The Greatest Baseball Game In 37 Years, (Part 1)

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was first published this past July. I am republishing in celebration (and hopeful anticipation) of tonight’s Game 6 of the ALCS in the Bronx. I’ll repost Part 2 tomorrow.

Baseball is back after the All-Star break. Is mid-season in the baseball universe.

I have never been to an All-Star Baseball Game. Even though I watched a few on television, lately I’ve noticed that my interest in them has waned. For me it’s just not a real baseball game. I suspect that players don’t play really that hard. They seem afraid of an injury that could jeopardize their team’s chances of winning a pennant, or worse, an individual player’s own future.

So, I didn’t tune into the game. But I was glad to learn that the American League had won again. I also watched the replays of President Obama throwing the ceremonial first pitch. He seemed relieved that it didn’t go the way of the bowling ball in Pennsylvania. I think presidents should be allowed to throw a few warm-up pitches in the bullpen before their first — and only — pitch in front of a larger audience.

I’ve been thinking a lot about baseball this past week. More than usual. Let me tell you why.

My team, the Yankees were swept in Anaheim prior to the All-Star Game. (Now,  just hold it, all you Yankee haters! Before you start sending me hate-mail, I became a fan when the Yankees sucked so bad that even the Mets were drawing bigger crowds). The games against the Angels reminded me — as they always do — of the day in 1970 when I met Minnesota’s Tony Oliva in Anaheim. That’s the kind of thing that really makes an impression on a fourteen year-old. My father, just arrived from Cuba, had a message for Mr. Oliva from his first manager back in Cuba. Dad had met the man working in the Castro forced-labor camps for those seeking to emigrate to the U. S.  Mr. Oliva’s manager asked Dad to seek out the famous right fielder, the first chance he got, and deliver a personal message. I thought it was a crazy idea. And I didn’t believe for one minute that we would actually be taken seriously when my cousin called the stadium to arrange a meeting. Hours later, when I was standing in front of the visiting team’s locker room at Anaheim Stadium, I still didn’t believe it.

When the six foot-something, gently-walking, softly-speaking hero to most baseball-loving Cubans that I knew — and most Cubans that I know love baseball — appeared in front of me, I lost the ability to speak. A rare thing indeed for a teenager. It took me a few years to understand that what most impressed me about the man was his humble, decent demeanor and what I would now call a certain grace. My Dad spoke about Mr. Oliva’s manager and Mr. Oliva listened and nodded and if he smiled, I don’t remember. He seemed saddened by the remembrance of the coach he had left behind.

I don’t know how many of those memories are accurate. It’s been a long time since that game. The joy and excitement I felt that evening, not only survived all of these years, but grew deeper and richer. The further certain memories recede, the more we value them. And father-son visits to a ballpark can be one of the most treasured.

That Anaheim game, where my Dad introduced me to a legend, was the greatest baseball game that I had ever been to. That’s what I said, to anyone who asked, for the next 37 years.

Next time I’ll tell you about the one that replaced it.

–JM

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