PLAY BALL

Opening day. Hot damn. Mets don’t start up until tomorrow in Florida, but lordie lordie, let the games begin today.

It’s the 2011 baseball season. The smell of the grass, the din of the crowd, the pop of the glove, the crack of the bat. Baseball, baby. It’s all back. And with it, comes a veritable flood of memories that cascade through my soul providing waves of both sweet melancholia and total elation. Baseball is in my blood, it resides in the very fiber of who I am, and runs through some of the most profound moments and relationships I have ever had.

Put me in coach...

One reason baseball is so special to me is that I played it pretty steadily every spring and summer from the time I was old enough to throw any kind of ball until my late teens. From tee ball with Gilman’s Runts, to the cap/comet/star/minor/major league cycle in our Little League, to summer ball while home from college, and probably most importantly, my high school baseball career — it was as much a part of development as a person as anything. Life was not complete, the balance and order of things were not properly calibrated, without my best friend Tom Newman and I reoiling our gloves, buying new cleats, having that first catch of the spring, buying the first pack of Topps baseball cards, and then agonizing through various tryouts and eventually making whatever team it was — oh, except my sophomore year in high school, when I got unceremoniously cut, a pretty devastating and unusual experience in my baseball life.

My no-hitter game ball from May 9th, 1976

But in time, I rebounded from being cut, making JV my junior year, and also pitching well enough in 1976 for my Little League team Bob Sharp Motors to toss an actual legitimate official Little League no-hitter. Yep, the real thing, I hurled a no-no. I wasn’t an overpowering pitcher but on this day I had strong command the whole game, getting it over the plate and staying poised, while also getting some nice fielding help from my teammates. It magically ended on a one-out bases loaded comebacker to me (I was losing control and had walked two and hit a batter to load ’em up)  and I went home for out #2, and the catcher went to first for the DP, game over, no hitter intact. I stood there saying to myself, “You just threw a f***ing no-hitter!” Then I was hoisted into the air by our third baseman and my dear friend Matt Carragher, the team circling and cheering around me, the crowd clapping, my folks smiling and hooting.  My coach Dick Papenfuss would hand me the game ball later and the whole team would sign it. The day proved later to have some added poignancy — my buddy Matt was killed a few years later in a car crash in Ohio where he moved, and the ball is also signed by Dave Henwood, whose brother was killed on 9/11 in one of the Towers. So the game ball and whole day take on an even more special meaning for me today. All in all, that day was the greatest “glory days” moment of my life to this day, and it was baseball I have to thank for it.

At Shea Stadium for Tom Seaver Day, 1988

My other reason for holding baseball so close to my heart is being a huge New York Mets fan since probably the age of 8 or so, and that was totally fostered by my father. He nurtured the love of the game as far back as i can remember, and took me to my first Mets game in 1969, a memorable game in which Mets pitcher Tom Seaver, my boyhood idol — I would wear his #41 throughout high school and just got a Mets Seaver jersey for Christmas this year — had a perfect game going into the 9th inning, but it was heartbreakingly broken up with a single by the Cub’s Jimmy Qualls, his most infamous hit ever. I would later work on Tom Seaver Day at Shea when the Mets would retire #41 — and like a dream, I was walking up to the press booth later with a hot dog in hand and coming down the tunnel towards me…is it…no…yep, it’s Tom Seaver. I stopped him and said hello, shook his hand and said thanks for being my idol. He smiled and nodded.

Sitting in the dugout as the Mets get their '86 Championship rings, Opening Day 1987

But all of those early baseball experiences would help kick off a lifelong love affair with baseball and the Mets that would  last to this day. It would provide tremendous highs like winning the Series in ’69 and again in ’86, an occasion punctuated by my being on the field on Opening Day in 1987 and standing ten feet from Gooden, Strawberry, Carter, Hernandez and Co. as they laughed giddily while getting their ’86 Championship rings.  I actually sat in the dugout for a short period, totally dazed that I was in the dugout of my heroes, and they were all hanging out right there.

But it was my Dad  who was there for every season as Opening Days came and went, me with the Mets and him following his beloved Cincinnati Reds, and then later, the dreaded Yankees. But all the while, his eyes would sparkle along with mine as baseball games unfolded on that greenest of grass every year before us. It was something we intimately shared, and I think of him every time I see a pitch thrown, an out called, or a ball hit.

My late great father John Houk taking it all in at Shea, circa the 80's.

  

Luckily I think I’ve been able to pay that special baseball nurturing forward to my son, Ben. For now, he’s a loyal Mets fan just beginning to experience at 15 what it’s like to lose or win in the bottom of the ninth. The agony and the ecstasy of being a baseball fan, both are part of loving baseball, and I think I’ve passed on that love of the game to him. Part of the ecstasy was our 2008 pilgrimage to NY to my beloved Shea Stadium (the only time I’d been there in decades was to see another beloved of mine, Bruce Springsteen), the Mets ancient, crumbling yet still magical stadium, where so many amazing wins and devastating losses would happen during it”s 40 plus years situated in amongst the chop shops and old World’s Fair grounds of Flushing, Queens. It would be my last game at Shea and Ben’s first, right before the wrecking ball would come crashing down, and the old girl would be flattened, making way for a parking lot next to the Met’s new home, Citi Field, which the Mets would inaugurate the following season. But it was a very special experience taking my boy to Shea, a place what was so special to his grandfather and me, and sharing that special Shea vibe with him and dear friends Charlie and Jim. I swear my dad was there alongside us, beer and dog in hand, hooting at the big strikeout or the mammoth blast into the night. The Mets would lose that day, but we would win by just being there one last glorious time.
 

Heaven on the Field Of Dreams: Ben's first and our last game at Shea, 2008.

So there ya have it, folks, that’s why every spring, as the tree buds are bursting though, as the first blades of grass are springing up, as the daffodils are blooming, as the air is getting warmer, a rebirth of sorts for me happens too. A rebirth replete with the shining beauty of a very special diamond, one you can’t wear on your finger. And a rebirth of the memories I have of my dad, as well as the ones I have made and will make with Ben. Play ball.

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