I think it’s a fairly universal experience and it’s a memory that lasts a lifetime. Mine came 43 years ago when I watched my first major league baseball game at RFK; the Yankees in town to take on the Washington Senators.
Now 2012 instead of 1969, I relived it all this week as I took my girlfriend’s grandson to his first ballgame. He had 48 hours of anticipation since I’d showed him the tickets and he was primed. Adrian is only 8 years old and he has a sketchy awareness of the rules and subtleties of the game but, already, he is drawn to baseballs like a moth to flame. For him, it’s still about a game of catch with a tiny little Franklin glove. But now it’s a much bigger thing- as if a treasure chest was suddenly opened.
It was Throw Back Night at Nationals stadium. The Nats and the visiting Giants wore uniforms from 1924, the last and only time Washington would claim a World Series. The grounds crew was decked out in straw hats, suspenders and bow ties. In front of us, the players got their last warm-up throws in prior to the start of the game.
“There’s #34, Adrian,” as I pointed to 19-year-old Bryce Harper. “Remember him, kid. He’s like Mickey Mantle before he was Mickey Mantle.” Adrian lives in New York City so I think he actually understood. After all, he had announced earlier in the day that he was going to be a Yankee some day.
Several innings into the game, it was Adrian who pointed out to me that #34 was taking his place in the batter’s box. Up to that point, the Giants had had their way with the Nats, leading for awhile by 5-1. Adrian was a little confused about who to root for. After all, the unmistakable symbol of New York was up on the scoreboard. No, no, I explained. This is a throw-back game, and back in 1924, the San Francisco Giants were actually the New York Giants, so that’s why they have that “NY” on their uniforms.
“I want to see some home runs,” he said, gesturing with his arms to imitate the parabolic flight of the ball into the outfield seats. I am convinced now that God has a special ear for the wishes of children. Washington’s all-star shortstop, Ian Desmond, apparently does too. He launched a shot into the right field bullpen against Matt Cain who had thrown a perfect game earlier in the season. He had been previously unhittable in this game. Until Desmond. Ok…now 5-2, the stadium erupted and Adrian suddenly figured out whom to root for. After Desmond rounded the bases, it was now Washington 2nd baseman Danny Espinosa at the plate. Boom. There you go, Adrian, back-to-back home runs. The stadium got even louder. High-fives were being exchanged by perfect strangers all around us. It was now 5 to 3. Cain had been replaced. A couple of batters later- here was Harper. He did not disappoint. Solid RBI double- now 5-4.
Throughout the game, Adrian had watched foul balls reach into the stands. He wanted one in the worst way and it did get real close. I mean, real close. As I made my way back to the seats holding two tiny little batting helmets filled with ice cream, a sudden commotion hit our section. Sure enough, a foul ball was heading directly toward us. Hands full, I watched as the ball came down on top of us. It hit the left shoulder of the guy sitting right below us. I handed Adrian the ice cream and scrambled. The ball hit the ground and was finally recovered by another guy sitting two seats to our left.
Ok…so now the kid has asked for home runs and gotten two of them, back-to-back. He asked for a foul ball and practically got beaned by one. He gets to see National’s reliever Henry Rodriquez strike out a batter with a fastball that registers 101 mph on the scoreboard. Now what?
The ninth inning, that’s what.
Three rookies up to bat, all in a row. Pinch-hitter, Tyler Moore, on the verge of striking out opens the frame with a solid double to the gap in center. Steve Lombardozzi bunts and the pitcher botches it and now it’s first and third with nobody out. The stadium is going nuts. Bryce Harper comes to the plate again. As a deafening, spontaneous chant of “Let’s go Harper” reaches it’s boisterous crescendo, Harper is steeped in the moment and raps a base hit- game tied 5-5. I do high-fives with Adrian and an 80-year old, white-haired lady behind me.
Ryan Zimmerman is intentionally walked to load the bases and still no outs. The anticipation is as thick as the humid Washington air. Michael Morse is up. Adrian likes the fact the guy’s nickname is “The Beast.” But he hits a grounder and the Giants get a force at home. One out, game still tied. Adam LaRoche comes to the plate and hits a double-play grounder. They get the out at second but the shortstop sends a low throw to the Giant’s 1st baseman. It glances off his glove and wouldn’t you know it- Bryce Harper, the 19-year-old and the representative of all that is young about baseball, dashes in for the winning run.
There is delirium in the stadium. The Nats players stream out in the field. In a hilarious ritual that had been pre-planned by National’s starting pitcher Gio Gonzales in the eventuality of an Adam LaRoche walk-off, several Nats players put their hands over their heads doing imitations of antlers and run around LaRoche while he takes an imaginary bow and arrow and shoots at the “deer.” After the game, he would tell reporters he "thought he got one" before he was tackled.
We lingered in the park, drinking in the last of a miracle night. I took Adrian right up to the field and we watched Ian Desmond do a TV interview. The stadium lights were turned down and now the field was bathed in a soft brown light. I bought him a baseball from the stadium store as we made our way to the subway station.
Welcome to baseball, kid. You want to be a Yankee? Go for it, my little friend, go for it. That’s why they call it the field of dreams.