Baseball, the sages tell us, is a game for fathers and sons. From games of catch and Little League coaches all the way to the big league world of Alomars and Ripkens and Bondses and Griffeys, we often think of how the game ties together generations of men. All of this is true, of course; hey, I got choked up at the end of “Field of Dreams” the first time I saw it, too.
But let’s not overlook one of the best gifts a boy can have growing up as a baseball fan: the Baseball Mom.
My father has been a baseball fan since the 1940s, and baseball has always been something we talked about; but in my house, at least, it was my mother who was even more important in shaping me, my brothers and my sister as baseball fans, as Mets fans. Ours was not a house where Dad had to battle to get sports on TV.
My mother was an old Brooklyn Dodgers fan, and sufficiently set in the National League ways that when my parents got married, she converted my father to a Mets fan from his prior allegiance to the Hated Yankees — not an easy feat, in the early 1960s. She always pulled for the National League in the World Series and the All-Star Game, even when the Mets and Dodgers weren’t involved.
There are different types of baseball fans. Some fans are the hard-core stat-heads, box score readers, rotisserie players and the like — people who get into the history, the facts and figures. Some are guys who play ball themselves, and love the mechanics of the game. Some are season ticket holders who go to every game. Some are just casual fans who only get interested when the team is going good and the race is heating up.
My mother was another kind of fan — the kind who follows every game team faithfully on the radio and TV, and forms most of her opinions about the players from what she sees. She loved listening to Bob Murphy, Ralph Kiner and Lindsey Nelson. She knew generally who was a .300 hitter or a 20-game winner or held the famous records, but she didn’t pore over stats or think of the players in terms dictated by the numbers. She always remembered the guys who tortured the Mets, like Mike Easler and Bob Knepper, and always preferred the scrappy little players like Mookie Wilson and Wally Backman and had little use for big sleepy lumbering sluggers like Dave Kingman, John Milner, George Foster, Darryl Strawberry, Kevin McReynolds, Bobby Bonilla and Mo Vaughn. I never asked in so many words, but I think her favorite player was probably Jerry Koosman, or maybe Gil Hodges or Rusty. She always said the best baseball games were the 4-3 games, just enough scoring to keep things interesting. She stuck by the Mets during the times in the mid-90s when even I was too disgusted and depressed to watch, and even in the worst years they always seemed to win when she made it out to Shea. And she always liked to talk about the Mets or just listen to us talk, even about our rotisserie teams — and there are few topics in this world that get old faster than listening to somebody else talk about their rotisserie team.
As baseball keeps teetering on the edge of the abyss, uncertain whether or not the players will be striking in September, the game should be worried about fans like my mother. The stat-heads will always come back; where else can we go? The jocks may leach away to other sports, but the love of playing the game and talking about it won’t go away. The casual fans will disappear with another strike, but they’re easily replaced.
But the fans who follow the game religiously for the sheer fun of it, for the love of their favorite team — those are the backbone of the game, the way the guy on the couch with the beer in his hand is the backbone of the NFL. Unlike basketball and hockey, baseball’s fan base isn’t so much threatened by pricing its core fan base out of the seats and pulling all the games off free TV; but the one thing baseball can only survive so many times is plain ill will. Baseball needs to raise a younger generation of fans like my mother, and it’s not going to do that if the game isn’t there when we need it. The continuity of the game, the steady rythm of a game on the radio every night in the summertime — my mother would listen to the games on the radio while doing jigsaw puzzles — that matters, a lot.
My mother was out at Shea Stadium on Memorial Day weekend, watching this year’s disappointing Mets drop a game to the Marlins, doing just fine. Two days later she was laid out in the hospital with a brain tumor. Bill James wrote in 1988, following the death of Dick Hoswer a year and a half after he managed the Royals to the summit for the only time in their history, that “[t]hrough the experience of Dick Howser, we in the Kansas City area learned a great deal about brain tumors. There was no good news along the way.” I know now what he means. She died two weeks ago.
My mother got to see her favorite team win the World Series four times — the Dodgers in 1955 & 1959, the Mets in 1969 & 1986. If I could ask her today, I’d say the only regret she had as a baseball fan was never seeing a Mets pitcher throw a no-hitter even with decades of power pitchers like Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Dwight Gooden and David Cone, even a guy like Hideo Nomo who threw them before AND after being a Met. She always mentioned how the perennially optimistic Bob Murphy (“if Doug Flynn can get on here, that will bring the tying run into the on deck circle”) moans about that one absence in Mets history. I hope she’s watching when somebody finally throws one. I hope the game gets its house in order and doesn’t let somebody else’s Baseball Mom down. I’ll still be watching. I’ll just miss watching with her.