The Magic of the Yankees
“He is not going to wear his Yankees cap,” my mother said, looking at me like I had suddenly grown two heads. “Who buries a relative in a baseball cap, for God’s sake?” she went on, sounding slightly hysterical. As if I had suggested he be buried with nothing but his socks on.
“Why not?” I answered. “He lived for the Yankees. Remember how he used to talk about Mantis, Mantle, and Joltin’ Joe? He can’t go without his cap.”
“What? Joltin’ who? No, I don’t remember. Talk to her, Joe,” she pleaded with my father.
My father had glanced up distractedly from the box of my grandfather’s books he was going through. “Sorry, Missy, but I think your mother’s right on this one.”
My parents didn’t get the magic of the Yankees. It was the middle of the 2004 baseball season, and my eighty-five-year-old grandfather had just died. Thankfully, he was spared having to witness the Red Sox winning the World Series later that October.
My grandfather had been my best friend since I was twelve. Now, sitting in the first row of St. Ann ’s church at his funeral, I tried to imagine my life without him. I couldn’t. How was I going to keep the magic going without him? I remembered back when I first understood, and wanted to be a part of the magic of the Yankees.
I was twelve in the spring of 1981 when he came to live with us. I had no use for him. I was an only child, and I liked it that way. I didn’t connect with him at all. Even though he was only sixty-two years old, to me he was an old man. I resented him intruding on my life.
For instance, didn’t he have better things to do than to watch through the dining room window to make sure I was safely on the bus every morning? My parents had never done that. Did he think I was a baby?
“Why did he have to move in with us?” I complained to my mother one night while she made dinner. “I barely know him.”
“Because,” was all she said, and continued shaping her meatloaf.
“That’s not an answer. I hate my life. First we move again, and now this.” I stormed to my room, slamming the door. Life was so unfair.
“Look. I found a quarter in your ear,” my grandfather said to me, what seemed every other day. As if I would fall for that idiotic trick. I don’t know why he couldn’t be content to bury himself in the paper, like my father, or go find charities to support, like my mother, and just leave me alone.
“Hey, Mickey, you want to want to watch the game?” he asked one afternoon. For him it was all about the pin stripes, the Yankees.
“My name’s Michele. Not Mickey.” He was the only one who called me that, and I didn’t appreciate it.
He had named his son, my father, for Joseph Paul DiMaggio, and convinced my parents to name me Michele Charlene, after Mickey Charles Mantle. I couldn’t believe they were stupid enough to do it.
“No, I don’t want to watch the game,” I continued. “I don’t like baseball. Anyway, I have friends to call.” With that, I escaped to my room. It was a lie, of course. I had no one to call. Two minutes later there was a knock at my door.
“What?” I yelled through it, sitting up on my bed and tossing my math book down in frustration.
“Can I open the door?” My grandfather asked, his voice muffled by the door.
“I guess,” I grumbled, wondering how rude I had to be before he would leave me alone.
“How’s school going?” he asked me.
Actually, it wasn’t fine. All the cliques had been formed years ago, there wasn’t room for the new kid, and no one talked to me. But, I wasn’t about to tell my grandfather that, and watch his eyes glaze over like my parents’ eyes did when I tried to talk to them.
“Need any help with math? I can do math. Baseball’s a game of statistics, you know.” His eyes lit up at the prospect of someone actually needing him. It wasn’t going to be me.
“No, I don’t need help, and I still don’t like baseball.” I picked up my math book, trying to look mesmerized by fractions.
He didn’t take the hint. “I thought you might want to go out for some ice cream. I know it’s hard to move around a lot like you do; always having to make new friends.”
Ice cream? Did he think I was five?
“No, that’s okay, I don’t want ice cream. Anyway, I still have homework to do.” I got off my bed, and squeezed him out of the door, so I could close it.
“Here, kid,” he said to me a couple of weeks later as I was getting a snack in the kitchen after school. “Look what I got for you. Try it on.” He handed me a Yankees cap, just like his.
“Grandpa, I don’t wear baseball caps. Maybe you should try giving it to my dad.” I ignored his outstretched hand with the cap in it, and the hurt in his eyes.
“Nah, I don’t think so,” he replied.
I turned around, making a big production of smearing peanut butter and jelly on my bread, and didn’t turn around until I heard him leave. I sat at the kitchen table, glad that
he hadn’t tried to force the cap on me, and even more glad that he hadn’t stayed and tried to talk to me about school again.
A few days later, he burst through the front door while we were all in the living room. All In The Family was on, but I was the only one paying attention to it.
He was waving tickets in the air. “Joe,” he said excitedly to my father, “look, main box seats for this Saturday. Yankees and the Texas Rangers.”
“Sorry, pop,” my dad answered without putting his newspaper down. “Can’t do it. Susan and I are going to be at the opening of Neil Simon’s new play.” My father wasn’t the Yankee fanatic that his father was. He didn’t like baseball either.
“That’s okay, son, maybe another time.”
Get used to it, I thought. My parents were more interested in the opera and theater than in baseball, children and old men. I almost felt sorry for him. But I still didn’t want him around.
“Well, kid. Looks like it’s you and me,” he said, turning to me.
“Grandpa, you know I don’t like baseball. I don’t want to go either.” I glued my eyes to the television.
He looked at my mother who had her nose buried in Gorky Park. “Marcia? You want to go?”
“Oh, goodness no. Dad, I wouldn’t know a bat from a glove,” my mother delicately snorted, never looking up from her book.
That night when I went to bed, the disappointed look on my grandfather’s face refused to leave me. It was too close to the look I knew I must wear every time my parents were too busy to come to open house at school, or to the concerts I was in. The next day I told him I’d go, with one stipulation.
“This is a one-time thing. I don’t like baseball,” I reminded him.
“Yeah, I’ve heard that somewhere,” he answered, smiling at me like he knew something I didn’t.
“I’m taking my Walkman,” I told him when we left for the game early that Saturday, my tone of voice daring him to disagree with me. I wanted to be able to block him and the game out. I was determined to be as unpleasant as I could, so he’d never ask me to go again. I thought it was a brilliant plan.
“Fine with me,” was all he said.
I turned my Walkman up as loud as I could stand in the car, hoping it would bother him. It didn’t. He was singing along to some oldies song on the radio.
It didn’t bother him that I put my feet on the dashboard of his shiny new Crown Victoria , either. Or that I didn’t speak the whole ride to Yankee stadium. He just let me be.
“Here,” he said as we walked into the stadium, “you might want this. Sometimes the sun’s a little intense.” It was the Yankees cap I had refused to take from him. I grabbed it, and stuffed it in my pocket.
Maybe it was the crowd’s loud infectious enthusiasm for the Yankees, their cheers for Bucky Dent, Reggie Jackson, and Graig Nettles. Maybe it was the way the game turned my grandfather into a man with a passion, a man who suddenly didn’t seem so old anymore as he stood and cheered with the rest of the fans.
Whatever it was, I suddenly wanted to be a part of all the commotion. I wanted to belong. I could belong, I realized. There were no cliques. As I learned later, Yankees fans are Yankees fans, no matter where they are.
By the fifth inning I found myself watching as he scribbled excitedly in the scorebook he had bought. I didn’t, however, want to give him the satisfaction of asking him what his scribbling in that book meant.
“You’re getting sunburned, you know. The cap might come in handy,” he said, his eyes never leaving the action on the field.
“I don’t need a cap,” I answered, but he didn’t pay attention. He was too busy paying attention to the game. A few minutes later I pulled out my cap, and put it on. I stuffed my Walkman into my pocket. I only did it because the sun was hurting my eyes a little. Not because I believed that I was getting sunburned like he said.
“K means strike out, backwards K means out means strike out looking, SF8 sacrifice fly to center field, G643 grounded into a double play,” he told me, as if he had read my mind earlier.
“Here,” he said, handing me my own scorebook and a glossy Yankees yearbook. It had an apple on the cover, with a quarter of it showing the famous pin stripes and interlocking NY. “I thought you might want your own books. You know, in case you got interested in the game.”
“I won’t,” I said, but I decided to stop bugging him for food every inning.
He smiled at me, and went back to watching the game.
My curiosity had gotten the best of me by the seventh-inning stretch. “What’s an ERA?” I asked him.
“Earned Run Average. The number of earned runs a pitcher gives up, multiplied by nine, divided by the number of innings he pitched,” he answered.
“How do you figure a player’s batting average?” I then asked.
“The number of hits a batter has divided by number at bats.”
I fired more questions at him, by now only half-heartedly hoping I was annoying the crap out of him. He answered every one. Annoying him didn’t seem like so much fun suddenly.
If I ever did annoy the crap out of him (and I’m sure I did) those first few months he was with us, he never did let on. He just accepted me the way I was.
Somewhere between spring training that year when he moved in, the strike, and October, when the Yankees unfortunately lost the World Series to the Dodgers (or, as my grandfather referred to them, the “DUD-gers”), he and I became regulars at Yankee Stadium. He became the one person who understood me better than anyone.
He took me to a baseball memorabilia show soon after the Yankees lost to the Dodgers. He thought we needed cheering up. I met Bobby Murcer, and he autographed a ball. It was a thrill for me. I figured that would impress the kids at school.
“What’s with the face?” my grandfather asked the next day when I came home from school.
I didn’t answer. Instead I went to the kitchen, where I threw my autographed ball in the garbage.
“Hey, what was that for? You don’t just throw away Bobby Murcer’s signature,” he said, getting up and fishing it back out.
“The kids didn’t believe me. They said it was fake, and not really Bobby Murcer’s handwriting. They just laughed at me.” I blinked back tears.
“So, you’re throwing your ball away because of a few stupid kids? They’re just jealous because they never met Bobby Murcer. I should know.”
“Yeah, I guess they are,” I answered, taking the ball back from him. “How come you know so much about baseball?”
“I know you got things to do rather than listen to me go on about baseball,” he said, with a wave of his hand.
But I didn’t. I truly wanted to know. By now I had posters of Ron Guidry and the Goose in my room. I knew what a “can of corn” was and what to “go deep” meant.
“No, I really want to know.”
“If you insist,” he said, trying to sound put out, but I could tell he was happy I asked.
“It was the summer of 1955. I was at the Induction Ceremony at the Cooperstown Hall of Fame with a couple of friends. Now that was exciting. They were inducting Joe DiMaggio, Ted Lyons, Dazzy Vance, and Gabby Hartnett. My friends and I had gotten separated, and somehow they went home without me. Some friends, huh?”
I nodded in rapt attention as I sat on the stool in front of his chair, listening to his story.
“Anyway, I was standing on the corner of Main Street in Cooperstown , wondering what to do, when Joe DiMaggio himself came right up to me. He asked me if I was lost. I told him the whole story. The next thing I knew, he was driving me home. Said he had to be in New York for an interview anyway. Drove me all the way back to the Bronx .”
“You’re kidding! Joe DiMaggio did that?” I asked.
“Yep. But you think anyone believes me? No. Not my friends, not your father, not your grandmother, may she rest in peace, no one. But it didn’t matter. I knew it
happened, and I’ve never forgotten it. Boy, I haven’t told anyone that story for years,” he said.
“Come on, pop,” my father said as he walked through the living room. “Don’t tell her that stuff. She’ll believe it.”
“See what I mean?” my grandfather asked, winking at me.
I winked back.
I was rudely jolted to the present when I realized our priest was almost done with my grandfather’s funeral. There was a reception at my parents’ house. I was going to skip that. There was somewhere I had to be, and I knew my grandfather would understand. He would expect it.
The Yankees were playing the Orioles late that afternoon, and my grandfather and I had tickets. Mike Mussina (Moose) was on the mound.
Around the third inning, I sensed someone settling into the seat beside me. I looked over; ready to tell whoever it was to get out of grandfather’s seat, but I couldn’t speak.
He looked a lot like DiMaggio, even though I knew it couldn’t be, since he’d been dead since 1999. I shrugged, looked up to the sky, and chalked it up to my grandfather’s sense of humor, and the magic of the Yankees.
©2007 by Elizabeth Barrett