When I tell people that I was born in Flushing, NY, just a couple miles from Shea Stadium, and was first conscious about baseball right as the Mets were winning the World Series in 1986, they usually assume I'm a Mets fan. While I did root for those Mets teams, especially for Gary Carter, the funny thing about fandom is that upbringing can have a far greater influence than proximity. Even though we were in the middle of one of those rare time warps where the Yankees played second fiddle to the Mets in New York, my dad did everything he could to impart his Yankee wisdom on me. Luckily, the Yankees had some stars worth admiring at the time, even if the results weren't always there. With dad's assistance, Dave Winfield, Rickey Henderson, the great Willie Randolph, and of course Don Mattingly became the players I looked forward to watching everyday.
I got the chance to see them in person for the first time in 1987. Before the game, dad brought my older brother and me down to the field level to watch batting practice, where my brother promptly got hit in the arm with a ball. Despite his shock, he snagged that ball up and minutes later Dennis Rasmussen came by to sign it for him, which was pretty cool. From there, it didn't matter that the Yankees lost a close one to the Mariners. I got to see my favorite players play, and everything about Yankee Stadium seemed better than Shea, from the weird white facade in center field to the Don Mattingly Collector's Series cup in which dad handed me my soda. The Mets were now in my rear-view mirror.
When the '90s rolled around the Yankees play on the field deteriorated as my interest in them grew. It's also probably no coincidence that as my interest in baseball grew so did my fascination with numbers, which delighted my dad to no end. By then, Mattingly was the only Yankee left worth rooting for, so my focus naturally gravitated towards him and after his resurgent 1993 season, my dad and I spent a Saturday afternoon reviewing his career. Using Bill James' newly published book on the Hall of Fame as a guide, we determined that Donnie Baseball would need another three or four years like 1993 to get serious consideration. Unfortunately, his chronic back injuries prevented that from happening, but I still look back on that exercise fondly. Dad was helping me develop into a smarter baseball fan, but more than that, into a person who could dig through numbers and extract meaning from them--something I currently do for a living.
As the Yankees continued to improve throughout the decade, we made near annual trips back to Yankee Stadium and were lucky enough to see some great games. In June of 1995 we saw a young pitcher named Andy Pettitte throw seven shutout innings against the Tigers for a win in just his seventh major league start. The following May we were in attendance when David Cone dominated a tough White Sox lineup with a complete game five-hitter. The performance was made even more impressive a few days later when it was revealed he needed surgery to repair an aneurysm in his throwing arm. We returned to the Stadium later that year to see the Yankees on the winning end of a shootout with the Red Sox that ended when Rookie of the Year Derek Jeter singled up the middle with the bases loaded in the bottom of the tenth inning. That win clinched their first division title in 16 years.
I even had the luxury of attending some of the more exciting Yankee playoff games during their World Series runs as well. Thanks to my dad's work connections, he scored two tickets to Game 2 of the 1999 ALCS. We bit our nails the whole way while David Cone pitched a gem, his only mistake being a long ball from Nomar Garciaparra in the fourth inning. They eventually squeaked out a 3-2 victory, thanks to a seventh inning rally keyed by Chuck Knoblauch and Paul O'Neill. Those same work connections scored even better tickets the following year for Game 6 of the 2000 ALCS, a potential World Series clincher for the Yankees. Things weren't looking good until David Justice stepped up to the plate with two on against Arthur Rhodes in the seventh inning. Justice nearly put a hole in the old Stadium's upper deck in right field with a line drive that never seemed to stop rising. It was the loudest I've ever heard the Stadium. That gave the Yankees a lead they would never relinquish and earned them a trip to the World Series to face a Mets team that I stopped caring about nearly 15 years prior. Although we couldn't stick around to watch the post-game celebration (dad had work the next morning), it still might be the best baseball related experience I've ever had.
Fast forward to 2009 and my brother and I were officially grown-ups, so we decided to get dad a grown-up Father's Day gift: Tickets to Old Timers' Day for us and his little brother, who he also happened to raise as a Yankee fan. As expected, we all had an amazing time talking and joking about all the players, some great and some not so great, that the Yankees trotted out for the festivities. On top of that, they won the game that counted that day, but we still all went home pretty concerned because dad couldn't make even a short walk in the Stadium without being completely winded. Just a couple weeks later, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. The kind that Walter White had to hear about in Breaking Bad.
He underwent all of the aggressive treatment that comes with such a diagnosis and by some miracle it worked. The cancer went into remission, but not without a cost. Five years later, he was bound mostly to a wheelchair as a result of the treatment and all the ugliness that comes along with it. That didn't stop him from trying to attend Yankee games though. By another stroke of luck, he won four tickets just rows from the first base line for a game this past September. Getting him into the Stadium with a wheelchair was a hassle but a hassle that was well worth it. They were by far the best seats that any of us had sat in for a baseball game and the Yankee Stadium staff did everything they could to help us out.
The usual jokes and laughs were abundant, and when it was time to go home a staff member escorted us to a VIP exit through the bowels of the Stadium. While waiting for an elevator, we talked about the disappointment of the game itself, a typical 1-0 loss in which the Yankees mustered only three hits, but my dad said it was OK because "at least Derek got a hit." As he said that, a 6-foot-3 figure with a buzzcut and a piece of arm candy that could only belong to someone named Derek Jeter walked past us and quickly disappeared into a dark hallway. Needless to say, we had something new to talk about during that elevator ride.
That turned out to be the last game that we would ever go to with my dad, as his various ailments finally got the best of him just before Christmas. Despite filling my family with overwhelming sadness, we were also extremely grateful to have an extra five years to say goodbye and share a few more moments like the ones described above. While baseball isn't everything in life, it definitely helped my dad and me strengthen an already tight bond by fueling countless hours of conversation between us. Every time I attend or even watch a Yankee game, I know I'll think about all the great Yankee memories I've had with him; suddenly, the closing scene of Field of Dreams seems a little less cheesy to me.
I currently live in Philadelphia and am engaged to be married this summer. We hope to start a family soon. Most of all, I hope to be even half the dad that mine was, but part of me is wishing for something more on top of that. As my hypothetical kids get older and tell people that they were born in Philadelphia, those people will undoubtedly assume that they root for the Phillies. I just want them to respond the same way that I have for many years now: "Nope, Yankee fan. My dad raised me right."