Yesterday I received the type of news that you know will one day come, but refuse to accept it will actually happen – my grandfather, or pop-pop as I knew him, had passed away. I found myself thinking about the times we had spent together, as I’m sure many of you have done yourself after losing a loved one, and baseball kept coming to mind.
If you couldn’t tell by the fact that you’re reading this on a blog dedicated to the game – I love baseball, and my grandfather had something to do with that. I am admittedly a die-hard Mets fan. A major reason, and possibly the sole reason, I still follow the Yankees so closely and decided to make a NY baseball blog is because of my grandparents (mother’s side). I might be writing this due to the recent passing of my grandfather, but my grandmother, who passed away about eight years ago herself, had just as much to do with my love for the game. They were the biggest Yankees fans I’ve ever met. I know, everyone says that about their grandparents when it comes to the Yankees, but I truly mean that statement.
Growing up when I would visit their home it wasn’t uncommon to walk in and see a Yankees game on the TV. In fact, it was weird to not see one on the TV. I’m not just talking a game that was being played in the midst of a current season. I’m talking about in January a Yankees game would be on the TV. You have to remember this is before the YES network was shoving Yankees greatest games down our throats. No, they would be watching one of their many VHS tapes (remember those things?) of recorded games. There was always a pile stacked up on the floor next to the TV ready to be popped into the VCR to relive their favorite moments in Yankees history at any time.
My grandfather drove a paper route in NYC for a living. He would deliver newspapers and magazines to the proper distributors before they hit the newsstands in the morning. This must have contributed to his encyclopedia-like knowledge of sports and pop culture. He loved the tabloids and to his dying day would read several newspapers on a daily basis. Baseball cards were still abundant at many of his stops in those days. I’m not sure if he actually bought all of these cards out-of-pocket or if he had a bartering system of sorts but he began giving me more packs than you can even imagine at a very young age. I still have every baseball card he has ever given me carefully packed away in my closet and tucked under my bed. I’m sure a good 95% of those are worth nothing more than the paper they are printed on, but no matter how much space they occupy I can’t ever see myself parting with them.
I have a feeling there are still packs tucked away in his house that he probably never got around to giving me from his working days. That was always kind of our thing. Everyone has something they connect over and ours was baseball. When my grandmother passed away he began spending increased time at my parents’ house, as my mother became his caretaker of sorts. Even as his health began to deteriorate and his memory began to go – he always wanted to talk sports and most notably baseball with me. Those facts and memories seemed to never falter from his brain. He would walk in the door, and speed walk his way through the house against my mother’s wishes, to find me in the living room before pronouncing something along with the lines of “YOU SEE THAT GAME LAST NIGHT?” I have to admit, there were times I dreaded him coming over the day after a tough Mets loss. But I know he wasn’t trying to rub salt in the wound. He just really wanted to talk about the game with me. Looking back on it now I already wish I didn’t take those moments for granted so many times.
When it comes to my grandmother, I don’t even know where to begin. She was the strongest willed woman I’ve ever seen. Typical Italian in that she never shied away from letting her feelings be known or engage in an argument just for the sake of arguing. And she was good at it. I don’t think it was possible for her to walk away from a conversation before getting her two cents in. But for all that she always had this help others first mentality. Everything revolved around what she could do to help you before herself. That is something that I felt summarized her character more than anything else and will always be my lasting memory of her. I hope to have half the heart she had when it comes to looking after my family and friends.
She loved baseball every bit as much as my grandfather. The two of them were frequent listeners to the sports radio station WFAN. Their favorite program was the Mike and the Mad Dog show. My grandmother enjoyed it so much that she actually took the time to call in “Grace from Lindenhurst you’re on the air,” as Mike Francesa would say. How many of your grandmothers cared enough about sports to call into a talk radio show? I’m going to go out on a limb and say not many.
The two of them visited the baseball hall of fame in Cooperstown when I was still very young. They brought me back this custom wooden bat with my name, hometown and birthday engraved on it. For years it was displayed hanging on my bedroom wall. As I got older it became my thinking bat. When I lay in my room that bat somehow always finds its way into my hands. No matter what’s on my mind, or what I have going on in my life, that bat seems to always help get me through it.
I was the first grandchild they were able to sit in the stands and watch play baseball. As I got older I was lucky enough to be a part of a successful high school team. We had a very exciting two-year run and I know how much they enjoyed following along and coming to the games when they were able to. I grew accustomed to having my parents in the crowd and didn’t think twice about seeing them. But when I spotted my grandparents I would genuinely become nervous. I’m still not really sure why. I guess because I didn’t see them there as often and wanted to make sure I left the best impression I could on them in those limited opportunities. I like to think I did a pretty good job of that. On my team’s way to winning the Long Island Championship, I was named the county playoffs MVP. As much as that award meant to me on a personal level, I know how much pride that brought them both.
Last year on the final day of the baseball season my family and I took my grandfather to Citi Field. He had always told me stories about going to games at the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field. I felt that it was important that he see firsthand the modern-day stadium that was built in those ballparks remembrance. It didn’t matter that the Yankees weren’t playing. He didn’t care about that. Just being at the game with us and seeing the stadium in person meant the world to him. Later that night he broke down in tears to my mother about how much he enjoyed the day and what it meant to him for us to take him there. The thought alone makes me water up. I take solace in knowing I was with him for his final baseball game.
My grandmother always kept up with modern technology and frequently used AIM (AOL Instant Messenger), yes my grandmother, and would always put up the same away message. All these years later I still have it ingrained in my mind – “When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you.” With opening day upon us, I’m sure both of you are smiling ear to ear, along with the rest of us. Pop-pop is already complaining about a Joe Girardi pitching change. That’s if he’s able to get a word in over my grandmother.
R.I.P., I love and miss you both.