Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Not Exactly the Hatfields and the McCoys

I love my son and I hate the Yankees. Those two seemingly incongruous statements are actually related because Miguel loves the Yankees. What’s a 3rd generation Red Sox fanatic father to do?

Ah, I remember the good old days when Miguel and I rooted for the Bosox in 2003. We were on a family vacation in New York during Boston’s ill-fated American League Championship series collapse in game seven. He and I watched the game together until he went to bed around 11 pm. A little more than an hour later, Aaron (freakin’) Boone launched a homerun into the Bronx night off Tim Wakefield. The crowd in the bar below our hotel near Central Park erupted. Verna woke from her slumber and said, “What happened? Did the Red Sox lose?”

I just sat in bed, numb, staring at the TV screen. I mumbled, “Please hold me,” and fought back the tears of another baseball heartbreak.

A year later all was well in the baseball universe as far as I was concerned when the Red Sox initiated the greatest postseason comeback in baseball history and erased a 3-0 ALCS deficit to beat the Yankees en route to their first World Series title in 86 years. But I couldn’t completely share it with my son.

Somehow over the ensuing year, he’d abandoned the Bosox and started pulling for their archrivals, the Yankees. Verna, Miguel, and I are not sure exactly how the change transpired, but informal lore points to the hat our neighbor Jodi, a die-hard Yankees fan, bought him in early 2004.

Whatever the reason, he abruptly stopped cheering on the Red Sox and switched allegiances to the enemy. Maybe it was his first stab at honing an identity separate from his parents. Maybe it was a pre-pre-teen gesture designed to merely annoy his father. Maybe he was already tired, in his then short life of six years, of the Curse that had followed the Red Sox for more than four score years. Maybe he wanted to attach himself to a team he deemed more successful at winning.

Either way, it dented my baseball loving heart. My grandparents were Red Sox fans; my father has loved them for all of his 78 years; and I was excited about having Miguel pick up the mantle I so proudly bear as part of family legacy. But, alas, it was not to be.

Baseball is more than a game for me. My father was my pre-Little League coach, and I learned important values from him as a person and a man. He was patient with all his players, especially his extremely mediocre son. He never got angry with umpires. He saw the game for it was: an opportunity to have fun, build skills, develop camaraderie, and instill character.

The only time I ever saw my father upset was with a parent from our team. The man had been yelling at the umpire all game long, and finally my father uncharacteristically told him to sit down and shut up. My father approached the man in the stands, and for a moment I thought they were going to fight. But that scene has stayed with me for nearly forty years because my father stood up for something that was right.

I volunteered during Miguel’s first year in Little League, which was coach pitched, and was an assistant coach the next year. I have helped out the past two years while he’s played in the majors. He and I attend 12-15 professional games a year. We play catch several times a week during the spring and summer. For Miguel and me, baseball means long summer nights on the grass; watching grown men perfect or fail at what is essentially a child’s game; seeing him dive for a high fly I’ve thrown his way; and hearing the thwack of the bat on the ball.

And that will not change no matter who he or I root for. But I was a little disappointed when the Red Sox were no longer his favorite team and he began actively opposing them.

Then came 2007 and the Red Sox’s second appearance in the World Series in four years. Through the grace of a former student of mine, I was able to purchase two tickets to the second game of the World Series in Boston. Miguel was excited about going, but said he would quietly root for the Rockies.

Then we entered the Yawkey Way Store, a souvenir heaven and haven just outside Fenway, a huge emporium filled with Red Sox clothing and hats for men, women, children, babies, toddlers, bumper stickers, lanyards, baseball cards, pins, patches, World Series programs, stuffed animals, bracelets, pens, pencils, photographs, baseballs, blankets, license plates, dishes, silverware, towels, posters—everything celebrating the Boston Red Sox. It was overwhelming and beautiful.

“Dad, I’m going to root for the Red Sox,” Miguel announced. “When they play the Yankees or the Giants, I won’t, but against everyone else I will.”

I was stunned. Shocked. Elated. Shocked. I was afraid to ask why for fear of disturbing whatever spell (or curse) he was under. I know I asked something but it was a half-hearted effort to understand the motives of a nine-year old.

“You know,” he continued, “The Yankees aren’t a bad team. Why don’t you root for them?”

Again, I don’t know what I answered, and I’m not usually tongue-tied, but I said very little. Root for the Yankees? Was he completely whacked?

He picked out a bright green St. Patrick’s Day-like Nike sweatshirt with Red Sox in red letters and a red four-leaf clover underneath. I was so moved that I bought him the traditional blue Red Sox cap with a red ‘B’ in front, and a World Series logo patch on its side.

We entered Fenway two hours before game time and deposited our backpacks and bags of souvenirs on our seats in the second row of the centerfield bleachers right next to the FOX TV cameras and the Green Monster. The Rockies were taking batting practice.

Balls flew in our direction, a few players tossed them into the crowd, but nothing actually came to us. At one point, one of the Rockies lobbed a ball to a guy right near us. He walked down the aisle and said, “Is there a kid who hasn’t gotten a ball yet?”

I pointed at Miguel and said, “How about him?” And this guy promptly handed Miguel a World Series batting practice ball.

When we sat finally down in our seats for good, about an hour before game time, one of the FOX camera guys handed Miguel another batting practice ball. Because we’d been unable to find a strictly Rockies souvenir hat for the school bus driver, Milton, Miguel said the second one was for him.

How can I adequately describe the surreal and profound joy and feelings I experienced being at a Boston Red Sox World Series game with Miguel? Roaring with the crowd every time a Red Sox batter stepped up to the plate or Curt Schilling got two strikes on a Rockies batter; watching fans banging furiously against the wall on the field near home plate; hearing and seeing the Red Sox bullpen, which had transformed itself into a folk band, as the pitchers thumped water bottles and other homemade instruments against the roof and seats in the pen; high-fiving complete strangers but most importantly my son after a great play or pitch by a Red Sox player.

I can’t emphasize enough how cool and gratifying it was to root for the same team as Miguel, especially the Red Sox. We do cheer on the Giants together, and that’s a great thing, but I never imagined we’d be screaming for the Red Sox in the same way.

Miguel only faltered a little in the 8th inning, with the Red Sox holding onto a 2-1 lead. “I’m tired. Could we go now?”

“Miguel, we can’t leave now. The Red Sox are only winning by a run and it’s the 8th inning.”

He then asked about leaving in the 9th. I said no again and he was fine after that. We stayed until Jonathan Papelbon recorded his fourth out of the game, and the Red Sox closed the evening up two games to none.

The day after the game, while I was running around a lake in Newton , MA , I started thinking about Miguel’s gesture and how he was now an ardent Red Sox fan. Even though I’d wished we could’ve shared the World Series experience in 2004, I never wanted him to root for them for me. Baseball is still just a game and he should be able to choose his own allegiances.

But I was touched that we were able to share in the joy and passion of the Red Sox Nation at the World Series. So when I got home I said to him, “Miguel, I am going to root for the Yankees with you.”

“Really?” he asked.

“Why not?” I said. “I won’t when they play the Red Sox or Giants, but I will against other teams. I’ll even wear one of your Yankees hats.”

He smiled.

But rooting for the Red Sox and hating the Yankees is practically coded into my DNA. I did wear a Yankees hat, but that is because Miguel plays for the Little League Yankees. I have not been able, though, to root for the New York Yankees, which brings us to this year.

The Red Sox’s season is over, but the Yankees begin their march to the World Series in two days when the take on the Angels in the ALCS. Miguel has mentioned that I should cheer for the Bronx Bombers. And so I thought again about his gesture from 2007.

Since then, the pendulum has swung back to the Yankees. They are Miguel’s number one team followed by the SF Giants and maybe the Red Sox. I have done my part to influence him, adorning his room with Red Sox pennants, a 2007 World Series poster, even a ball signed by Jonathan Papelbon, which my former student sent to us. But he is firmly a Yankees fan. He even patted my back last weekend in mock concern after the Angles bounced the Red Sox from the playoffs. The smile curled on his lips let me know he was taunting me.

However, I have spent a lot of time lately thinking about the rivalry and what it is all about. Rivalries are part of sports and help fuel the passion and intensity of our fan experiences. On the other hand, can’t we just root for excellence whenever and wherever we see it? Certainly the Yankees, with 26 world championships, are unrivaled as the kings of baseball. And they have many current players whom I would gladly take on my team, Jeter, Rivera, Texiera, Sabathia, to name four.

When we were at a game in Fenway in 2005, we witnessed a drunken Red Sox fan mercilessly pelt Mariano Rivera with an inexcusable verbal barrage. I am sure Red Sox fans and players fare no better in Yankee Stadium.

Opening things up into the larger cultural sphere, rivalries in politics can be deadly and dangerous. We attack those with whom we disagree with a vengeance that often borders on the pathological. I’m not arguing that we should all just get along, but why do we so easily dismiss our commonalities and exacerbate our differences to the point of open hostilities?

I can’t honestly say who I will be rooting for this Friday night when the Yankees-Angel series begins. Part of me just wants to toss nearly 50 years of personal baseball history aside and join with Miguel. Another part of me wonders if I can get past my decades long aversion to anything Yankees.

When we visited the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, in 2005, a father I met in the gift shop was shocked I was buying Miguel some Yankees gear. “I’d never allow a son of mine to wear Yankees stuff in my house,” said the loyal Red Sox fan.

“But he’s my son,” I simply responded.

And that is the bottom line. I love Miguel and I have hated the Yankees for a very long time. I will always love my son, but my baseball allegiances could shift this weekend for the remainder of the 2009 playoffs.

Parts of this blog entry were taken from the journal I wrote in October 2007 after Miguel and I returned from the World Series.

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