Yankee Stadium won’t last the year and all I can think about is standing in Joe DiMaggio’s footprints, staring into an azure sky and sobbing, hoping my kid wouldn’t notice.
Seminal moments of fatherhood can sneak up on a man.
You can be Earl Woods and schedule your parental epiphanies around golf’s majors. You can send your little tumbler to one of those creepy gymnastics schools and assume you’ve just bought yourself a gold medal and an American Express endorsement contract.
The rest of us hang on the child-rearing thunderbolts of reasonable personal grooming and tying off the bread bag.
My oldest son, Connor, is going on 16 now, which means that if I patched together all of his words over three or four weeks they’d almost amount to a full conversation, without – you know – the verbs or the eye contact.
He’s a wonderful kid taking the usual teen-aged stroll through the usual teen-age stuff, so I’ll see him again in three or four years or when the college loans start coming due, whichever comes first.
Many days, I miss him, the funny little guy who laughed at everything and whose pants sagged because the only way to get six months wear out of them was to buy two sizes up. Now they sag because Jay-Z’s sag. But I know these are necessary years and sometimes the bread’s just gonna have to go moldy on us.
Going on 10 years ago, when I was covering the Yankees for the Newark Star-Ledger, I took Connor out of kindergarten so we could spend part of a day at Yankee Stadium. In the morning, just after traffic cleared, we took the gray Toyota pickup truck north on the Jersey Turnpike and across the George Washington Bridge. Soon the huge ballpark was on our left and I pointed and he was dutifully impressed, probably for my benefit and even then he’d drum up enthusiasm for anything that lifted him from the classroom.
Twice a season the reporters assigned to the Yankees would play baseball games against the reporters who covered the Red Sox, one at Yankee Stadium and the other at Fenway Park. I had my old spikes and a glove and a cup in a blue gym bag that sat between Connor and me. My shoulder had long before gone bad, so this wasn’t as much about the baseball as it was a morning at the ballpark, the most famous ballpark in the world, a place I knew Connor should see from the inside out.
I parked across the street from the media entrance, in the fenced-off lot reserved for front-office staff, players and media. Connor lagged behind on the way in, kicking at cigarette butts that lay between the gray cobblestones and not much interested in the historic edifice that rose before him. Along the same path I went to work most afternoons, we descended a flight of stairs and walked through the media dining room, through the double doors into the media work room, where I pointed out my counter space, my black telephone, my plastic chair where I’d spend hours away from his little brother and him, and then out the other side into the corridor that led past the Yankees clubhouse and through a narrow, low-ceilinged tunnel to their dugout.
As we emerged from the dugout and back into the sunlight, I reached for Connor’s hand and he accepted. I smiled at him and laid the blue duffel in the dirt. He squinted back and held his free hand over his eyes, cutting the glare. Together, we turned and measured the enormity of the old ballpark, empty except for the two of us, blue seats rising to the sky. I pointed to the press box. I pointed to the famous frieze. Looking down at Connor, his blond hair floppy, his mother’s eyes meeting mine, I could hardly breathe.
His hand still in mine, we began to walk. Through foul territory and across the first-base line. To the pitcher’s mound, where, I told him, Whitey Ford had stood. And Ron Guidry. And Mariano Rivera. To the left of second base, where Derek Jeter would play that night. He smiled. He’d heard of Derek Jeter. I laughed. “Uh-huh,” I said.
Then, slowly, because his legs were very short then, my first son and I strolled into right field, across grass so green and thick his tiny sneakers practically disappeared. When we reached medium-deep right field, I’d practically run out of words. “Babe Ruth,” I said. “Right here.” A breath. “And Roger Maris.” He kicked at the grass. We turned to center field. I dabbed at my eyes with my T-shirt’s neckline.
We marched along through right-center field in an arc along the cut of the warning track. I had four words left, I thought. I hoped. The vividness of the ballpark blurred in the morning sun, through a prism of joy and pride and tenderness. We arrived together in center field and I stopped. After a few seconds Connor looked up at me. “Well?” his eyes asked.
I nodded. I’m getting there, I looked back. I inhaled.
“Mickey Mantle,” I finally blurted. “Joe DiMaggio.”
Tears rolled down my face. It’s all I had. I knelt and held Connor.
He doesn’t remember much about that day, but I tell him the story and he grins, and he’s that same little boy, squinting against the sun.
Now they’re going to tear down that old ballpark and I won’t think about the men who played there or the games they won and lost. I won’t think about the aura of a place that held legends.
I’ll think about the grass under my feet and a son’s hand in my own. I’ll think about fatherhood.
And damn if I won’t cry again.