Question of the Week: First Professional Game
It turns out that, in the first professional game they ever attended, an undue number of Pandemic Baseball Book Club authors saw the Mets play. Which is weird, because only one first game was at Shea Stadium; four authors saw the Mets as visitors. Two authors saw the Phillies host the Braves (more than two decades apart). One author fell in love twice at his first game — once with a girl, and then with the Beatles. This then, is why we ask the questions.
My first professional baseball game was on Aug 23, 1972, at the Vet. My dad took me to see the Phillies play the Braves. I'm not sure if that should actually be considered "professional" baseball; after all, it was the '72 Phillies and the '72 Braves. Baseball Reference tells me that the Phillies not only lost 9-6, but that they were losing 9-0 at one point behind Wayne Twitchell, doing Wayne Twitchell things. I don't remember any of that. What I remember most is not being able to see over anybody's heads. I can still picture the brown back of the seat in front of me, and a sea of heads obscuring my view. I also remember the ride home, paging through the program my father bought for me (along with a Phillies snow globe and giant Vet Stadium button, both of which I still have). I very clearly remember thinking that I had a decision to make: I could be a Braves fan or a Phillies fan. Initially I thought I might go with the Braves, given that they won, but decided against it. I eventually concluded that, because I would be going to Phillies games for the foreseeable future, they might as well be my team. Anyway, I liked how that guy flipped his bat on the on-deck circle. I could root for a guy like that. In the end, it was proximity and Willie Montanez that made me a Phillies fan that night in South Philadelphia.
Veterans Stadium, 1993. I went with my dad. I was 7 years old, and I remember how gigantic the field looked. It was the Game 4 of the NLCS against the Braves. I remember making our way through the concession stands, getting a pizza and finding our seats in the upper level on the third base side. It was chilly, and I had my Braves — yes, Braves — jacket on. Atlanta lost, but I was so enamored with getting to see it in person that I don't remember it affecting me that much. Oddly enough, the most enduring memory from that day came when we were leaving, when I asked my dad if I could use the bathroom. We were heading toward it, but suddenly he steered me away, toward the car. When I objected — I really needed to go — he said, "You can't go in there, they're sinking it." What that means (they were peeing in the sink) wasn't explained to me until later in life, but to this day, gross as it is, it's also given me a great sense of affection for that cathedral of baseball commonly known as The Vet.
I was born and raised in Jackson Heights Queens, 10 minutes from Shea Stadium. My parents divorced when I was two. Dad would come over on weekends, plop himself down on the couch, turn on the TV and watch the Yankees. I quickly learned that if I wanted to relate to my father, it would be through baseball. My dad would often take me on the 75-minute subway ride to Yankee Stadium; when I asked why we couldn’t go see the Mets, who were only 10 minutes away, he looked at me like I had three heads. Our first trip to Yankee Stadium was in 1971. I was seven or eight. He got me a scorecard and a soda and a hot dog. He had a couple of beers. I don't remember if the Yankees won, though it was 1971 so they probably lost. Two lasting memories: dad seemed really happy in the ballpark, more so than normal, and the vision of that green, green grass and the humongous scoreboard in right-center.
Since the Dodgers and Giants left New York after the 1957 season, my father took me to my first game at Yankee Stadium for my first game at age 10. The original Washington Senators were in town. I loved the green grass, the giant scoreboard and the smell of hot dogs, which to this day are my favorite food. My main memory of that day is the Senators infielders scrambling to prevent ground balls from becoming base hits. They usually failed, with the shortstop and third baseman unsuccessfully criss-crossing each other's paths. The Yankees won, but I developed a great appreciation for the underdog while watching the Senators play. At that time, well before the era of divisional play, Washington was first in war, first in peace and last in the American League.
August 23, 1990, my parents took me to see the Dodgers host the Mets. Fernando Valenzuela pitched, and the Dodgers won 4-2. Eddie Murray hit a home run.
The best part is my parents bought a souvenir ball to write the date and the score on. They got the date right, but they wrote the score down wrong on the ball.
My first professional game was the Expos at Jarry Park in Montreal in 1973. I was 22, and I was there with my brother Jim and two teammates from my adult hardball team, the Renfrew Red Sox. George Foster of the Reds hit a foul ball close to where we were sitting. I was returning from the concession stand with a beer in each hand as the ball came toward me, so I was unable to catch it.
My father sold hot dogs at Fenway Park when he was a teenager, which awed me as a kid, but when I asked him if he remembered the first game he took me to, he did not. I ended up going to many games on my own once I was around 12 years old. The first clear memory I have of a game is from when I was 15. Sitting in my usual part of the park on June 11 for the first game of a doubleheader, I saw Ted Williams swing at an Early Wynn pitch and hit home run No. 497 of his career into the center-field bleachers. As I wrote in my book 521: The Story of Ted Williams’ Home Runs: “The author of this book was sitting in the seats not far away and asked to touch the ball, which permission was granted by the fortunate fan who’d captured it.”
When I had a son, I wanted to document his first game, so I wrote it up (some years after the fact) for SABR’s Games Project. It was Sept. 4, 1991, and Emmet was 47 days old. His was the first diaper changed at a just-installed station under the stands.
The first professional game I ever saw was an Albany-Colonie Yankees tilt in 1987, when I was 14. I went with my friend, Eric Pilhofer, his father and his cousin, who I would be meeting for the first time. What I didn't know until we connected with her at the stadium was just how cute my friend's cousin was. As a baseball writer, I should be letting prose flow from my fingertips about the transformative experience of that game, and it for sure changed my life — but in ways that had nothing to do with baseball.
The cousin (I admit, I've forgotten her name) was a big John Lennon fan. At the time, I had only a passing acquaintance with The Beatles. (I thought I was into heavy metal, but honestly I just dug the album cover art.) In an effort to impress her, I went home and switched my radio to PYX 106, classic-rock radio. Then I went to Tape World and used my allowance to buy my first Beatles' cassette. (Help!) I got a book about Lennon from the library and read it cover to cover. A few weeks later I arranged to meet the girl at her house, fully intending on winning her admiration with my newly discovered knowledge. The result was predictable. She wasn't interested in anything romantic. Heartbroken, I went home and listened to The Beatles over and over, drowning my sorrows in their melodies. By the time I emerged from my adolescent angst, a funny thing had happened: I was a legitimate Beatles fan, a truth that persists to this day. Today, I tell people that my interests are grounded in the three Bs: Baseball, Beatles and the Bard. I fell in love with Shakespeare years later, in college, but for me the Beatles will always be tied to that magical first game and the pretty girl who got away.
I had grown up listening to San Francisco Giants games on the radio with my grandparents and Uncle Mark. For the first 9 1/2 years of my life, baseball had only existed at 48044 Leontine Court; attending my first game at Candlestick Park with my grandparents, dad, aunts and uncle was a thrill.
It was a warm day in the East Bay, so naturally I wore a t-shirt and shorts. Those familiar with Candlestick Park know that attending a baseball game such attire is like attending an Arctic expedition in a bikini. To this day I'm amazed that a car full of seasoned fans failed to notice how underprepared I was until halfway across the Dumbarton Bridge, when my grandma asked if I'd brought a jacket. As if a jacket would have sufficed. Luckily for me, the first five or six innings were sunny and warm, though I eventually became a human garment rack for whatever clothing my family could spare.
For all of the excitement and extreme temperature changes, my most enduring memory is a comparatively silly one. Somewhere along the arcade was a spot for a photo-op, where people could pose alongside a cardboard cutout of Will Clark. I was such a shy kid that, to me, this was better than the real deal! I brought that Polaroid to school with me for an entire week, fooling my classmates until I finally divulged that it was fake. (Somehow, the hand-painted, faux ballpark backdrop and two-dimensional glare on No. 22 hadn't been a dead giveaway.) I got so much mileage out of that photo. I guess I still do.
The first professional game I ever attended was on July 22, 1992, the Mets hosting the Dodgers on a Wednesday afternoon. As a 5-year-old, little did I know the great pitching matchup in front of me: a former Cy Young winner (Orel Hershiser) against a future Cy Young winner (David Cone). The Mets won, 7-5, behind a home run from Bobby Bonilla. Considering the personal magnitude of the game for me, I think that justified Bonilla’s deferred contract. I don't remember much else except that, on that day, Shea Stadium was the most beautiful place I'd ever been.
My family lived 80 miles from Chicago, and were die-hard Cubs fans. (In the late 1950s, "die hard" was how your hopes for the team fared, as they lived in the second division.) My first visit to Wrigley Field came during a routine summer trip, made once or twice each season to see the Cubs. We went often enough that I can no longer pick out the first game, but it was likely in 1957. The Cubs played the Pirates, with whom they eventually tied for last place. The Pittsburgh roster included twin brothers, Eddie and Johnny O'Brien. That was so strange it's about all I remember, even though I must have seen two Hall of Famers, Mazeroski and Clemente, play that day. Also, we had Ernie Banks, then and now my all-time favorite player. Even my mother, who went along on these ventures mostly to be a good sport, would ask periodically during the season, "How's Ernie doing?" "He's doing great, mom."
MY FIRST GAME
Date: May 24, 1969. (I turned 10 a week later.)
Companion: My father
Site: Candlestick Park, San Francisco
Score: Giants 5, Pirates 2
Time of game: 2 hours, 19 minutes
Highlights: The starting lineups included five future Hall of Famers — Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazeroski, Willie Stargell, Willie Mays and Willie McCovey — but the most talented guy on the field at that time may have been Bobby Bonds, who opened the scoring with a first-inning homer off Bob Veale. Other homers came from McCovey, in the early stages of his MVP season, and Stargell. Baseball Reference helped me fill in the blanks, but those home runs stick in my mind. Bonds was on his way to becoming baseball’s most electrifying player, McCovey was in his prime and Stargell was approaching his most productive years. Their homers left the park in a hurry.
I wish I could recall something distinctive about Mazeroski or Clemente, but I don’t. Heck, Willie Mays was my favorite player, and I don’t remember a thing about his two hits! I scrutinized him when he was in the batter’s box, though, bouncing on the balls of his feet, shifting his weight back and forth, ready for anything. I’d go home and imitate those mannerisms in my bedroom.
Mike McCormick pitched a complete game for the Giants. When I introduced myself to McCormick at the Gaylord Perry statue dedication at AT&T Park a few years ago, I told him that he went the distance in the very first game I ever saw. He raised his arms, pumped his fists and good-naturedly yelled, “All right!”
KEY FATHER-SON MOMENT: I was fascinated by Candlestick’s big, old scoreboard. All those numbers! All those colorful advertisements! That one-line, movie theater-style-marquee ribbon near the bottom that previewed the next opponent to invade Candlestick. (“CHI HERE MAY 27 N MAY 28”) Sports weren’t a big part of my dad’s life, but growing up in New York City required him to understand at least a little bit about baseball. He saw Lou Gehrig, Carl Hubbell and Bill Terry, and shook hands with Babe Ruth at Toots Shor’s. When he realized that I was paying undue attention to the scoreboard, he admonished: “Watch the game, not the scoreboard.”
Considering that I spent nearly three decades of my career as a baseball beat writer, I guess I must have listened to dad.
I saw my first baseball game in 1975, when I was nine years old — the Phillies vs. the Mets at the Vet. I remember the Phillies losing and Mike Vail hitting two home runs, but a check on Retrosheet shows that Vail did not hit two homers in any game at the Vet that season. So much for my memory. My aunt and uncle took me, and spoiled me rotten with cotton candy, Cracker Jack, soda and ice cream. I spent most of that night after we got home in front of the toilet, throwing up. I remember that part very well.
I was eight years old in 1978, when my father took me to Candlestick Park to watch the Giants play the Mets. The image that lingers from that day is of my initial steps from the concourse into the grandstand along the first-base side, when the stadium opened up and the entire bowl came into view, its vastness overwhelming whatever preconceptions I had about what a modern stadium looked like. The plastic, orange seats stretched for what seemed like miles, and the grass shimmered below in the sunshine. (In retrospect, the shimmering was probably a function of it actually being gross plastic turf, but I wasn’t savvy enough to recognize the difference.)
I don’t remember much about the game save for the final score — the Giants lost, 10-4, to a Mets team that would go 66-96 on the season — and the fact that my father had to explain to me how Willie McCovey, 40 years old and playing on shredded knees, could smack a ball off of the right field fence and still only end up with a single. Now, through the majesty of Baseball Reference, I see that John Montefusco started the game for the Giants, and I was unwittingly able to see luminaries like Bill Madlock, Jack Clark and Darrell Evans suit up for the hometown nine.
My dad has never been much more than a passive baseball fan, and to this day he openly wonders where I got my passion for the sport. Well, pop, it started right there. You have nobody but yourself to blame.