For the Philadelphia Sports Fan, Championship Games are Generational

When I was a kid my dad use to carry me through the silver turnstiles that guarded the concrete spaceship known as Veterans Stadium so we could watch bad baseball, together.

In the mid 1980’s the Phillies were a bad baseball team.

So bad that if you went to the supermarket and bought an 8 pack of Phillies Franks you’d have a plastic ticket soaked in hot dog juice for an upcoming home game waiting for you.

But to avoid buying another ticket (or another pack of hot dogs), dad and I shared a ticket. Which meant he would hand the usher one ticket, smile and carry me into the game.

When we got to our seat, even though there were always plenty of empty seats in the Vet, I sat on dad’s lap cracking peanuts, arguing balls and strikes with the umpire and cheering on Juan Samuel.

Veterans Stadium (The Vet), Philadelphia

Since those hapless baseball games, that marked so many hapless seasons, I have always thought of watching sports as a father-son bonding event. Like fishing or shaving. But with sports you could high-five, laugh and show emotion in a very nonthreatening, masculine way.

For Philadelphia sports fans, a championship game is a generational event.

This Sunday the Philadelphia Eagles are playing in the Superbowl LII.

Their first Superbowl since 2004. Before that, 1980. They have never won the big game.

Since the Eagles advanced to the Superbowl two weeks ago, dad and I have crafted armchair game plans for the Birds. If they run the ball, they will win. If they attack Tom Brady and his 40 year old legs, if they force him to move, they will win.

By mid-Superbowl week my Superbowl excitement reached a-kid-on-Christmas Eve level.

At 6:30 am I awoke my children with a Superbowl countdown. A flick of the bedroom light switch followed by a slow-clap and a thunderous reminder, “TIME TO GET UP!!! 3 MORE DAYS UNTIL THE  SUPERBOWL BABY!!!”

I think about the game while brushing my teeth. I think about the game while driving home to and from work. I think about the game while my wife is talking to me.

There’s a constant swirling in my gut, electricity zipping up my bones as if my Bingo numbers were just called and I’m bouncing up the aisle about to claim my prize wondering, “Are grown men suppose to get this excited?”

I made a Superbowl playlist on Spotify stacked with AC/DC, Rage Against the Machine and the obligatory songs from the “Rocky” soundtrack.

I’ve already picked out my seat on the couch for Sunday.

Scoff at my zest, but championship games are rare for Philadelphia teams.

Since the Eagles last played in the Superbowl in 2004, I have grown up a bit. I got married, bought a house and fathered three children–a daughter and two sons.

(My boys have bought into the Superbowl mania, my daughter would rather watch Fuller House on Netflix.)

And so if growing up is simply a matter of perspective, I realize, in the rush of life, how important these father-son experiences are.

I’ve learned that watching the big game with your dad and sons is a small moment that extends well beyond final whistle. It’s a seminal chapter in the father-son novel.

My dad turned down Superbowl party invitations from his friends. He told me he had to watch the game with his sons and his grandchildren.

He told me that there’s just something special about having your grandson on your lap, cheering on your team together. He then reminded me the big game doesn’t come to Philadelphia often.

Like all Eagle fans I crave, I pine, I yearn for a Superbowl win. A win that would knit wounds knifed by years of sports futility.

So on Sunday you will find me on the couch with my dad and my sons rooting for Eagles, together.

And even though the mighty Vet is now just parking lot the lessons learned during those hapless Phillies games remain, as I sat with my dad, rooting for our team, and in subtle ways, rooting for each other.

Go Birds!

Be well,

Jay

Crossing the Line: The Birth of a Delusional Parent

It’s July and I’m standing along a sun-splashed sideline watching my son embroiled in a heated little league baseball game, sweating.

Chase’s team mans the field. There’s a runner on first base.

Two outs.

They are losing 6-4.

Chase is playing second base. He’s got a pair of black socks pulled above his calves, his gray baseball pants are loose in the thighs and tighten just below the knee caps. He’s wearing eye black and with his hat pulled low he looks like he just stepped out of the baseball cards I collected when I was a kid.

A baseball field has two foul lines.

A white chalk line that begins at the batter’s box, runs straight through the first and third base bags and dead ends deep in the outfield fence.

The line is to help umpires and players know if the ball is fair or foul.

The line is also to keep parents out.

 

Parents like me, spongy and creaky kneed, patrol sidelines.

We watch our children and urge and instruct and curse and twist and tense and believe our body language has magical powers to spell the plays unfolding on the field before us.

As a teacher and former coach, I’ve witnessed parents living vicariously though their children. Stepping sideways out of their own lives and into the lives of their children. Driving their children like shiny new cars to run down their lost dreams.

But there’s danger in such joy rides.

I’ve seen children limp through adolescence hating those things once loved because parents crossed a line, because parents got too close, because parents exploited their child’s ability hoping to recover dusty trophies from the past.

It’s something I swore I’d never do.

There’s an aluminum pop.

It’s a quick bouncer up the middle.

Chase springs to his right, dives, extends left arm and the baseball disappears and the heat rises as if Medford, New Jersey tilted closer to the sun and the right field chalk line dissolves and I’m playing second base and there’s a quick bouncer up the middle and I react, faster then I’ve reacted in years because my body feels fast and strong like a new Corvette and I dive and extend my left arm and the baseball disappears in my glove, its weight cradled in my palm and I land on my stomach and the dirt funnels up my nose and I reach in the glove and with a back-hand toss watch the ball arch into the July sky and land safely in the shortstop’s glove who is standing firmly on second base.

The crowd explodes.

Three outs.

I spring to my feet, dirty and smiling.  I just defied gravity.  I just made eyes pop. I just made mouths say wow. I just did what big leaguers on baseball cards do for a living.

The shortstop slaps his glove across my back as if to say, “Atta boy!”

The coach barrels out of the dugout, crosses the foul line clapping and cheering and announces, “That’s a big league play, son!”

And it was. It was awesome.

And I didn’t do any of it.

My son did. It was all Chase.

I just poured his Frosted Flakes, tied his cleats and drove him Medford, New Jersey.

In the sudden swell of excitement, a line had been crossed.

A line I swore I’d never cross.

Between innings as parents reapplied suntan lotion, as the opposing team littered the field and Chase’s team traded gloves for bats and it unnerved me to learn how quickly self-awareness strikes out.  How in the snap of one play I let my mind cross into his body. How quickly delusional parents are born.

Like wading through soup I pushed to nearby shade, wiped my forehead, exhaled and acknowledged that I was hot and a little bothered.

Be well,

Jay

 

An excerpt from “The Wink”

Below is an excerpt from a story I wrote three years ago called “The Wink”. The story, set in 1994, recounts a championship baseball game I played in and serves as a tribute to my father. He turns 63 this week. 


…At the height of the evening’s drama, dad looked down the first base line and into my soul. The sun sank behind the tree line. Crickets hummed. Fingers crossed. All those eyes locked on me– the players, the crowd, the entire cast of 90210. A swirl of voices screaming at me “C’mon Jay” and “You ain’t nothing”.

I felt myself collapsing under the weight of my own adolescences. Failing at 14, on this stage, would be cataclysmic and undoubtedly afford my parents years of monthly psychiatrist co-pays.

Dad knelt and ran his hand across the points of grass. Then, as subtle as the advent of the moon and as natural as the setting sun he winked at me.

I climbed back into the batter’s box, choked up on the bat and shortened my stance. Just like dad had taught.

The pitcher reared back.

The ball tinkled off the bat and rolled toward the dead space between the pitcher’s mound and first base.

I dropped the bat and tore down the first base line. The first baseman retreated to the base. The pitcher leaped off the mound.

Dad was still kneeling. The sun at his back. Helplessly watching his son struggle in a world full of giants.

“Safe!”

The evening sky erupted in a collective burst of cheers and moans.

Dad moved in behind me and put his hand on the small of my back and calmly said, “Check your signs.”

I looked across the infield. The Pirate (our 3rd base coach) ran his right hand down his left sleeve.

Steal.

On the next pitch I took off for second.

“Safe!”

On the next pitch the best hitter on our team, Brian, a 7th grader who had hit puberty long before I did, ripped the next pitch out to right-center.

I sprinted toward third. The Pirate hopping up and down waving me home.

~~

Things were quiet in the car.

Every so often dad and I would look at each other and smile. Still speaking in signals.

As we rounded the corner and headed home I asked,

“Dad, why did you wink at me?”

I felt the weight of the championship trophy in my hands. The sky shifted into deep purple. Single suburban houses with yellow porch lights flicked by.

Dad looked across the car and said, “Because I believe in you.”

We slid into the driveway. Safe from the scrutiny of the world. Dad and I sat sharing the silence. Smiling at life.

Dad cut the engine. I looked up at him. His eyes moved toward mine.

“Thanks Dad.”

And then somehow it becomes 2014.

There were many nights when I convinced myself Write on Fight on would never happen. When I would fall into myself and teeter on the edge of failure.

When I thought it would not be worth the work. When my kids pined for attention or when I couldn’t muster the energy to find a single word that satisfied me. When the blank Word document was as menacing as a strapping pitcher with facial hair and a propensity for destroying twerps like me.

Sometimes I failed. Sometimes I didn’t swing.

Then sometimes I see a baby-faced 14 year old boy in baggy blue baseball pants standing in the on-deck circle. His head rattling in an oversized helmet. Scared out of his skull. Scared of everything. And I see my father- a young man, strong and proud. He genuflects in the sweet green grass with the sun behind him and he winks at me and admires me the way fathers secretly admire their sons.

Then the pitch comes.

And I’m scared.

But I swing.

Every time.