Baseball was king when I was a kid.
My first real memory of professional sports was the ’69 Miracle Mets. Mrs. Dinger, owner of an outstanding baseball name, led us out of class and into the multi-purpose room (sounds ominous now, but not then), where we sat on the floor and watched a black-and-white television atop a 12-foot metal stand.
In a major upset, the Mets beat the Baltimore Orioles and my love of baseball was born.
The 1970s were sensational. From the Robinson-led, pitching-rich Orioles to the colorful Swingin’ A’s from Oakland to the Big Red Machine in Cincinnati and the free-agent boom that bought George Steinbrenner’s Yankees back into championship contention, it was an incredible time to fall in love with our national pastime.
The birth of the Phillies’ first great era of baseball made it even better. In my teenage years, this was a baseball town, ruled by Schmidt and Carlton, Luzinski and Bowa, Maddox and McBride, Boone and McGraw. The regular-season magic and postseason misery of those days have been forever stitched into my seam-head brain.
Most — but not all — of the postseason pain was eased, of course, when the 1980 Phillies finally won the franchise’s first World Series title, prompting a parade that was flanked by a parting sea of red on either side of Broad Street and finally a full-house celebration inside JFK Stadium. This high school senior delivered a dental excuse to the vice principal to get out of school that day and celebrated with some beer and champagne in South Philadelphia before returning to school in time for afternoon football practice.
The three-point stance was a little unsteady, but, boy oh boy, was baseball king that day.
Four years later, baseball still felt like the king when Bob Kenney, my first sports editor at the Courier Post, asked me to cover a handful of games ahead of my senior year at Glassboro State College. Veteran lefty Jerry Koosman, 20 years older than me, pitched and won that day. He’s 78 now.
The handful of games I covered during that 1984 season sealed my career objective. I wanted to be a baseball writer and four years later, I officially became one. My first day on the job was a Labor Day doubleheader at Wrigley Field. It was 58 degrees and sunny as the first game started at noon, 40 and freezing by the seventh inning and the rookie in the open-air press box did not have a jacket. The newly purchased Cubs sweatshirt did not go over well in the visiting clubhouse even though it had been turned inside out.
By 1989, my first full year on the beat, baseball was losing its steam nationally and locally. The first great era of Phillies baseball was long gone and the NFL, like it or not, was the new king with a power that is still rising to this day.
I still loved baseball.
I loved the pregame meetings in the manager’s office.
In what other profession could you get stock advice from Jim Fregosi, a mathematician quote from Terry Francona about a ball that his left fielder failed to catch, an education in baseball from Larry Bowa (my boyhood idol), and classic stories about Ted Williams from Charlie Manuel?
I loved the interaction with the general managers.
Lee Thomas attended my wedding and once talked me out of covering the Eagles. Ed Wade was as good a man as I ever covered and Ruben Amaro Jr. forgave me for calling him a liar and remains a close and trusted friend.
I loved the interaction with so many players.
John Kruk and Larry Andersen always made me laugh. Scott Rolen and Doug Glanville always made me think. It was always worth the effort to jump through the hoops it took to talk to Jimmy Rollins, Roy Halladay, and Jayson Werth.
I loved the broadcasters.
My saddest day on the beat was the morning I awoke in a New York City hotel room to the news that Richie Ashburn had died. Harry Kalas offered a classic introduction — “Brookie, your bachelorhood is outta here! — of my wife and I at our wedding. Tommy McCarthy and I have shared a love of Division III baseball and New Jersey that most people just wouldn’t understand.
I loved the scouts.
Just last week I saw one of my all-time favorites, Billy Scherrer, from the Chicago White Sox. Billy pitched his last big-league game for the Phillies on July 28, 1988. Eleven days later, at the age of 25, I started covering the team.
Conversations with Billy are always lively and the latest one was no different. We agreed the game has changed and we agreed it has not changed for the better. He’s 63. I’m 58. Go figure — and get off our lawns while you’re doing it.
Both of us, however, still love baseball. We love that Shohei Ohtani has given us a glimpse of what it must have been like to watch Babe Ruth a century ago. We love that Jacob deGrom is hitting 235 points higher — .364 to .129 — than the batters who have faced him this season. We admire the fact that so many guys throw 95 mph today.
We appreciate games like the one played Sunday at Citizens Bank Park when the Phillies, behind a brilliant performance from Aaron Nola, beat the Atlanta Braves, 2-1, in the unheard of 21st-century time of 2 hours and 30 minutes.
For the record, it was my last game and it really was a terrific, well-played game.
Baseball, for all its problems, is still a great game. It’s just not the king any more and it could use some corrections.
That’s OK, because I still love it. For the last decade or so, I’ve fallen in love with baseball for another reason.
I’ve watched my nephews — Michael, Luke, and Dan — shine first at the high school level and then at the college level. Michael, the oldest, was an all-state star from North Jersey and a team captain at Rutgers. I was there the day he collected his 200th career hit against Michigan. There’s nothing better than witnessing someone you love do something so well.
Luke was an All-South Jersey pitcher who had a 1.31 ERA this season at St. Joseph’s and cracked the Hawks’ starting rotation late in the season. I can’t wait to watch next season.
And Dan, well, he saw something a few years ago that no one should ever have to see. He lost his mother to our country’s depression epidemic on an awful early March day in 2018. Hours earlier, she had talked about Dan and baseball in her final conversation with my wife Fran. My sister-in-law loved baseball.
The family wondered how such a tragedy would impact Dan’s collegiate career that was just getting started at William Paterson. We all wanted to make sure we supported him every step of the way.
Dan, as it turned out, ended up being our support, enduring his own pain and some serious injuries to become one of the best players in his conference.
Baseball was his therapy. Baseball was our therapy.
I love baseball.