The tyrant was the opponent, and the world and the human race were the audience. Respect for God won the day and crowned its champions. Who wasn’t amazed at the athletes who were competing in the name of the divine Law? Who wasn’t astonished?
[4 Maccabees 17:14-16 Common English Bible]
I love baseball.
My fanaticism has waned over the passing years, but there was a time when no other sport could equal the enthusiasm I had for baseball.
Like most males, my earliest memories of baseball go back to my childhood and my relationship with my father. But before you dismiss this as some “Field of Dreams” retrospective, bear in mind that there are no cornfields in Puerto Rico, just sugar cane, and even those have diminished in number.
It was on the island where I was born that my love for the sport had its beginning. From the time I could walk, my father would take me to games just about every weekend during the season. The first and biggest impression I had was the vivid green of the outfield grass. We lived in an urban area with brightly colored houses, but we didn’t see that much natural green.
We had Winter baseball in Puerto Rico. We got to see Major League players, who would come to the island to play. Not surprisingly, at six years old, I couldn’t tell the difference. Back then, the Major Leaguers played Winter Ball not just to sharpen their skills, but also to supplement their income. The era of astronomical salaries was still generations away.
My father also saw legendary Negro League players before the color barrier was broken. My father, or Papi, as I called him, would mention names one after another, telling me how great this one or that one was. Of course, at that age, I didn’t know individual players. Their individual exploits were lost on me. It didn’t make one bit of difference. They were all outstanding in my eyes.
We had two favorite teams. Truthfully, I cheered for one team, and he, for another. His team was the San Juan Senadores; mine, the Santurce Cangrejeros. I don’t remember the reason we chose those two, perhaps because they were the two we saw play the most. I believe they shared the same ballpark, Sixto Escobar Stadium; so on any given weekend, at least one of them was playing there.
After we moved to the mainland, my fondest times with my dad were spent watching the game, either in person – not nearly as often as on the island – or listening on the radio. Television was still black and white, so watching wasn’t as interesting.
But listening to games was a community event. Several neighbors would gather outside someone’s house, group chairs in a semi-circle, place the radio strategically on a window ledge, and listen as if we were at the ballpark. The conversations were fun. By that time, my knowledge of, and interest in the game had developed to the point that individual players statistics mattered.
We lived in Southwestern Pennsylvania, so the Pittsburgh Pirates was everyone’s team of choice. However, the Pirates were awful in those days (déjà vu), so Dad and I continued our usual competitive rivalry of selecting different teams to root for. He was a big Jackie Robinson fan, so the Dodgers became his favorites. I, just to be contrary, cheered for the New York Giants. The Giants also had a Puerto Rican pitcher, Rubén Gómez, on the roster. So I had someone for whom I could cheer.
Later, however, when Roberto Clemente was drafted by the Pirates, our allegiances shifted abruptly out of loyalty to this promising young Puerto Rican player who, unbeknownst to us then, would rise to stellar heights both on and off the field. We paid extra attention whenever Clemente came to the plate. We marveled at his spectacular catches in the outfield.
In 1958, the Dodgers and Giants moved to the West Coast. That made it all the easier to transfer our support to Pittsburgh. On the night of August 5th of that year, Papi and I were going to watch the game on TV between the Pirates and Milwaukee. It was an eight p.m. telecast, so he went up to take a nap before the start of the game.
He never woke up.
I was 13 years old. I was crushed. My world could have ended right then.
It took me a long while to recover from the trauma. I would guess about four years. Throughout that time of grief, my greatest consolation was baseball. The love of baseball is probably the greatest legacy that my father left me. During those years of confusion, I would often find myself fantasizing what he would have thought about certain players, or the 1960 Pirates’ World Series Championship. I imagined him right there beside me.
All these memories come to mind as the post-season begins. I’ve never been a huge fan of playoffs. For the longest time, baseball was the only sport that rewarded its winners. The Major Leagues has ballooned from 16 to 30 teams, three divisions in each league, six division champions and two wild cards. Somehow, I don’t think Papi would have approved.
We have no team in the playoffs. The two teams I follow these days, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, will watch it on TV like the rest of us. So I have two choices, the Giants, or the Dodgers.
I’ll go with Papi’s pick.
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