As a boy my father fled Nazi Germany with his family and
continued his youth in New York City in the days when three
major league teams were based there, but baseball never took
root with him. Still, he understood the importance of the sport
in his adopted homeland. In the 1950s, when his friend Jack
Wolff stopped in front of a TV repair shop on Broadway to watch
a Yankees game on Yom Kippur, my father thought to himself: a
real American. Years later, when my older brother, David, and I
were balky about making Sunday trips from Long Island to
Manhattan to visit our paternal grandparents, my father would
lure us in with stories of his mother's history in the game.
"She's not widely credited," he would say from the front seat of
our car, "but Oma Bambi invented baseball."
The complexities of the infield fly rule may have eluded my
father, but he took us to Cooperstown and Shea Stadium and
watched our own little games anyhow. I have a picture on my desk
that shows my father, David and me at Shea in the summer of
1969. My father is in the middle, an arm around each son,
wearing white socks and sandals, a lens cap protruding through
the chest pocket of his shirt. David has a scorecard pencil in
Baseball got my brother and me to read newspapers, which pleased
my father, and to talk about players being traded and sold,
which appalled him. When we skipped school to go to Opening Day
at Shea, he liked that. Baseball was the national pastime; my
father knew that well.
Nobody calls baseball the national pastime anymore, not
seriously anyway. Basketball has become the game of city dreams,
and suburban kids have embraced soccer. During the 1994 baseball
strike--while watching the Ken Burns series oozing sentiment on
PBS--I reluctantly concluded that a great, long-running American
opera, the one about baseball and fathers and sons, was finally
over. Baseball would return, I knew, but it would not be the
same. It would no longer be handed down, generation to generation.
And then came the third Sunday in April. The morning air in
Philadelphia, where I live, was warm and fragrant two weeks ago,
and the urge for baseball suddenly became irresistible. My son,
Ian, and I, caps on our heads, marched out the front door and
into the station wagon. Ian was eager. He is three and just
beginning to discover the world beyond the doors of our house.
"Daddy, please go to the park?" Ian said.
"We're going to the ballpark," I said.
"Go to the ballpark!" Ian said. He knew this would be a first.
When we arrived at Veterans Stadium, the Philadelphia Phillies
were taking batting practice. The stadium started to fill, in
little mellow waves, the way it always has on warm Sundays. Ian
pointed toward home plate. "Who's that?" he asked.
"The Phillie Phanatic," I said.
I had always regarded the Phanatic, the Phillies' large
green-feathered mascot, as an irritant, and whenever it started
rubbing bald heads within a hundred feet of me I'd sink in my
seat and avoid eye contact. I looked at Ian, who was watching
the Phanatic. His face was filled with glee.
Ian wandered down our row, counting the seats. I lured him back
with a slice of American cheese. The game began. The visiting
St. Louis Cardinals were up. A strike was called a ball. The
fans in the seats next to us, diehards, started booing. Ian eyed
his neighbors quizzically, for Boo is his in-house nickname. The
game continued. A Phillie, Todd Zeile, was caught in a rundown
but escaped, and two runs scored on the play. The ballpark
erupted. Ian was the final person in our section to stop
clapping. The Phils won 4-2. On our trip home it started to
rain. Ian fell into a deep sleep.
I'm writing this on the third floor of our house, where I have a
little office. A short while ago, Ian heard me talking to my
father on the telephone and climbed up the narrow steps to join
in. He sat on my lap and pointed to the Shea picture from the
summer of 1969. He pointed to the man in the middle.
"Opa, Opa!" he said.
"That's right," I said. Then I pointed to a skinny boy with a
scorecard pencil in his chest pocket. "Who's that?" I asked.
There was no response.
"That's Uncle David," I said.
"Uncle David!" Ian said.
I pointed to the other boy in the picture, a nine-year-old.
"Who's that?" I asked.
"You can't expect him to know that," I heard my father saying.
"That's Ian," my son said.
"No, that's not Ian," I said.
He thought for a moment and then smiled, a child's smile of
discovery. "That's Daddy!" he said. "Daddy at the ballpark!"
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Michael and Ian carry on a family tradition at the Vet. [Michael Bamberger and Ian Bamberger]