From Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan's Soul

A Magical Moment

My fatherhood made me understand my parents and honor them more for the love they gave.

Kent Nerburn

I sit gazing idly from the front porch, as the brilliant January sun streaks against the soft virgin snow on the Connecticut hillside. Yet somehow, even now, while nature rests, my thoughts turn to baseball. I’m brought back to a time when heroes loomed, tall and strong, in a child’s eyes.

In June 1964, my father brought me to Shea Stadium for the first time to see my beloved Mets. Living in Brooklyn, it wasn’t easy being a Mets fan in those days, with the twilight of the Mantle–Maris Yankees still lingering. My father had been a Giants fan, but gave up on them when they left. When the Mets were created, he naturally took them up, and I, a blooming sports fan, followed. It was a bond we would share forever.

Shea was brand-new then, as was the World’s Fair across the highway. It was a time of “All the Way with LBJ.” Few Americans of the time could place Vietnam on a map. The Mets may have been perennial losers, but they were fun, and more importantly, they were mine.

I had never seen a color television, and was therefore shocked, walking through the tunnel, as the vibrant expanse of incredibly green grass exploded in front of me. In those days, they allowed you to watch batting practice. And in that era, before card shows and cynicism set in, players actually signed autographs for kids.

Everyone would gather behind the first-base dugout. The players would take their swings, warm up, stretch and prepare for yet another game as they always have. But this wasn’t just another game. I was at this one. My father yelled out something about the receding hairline of Wes Westrum, a Mets coach and future manager and an old Giant, and I was amazed when Westrum laughingly acknowledged by tipping his cap and showing off his bald pate, as if he and my dad were old friends.

Players from both the Mets and Cubs were signing autographs. In another five years, these same two teams would stage one of the classic pennant races. But that year they were both the doormats of the league. These were the Cubs of Ernie Banks and Billy Williams, Ron Santo, and a young center fielder named Lou Brock, who in a few days hence would be traded to the Cardinals and immortality.

But we were unprepared. We had no paper, and only a small dull pencil. My father had a plain white matchbook cover with room for only four names. I got Joe Christopher, a hard-hitting outfielder and fan favorite; Tracy Stallard, a journeyman pitcher who had given up Roger Maris’s sixty-first homer; and a young Ed Kranepool, who though only ten years older than me at the time already seemed like he had been around forever. I had room for only one more, and I knew who I wanted.

That era’s Mets were a collection of has-beens and never-weres. But there was one star, and his name was Ron Hunt. Hunt was a tough throwback to another era, the kind of player who would do anything to win, and do it well. He would bunt with two strikes and beat it out; he would knock down anyone who tried to prevent him from scoring; he would hit the other way; he would hit for average; and he played impeccable defense. That summer he would start at second base for the National League, beating out players named Mazeroski and Rose, in a vote of his peers. Every white T-shirt I owned was emblazoned with Hunt’s name and number in magic marker, to my mother’s chagrin.

But everyone knew that Hunt never signed autographs, too focused on preparing for the game. But I was determined to try. We kept calling out his name, to no avail. “Can’t now, later,” he seemed to say with a nod of his head.

But right over here, signing for everyone, was the great Ron Santo, arguably the best third baseman of his era. “Why not get Santo’s?” my father asked. “Aw, Dad, he’s a Cub, he stinks,” was my nine-year-old’s chauvinistic reply, which my father thought was hysterical.

But now, game time was approaching and security was chasing everyone back to their seats—time was running out. Hunt came out of the dugout and was having a pregame catch with another infielder. My father called out one last time, “C’mon, Ron, it’s for the kid,” and suddenly, remembering us from earlier, here came No. 33 himself, trotting over to me! He signed in the remaining spot, smiled and trotted away, ignoring the pleas of everyone else who came running over.

My mouth stayed open, frozen, my eyes gaping with wonderment. I looked up at my father, and we both just beamed. All the other kids stared with envy. I practically floated to my seat.

Two heroes came through, that long-ago late spring evening. Hunt signed for me and me alone, but far more importantly, it was my father who had gotten it for me. That bond, between my father, myself and baseball, could never be broken.

Now, Dad is long gone and Hunt long retired, his once-promising career curtailed by a series of debilitating injuries, and now remembered mostly for getting hit by more pitches than anybody. Somewhere along the line, through countless moves, those prized signatures faded and disappeared. But from my perspective nearly forty years later, the sunlight still shines on that magical instant.

I’ve often thought of this story, of how much it meant to me. But until I became a father myself, I never understood just how important it was to my own father, how great he must have felt, how for him, too, it was magical. Baseball truly crosses and melds the generations.

I lean back. The cold winter air feels windlessly fresh against my face. A squirrel jumps across barren branches. In the distance, my eight-year-old daughter fashions a snowball to throw. I smile, content.

Stephen Yudelson

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