(Note: Some of this originally appeared in my piece in the “Lasting Yankee Stadium Memories” anthology)
My parents were divorced in 1965, when I was two years old. In the prior couple of years, my father had begun exhibiting signs of mental illness, and my mother, knee-deep in her own issues with a child (me) that was in and out of hospitals from birth, needed some stability. Mom got custody of me, while dad moved back in with his mother in Borough Park.
My 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. During one of my hospital stays, my dad wrote to the Yankees, and upon my return home, I found a personalized, signed photo of “my Bobby” waiting for me.
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).
My heart was broken soon after that awful season at Shea, as Murcer was dealt to San Francisco for Bobby Bonds. Bonds was supposedly the better player, but that made little difference to me. The Giants stunk, and were never on the Saturday “Game of the Week” or “Monday Night Baseball.” I was reduced to reading the boxscores in the paper or “The Sporting News” and lamenting that the Yankees were making the playoffs in the mid-70s without Murcer.
Eventually Murcer came back (via the Cubs) . . . one of the happiest days of the 1979 season for me. Five weeks after his return, Murcer delivered a eulogy at Thurman Munson’s funeral, and then went out and drove in all five runs, including the game-winning two-run single in a Yankee 5-4 comeback.
Murcer retired from baseball in 1983, and moved into the Yankee broadcast booth a year later. He wasn’t Mel Allen or Vin Scully, but he knew the game, was humorous, and his southern twang was a welcome voice once again.
With Murcer retired, I decided I needed a new “favorite player”. That player turned out to be Gary Carter. Carter played the game hard, and was enthusiastic and seemingly always smiling. He also loved the game enough to collect baseball cards.
I went out and bought an Expos replica jersey, and made sure to go to Shea Stadium when Montreal came into town. I didn’t care that I was rooting for “the opposition”. I wanted to see Carter hit some line drives and throw out Wally Backman or Mookie Wilson.
One night in December 1984, I came home from my Grad School classes to discover that Carter had been traded . . . to the Mets! Be still my beating heart! My favorite player, now on a local team . . . a team only a ten-minute train ride away. Suddenly the Mets became my ticket of choice.
Around this time, my best friend’s then-fiancee Tony mentioned he was into collecting sports cards. I ended up rekindling my love of collecting thanks to him, and soon I had practically every Carter card out there.
One winter day, Carter and some of the other Mets appeared at a local card show. Tony and I went, and after I had already gotten Carter’s autograph on a photo, managed to corner him outside the men’s room. Tony got the photo (yes, I really was taller than Carter):
Carter’s career really started to slide in 1987, and he ended up leaving the Mets after a horrendous, injury-plagued 1989 season. I went to a few games at Shea that last year, and it was tough watching him, a shell of his former self skill-wise. But the effort was still there as always. After the Mets, Carter moved onto San Francisco, Los Angeles and back “home” to Montreal, and I kept collecting his cards at each stop. When he finally made the Hall in 2003, I cried.
Meanwhile, my guy Murcer was diagnosed with a brain tumor late in 2006. I knew the odds weren’t good for him, but I kept a good thought. I happened to score tickets for Opening Day in 2007. To my wonderful surprise, Murcer 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!”.
When his autobiography came out in the Spring of 2008, dealing with everything including his on-going health battle, I read it from cover-to-cover in one day. Unfortunately, I was stuck at work on one of the few days he was doing a book signing, in what would turn out to be his last public appearance.
The All-Star Game was being held at the Stadium that Summer, so my friend Jeremy and I went to the “Fan Fest” they held at the Javits Center the prior weekend. I came home from an enjoyable afternoon to hear that Bobby had died, at the age of 62.
The last game I went to at the “old” Stadium was, perhaps fittingly, Old Timer’s Day a few weeks later. 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 to my “first” guy, Murcer.
And now, of course, the same type of cancer has struck down my other favorite player of all-time. Gary Carter dealt with his illness with the same type of dignity, grace and calm that Murcer had four years earlier. That didn’t make it any easier for me when the story broke Thursday afternoon, amidst all the “Linsanity” puns and tweets about Brandon Inge wanting to try playing second base.
I sat at my desk, with my stomach cartwheeling and my eyes misting. Sure I expected this news, but it was still an ache in my soul. Cancer is a bitch, and it doesn’t care if you are a Hall of Famer, a “Yankee for Life” or anyone else.
The game of baseball, and how we interact with it and follow it, have changed dramatically from the playing days of Murcer and Carter. I don’t collect cards anymore (I haven’t thrown them out though). Fantasy baseball has splintered my attention towards any one favorite player. But I’ll always have the memories of growing up WITH baseball, and how two special men helped me love the game eternally.