Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Time, Family, and Baseball


You may have read on my Facebook page the posting from my son, Ben, who pushed the friendly baseball rivalries in our family with this question, “My father has a chance to use sports to determine which of his children he loves the best. On one side, it's me and the Chicago Cubs and on the other, Matt Zarit and Tom Weston rooting for the Dodgers. Cubs vs Dodgers to determine which of his children are his favorite.”  Of course, I love all my children, and so I flippantly answered that I would root for the team in blue—both teams wear blue!  But his question led me to think about how baseball and family have been intertwined throughout my life.

I grew up as a White Sox fan.  It was logical.  We lived on the South Side of Chicago and my father was a White Sox fan, though my sister, Marian, was and still is an ardent Cub fan.  During my formative years in the 1950s, the White Sox were the more dynamic team.  They had signed African American and Hispanic players like Minnie Minoso and Luis Aparicio, who made the Sox competitive in the American League.  The Cubs in the early 1950s had entire outfields of plodding, past-their prime sluggers, who were best suited for Designated Hitter, if only it had existed then.  When the Cubs finally broke the color barrier, they signed one of the greatest players I have ever seen, Ernie Banks.  Banks single-handedly carried the Cubs to respectability.  I enjoyed going out to Wrigley Field a couple of times every summer to watch Banks and some of the other exciting players they were bringing in.  All the games were played in the daytime at Wrigley then, so my friends and I could take the “L” across town and sit in the sun with a few thousand other fans.  But I remained a Sox fan first and foremost.

The baseball highpoint of my childhood came in 1959.  After finishing behind the hated Yankees and the Indians for the whole decade, everything came together for the Sox, and they won the pennant.  It was the first World Series in Chicago since 1945 when the Cubs had lost to Detroit, and the first appearance for the Sox in the World Series since the infamous “Black Sox Scandal” in 1919 when several players on the team conspired with gamblers to throw the series.  In 1959 Bill Veeck was owner of the team and one of the most creative people ever in baseball.  Veeck, knew that the demand for tickets from long-suffering Sox fans would be tremendous, so he created a lottery.  My father and I filled out a postcard, sent it in, and we got two tickets for the first game of the Series.  I was so excited. The Sox won the game, beating the Dodgers 9 to 0, though ultimately losing the Series 4 games to 2.  But what could be better in a boy’s life than to go with his Dad to a World Series game.

In the 60s, the Sox quickly returned to mediocrity, but the Cubs built an exciting team with talented players like Billy Williams and Ron Santo.  In 1969, they were running away from the rest of the league and it looked like they would finally return to the World Series.  I remember going to a game with my Uncle Irv to see the Cubs play the Mets in August.  Wrigley was full and there was tremendous excitement, but the Cubs lost that day.  And continued losing.  The Cubs manager, Leo “the Lip” Durocher began celebrating his genius as a manager in mid-August for leading the league, and he disregarded the Mets with their young pitchers-- Jerry Koosman, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan and others.  The Mets caught the Cubs.  Cub fans everywhere were heart-broken.  I was disappointed, too.  I had loyalty to the Cub fans in the family and besides, I will root for any Chicago team over any New York team.

I moved to LA in the mid 70s, but didn’t pay much attention at first to the local teams. After Judy and I married, I found myself with two stepsons, Mike and Tom, who were enthusiastic Dodger fans, and so we started going to Dodger games.  Ben came along a lot of the time.  Those were great teams—Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Mike Piazza, Pedro Guerrero, Ron Cey and Fernando Valenzuela among others--and Dodger Stadium is a beautiful place to see a game.   The house was filled with baseball cards and discussions of baseball statistics.  After Matt was born, we took the first photo of him with his 4 siblings, all wearing Dodger shirts. That's the photo at the top of the blog.

When we moved to Central Pennsylvania, we continued our allegiance to the Dodgers, going to see them occasionally in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. In 1988, we followed the Dodgers path to the World Series.  Gathered around the TV, we all watched as Dodgers' manager Tommy Lasorda sent injured star Kirk Gibson up to bat in the 9th inning of game one of the World Series.  Gibson was facing the best relief pitcher in baseball, Dennis Eckersly, and he winced in pain when he swung and missed a couple of pitches.  Then he hit an improbable home run to win the game.  The memory is still quite vivid.  Of course, that’s because Tom periodically pulls out the DVD from that game so we can watch Gibson’s homer again.  It was a shared experience, one of many though perhaps the most dramatic, that became part of our language and mythology as a family.

Ben has become a fervent Cubs fan, particularly after he moved to Chicago in the late 1990s and began going to games regularly.  Megan has never taken sides in the family baseball passions and after she moved to Nashville, she became an ardent football and hockey fan.  The Sox and Cubs, meanwhile, continued their futility.  The low point was the 2003 Bartman game, which helped keep the Cubs out of the World Series once again. I kept my allegiance to the Sox, hoped for the best for the Cubs, followed the Dodgers though less often, and discovered the magnificent new ballpark in Pittsburgh. 

Recently, the New York Times ran an op-ed piece entitled, “What the Cubs Could Teach the President.”  (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/30/opinion/sunday/cubs-baseball-trump.html?_r=0)  The author argued the virtues of being a Cubs fan—lack of hubris, able to take a long-term view, having a sense of history.  Like many stories about the long-suffering Cubs fans, the author neglected to mention that there was another team in Chicago with long-suffering fans.  And he failed to mention that in 2005 an obscure State Senator from the South Side of Chicago threw out the ceremonial first pitch in game two of the league championship series.  The White Sox won the game and the next seven straight for the first World Series champion in Chicago since 1917.  I was walking on air.  I never thought I would ever see the Sox win.  Ben said afterward that I was not allowed to complain about the White Sox for 5 years, which was sage advice.  And the obscure State Senator and Sox fan from the South Side, Barak Obama, became a very good President.

For the last several years we have had a minor league team in State College, the Spikes.  It has been a perfect place to take grandchildren—the seats are close to the field, it’s a short walk to get more food and there is a lot of entertainment. Brian got a ball at one game.  Sam sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” along with the crowd even before he had any idea what was going on in the field.  Lucy loved the fireworks after the game.  Andrew loved the food.  Liam has yet to visit when the Spikes are playing, but we look forward to taking him to a game. The kids even watch the game on occasions.

Last year was the Cubs’ year.  I rooted for them.  I had to.  I knew what it meant to me to see the Sox win, and I wanted the same for Ben, Marian, and the other Cubs fans in the family.  I was happy when they won. 

That was last year.  Ben, I’m happy the Dodgers won this year, but I certainly would have rooted for the Cubs in the Series if they had made it.

For people who are not baseball fans, the fascination may hard to understand.  People complain baseball is slow, and it is.  But it is complex.  The game’s strategies around pitching, hitting, and fielding, and what player moves to make during a game are a source of endless conversation, as is the abundance of statistics generated.  The almost daily games build familiarity with the players and loyalties to the local team.  Judy enjoyed baseball most when the boys were young, because she got to know about the players from them. Baseball becomes a source of conversation in the family that transcends any conflicts or tensions that may be present, and makes for shared experiences in the wins, losses and occasional transcending moments that carry forward over time.  Go Dodgers!

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