Baseball is a tradition. It’s a religion. Baseball is history. It’s family. All of these terms get tossed around and when you’re not into the sport it gets treated like a bad love letter full of sappy romantic rhetoric and a lack of foresight. But when you are a fan? It’s life.
I started following baseball at the tail end of the 1993 season. Being a Yankees’ fan was a lot different then. My Dad taught me the rules to all four major US sports around the same time, but Baseball is the one I embraced the most. He used to teach me about all the great former players, many of whom played for the Yankees.
He used to tell me about all of our relatives who went to all the historically significant games before I was even born. How my uncle went to the game Roger Maris tied Babe Ruth for the single season home run record. How him and my Mom, freshly married, saw Reggie hit three home runs on three pitches in the World Series. The stuff of lore.
When you’re young and you go through Father’s Day every year you think it’s overkill. Why did I need to thank my Dad? He gets to make all the rules and there’s no day he has to thank me. When you get older and you do things like maintain relationships and pay bills and work full-time, you start to get some perspective on exactly what was going on behind the scenes all those years and you realize a day to step back and reflect on the role of a father is an important one.
So when I sit here and think about my own Dad, the guy who taught me my biggest passion, the one I kept on my phone when we were on opposite ends of the country in 2009 for the last out, by then an adult and college graduate, I think back to the beginning. I think of my favorite memory of him.
The 1996 season was an important one for a lot of reasons for my generation of Yankees’ fans. As a nine-year-old, it was the first deep playoff run. For my Dad, significantly older, 1995 was a reminder of October baseball after a 15 year drought, but 1996 was a reminder of what a World Series contender felt like.
We watched the postseason together almost every night. I still remember being in a local grocery store before Game One of the ALCS and the cashier telling me he was rooting for the Orioles because the Yankees bought everything. I remember my dad defending my team. We had a connection. We both valued something together.
The Braves should have won that World Series. They were the better team, the seasoned team and the defending champs. At nine, the 1996 Yankees seemed like the best team ever, but the reality is they won the division title with just 92 wins and even though they were on top of the division every game since Opening Day, the division wasn’t very good.
The Yankees had grinders, none of whom stuck out as a superstar.
When the Braves bludgeoned the Yankees to the tune of 16-1 combined the first two games in New York, the reminder of the Mariners the season before came back to me. The psychology behind being a Yankees’ fan was totally backwards. When Altanta lead 6-0 at home in Game Four, I started playing video games at a friend’s house, figuring the game was over. It was the one game I was not home with my Dad.
The Yankees came back to win. Pettitte outdueled Smoltz to win Game Five and the stage was set for my happiest Father-son memory.
Back in the Bronx I was watching from my New Jersey television set. My sisters were with my Mom away at a wedding. It was just us, in the biggest game of my young sport’s life.
When Joe Girardi tripled, we had a feeling. Joe Torre and Girardi were two of our favorites, as fellow Italian-Americans in a sport which wasn’t soccer. The fact one was managing and having his first success as a coach and the other had a hit we almost felt in New Jersey, was a good omen.
Soon enough the ninth inning came and soon enough the Braves had cut the deficit to 3-2. I remember the network airing promos for Game Seven and thinking I couldn’t possibly handle anything more than this final inning. In pre-Mariano Rivera games, you just never knew how the game would end.
Atlanta had base runners and a pesky Mark Lemke at the plate with two outs. That at-bat lasted forever. It felt like a hundred foul balls before Lemke popped one up a fan wouldn’t catch. Charlie Hayes camped under it, closed his glove on the ball and I defied gravity.
I flew. Literally. I jumped from one end of my family room into my Father’s arms on the other end. It was a perfect jump where I felt suspended in air and landed, perfectly, on my Dad. At nine-years-old, these things were still possible.
We yelled, we screamed, we celebrated, my Mom called to celebrate, gauging my reaction to my first ever World Series championship. Finally, I had a story to tell. One sister had bet me a million dollars all year long the Yankees wouldn’t win the World Series, I was so happy I didn’t care I was out seven figures for not taking the bet.
And every time thereafter when the Yankees would win a championship I would think of that moment, when everything came together for the first time.
And every Father’s Day I think about moments like that one, where all the hard work of a Dad culminates into one priceless moment for a son.
And I wish everyone could have a moment like that one at some point with their Father.
And I hope they can share it with their own son one day.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad!