Friday, June 18, 2010

Cheers to El Padre


Even though El Padre grew up in the Kensington section of Philadelphia (“The sport of boxball was invented at the corner of Gaul and Sergeant,” he maintained.), he was an inveterate frontrunner when it came to choosing a rooting interest in sports. His favorite teams were the Yankees, Packers, Celtics and Canadiens. For those of you scoring at home, that’s dynasty, dynasty, dynasty and dynasty. When it came to his partisan allegiances, El Padre wasn’t taking any chances.

Born in 1920, he had the opportunity to witness – sometimes in person, like that famous 0-0 tie between Army and Notre Dame in 1946 or the 1948 Eagles-Cardinals NFL Championship “Snow Ball” – some of the great sporting moments of the early-to-mid-20th Century. He saw Babe Ruth play. And Ty Cobb. He was present for several battles between Wilt and Russ. Even though El Padre was an intellectual at heart and adored the law profession he chose, he would argue (boy, would he argue) sports for hours.

He was also a fount of information. Ask him how some of the current-day ballplayers stacked up against various heroes from the past, and he could break it down, although his verdict almost always came down on the side of the old-timer. And he appreciated the value of seeing events in person. Rare was the time when a request by El Hombre or a Hermano to attend a contest was dismissed. If El Padre could make it, we were there. We usually left the game early, but we were still there. And that’s where this Father’s Day tale begins.

In 1969, baseball celebrated its 100th birthday, at least according to what generally passed as common knowledge. It was a big year for the MLB, since it added two teams to each league and split into divisions. Playoffs would be held for the first time, and little did anybody who followed the sport know, but the Miracle Mets would stun the sports world that fall by winning the World Series.

For a seven-year old beginning what would become a life-long emersion in sports, it was a heady time. The NFL was about to merge. The NHL was two years post-expansion. The NBA was at the end of the remarkable Celtic championship run. (“Ten fingers, eleven rings,” Russell used to say.) John Wooden and UCLA ruled the college basketball world. And college football, like its MLB counterpart, was commemorating its centennial. Of course, seven-year olds don’t pay much attention to that stuff, especially when they’re mesmerized by the wonder of it all.

On Aug. 9, that dream world became a reality, when El Padre took EH and his younger Hermano to their first baseball game. As one might expect from a person who appreciated the history of the game – not to mention one who was a big Yankees fan, even if the ’69 version of the team would finish 22 ½ games out of first place in the newly-minted AL Eastern Division – the setting for this inaugural encounter would be Yankee Stadium. Give El Padre points for understanding the significance of the event. You don’t see your first game at Connie Mack Stadium, where the wretched Phillies butchered the sport in front of tiny, disinterested aggregations. You got to The House That Ruth Built. On Old Timers Day.

So, we boarded the train in Philadelphia (El Padre didn’t drive) and headed north on a sunny Saturday. After pulling into Penn Station, we cabbed it to the ticket agency to collect our box seats for the game. Two things here. First, El Padre never bought a ticket at the box office. In Philadelphia, he used Sherry’s Ticket Agency for everything, and that’s who no doubt helped him procure the ducats for this contest. Second, naïve waif that El Hombre was, he thought our “box” seats actually consigned us to cardboard enclosures. Nonetheless, our arrival in the Bronx was cause for celebration, and EH’s first glimpse of the Stadium’s emerald grass and chocolate infield engendered in him an awe he has rarely encountered since. Our seats were not in boxes, rather between home plate and first base, about 20 rows off the field. In other words, perfect.

The parade of Old Timers was a thrill. Even though El Hombre was a novice in terms of baseball knowledge, names like DiMaggio, Mantle and Musial resonated, thanks to El Padre’s lessons. For someone more seasoned, the roster of stars on hand was indeed impressive. In addition to the aforementioned trio, Whitey Ford, King Kong Keller, Lefty Gomez, Tony Kubek and Moose Skowron were there, wearing pinstripes, while Lou Boudreau, Bob Feller, Robin Roberts and Bobby “The Giants Win The Pennant!” Thomson comprised the heart of the opposition. To top it off, the widows of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig made appearances and received a thunderous ovation.

The two-inning game featured few highlights and ended in a 0-0 deadlock. The one enduring image was of DiMaggio’s gliding back in center to snare a line drive off the bat of Bobby Doerr. That was a great, one-handed, over-the-head catch, or at least it was until a few years later when El Padre explained that the Yankee Clipper had mistakenly broken in on the ball and had to adjust quickly to preserve his reputation. Still: DiMaggio. Yankee Stadium. Magic.

The Main Event turned out to be a taut one that featured complete games by New York’s Mel Stottlemyre and the A’s Chuck Dobson. The Yankees earned a 2-1 win behind a four-hitter by Stottlemyre, although we were gone by the time the home side pushed across the deciding run in the eighth. But the game’s outcome mattered less than the overall experience. The A’s looked great in their yellow sleeveless jerseys and pants, long-sleeved green undershirts, green stirrup socks and white shoes. The Yankees, of course, were sublime in the pinstripes. The big crowd of 50,945 – the third-largest that season – buzzed throughout the game and gave a young boy plenty to watch. It was a perfect afternoon, right down to the steak dinner in the train’s dining car on the way home. El Hombre has seen countless hundreds of games since then, but nothing compares. Not World Series games, NBA championship series contests, NFL playoff games, Stanley Cup playoff games. Not nothing.

The gold standard was established that Saturday nearly 41 years ago, and El Padre did it. It’s been 10 years since he died, and El Hombre wonders often whether he thanked him enough. For that game and everything else.

Thanks, Papa. Happy Father’s Day. You were the best.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: The refs jobbed the U.S. against Slovenia, but when you fall into a 2-0 hole, courtesy of typical first-half somnolence, you put yourself at the mercy of the arbiters. How about waking up early for next Wednesday’s game against Algeria? The future of soccer in the U.S. might just depend on the game’s outcome…News out of San Diego is that a 12-year old wants to set the record for fastest ascent up Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen. Just kidding. Then again, when parents are letting 16-year olds try to sail around the world, why not let a pre-teen scale the world’s tallest peak? Idiots…The conference carousel stopped early, with only four teams’ changing addresses. But here’s a word of advice to the folks at Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas State, South Florida and other undesirable expansion targets: get a plan together now. More mayhem is on the way…The Yankees are the first Majoke League Baseball team to ban vuvuzelas from the ballpark. The things can be annoying, but they’re certainly no worse than a drunken fan from Staten Island shouting for Jee-tah to get a hit. Talk about a nerve ending.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: Be sure to check out El Hombre’s alter ego on Philadelphia Magazine’s “Philly Post” ( Monday for an in-depth look at the Sixers’ NBA Draft possibilities next Thursday. It will be interesting to see – and several league execs feel the same way – whether the Sixers draft Evan Turner at number two, and if they do whether the team will keep both him and Andre Iguodala. More than one NBA personnel boss thinks the two players have the same skill set and that Iguodala would be superfluous if Turner were around. Could the Sixers take Turner and dish Iguodala to the Clippers for the eighth pick and a future choice? That would provide tremendous salary cap relief for a team that has $63 million committed for next season. Or, do they keep Iguodala and draft Derrick Favors (El Hombre’s choice), making Thaddeus Young expendable? Thursday’s trade that sent Samuel Dalembert to Sacramento for Spencer Hawes and Andres Nocioni was just the beginning of what should be an interesting week for the Sixers.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: The Lakers’ win over Boston Thursday night brought the franchise’s 16th World Championship and the fifth of Kobe Bryant’s career. Some believe the triumph cements his status as the best player ever to wear the Forum Blue and Gold. It says here that is nonsense. While Bryant is a great player, it’s instructive to remember that his first three titles came as “Little Brother” to Shaquille O’Neal, who earned MVP honors in the Finals from 2000-02. It is also important to remember Bryant’s incredibly selfish play in the years after O’Neal’s departure from the team. It’s also worth noting that there is no way the Lakers blow a 24-point lead at home – as they did in 2008 against Boston – with Magic Johnson on the team or lose a deciding Game Six by a humiliating 39 points, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the floor. Bryant was lauded for “trusting his teammates” during this Finals series, but he didn’t look so confident in them during the first three quarters of Thursday’s game, when he shot a miserable 5-for-20 and tried to bowl through two and three defenders on his way to the hoop. Bryant’s legacy isn’t complete, but to put him ahead of Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar, two of the five best players ever, is absurd. Johnson was the consummate winner and leader who did everything necessary on the court, while Abdul-Jabbar is NBA’s all-time leading scorer and a six-time champ. It took 12 seasons for Bryant to focus on winning; let’s see how he closes out his career before pushing him ahead of Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar (and perhaps Jerry West) in the L.A. Valhalla.


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