Monday, June 30, 2014

Taking a Loss

In the interest of privacy, I don't post pictures of myself or my family on this blog. This time, I wanted to post a recent family photo here, but the system couldn't "read" it. I suppose it's just as well.

Instead, I've posted a picture of a veterans' poppy, in memory one particular U.S. military veteran.

My father died yesterday. The cause isn't clear, but it appears to have been peaceful. He was 71.

As you might expect, something as frivolous as a sports-themed blog is taking a back seat to trying to deal with feelings of loss and emptiness, wondering what could have been done, trying as best I can to stand up for the remaining members of my family, and assisting with funeral arrangements -- including, as you might also guess, writing and delivering a eulogy.

So my intended polemic against the Red Sox for their usual lack of class, Mike Napoli in particular for calling Masahiro Tanaka an "idiot," and the Yankees for their pathetic performance, will have to wait. As will a new round of reaction to the World Cup. As will my trip guides for the Yankees' upcoming roadtrips to Cleveland and Baltimore. As will a tribute to Frank Cashen, who built 2 World Champions with the Baltimore Orioles and another with the Mets, and died earlier today. Most likely, I'll have time to write and post again before this coming Friday morning (July 4).


My father was from Newark, New Jersey, and was a classic post-World War II American nerd. Whatever difficulties he had growing up, he was able to overcome them through study, and eventually earned two science degrees at the Newark College of Engineering -- now the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Lucky for my mother, and eventually me, the U.S. Army sent him to the site of "the last war" -- not Vietnam, but Korea. The Army needed engineers, and for a year, from Summer 1967 to Summer 1968, he was on the Demilitarized Zone, waiting for a Red invasion that could have (and still could) come at any time, but never did. Meanwhile, his wife was back home, riding a bus to work in downtown Newark, hearing gunshots. Because of the riot in July 1967, she was in more of a war zone than he was. Both returned home safely.

He did not grow up as a sports fan.That his wife's parents, and later his son, were so wrapped up in the subject mystified him. But, as people who do not start out that way often are, he began to wonder if he might be missing something, and if getting interested might be worth it.

The old Newark Bears, a Yankee farm team and for a quarter of a century a power in the International League, left town after the 1950 season, when he was 7 years old. The Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues also left town at around that time, victims of poaching from the now-integrated major leagues. He didn't attend a professional baseball game until 1978, when, along with my mother and grandmother, took me to my first game and his, at the old Yankee Stadium. He didn't attend a professional game in his hometown until 2006, when I took him to see the new Newark Bears at Bears & Eagles Riverfront Stadium on Father's Day. (They got clobbered, and I indulged his desire to leave early.)

By the time I reached high school, he had heard me speak so much of our football team (then very good), that he wanted to see a game. Instead of the competition, or even the intellectual or strategic side of the game, he got wrapped up in the atmosphere: The crowd, the scenery (our stadium is surrounded by an "amphitheater" of trees whose changing leaves look nice in October), the marching band (music was always a passion of his, all kinds of music).

Eventually, he heard the men at his church talking about Rutgers University football so much, he decided he wanted to join them at Rutgers Stadium (now High Point Solutions Stadium), even though he had no official connection to Rutgers, or to any college with a football team. (As far as I can determine, NCE/NJIT has never had one.)

A crowd of 44,000 (now 52,000) is a lot bigger than one of 3,000. The Marching Scarlet Knights, "the Pride of New Jersey," was a considerably better-trained band than even the best high school bands. Having an armored Knight riding a real horse around the field was more impressive to him than a teenager in a Bear costume. And the Revolutionary War cannon that RU students fire off after every score was something that can't be matched in high school football. (My alma mater has one opponent that has a smaller cannon that can be very loud, but it's not the same.)

He told me that he enjoyed the atmosphere. I told him that if it was atmosphere he wanted, he should go to a game at Princeton University, RU's arch-rivals (in sports other than football, as they didn't want to leave the Ivy-League to go "big-time"). Princeton is a spirited but less rowdy town, the fans are better-behaved, and Palmer Stadium and its replacement Powers Field at Princeton University Stadium is a nicer setting. Besides, my mother already preferred Princeton as a town, and wanted me to go to school there. (Despite also being a nerd, I was also quite lazy, and I never gave myself the chance to get accepted at a school like Princeton.) He never did.

So he stayed a Rutgers fan. He never made the adjustment to the professional game, though, and in hindsight, it’s easy to see why: He preferred that the emphasis be on playing well, not just winning; and he understood the difference between a good atmosphere and mere noise. It was easy for him to imagine his Rutgers fan friends as a small part of a very large family, whereas pro football seems to take pride in being impersonal. And he understood enough to not appreciate the fact that scoreboard direction and sound effects took the place of marching bands at the pro level. George Will said something that Dad would have understood, having had enough regimentation and enough meetings for any one man: “Football combines the two worst features of modern American life: It is violence, punctuated by committee meetings. In addition, it speaks to the increasing specialization of our culture. Who wants to be known as a third down and long yardage pulling guard?” My father had a wide range of interests, and he wouldn’t want himself, or anybody else, to be known as only one thing.

Together, we saw the dedication game at the new Rutgers Stadium in 1994, a win over West Virginia -- and Rutgers hasn't beaten them since. (With both teams moving to new leagues recently, it may be many years before they get another chance.) We saw Donovan McNabb lead Syracuse to a blowout win in a Thursday night ESPN broadcast. We saw Michael Vick lead Virginia Tech to a 70-14 rout. We saw some better moments, to, including a 2005 win over Navy that clinched Rutgers' first "real" appearance in a bowl game. I wasn't there, but he saw what remains RU's signature win, the 2006 win over the University of Louisville.

He also saw the game against Army at MetLife Stadium in 2010, when linebacker Eric LeGrand was paralyzed. I wasn't at that game, but the whole family -- me, him, my mother, my sister, her husband, and her two daughters -- saw a Somerset Patriots game in 2012 where, in a nice move that we did not know would happen, LeGrand was introduced in a pregame ceremony honoring efforts to raise money for spinal cord research.

He indulged my love of baseball, but would tease me a little when the Yankees didn't do well. I reached a point where I stopped taking that personally, but for years I resented it. He kept telling me he wasn't a Mets fan, but, in my teenaged mind, I thought, "What other team would be his?"

The game that stands out with the two of us watching together -- on television, not live -- was on October 19, 1999, Game 6 of the National League Championship Series between the Mets and the Atlanta Braves. The Mets had trailed the series three games to none, but had won two, including Game 5, in 15 innings, in the rain, with a walkoff home run, just like the Yankees had done against the Seattle Mariners in the 1995 American League Division Series -- this time, it was Robin Ventura doing what Jim Leyritz had done.

But in Game 6 in Atlanta, the Mets fell behind 5-0. And yet, they came back to take an 8-7 lead, and 9-8 in the 10th inning. But the Braves refused to give up, too, and kept it going.

Not having any love for the team that represented a region with too many ignorant rednecks, but seeing him every bit as fascinated by the spectacle as I was, I told him, "This game is a classic, and it deserves to end with a hero, not with a goat."

Had Andruw Jones gotten a hit to win the game, and thus the Pennant, with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 11th, I would have been fine with it as a baseball fan (if not wanting either team to enjoy the success that would result from winning it). Instead, Met manager Bobby Valentine brought in Kenny Rogers -- not the country singer, whom my Dad and I both liked a lot. This Kenny Rogers would have pitching success everywhere he went, except New York. (He was the reason the Yankees fell into the 6-0 hole that another postseason homer by Leyritz got us out of in Game 4 of the 1996 World Series, also in Atlanta against the Braves.) And Rogers walked Jones to force home the Pennant-clinching run.

"I don't believe it," I groaned, thinking that the Mets, who seemed to be generating a team-of-destiny thing, couldn't and shouldn't have let their season come to such an ignominious end. "Believe it," he said, with a half-smile and a chuckle. By this point, he had surpassed me as a sports fan in one aspect: He understood the Mets better than I did: 1969 and 1986 being brief interruptions, they would always be the Mets. He certainly wasn't surprised the next year, when the Yankees beat the Mets in the World Series, largely because of baserunning blunders.

Tonight, the Mets were in Atlanta again. They had a 3-1 lead on the Braves in the bottom of the 8th, but made 3 errors, and lost 5-3.

He would think that not much has changed.

But he always looked forward. Even in his not-that-old age, he still seemed young. He believed there was always something new to do, and that there was always something interesting to find out.

And that's a good lesson from any one person to another, especially from a father to a son.

1 comment:

Bob Crum said...

Sorry for your loss.