Bonding Over Baseball

For years, the Cleveland Indians baseball club included “Yankee Hankee Day” on its promotional schedule. The giveaway was anything but subtle: Here’s a rag with the hated Uncle-Sam-hat-on-a-bat logo, go ahead and blow.

Growing up in Cleveland, my three brothers and I learned to despise the Bronx Bombers the same way that we learned addition and subtraction at school. It was part of the local curriculum. Even during the Yanks’ leaner years in the 1980s, we’d jeer them until our throats went raw every time they came to town.

Now I have two boys of my own, and I feel obligated to teach them about baseball right and wrong. Right: detest the Yankees. Wrong: root for the Yankees. It seems simple enough.
But there is just one problem. Recently, my Great Aunt Mildred, the meticulous keeper of family artifacts, unearthed a set of eight photographs that have changed the entire ballgame. The slightly faded black-and-white images, printed accordion-style on one continuous sheet, capture moments from April 7, 1951, inside the old Yankee Stadium. That was the day Mickey Mantle played his first game in pinstripes — and my father was there.

You see, my dad grew up on Long Island, but moved to Cleveland for college and stayed to work and raise a family. He introduced us kids to baseball, but never indoctrinated us as Yankees fans. In fact, he never even indicated he was still a Yankees fan himself. And I never thought anything of it.

Upon retiring to Florida, though, my dad’s inner child emerged. He bought himself a satellite radio, and now he tunes in to every Yankees’ game, waiting patiently for John Sterling’s bellowing call: “Ballgame over … Yankees win… Theeeeeeee Yankees win!”

Of course, my dad was supremely satisfied with New York’s latest World Series title, and he’s devoting the winter months to listening to hot stove league reports.

Given my long-standing aversion to the Yankees, I must say it has been a bit strange to hear my father defend the team’s outrageous payroll, wax poetic on the hitting prowess of Alex Rodriguez, and refer to the New York ballclub in first person plural.

My dad has taken to trying to convert his grandsons to the dark side, mailing them “NY” caps for their birthdays (my 3-year-old insists on wearing the wretched lid out in public). In turn, I’ve taken to having my 5-year-old practice his handwriting by printing “Welcome — Yankees Stink” signs, which I post on our front door.

While pondering how I became entangled in this loyalty dispute, those darn photos turned up. The first few shots in the series show the day’s starting pitcher warming up. Then comes one —  a real collector’s item, I suppose — of the Mick shagging balls in right field. He’s bending over for a grounder, revealing the number six stitched on his back. Serious baseball fans know he wore that number before making number seven immortal.

Finally, there is an image of my dad, Paul Kantz, standing with a friend in front of the rail that runs down the right field line. All of 9 years old, my old man is holding a scorecard and wearing a coat that my grandmother made by hand. A Yankees cap sits proudly on his head.

As soon as I saw that photo, I melted. I turned to my dad and said, “This is the reason I love baseball so much.” I had to admit it, those dreaded Yankees actually have given me something special: a dad who loves baseball and a dad who shares that love with me. And today, I’m passing that love on to my own children. The tradition continues.

For us, as for many fathers and sons, baseball is a tie that binds, connecting us through countless hours of watching games together and, during these chilly winter days, keeping the hot stove burning by chatting about things like off-season trades and transactions.

It’s funny, one old photograph revealed a powerful truth —  it’s not which team you root for that’s important, it’s simply that you bond with others through the game.