Please forgive me for taking a mental-health break today in order to briefly avoid all serious news, from Putin’s horrific war, from one of Trump’s GOP House acolytes calling Zelenskyy a “thug,” from being thankful that my morning commute — a block-and-a-half walk to the coffee shop — doesn’t cost me $4 a gallon.
And from Tina Peters and her imaginary Gerald Wood friend, from the mad rush to de-mask during what is still officially a pandemic, from the brilliant but haunting New York Times story and photos of a Ukrainian mother, her two children and a church volunteer guide running for safety from Russian bombs only to be killed on a bridge by Russian troops.
I could go on — and on, and on — but I’m not here today to depress you, gentle reader, or myself. In fact, I’m here to celebrate fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, a grandfather’s gift, a boy’s first love, a long-since-grownup boy’s enduring love and, as I’ll explain, the first time a family member threatened to kick me out of the family.
In other words, to celebrate the news that, after 90 days of a labor dispute, baseball has been rescued from an owners’ lockout and the possible loss of some or, shudder, maybe even all of the season. The celebration — as told in this column anyway — is also the story of my life, which I’ve told before, and which maybe you’ve even seen before, but this is the only life I’ve got, so please indulge me.
I wrote it first in 1982 when my grandfather — my mother’s father and devout baseball fan — died. I wrote it the first time because I was out of the country and couldn’t get to the funeral, and this would be my eulogy.
So here’s the setup. I’m maybe 10 years old. My grandfather is older (everyone was back then). We are watching the Yankees game on TV in the bottom-floor den of my grandparents’ split-level house. There was only one game on national TV every week during these antediluvian days. And it was always the Yankees, who would win the World Series on a near-annual basis. So it was me and my grandfather and the Yankees and announcers Dizzy Dean and Buddy Blattner.
My grandfather loved the Yankees. I hated them. (You can’t really be a sports fan, or understand much of this story, if you don’t get the importance of rooting against teams.) We lived in Virginia at that time, but my entire family was from New York. And my father’s side were Dodgers fans, my mother’s side, Yankees fans. I won’t say we took this seriously, but when my mother married my father and converted to being a Dodgers fan — I think it was in the marriage contract — it was as if she had broken bonds with the old religion while also breaking her father’s heart.
I hated the Yankees for the same reason most Yankee haters did and still do — they always won — but also because back when I was a kid, the team they most famously beat was the Brooklyn Dodgers. They beat my Dodgers, my dad’s Dodgers, his dad’s Dodgers, the Jackie Robinson Dodgers, the wait-’til-next-year Dodgers, The Boys of Summer Dodgers nearly every year, it seemed, in the World Series.
Yes, it was serious. My first dog’s name was Dodger. My mother insisted it was my first word. Later, we had Duke, Campy and Sandy.
My grandfather begged me to root for the Yankees when they weren’t playing the Dodgers. He said if I would, he’d root for the Dodgers when they weren’t playing the Yankees. Couldn’t I give him that much? I could not. I would not. I did not.
Anyway, we’re watching. I can’t remember who the Yankees were playing, but, in my memory, it was the bottom of the 9th inning, the Yankees were down a run or two, had two men on base and the great Mickey Mantle, America’s hero, at the plate.
My grandfather, who believed, as all true fans believe, that he could affect the game by yelling, loudly, at the TV, was screaming, one fist curled in a ball, one hand pointed at the screen, “Come on, Mick! Pop one!”
And the 10-year-old me, already learned in the ways of trash talk, yelled back, “Yeah, come on, Mick. Pop one up!”
Mickey hit one, he hit it straight up. Before the ball could even land in the second baseman’s glove, my grandfather had stormed out of the den, up the small set of stairs to the kitchen, where my mother and grandmother could hear him muttering curses as he raced by, up more stairs to his bedroom, whereupon we heard a thunderous slamming of the door.
My grandmother rushed down to ask me what had happened. I told her the Mick had popped up.
After many decades of marriage, she understood immediately. And when she went upstairs to comfort my grandfather, my mother and I could hear him tell her, “I mean it, Sadie, I don’t ever want to see that damn kid in this house again.”
As I said, exiled. For making the Mick pop up.
My grandmother came back down, laughing at the putatively grown man who was her husband, and said that though I hadn’t done anything strictly illegal, I had to go up to apologize anyway, you know, to keep peace in the family.
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I swore I wouldn’t. I swore I couldn’t. My mother begged me. And so I did, trudging reluctantly up the stairs, my fingers crossed behind my back, to tell my grandfather I was sorry the Mick had popped up. I doubt he believed me, but he did end my exile. Years later, I had a better understanding of the situation when my sister, raised just as I was, married my best friend and devout Yankees fan. She converted, too. I didn’t exile her, but it was a near thing.
My grandfather and I did have some better moments. He did give me my first baseball glove — if I remember right, a Duke Snider Rawlings — which long ago, and I’m still not sure who the culprit was, disappeared.
Maybe the best day we ever had was when I was covering the Dodgers as a young sports writer and my grandparents had retired to Miami. I took my grandfather to a Dodgers-Yankees spring training game in Fort Lauderdale and introduced him to a few Yankees players. No Mickey Mantle, but, hey, I did introduce him to Reggie Jackson. He was thrilled and proud. I was thrilled I had made him proud.
And so, now there will be another baseball season, and when the games come on, I’ll be watching some of them with my two grandsons, 7 and 3. They’re both already Dodgers fans, and, if the Dodgers and Yankees ever make it back to the World Series together, I’ll know exactly what to do. I’ll make sure they both hate the Yankees just like I do, just like my dad did, just like his dad did, because, if I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that you can never start too young.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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