With two flights today, I finally had the chance to capture what I’ve been feeling since watching SuperBowl XLVI this past weekend.
On October 14, 1976 I was sitting on our blue leather couch (hey, it was the 70’s) with my father watching the New York Yankees play the Kanas City Royals in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series (in those days the League Championship Series was five games, not seven as it is today). It was the Yankees first playoff appearance in my lifetime. Given that both my father and I were born in the Bronx, home of Yankee Stadium, you can appreciate why this was a big deal. It was 10 days before my 11th birthday.
My father instilled a love of sports in me at a very young age. He grew up a few blocks from The Stadium in the same apartment building as some of the players (hard to imagine, isn’t it? Truth is in those days, most players had to hold second jobs in the off-season to make ends meet). Many of my earliest childhood memories revolve around the old New York sports teams that my dad taught me to love: the Yankees (baseball), Giants (football), Rangers (Hockey) & Knicks (basketball). The Mets, Jets Islanders and Nets were the newer NY teams and largely followed by those in Queens and Long Island, we were from the BRONX). Truth is, it wasn’t until I was in my 40’s that I finally gave up on my dream of pitching for the Yankees (sad, I know but I’m not entirely joking here).
My earliest vague sports memory revolves around Joe Namath leading the New York Jets of the fledgling AFL to a victory over the mighty Baltimore Colts in Superbowl III in 1969 (EVERYONE in New York loved Joe Namath, he transcended borough allegiances) and the Miracle Mets winning the World Series that same year. I also remember Willis Reed leading the Knicks to the NBA title in ’70 and again in ’73 and while they didn’t win the Stanley Cup until 1994, the Rangers always had competitive teams.
Growing up in New York, My father took me to many games when I was a kid. I’ll never forget going to the old cavernous Yankee Stadium (not the one they tore down two years ago, but the one they built in 1923 that Babe Ruth played in and tore down in 1974 that held over 70,000 people, it was enormous!) The ushers in their bright red sport coasts, white shirts & ties and matching red hats would escort you to your seat and wipe it down. I remember my dad would slip the usher $5 to take us to seats closer to the field. I’d sit and eat peanuts out of the shell and listen to my dad (born in 1932) regale me with stories of Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra and the magical Yankees of his youth who won 16 World Series in the 26 year span from 1936-1962 (arguably the greatest dynasty in American sports history).
Unfortunately, the Yankees were just awful when I was a small kid. CBS owned them (imagine that today) and they never made the playoffs until 1976, three years after George Steinbrenner bought the team. Nevertheless, they were our team and I loved them dearly. I vividly remember all those players from the early 70’s. Outfielder Oscar Gamble and his 3 foot afro sticking out of his hat, First baseman Ron Bloomberg who became the first designated hitter in baseball history, Fred “Chicken” Stanley at shortstop who probably weighed 150 lbs. soaking wet and my first hero, Bobby Murcer with his long hair and good looks, patrolling the acres of centerfield (an area so big that it was known as “Death Valley.” I cried when Bobby was traded to the Giants in 1975 for Bobby Bonds (Barry Bonds father). I’m still mad at the Yankees for making that trade!
Back then, the Giants also played in Yankee Stadium with one end zone near the first base dugout and the other by the leftfield fence. I remember my first Giants game at Yankee Stadium with my dad and seeing Fran Tarkenton (Hall of Fame Minnesota Vikings quarterback) play for the Giants early in his career! Madison Square Garden, “The World’s Most Famous Arena” was a frequent Sunday afternoon treat for me. Sometimes it was the Knicks with Bill Bradley, Dave Debusherre, Willis Reed, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe and Walt “Clyde” Frazier. Other times it was the Rangers, flying around the ice without helmets and Eddie Giacomin in goal with his white mask.
I could go on for hours about those memories but I digress. Getting back to that night in October ’76, heading into the 8th inning, they Yankees had a comfortable 6-3 lead and we felt good that our Yanks were headed to the World Series (I remember telling my dad this, much to his chagrin – my first lesson in a lifetime of learning what Yogi Berra meant when he said “It ain’t over ’till it’s over”). Before the 8th inning was over, George Brett, (the Royals Hall of Fame third baseman who would continue to haunt the Yankees in his career – see the infamous Pine Tar Incident) hit a three-run homer to right field to tie the game 6-6. It was a school night and hours past my bedtime but dad would have none of my mother’s pleas that it was time for me to go to bed.
I remember what ensued as if it happened last night. In the bottom of the ninth inning with the score still tied 6-6, Chris Chambliss (the Yanks quiet slugging first baseman) came to the plate and on the very first pitch, he lifted a deep fly ball (you’ve got to watch this!) towards right field that cleared the wall to end the game and propel the Yankees to the World Series for the first time in my life. Bedlam ensured. By the time Chambliss reached 2nd base, hundreds of fans were on the field and Chambliss ran from second base to home like a running back in the NFL, knocking down fans so he could safely make it back to the dugout. I still remember hootin’ and hollering and jumping around our living room with my dad and to this day, it remains the most special moment in my life as a New York sports fan (as a sports purist, nothing will ever top the US Hockey team beating the Russians at the 1980 Olympics).
In the years since that night, I’ve been lucky enough to have a few lifetimes of thrilling moments following my NY teams. In 1978, I watched Bucky Dent drive a stake through the heart of Red Sox nation (on that same blue leather couch with my dad!) and in 2003 I was in the stands at Yankee Stadium with my buddy Andrew the night Aaron Boone did it again. I’ve been to dozens of Yankee Playoff and World Series games and cried real tears the night Mark Messier and our Rangers broke the 54-year year curse and floated around Madison Square Garden with the Stanley Cup. I also got to enjoy a decade of watching Lawrence Taylor (hands down the greatest defensive player I’ve ever seen in my life) and celebrated with my dad the two Super Bowl victories he led the Giants to.
Though my mental sports scrapbook is bursting with fond memories, Chris Chambliss’ home run on the eve of my 11th year stands out as the most memorable. That is, until this weekend.
Why? Because I got to share the Giants victory with Cam, my 11 year-old son (c’mon, a little spooky, no?). It wasn’t the first time we had celebrated a championship together. When he was seven, we saw our Giants win Superbowl XLII against those same New England Patriots and when he was nine, we watched our Yankees win the World Series. We’ve also seen our hometown Boise State Broncos win two spectacular Fiesta Bowls.
Sunday night felt different though. It was the first time that I saw Cam really take ownership in being a fan. While I remember him certainly enjoying those other championships, he was young and easily distracted and the mold hadn’t hardened. However, Cam was focused this time around.
Okay, I’ve got to admit that ever since I stood in the delivery room when he was born and realized I that had a son, he was destined to be a New York sports fan. Given that Pam and I were living in Boston, I knew this would clearly be a herculean task. What would I do if he wound up a RED SOX FAN? Thankfully, life took us to Idaho where I had a clean canvas and the four walls of his room to mold him into the NY fan that he is today.
I also set out to make sure he could see our New York teams in person once in a while. We made a pilgrimage to Yankee Stadium with my dad a few years ago. On a family vacation for Christmas in Times Square, we snuck in a Ranger game (Cam’s a hockey player, that was awesome!). We took a boys weekend in Arizona a couple of years ago to see the Giants play the Cardinals and this past summer, I took Cam with me on a business trip to New York where we saw two Yankee games in my buddy Andrew’s suite.
We were particularly lucky this year as two close friends helped me indoctrinate Cam further into the Giant fan he’s becoming. In November my pal David Grove invited us out to San Francisco to see the Giants play the 49ers at Candlestick Park and just a few weeks ago, my good friend George Roberts blew me away by inviting Cam and I to the “frozen tundra” of Lambeau Field where we saw the Giants upset the Packers in the playoffs (hands down the nicest fans in professional sports in America). We proudly wore our Giants jerseys and hats and we talked about how to root for your team respectfully at away games.
On Sunday night, we watched the game at our friend’s Super Bowl Party. Despite other kids there and lots of food and distractions, Cam sat by my side (and on my back, and in my lap) on the floor right in front of the TV for the whole game. At one point he whispered in my ear that he had butterflies in his stomach (a sure sign that the hook has been set). We went slightly bonkers together when Mario Manningham somehow managed to come down with Eli’s bomb down the left sideline – aka “The Catch II”. Sometime during this season, we developed our own version of the rally cap. Every time the Giants need a big play, we would rub the Giants logo on our hats. During the last drive of the game, we rubbed our logos together before every snap.
When Tom Brady’s hail mary pass fell harmlessly to the ground in the endzone (I admit I thought Gronk was going to grab it), Cam threw his arms around my neck and we celebrated our Giants victory in Superbowl XLVI together (sidenote, I always remember which Roman numeral Superbowl we’re on, As I’m 46, the same age as the event)
When I was in my 20’s and thought I had all the answers, the one thing my dad and I could always agree on was sports and our shared passion for our NY teams. He’d answer the phone and ask me if I saw the game last night or that tremendous play that so-and-so made or he’d ask me what I thought about the latest trade rumor surrounding one of our teams. Dad’s approaching 80 now and when we’re together or talk, we still we reminisce about Chambliss’ homer, or opening day in 1978 when it rained Reggie bars on us in Yankee Stadium, or any other of the hundreds of special moments we’ve shared rooting on our teams. Pam and I and the kids are heading to Boston this summer for my younger sister Ronni’s wedding (They’re both BOSTON sports fans, ugh…) and I’m looking forward to the great conversations that will inevitably ensue between my dad, Cam and I about Mario’s catch and the Giants season. I can only hope when Cam’s older and has a son of his own, that I’ll be doing the same with them…
So as I sit on this plane somewhere over the Utah desert (why is it you get more emotional on a plane than anywhere else?) I’m reflecting on the continuum that sports provides sons and dads and grandpas. I feel the past with my dad and I look forward to the future with my son. I’m thankful to my father for the gift he gave me and it’s special to be able to pass it on to my son…