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February 13, 2000 : Born-Again in Baseball: Part One: Rookie

So, how did a young fan of Reggie Jackson, the Year of the Comeback, Bucky Dent, Ron Guidry, and Thurman Munson, a woman who still counts among one of the best days of her life witnessing Dave Righetti’s Fourth of July No-Hitter live at Yankee Stadium, lose her faith in the late ’80s, forget the sport of baseball entirely, and then find it again in 1999?

Let’s turn the clock back to the 1970s first. There I am, a young tomboy growing up in suburban New Jersey. I have to credit my Dad with getting me hooked on baseball, though I never got hooked on any of the other sports he liked to watch on TV (golf, tennis, football…). Perhaps this is because although we watched a lot of ABC’s Wide World of Sports (remember back when that was pretty much all there was?), the only sport we went to witness live and in the flesh was baseball, and the place we went was Yankee Stadium.

As a kid, I was very concerned with history and fame. How did famous people get remembered? I had this notion that I wanted to be famous someday, or at least remembered for something. I remember going to Yankee Stadium when I was about 9 or 10 years old and thinking, wow, history gets made here every day. Pretty mind-blowing for a ten year old.

There’s also no doubt about it that a lot of the bonding that went on between me and my Dad happened while we were sharing a scorecard at the ballpark, or stuffed into the same armchair at home watching the games. (We were skinny back then.) He’d tickle me during the commercials. At the ballpark, we’d take turns keeping score. I still keep my scorecard the way I learned back then–it’s a little less fancy than the mini-diamonds they have now. But, let’s not skip ahead.

When I was eleven years old, I was at 4-H camp when Thurman Munson died in a plane crash. My parents were really worried I’d be devastated, and were fretting over how to tell me when I got back to the real world. But as it turned out, I had already found out. One kid at camp had twisted his ankle or something and gone to the emergency room, and while at the hospital had seen the news report. With a whole staff of counselors on hand they announced the sad news in the dining hall that night. When I got home, I made a little shrine on my closet door, with a poster of Munson, and fifteen pictures of him I cut out from the newspaper in the weeks following his death. Fifteen because that was his uniform number.

For either my 13th or my 14th birthday party I made my parents take not only me to the park, but all my friends, as well. Our family tradition was to pick up a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken on the way, because at Yankee Stadium you can bring in your own food (as long as you don’t bring cans or bottles). Two carloads of teenage girls, plus my parents and brother–how could we not have a good time? You know, I don’t even remember who they played or if they won. I suppose in my childhood memories, they always won, even though I know they didn’t.

I remember sitting behind home plate once. My father and my grandfather and I had gone to the ballpark, just the three of us, and bought our tickets at the gate. Those seats must have been held in reserve for press or players’ friends, and were released before the game when they went unused. That was the night I learned what grand slam was. Bobby Murcer came in to pinch hit with the bases loaded, and hit one out. I remember everyone around us jumping up and down and screaming. I was too short to actually see Murcer cross the plate what with all the adults around me standing up. But I guess you never forget your first grand slam.

And of course there was that incredible Fourth of July, thanks to Dave Righetti. It was already an incredibly exciting day for me and my brother (his name’s Julian, by the way), because Chuck Mangione, who we thought was the coolest for some reason, played the national anthem, and then paratroopers came flying down into the stadium on parachutes with smoke shooting out of their shoes. Cool. Then comes young, good-looking, Dave Righetti to the mound. The opponents were the Red Sox, who we had been indoctrinated to loathe by other fans (“Boston sux! Boston sux!”) so tension was high. Righetti was pitching perfectly, and after the first couple of innings the words “perfect game” were on everybody’s lips.

OK, then at some point someone got walked. I can’t remember who, but I’m sure if I wanted to I could find a scorecard of the game somewhere on the web or in a stats book. So then “no-hitter” became the watchword.

It was the most exciting game I’ve ever seen, and all because almost nothing happened!

The tension and suspense was almost too much to stand. By the eighth inning, the two strike claps were becoming one-strike claps. (They tell me two-strike clap–the audience making rhythmic claps on two strikes hoping for a strikeout, which started with Ron Guidry in Yankee Stadium– has spread to some other ballparks as well.) The audience was going crazy and yet also subdued, holding our breath, not wanting to blow it for the young pitcher.

And he didn’t blow it. He did it! And so me and my family were witnesses to history in Yankee Stadium. After the game we waited outside the clubhouse with the media, tv cameras, etc… and a lot of screaming fans. We waved to Dave Righetti as he departed the park. We were a little disappointed that you couldn’t see us in the newscast that night, but so what? As if that wasn’t great enough, from there we went to the East River to see the awesome fireworks, and then to Chinatown for a dinner that, as Arlo Guthrie says, couldn’t be beat.

With memories and formative experiences like that, how could I leave the Yankees and baseball fandom behind?

Find out in next in “Part Two: The Slump.”

(Did you enjoy reading this blog entry? Please consider buying me a hot dog.)

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