units with which to mark the passage of a languid summer afternoon or evening. And there is nothing in sports that I enjoy more than the baseball playoffs and World Series. I watch every game and lament the end of the postseason the way I once lamented the end of summer vacation.

That said, I can’t get as excited about the game as I used to, for all the reasons I mentioned before, and for a host of reasons that have everything to do with me and nothing to do with the game. Perhaps it’s inevitable that middle age should lessen our passion for such things. Family, friends, work, a world in need of salvation and healing — these are the concerns that consume me today. And yet, on some level, I remain that seven-year-old kid waiting for the clutch hit or the crucial strikeout. I miss the days when my greatest worries were about the Yankees’ upcoming series against the Sox and the possibility that this year’s Roy White wouldn’t be in the pack of baseball cards I’d just bought.

A simpler time.

I wish you all a wonderful week.

Monday Musings: A Lifetime of Birdwatching

Those who know me well, know that I am an avid birdwatcher. My older brothers got me started when I was just a kid. And when I say just a kid, I mean that – I started birding when I was seven. For Christmas just before my ninth birthday, my brother Jim created a whole set of life lists and year list templates (before templates were really a thing) and bound them in a notebook. Totally geeky, right? To this day, it remains one of the best presents anyone has ever given me.

I bring all of this up because we are now in the middle of spring migration, when the forests of North America become a byway for returning songbirds heading north to their breeding grounds. Yes, there are migrations for other types of birds as well – certain species of hawks return to our area in the spring, as do shorebirds. But for those birds fall migration is the more significant event. Spring migration is all about birds from the neotropics.

Blue-winged Warbler, photograph by Chad Smith ©. Used with permission of the artist.
Blue-winged Warbler, photograph by Chad Smith ©. Used with permission of the artist.

Warblers, tanagers, orioles, certain grosbeaks (Rose-breasted and Blue), flycatchers, thrushes vireos. These are among the most colorful and beautiful birds we see in the States. Brilliant yellows and oranges, deep reds, stunning blues. Many of the birds have gorgeous songs – the thrushes in particular. Most of the migrants are very small; the warblers tend to be only four or five inches from beak to tail. And many of them hang out at the very top of the forest canopy, making them very difficult to spot, much less identify, and leading to an avocational malady known as “warbler neck,” which is pretty much self-explanatory.

For serious birders, spring migration is New Year’s, Mardi Gras, and the Fourth of July all rolled into one. I know that it is my favorite time of the year and I am pleased to say that despite the pandemic, it is something I have been able to enjoy fully this spring. Every morning I walk a few miles on a rails-to-trails path near my home. I get a bit of exercise, and I see my favorite birds. Just about every day I am reminded of a birding experience from my childhood, of a moment with my brothers or an early sighting while alone that convinced me I could identify species on my own. For me, spring migration is about more than seeing the birds. It is about reconnecting with nature, and also with a passion that has remained with me for literally half a century. It is about memory and family. It both calms and invigorates me. A single good sighting on my morning walk can buoy my mood for the entire day.

As a kid, I was self-conscious about my interest in birds. A few of my closest friends knew, but otherwise I kept it to myself, fearing that I would be teased. I was already a nerd. I was short. I wasn’t the best athlete. I was usually in the school play. So already I had a lot of geek cred. The birdwatching, I feared, would be one nerd-attribute too many. Looking back on this, I regret how shy I was in this regard. It has always been so important to me. And yet, even to this day, I feel a twinge of embarrassment when I’m out with binoculars in hand, searching the foliage for a warbler or wren, and someone I know happens past. Old habits die hard.

On the other hand, I once had someone ask me for an interview what my superpower was. And the truth is, my superpower is that I can identify by song almost any bird native to my area. I’m sitting outside as I write this, and just in the moment I pause in my typing I can hear a Red-eyed Vireo, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, a Carolina Chickadee, a Tufted Titmouse, a Summer Tanager, a House Finch, and a Nashville Warbler. Yeah, I know – as superpowers go, it’s not much. But really it’s all I’ve got.

In any case, I wasn’t sure what to write about today, and given how much of a balm birding has been for me these past few weeks, I thought I would share this.

For those who are interested, birding is an easy hobby to pick up and a rewarding one to pursue. All you need is a pair of binoculars, a good field guide, and a willingness to learn.

Wishing you all a wonderful week.

Monday Musings: Music and Memory

Last week, I wrote about the musical biographies and autobiographies I’ve been reading, and I wanted to stay on the theme of music this week.

I am the youngest of four kids, and all of my siblings are (were) much older than I am. The oldest was nearly fifteen years older, the other two twelve and six years respectively. When I was young, all three of them delighted in turning me on to their favorite musicians. This was particularly true of my oldest brother, Bill, who we lost a couple of years ago. I was born in the early 1960s, which meant that my siblings were children of the 60s, and they listened to some pretty amazing music. I was given my first rock/pop record when I was all of seven years old – James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James. By the time I was ten or so, I had a record collection (yes, records. LPs. Kids, ask your parents…) that included four James Taylor albums, three Carole King records (including the remarkable Tapestry), Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s eponymous debut album as well as CSN&Y’s Déjà Vu, a couple of records by Simon and Garfunkel, several by the Beatles, Loggins and Messina’s Sittin’ In – a terrific and underrated album — Don McLean’s American Pie, and other titles that I’m blocking on right now.

I don’t mean this as a humble brag. It wasn’t about MY taste – it was theirs, seeping into my musical consciousness. But the benefit of it was that they served as gatekeepers for me, filtering out the crap and passing along the good stuff. (Mostly. Don McLean really was the prototypical one-hit wonder. “American Pie” is an incredible song, and “Vincent” was pretty good. The rest of the album is forgettable at best. And I also had other albums that I haven’t listened to in years: America’s first album, a couple by Seals and Crofts, and others I’m too ashamed to admit to. [Small voice] I’m pretty sure there was a Helen Reddy album in there…)

My tastes have expanded of course – rock, jazz, bluegrass, classical. But to this day, the music to which they introduced me remains at the core of my listening habits. Which means that when I listen to music, I am often flooded with memories of my childhood and adolescence and reminded of interactions with one sibling or another. As you might guess, this has become bittersweet in the years since Bill died.

Yet, I wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, I have a mix on my phone that is named for Bill and that is collected from albums he first played for me, artists we talked about and argued about, albums I introduced him to when I grew old enough to make our musical interactions two-way. The list includes literally hundreds of songs.

Music, like a familiar aroma, has the power to transport us, to carry us through time to emotions that feel as fresh as oven-warmed bread. That is the joy of it, and yes, the sorrow as well.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. This blog feature is called Monday Musings for a reason. I have no agenda. I’m listening to music, missing my brother, thinking of calling my other brother, just to tell him that I love him. And so I leave you with a thought and a question:

The thought: When we gift music, we do more than give a disk or a tape or an LP or an iTunes gift card. We give memory, emotion, a piece of ourselves. Over the years, my brothers and I gave each other music all the time, and even years later, those particular gifts are more dear to me than I can say.

And the question: What was some of the earliest music that found its way into your life, and what sort of memories does it carry?

Feel free to answer me on Facebook or Twitter.

Wishing you a great week.