In The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America, O'Neil posits that the reason there are so many fathers and sons playing in the Major Leagues is because baseball is a game that fathers teach to their sons, that the very specific way a person swings a bat or fields a ball is passed down. On the road, Buck frequently asks people if they remember the first baseball game their fathers ever took them to -- everybody does.
Reading all those stories made me remember mine, which is a story about how baseball is about mothers and daughters, too.
It was the summer of 1988, and early on, the Pirates were locked in a pretty tight race for the NL Eastern Division pennant with the much-hated New York Mets. Or at least they were much-hated in western Pennsylvania.
I went to Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh with my parents, my sister, and our friends, Jason and Ben, although I have no idea who the Pirates were playing that day. That wasn't the important thing.
I followed the standings every day in the paper, and I watched games on television with my dad, and talked with Jason about the Pirates and how they were doing and whether they'd beat the Mets (duh, yes... although as it turned out, duh, no).
Our heroes were Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, Andy Van Slyke, and Sid Bream, and the important thing about going to the game was meeting them. We got our baseballs, we planned how we would get their autographs, and speculated about whose would be best to get (toss-up between Bonds and Van Slyke).
We got to the stadium, and settled into our seats by the first base line. And then, an awful man with the world's foulest cigars sat down directly behind me. And proceeded to smoke the world's foulest cigars throughout the entire game.
By the seventh inning, I was woozy. By the ninth, I was nauseous. And when the game was over, I was sitting on a curb outside the stadium with my head between my legs as my sister and our friends went off to get autographs while Dad chaperoned.
Then, my mother came up to me and asked for my baseball. I handed it to her, and she said, "I'll see what I can do."
Now, it is fair to say that Mom had not been following the 1988 Pirates season as avidly as I had, didn't know Bobby Bonilla from Andy Van Slyke, and had never sought out a celebrity autograph in her life. But she was determined to get one for her kid.
She walked up to the throng of fans, and was immediately bewildered. She didn't want to push up on or bother anyone, and some of the players certainly looked bothered. Then, she saw a guy in a Pirates jacket standing off to the side by himself. He didn't look bothered or busy, so she walked up to him, stuck out my baseball, and said:
"Are you somebody?"
This is probably a terrible thing to say to a person you're asking for an autograph, but I know my mother, and can practically hear the tone in her voice as she asked. I'm sure she managed to say this in a kind voice that admitted her cluelessness, yet was somehow unwilling to take no for an answer.
The man was not offended. In fact, he laughed at her.
"I'm nobody," he said. "You don't want me."
And Mom said, "I don't care. Would you sign my daughter's baseball?"
And that is how I came to have a baseball autographed by Lanny Frattare, announcer for the Pittsburgh Pirates since 1976. Bonds and Van Slyke moved on, but Lanny is still there, and there's nobody whose autograph I'd rather have.
To this day, I still love the Pirates, I still can't hate Barry Bonds, and I still sit on the first base line any time I go to a baseball game.
So, thanks Mom.