For Father’s Day

Given that its Father’s Day weekend, I’m going to offer up something a bit more serious.  This is an essay I wrote for a series of “Lasting Yankee Stadium Memories” over at Bronx Banter back in 2008.  An abridged version of this piece appears in the anthology book.

The Only Bond We Had

My mom was born in the farm country of Monticello, NY in the late 1920s. My dad was born in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn around the same time. They met when my mom moved to NYC after high school to find a job as a secretary. They married in 1958.

Some time shortly thereafter, my dad began exhibiting signs of mental illness … bouts of paranoia and/or delusions. Amidst all this, I was born in 1963. It was obvious that my dad wasn’t capable of being a care-giver to the family, so my mom got a quickie divorce in 1965, and my dad returned to live with his mother in Boro Park. My mom and I stayed in our apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens.

Dad had visitation rights, once a week at my apartment for a few hours on a Saturday or Sunday. He would hop on the B train, then the F, and upon arriving at our house, plop himself down on the couch and turn on the TV, invariably to the Yankee game on Channel 11 with Rizzuto, Messer and White. My mom scolded him for this seeming lack of interaction with me. So, sometimes we’d ride the Q66 bus on Northern Boulevard out past Shea Stadium to Main Street in Flushing to do some shopping or see a movie in the (now boarded-up) RKO Keith theater.

I soon inferred that if I wanted to engage with dad, it was going to involve baseball, especially the Yankees. My dad heartily encouraged this. I took a fondness to Bobby Murcer, since he was the only “name” on those middling early 70s teams. So dad got me a t-shirt with an oversized Murcer head on a cartoon body. He knew I was good with numbers, so he got me a Strat-o-Matic game, and occasionally we sat down to play.

Our “big events” were schlepping on the train to Yankee Stadium (though, in my kid mind, we lived only 15 minutes on the 7 train from Shea … why couldn’t we go there?). In the early to mid-70s, before the Yanks made free agency their own version of “Candy Land”, you could easily walk up and grab a couple of field level seats on game day.

We went to Old Timer’s Day quite often, and regardless of the particular day/game, we always sat on the 3rd base side, seemingly always behind one of the girders (sigh). I’d be sitting there with the program dad had bought me, filling out the scorecard and attempting (in my own baseball shorthand) to keep score. Dad would be enjoying a beer or two and a dog.

Dad did try to provide some fatherly counsel while we were together. I distinctly remember one game we went to when I was no more than 10 or 11. As the opposing team’s line-up was announced, this conversation took place:

Me (towards the offending player): You suck!

Dad (sternly): Where did you learn that word?

Me (honestly and with a hint of justification in my voice): From the kids in the neighborhood.

Dad: Do you know what it means?

Me: Ummm …. no. (Hey, it just means the guy is a really bad player, right?)

Dad: Well I don’t want to hear you using that language again.

We went to a couple of games at Shea while the Stadium was being renovated. I was there to see my guy Murcer finally connect for his first homer at Shea (one of only two he hit at Shea that year … the other coming the next day).

As I got a little bit older, I was able to go to games on my own. Of all the quirky events I’ve been witness to, seeing Bump Wills and Toby Harrah connect on back-to-back inside-the-park homers is pretty darn near the top of the list. One of my visits to the Stadium in 1978 saw Gator get his 20th victory (on his way to 25-3), a dominating 5-hitter against the Tigers.

Dad became more of a recluse as he grew older, rarely venturing out of the house … calling little delis in the neighborhood to have groceries delivered … managing to find the one doctor in Boro Park that still made housecalls. Our visits became more infrequent. More often than not, I’d be going out to his house … helping clean his apartment and such. We’d watch whatever sporting event was on … he’d ask a few questions about how school was going … how my friends were doing. But I just didn’t feel emotionally connected to him.

We did get to one final game at the “new” Stadium together. Somehow, the tickets got lost in the mail, and the Yankee ticket office ended up giving us other seats … in left field, just to the left of the foul pole, 3rd row … on a blistering hot day. My dad made it through half of batting practice, and then told me he was going home … it was too hot. I said I would go home with him, but he insisted I stay, so I did.

Dad passed away in December 1994, amidst a garbage-strewn apartment in a building with neighbors who told me he stole their mail and threw pennies at their door (both statements I found to be true, sadly). At his funeral, a cousin remarked that my dad should have been buried with a Yankee cap …. “he loved those Yankees.”

I’ve gone to a few games at the Stadium since then, mostly when someone comes up with free tickets and/or good seats. I was there for Opening Day in 2007. To my wonderful surprise, Murcer, having waged a fight against a brain tumor, showed up in the Yankee broadcast booth. They flashed his image on the big screen in right. I got a lump in my throat and let out a hearty “Bobbbbby!”.

The last game I went to at the Stadium was, perhaps fittingly, Old Timer’s Day this past August. It was great to see all the players I grew up with on the field at the Stadium one last time. Murcer’s uniform top was hung simply on a wall in the dugout. The image of that flashed on the screen, and one final time, I said goodbye.

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