-Photo by News Burner-
His press conference aired on ESPN.
The Yankee-hater in me wanted to change the channel. The sports fan in me sat down on the couch, turned the volume up and watched, transfixed.
Something about Posada’s voice and the pinstripes he wore so well during his career reminded me of my favorite baseball writer, Gay Talese, and the article he wrote in the mid sixties on Joe DiMaggio and the retirement of Micky Mantle.
“It happened all so quickly, the passing of Mantle, or so it seemed; he had succeeded DiMaggio, who had succeeded Ruth…and on September 18, 1965, they gave him a ‘day’ in New York…an almost holy day. And high in the grandstands, billowing in the breeze of early Autumn, were white banners that read ‘Don’t leave Mick,’ ‘We love the Mick.’
The banners had been held by hundreds of young boys whose dreams had been fulfilled so often by Mantle, but also seated in the grandstands were older men, paunchy and balding, in whose middle-aged minds DiMaggio was still vivid and invincible, and some of them remembered how one month before, during a pregame exhibition at Old-Timers Day in Yankee Stadium, DiMaggio had hit a pitch into the left field seats, and suddenly thousands of people had jumped to their feet, joyously screaming- the great DiMaggio had returned, they were young again, it was yesterday.”
A moving passage, indeed. That, with Posada in my television, tears steaming his face in their own watery, pin stripe fashion, was enough to bring the late nineties back to mind.
It was a baseball summer before the turn of the millennium and we were not worried about Y2K or what the new year would bring. All we cared about was stuffing enough plastic bags into our plastic bat that we had cut at the handle and taped back up before using. To give it weight, right, enough weight to hit an electrical-taped whiffle ball on to Nick and Sass’ rooftop for a home run.
We set up the game in cadence, I grab our makeshift backstop which converts into a hockey net, Justin takes care of the home plate tape job and Ryan meanders around, looking like he is doing something but really doing nothing at all.
Our three-man game has come a long way since its backyard beginnings. Our fences are rooftops and no longer backyard hedges. We use ghost runners and curve balls better than anything Barry Zito could ever throw. We are our own umpires calling the game well with the occasional bad call out of spite. And we keep our own stats.
I am up to bat and am looking for Justin’s change-up and the face he makes before throwing it, all squinty and forced like he is trying to neck his way forward in some bird-like squawk. That face and his change-up are together, always together; as sure as the “you need anger management” comment that Ryan will say to Justin at least 20 times throughout the day, making his older brother’s veins burst at the temple.
This is before the steroid era, or in the midst of it, I suppose. Alex Rodriguez may have just needled himself for the first time or at least has met a guy who knows a guy that can get him steroids.
I have yet to see my favorite player, Ken Griffey Jr., hit a home run at Dodger Stadium and will not see it happen until ten years down the road when I live in LA and the Mariners come to town with an aged Griffey on their roster in his last season before retirement. Only then, seated with a beer in my hand on the third base side of the field, one deck up and ten rows back will I feel, for the first time, exhilaration in seeing my favorite player of all all all time blast a home run into the center field bleachers- me not quite middle-aged or paunchy or bald like the men in Talese’s story, but feeling, nonetheless, like I am young again, like it is yesterday.
My memories ended and packed themselves away for some other thoughtful day as Jorge Posada and his chin came back into vision. Jeter was at the press conference with a somber look in his eye as Posada thanked him for the memories. Mariano Rivera was there, too, the three of them teammates since the 90s, an oh so rare feat.
And it hit me hard. Not like a ton of bricks but like a ton of things you will never get back. Like believing Santa is real. Like hitting your first home run down the left field line with 12-year-old arms. Like rooting forever hard against the Yankees and Derek Jeter and Paul O’Neill and Bernie Williams.
The players from my childhood are disappearing.
Mike Piazza, Frank “the big hurt” Thomas, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson and Ken Griffey Jr. all retired and gone, dusty old things sprouting up in random talk shows or announcing little league world series games.
Add Jorge Posada to the missing pieces.
Add Jeter and Mariano Rivera in a few years, too.
Add the days when college athletes looked like full-grown adults and not as they do now, like kids younger than me performing on professional stages.
Add the child in me waiting in line for an autograph or two from a player, any professional player willing to give an adoring fan a second glimpse.
And add the picture which hangs above my desk here in LA, of me and then Montreal Expo, Mark Grudzielanek, as he hands me a baseball he has autographed, me leaning over the railing and the luck of timing on my Mom’s side as the camera flashes the moment he hands me the ball, like we are shaking hands, like it is a modern rendition of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” without the nakedness.
Throw that picture in there because athletes are no longer Gods to me. The Expos do not exist anymore. Grudzielanek has been long gone from the game even though he was a rookie when our photo was taken. And my adoration of the professional athletes lining my childhood walls and ceilings in posters and pennants has been reduced to a few sports things here and there in my adult apartment. Gone are the autographed baseballs. Gone are the bats and rookie cards and team jerseys.
But there above my desk, sitting in a tiny glove made of fake gold, sits a baseball I care deeply about. One obtained for free, without cost or waiting in lines in the stands and parking lots of Dodger Stadium. One I will keep and not add to the pile.
My first home run ball.
Because it makes me young again.
Because it makes it yesterday.