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The Yankees and My Grandfather: A story about fandom roots

People get into sports in all kinds of ways. For my Yankees fandom, it was thanks to my grandfather, who also happens to be celebrating his birthday today.

Mickey Mantle Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

There are plenty of ways that people get introduced to sports and become fans of certain franchises. Growing up in Nashville, I was always asked and am still asked today, “How in the world do you live down here in the south but are a New York Yankees fan?”

Sometimes, my response would be deemed acceptable; other times, it wouldn’t be, but it was always the same. My grandpa and dad are both Yankees fans, and I love Derek Jeter, so I am a Yankees fan. It doesn’t have to be complicated.

January 13th is a special day for both my family and my Yankees fandom. It’s my grandfather’s birthday. So I wanted to write this piece as a little present, paying tribute to the wonderful man who helped me get started on this journey.

To tell you a little about my grandfather John R. Middleton, he has led a life full of service to his family, friends, and country. As an infectious disease doctor who served at home and with the Air Force, he has saved countless lives and built many connections that everyone cherishes. He has been married for over 50 years and would do anything for his children and grandchildren despite his battle with Parkinson’s disease. As I’ve grown older, the amount I appreciate him and what he has done for everyone has grown exponentially.

One thing he did for me was introduce me to the Yankees and help me become the diehard fan of the team that I am today. Whenever he would call me throughout the years, he would talk to me about the team. What do I think about where they currently sit in the standings? Which guys do I enjoy watching? What do I think is essential for the rest of the season? How about my favorite player Jeter? Isn’t he awesome? Or what about Judge and LeMahieu?

The other constant in those phone calls? Talking about his favorite player, Mickey Mantle, hence the cover photo being the Yankees legend.

Sports were something that we always found time to talk about and still do today. We talk about hockey, as we’re both avid fans of the New Jersey Devils, but there’s nothing better than talking about the Yankees with him, which I believe is the team that we have bonded over the most. I have many core memories of the Yankees with him, but a few stick out that I want to talk about.

The first and most prominent one is when we were walking down the streets of The Bronx on June 8, 2016, with my grandma, brother, and cousins on our way to watch the Yankees play the Los Angeles Angels. I can’t even remember what we talked about on our walk, but I remember it vividly.

We sat up high in the stands diagonal from home plate on the first base side. We visited Monument Park, took pictures with the big plaque of Joe DiMaggio, and of course, to my grandfather’s delight, took pictures with Mantle’s plaque and his No. 7 and Thurman Munson’s No. 15 (my dad’s all-time favorite player).

There was nothing like watching the Yankees play against one of the greatest players of all time. The icing on the cake? We got to watch Mike Trout launch a home run, and even though we didn’t want him to win, it was amazing to see one of the greats do what he does best.

The Yankees walked away with a 12-6 win that night, and we all went home singing “New York, New York,” which I will never forget. I can thank my grandpa for making that experience incredible.

My next core memory with my grandfather and the Yankees came on August 3, 2019. The Bronx Bombers were at home against the Boston Red Sox, with Domingo Germán on the mound and Chris Sale pitching for the opposition in the first game of a doubleheader. We sat behind the foul pole on the third-base line in my first trip back to Yankees Stadium in a good amount of time.

So many things happened in that game, and I enjoyed the time with my grandfather. We watched Aaron Judge hit an automatic double that bounced to a couple of rows in front of us. We even got to watch Alex Cora get thrown out. But the icing on the cake was when Cameron Maybin threw me a ball from right field during a commercial break after playing catch with Brett Gardner, who was in center field. The ball was headed toward me, and someone in front of me tipped it, so it went into my seat. I frantically reached my glove down, adrenaline pumping, hoping I could grab it, and I did. My first ever MLB-branded baseball.

The first person I showed the ball to? My grandpa, and then to my grandma. The ball is in a case on my dresser to this day, with the big Yankee Stadium grass stain on it that it had the day it was thrown to me.

The Yankees won the game 9-2, and once again, my grandfather and I walked out of the ballpark together with our family, singing “New York, New York.”

Finally, my most recent Yankees core memory with my grandfather came on July 8, 2022. The Yankees were playing the Red Sox again, but it was at Fenway Park this time. So, despite not being able to attend the game, we watched it on television. The game started at 7:10 pm ET, and for the 3-hour, 51-minute duration, my grandpa and I sat and enjoyed watching the Yankees put up run after run on their most hated rival.

We saw everything. From a Josh Donaldson homer to Christian Arroyo not being able to see Joey Gallo’s pop fly (and spawning a meme that would go viral around MLB Twitter), and even the position player Jackie Bradley Jr. pitching in the ninth inning, we enjoyed the game together from the comfort of the living room and his bedroom. He stayed up way later than he should have, but it’s because there was nothing better than lying down and watching the Yankees with me. When the final out was made, I played “New York, New York” to celebrate, then headed off to sleep.

Reminiscing about all these things, it’s hard to imagine where I would be without my grandfather and how different my life would be if it weren’t for him showing me the great game of baseball and the Yankees organization. A man who has done so much for so many people has gone above and beyond to stay up to date with the team so he can have conversations with me about them.

There aren’t many words I can say that will broadcast how special the bond my grandfather and I have is, and our love for the New York Yankees only strengthens it. It’s why sports are such a special thing in this precious life. Can they rip your heart out? Yes. However, the bonds we make with the people closest to us through them make it all worth it. There’s nothing better than walking into my room and seeing a picture of Mantle sandwiched between two Jeter pictures.

Happy birthday, grandpa, and thank you for introducing me to this team that has brought me so many good memories with you. I strive to be half the man you are, and I hope always to love the things in my life the way you love Mickey Mantle and the Yankees.