Every baseball or softball game that I’ve ever played in has, generally, started the exact same way: some running, some stretching, some throwing. Lately, as in, since I graduated (read: got too old for one) from baseball to slow-pitch softball, I haven’t had a consistent throwing partner before games like I did during high school and American Legion baseball. Back then, I generally threw with the same teammate before each game. My first throwing partners, though, were my relatives, namely my father and his father, my grandfather. This is hardly unique; I’m sure that many of you reading this learned the game through your parents, grandparents, and siblings. Now, however, I’m going to be a bit selfish because today, May 10, would have been my grandfather’s 88th birthday.
When it’s hard for me to think back on the totality of the person my grandfather was, I think back on specific memories that involve him or his home where I spent so much time as a kid. And every image has something to do with baseball.
He kept a tennis ball under his deck that he’d throw at his neighbor’s roof if the pigeons he kept got up there. I used to take that ball every chance I could and throw it against his neighbor’s garage, whose outer wall faced into my grandfather’s yard.
Before big pigeon races, he would take his birds to random locations in the tri-state area (he really loved the Vince Lombardi Service Station on the Turnpike for this). One time, I went with him and we let the birds go on a baseball field. I was young, still playing on the small diamond. For fun, I ran the bases of this big diamond; I’m sure it took me forever and a half, but he made me feel like Rickey Henderson.
I recall his living room, which was my father’s childhood bedroom, where I would adjust the blinds so there wouldn’t be too much glare so we could watch the Yankees–at least until he fell asleep in his recliner.
On Saturdays when I would have games of my own on his side of town, my father and I, pizza in tow, would sit in his backyard, waiting for the pigeons to come home, listening to the Yankees on the radio.
His backyard sloped and when we did have a catch, he always insisted that I stand on the top part of the slop so I felt like I was pitching, so my throws would be easier, would seem harder, faster. Even now, I can picture his throwing motion, almost perfectly overhand, his bicep practically clipping his ear as it passed; this makes me think he’d absolutely love watching Chase Headley throw (seriously, could his throws be more over-the-top?).
I can’t even begin to count the amount of times he and I sat with my father around the kitchen table, talking about baseball. The generational connection so often peddled out by MLB for marketing purposes is definitely tired, but it exists for a reason. The three of us did not always have a lot in common–how could we?–but baseball was always there to bind us, to lighten our stresses.
And then on July 24, 2006, after a little under a month in the hospital, my grandfather died. To cope, or to help cope, I threw myself headlong into baseball. Looking back, I most definitely pushed away family and friends at times that summer, which I regret, but I embraced baseball with vigor I hadn’t known before. Every night when the Yankees played, that was my catharsis. I doubt I expressed this properly then, maybe I couldn’t, but turning on those games on TV or the radio, or being at the Stadium made me feel a connection to my grandfather. For three hours a night, I felt better and that’s all I cared about.
I owe all the baseball writing I’ve done to my grandfather. It is partially through the memory of him that I love watching the game, and talking about the game, and writing about the game. This piece alone cannot adequately encapsulate just how much I miss having him around, but (again) selfishly, it feels good to put “pen” to “paper” and talk about his influence on me as a player of and a fan of the game. Happy Birthday, Louie; thanks for helping imbue me with a love for the greatest game there is.