LOS ANGELES, July 24, 2014 — On July 22, my grandfather would have turned 109. He died in 2002, just shy of turning 97. He was an Orthodox Rabbi, a husband of 67 years, a father to two children, a grandfather to five, and a New York Mets fan.
I cannot recall the Mets ever losing on his birthday. Sometimes the games would run 14 to 16 innings, and end after midnight, so it did not count as a birthday loss.
Given that Jews are not supposed to watch television on Saturdays due to the commandment of honoring the Sabbath, it would be worse for an Orthodox Rabbi to watch it. However, the rule only says the television cannot be turned on or off. If it is already on it can be watched. My job as the heretic grandson was to trip over the table and have my nose turn on the television. This was especially difficult given that his old television had a knob.
My grandmother, who departed in 2008 just three weeks of turning 100, would walk into the room and wonder why the television was on during the Sabbath. After happily falling on my sword, she would give me the “Eric, you know better!” speech. Then Grandpa and I would go back to watching the game since we could not very well violate the Sabbath twice by turning the television off. This of course did not count other Sabbath violations that involved adjusting the volume control.
We would also eat the candy and potato chips that Grandpa was not supposed to have because it was bad for him. We thought we were smart, but Grandma knew what was going on. She would say, “Eric, he should not violate the Sabbath. God would not like that.” I would respond by saying, “Grandma, God has already punished him many times over. He is a Mets fan.” My grandmother would think about this for a few moments grudgingly. She acknowledged that while my argument was not sound theologically, it would be good enough for the congregants in his synagogue in addition to every other long suffering Mets fan. I used to think that “long suffering” was the first name of any Mets fan because those words always preceded the name of the team.
Normally he preached personal responsibility during his sermons, but the World Series champion 1986 Mets could do no wrong. Dwight “Doc” Gooden and Darryl Strawberry were just good kids who needed some love. Darryl Strawberry could have killed 20 people and my grandfather would have said, “Straw is confused. He is just a good kid who needs some love.”
Late in his life when he was confined to a nursing home. Testing his mind meant asking him “the baseball question.” Even though he could not speak at times, he knew his favorite team was not the Yankees. He would shake his head no. Asked about the Red Sox, he would again move his head from side to side. Asked if he liked the Mets, he would shake his head yes up and down.
In the 21st century Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry were playing for the Yankees. Grandpa never believed this. Upon pointing out their legal troubles, he responded, “Are you reading me headlines from 20 years ago?” Since he never acknowledged their playing for the Yankees, they remained good kids who needed love.
My grandfather never found out that I had no interest whatsoever in baseball. I find it to be a boring game where nothing ever happens of consequence. Yet I still remember watching a couple games with him. One game between the Mets and the Phillies stood out. The Mets went ahead 3-1, and my grandfather responded, “Ruthven (Dick Ruthven, the Phillies pitcher) is tiring.” He was pulled after 7 innings. I never understood why you would pull somebody. Why not let them work their way out of it? In the 8th inning the Phillies closed to 3-2. I was shocked when Gooden did not come back to pitch the 9th inning. The Mets won, as their closer held on. I was thrilled the Mets won, but my grandfather understood that it was a long season. “Baseball, like life, is not a sprint. It is a marathon.”
July 22, 2007 had me at Dodger Stadium to watch them play the Mets. The Dodgers being classy organization that they are, have various games reserved for many ethnic communities. This day was for the Jewish community, and kosher hot dogs were brought in for the game. As somebody who still has no interest in baseball, this was a day about being with my friends in my community, as well as for scoping out Jewish girls. This always pleased Grandpa, who, upon hearing of my pursuing the ladies, said “That’s my boy.”
Baseball bored me to tears for most of the game, with the Dodgers leading the Mets in a game that I did not expect to care about in any way by a score of 4-2. Then I looked up to the sky, and I saw him smiling down. He was watching the game. His birthday was here. The Mets scored a run in the 8th inning, cutting the gap to 4-3.
In the ninth inning, a routine fly ball that should have ended the game was dropped, a miracle error I had not seen since 1986, when the Mets defeated the Boston Red Sox to win the World Series. This dropped ball led to the Mets tying the game 4-4.
Still looking up to the sky, he was still there. In the top of the tenth inning, the Mets took a 5-4 lead. The bottom of the tenth was nerve wracking. A sport I had no interest in had me riveted. I pumped my fist after each out, and pointed toward the sky. With the Dodgers in striking distance, the last batter went down strike three. I pumped my fists in celebration, pointed both arms toward the sky, and I think I saw Grandpa smile a big smile. It could have been exhaustion or dehydration, but I know he was there.
I cannot promise to find baseball interesting on a long term level. I certainly will not watch the game on television. I am too young to die, especially a slow coma induced death.
However, I promised myself that every July 22, I would make an effort to check the scores. I couldn’t wait to read the scores for July 22, 2007. Mets 5, Dodgers 4, in 10 innings.
That promise was not kept, as 2008 through 2013 remain a mystery to me. Yet On July 22 of this year, it is a fact etched in baseball history that the Mets went on the road and defeated the Seattle Mariners 3-1. The Mets even beat the Mariners the next day 3-2, extending his joy.
I will never really understand the game of baseball that my grandfather loved. Upon reflection, however, I will concede that somehow this game has provided me with memories I will cherish for a lifetime. For that alone, I admit there is some actual worth to this game of baseball.
I love you Grandpa. Happy Birthday. I hope they have baseball in Heaven. Keep watching over our family. I would have saved the paper for you, but that will not be necessary. You saw it for yourself. Just like when I was a kid, on this one day I enjoyed the game with you.