Have tissues ready for our CD’s misty memories of an unforgettable boyhood trip to Yankee Stadium with his grandfather and the magical 1996 World Series.
Summer in New York City means a lot of things to a lot of people. For me, it has always meant baseball.
“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.”
If you’re a baseball fan, I don’t have to tell you that quote came from Terrance Mann’s famous “if you build it, they will come” soliloquy at the end of “Field of Dreams.” I’m told the scene was beautifully shot, although I’ve never seen it for myself because I’ve never sat through the last 10 minutes of the movie without squinting through tears.
Baseball’s summers have always marked the time for me, beginning almost before any other conscious memory. I was just 7 when my grandfather, George Serafini, a no-nonsense coal miner and WWII veteran from my hometown of Eynon, Pennsylvania, decided it was time for me to see “The Big Ballpark in the Bronx,” on a VFW member bus trip. I sat with him, his arm around me in equal parts affection and protection as his ex-army cohorts drained the beer barrels in the front and back of the bus quickly during the three-hour drive. But my grandfather didn’t drink a drop that day. He was too busy telling me about how “Catfish” Hunter got his nickname, and why Graig Nettles was better than Brooks Robinson. As Yankee Stadium came into view from the bus, I wondered if I cheered loud enough, would Nettles be able to hear me? I was only 7, and didn’t so much as sniff a contraband beer, but I was as drunk as any man on that bus that day at the idea of seeing my heroes in person, at my grandfather’s side.
My grandfather was the president of the Eynon chapter of the VFW, which happened to be across the street from the tiny home he shared with my grandmother. When I started playing Little League, he would hold my hand and cross the street with me so that I could tell the “old timers” how many hits I got. They reacted as though I was reciting the box score from the World Series, applauding my every exploit with animated gusto out of obvious respect for my grandfather. I’d show them my little kid’s glove, they’d tell me I had big hands that could “gobble up grounders.” I felt like the center of the universe, and my grandfather wouldn’t let me leave until we both inspected the cash register for bicentennial quarters, which he’d let me keep.
Each summer meant more trips to Yankee Stadium, where I attended things like Bat Day or Pennant Day. I was with my grandfather when he quizzically mused that the concession stand sold “Roy White Knishes.” The choice of White, who was black, and decidedly not Jewish, as official knish ambassador was enough to make my grandfather chuckle, and I laughed too without knowing why it was funny. I saw Munson, Catfish, Guidry, Dave Winfield play. I saw Hall of Famer Phil Rizutto get knocked over by a live cow wearing a halo the day he retired from broadcasting. I ate my first Reggie Bar about 50 feet from Reggie Jackson himself. I was there the in 1978 when “The Voice of God” Bob Sheppard announced to a sold-out Old Timers’ Day audience that Billy Martin would return to manage the Yankees in 1980. The resulting ovation was so insanely loud and long that it was reported that Joe DiMaggio complained about being upstaged, which was fine with me because my grandfather blamed Mickey Mantle’s knee injury on The Clipper—who my grandfather actually knew.
I had long since moved to New York after I graduated college in the 1990s, and we all suffered through some of the worst teams the Yankees ever produced. If you’ve forgotten the Dion James, Matt Nokes, Mike Gallego teams of the mid 90s, you can be forgiven. But how I secretly wished the Yankees could produce just one more summer of happiness for my grandfather now that the coal mines had caught up to him and he battled black lung and mesothelioma. He’d sit in “his chair” in the living room, like always, only so much weaker now, with tubes that he hated in his nose, watching the Yankees lose as much as they won.
And then something magical happened in 1996—the Yankees made an improbable run through the playoffs and eventually won the World Series for the first time since 1978. I was at my parents’ home in Pennsylvania at the time (my grandfather was too weak to watch the whole game), but the second Charlie Hayes squeezed his glove around the final out, my mother, who was just as entranced by Yankee baseball as I was, grabbed the phone and dialed before I could. “They won it, dad, they won one more for you.” I didn’t hear his response on the phone, but I heard it in my head—and it sounded just like my proud, strong 1978 grandfather rather than the wispier, frail version. I know he would have preferred it that way.
A photo of that 1976 VFW bus trip still hangs in my living room at home, my wonderful grandfather frozen in ageless glory, me at his side, both of us smiling from our box seats in the summer sun.
Since my grandfather’s passing, I’ve taken my own son, who much prefers cosplay to double-plays, to see the Yankees at The Stadium. He doesn’t remember the games so much as the sprawling concession stands and foam #1 fingers, which he, of course, pretends to pick his nose with, like all little kids should. Even so, I continue to mark the time, summer to summer, with baseball, and I probably always will.
“The field, this game. It’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again.”
Amen, and play ball forever.