On a recent warm Sunday, Julie and I were beginning to emerge from what I call our Food Poisoning Apocalypse. Something – probably tainted crab cakes – had knocked us out of the human race for three miserable days. We were visiting friends in Frederick, Maryland, a historic, fetching Civil War town of about 80,000 people. I was still feeling a little weak and rather butchered, but it was time to work our legs and get outdoors, so we happily walked from our rented rowhouse to Nymeo Field at Harry Grove Stadium for a day of sun and baseball. I had no idea that it would turn out to be a surprisingly fortuitous venture.
Nymeo Field is home to the Frederick Keys (named after Frederick native Francis Scott Key), an unaffiliated collegiate summer ballclub that serves as a showcase for prospects. (The Keys had been a minor league affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles until Major League Baseball began slashing farm clubs in 2020.)
Starting this year, however, the field also hosts a still-unnamed Frederick team that plays in the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, a high-quality league partnered with MLB that operates in cities without minor league franchises of their own. For reasons as mysterious as a knuckleball, the team’s moniker will not be announced until June 23. The final contenders are: Bone Shakers, Ghost Hounds, Rail Frogs, Sawbones, and Screaming Alpacas. Most of those names scare the bejeezus out of me – can you imagine screaming alpacas dominating your nightmares? – so I’m rooting for the least petrifying (and train-related!) “Rail Frogs.”
In the meantime, the players are wearing uniforms adorned with big colorful question marks. That’s low-level baseball for you.
There are no billionaire owners and superstars in these leagues. The players are underpaid and living on buses and in cheap hotels, but they’re doing it for the love of the game and for their dream of breaking into the majors. Only 10 percent of minor leaguers will make it to “the show,” and far fewer on independent teams will get there. But they press on until, for most of them, age and reality bring disheartening news.
There was plenty of extra room in the parking lot at Nymeo Field. Inside, an enthusiastically hokey announcer was making corny jokes about foul balls running “afoul” of something. On the outfield wall, billboards advertised a local ankle and foot doctor, Pepsi-Cola, and some kind of insurance. The scoreboard accuracy was, at times, questionable. In between innings, the young staffers worked hard. They raked the uneven infield dirt. They danced atop the dugouts to gin up the crowd. At one point they slingshotted free mattress pads, for some reason, into the stands.
For the spectators, seeing a game at this level means spending a few hours with your family, under a clear sky, rooting fervently for your town. All of the cliché sounds of baseball – the crack of the bat, the thwack of leather – are louder and more resonant in these stadiums. The action is personal and immediate. And it’s so affordable. The day we were there, we got to see a surprise doubleheader because the previous day’s game had been a rainout. That’s two games for the ridiculously low price of $15 – in the “expensive” seats. For a few dollars more, we could get a hot dog, a slice of pizza, or a funnel cake. And, of course, cold beer at a reeeeeeeeasonable price. I avoided the fatty foods but thought a beer would be okay. One of the local breweries – Flying Dog – had a stand at the ballpark, and the woman behind the taps offered us tastes as we chatted. It all throws back to an America before greed took over.
The crowd was thin. I’d say there were only about 17 people in the stands, but Julie claims that I have a tendency to exaggerate. So it’s more likely that there were 100 people there – in a stadium that holds 5,400. It was Mother’s Day, so maybe that kept the attendance small.
Yet somehow the loudest man on the planet ended up sitting behind us. I’ll call him Boomer. He was a large man, and his resounding cheers and wisecracks ricocheted around the nearly-empty stadium. He also jangled a piercing cowbell that rattled our ears. But he was polite. In fact, he asked us if the cowbell bothered us, and when someone is that solicitous I’ll inevitably respond that I’m not troubled in the least. At one point he offered us a piece of his pretzel, which was bigger than his head. We demurred.
The cowbell and the yelling continued throughout the game and somehow became a welcome part of the atmosphere. Boomer seemed to know his team well.
Meanwhile, as the game moved on, we took casual note of a relaxed-looking man at the end of our row who was congenially talking baseball with another fan. Julie began to suspect that the guy in our row had been an actual ballplayer. Possibly even a major leaguer.
I was skeptical. Why would a big-league player be watching an independent-league game at a ballpark in Frederick with a mere smattering of spectators?
But she insisted. She wondered if he could be Shawon Dunston, a shortstop who’d played for the San Francisco Giants and a handful of other teams in his career.
Okay, hold on now. Shawon Dunston is one of my all-time favorite Giants.
He’d been an All-Star – twice. He’d won the Giants’ Willie Mac award in 1996 for being the most inspirational on the team, with his big heart and smile. He played for 18 seasons, amassed almost 1,600 hits, and earned three World Series rings as a coach.
But much more importantly, his picture – which I cut out of the San Francisco Chronicle in August of 1998 and is now discolored with age – has been taped to the wall next to my desk for 25 years.
The reason this particular photo captured my heart is that, at the time, Shawon’s 5-year-old son Shawon Jr. – a Giants batboy – had been repeatedly asking after games, “Daddy, why don’t you hit home runs?” His father had always patiently replied that his career was winding down and he just wasn’t that kind of hitter. “Okay, Daddy, but why don’t you hit home runs?” Then on August 27, 1998, Shawon Dunston came into a game as a pinch hitter and swatted a three-run homer. His son, overcome with love and pride, couldn’t contain himself and ran out to the field to hug his father. That’s the photo on my wall.
Back at Nymeo Field, I was now starting to feel the thrill of possibility that Shawon Dunston could be sitting a few feet from me.
It’s rare that I’ve been really close to a professional ballplayer. My cousin Dennis Corti played at the AAA level for the New York Yankees back in the early sixties; he hit .294 with 12 homers in his last year (1964), but he was an outfielder and there was no way he was going to go very far with Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris on the big-league roster. In 1966, our parents took us to Pacific Grove for a short vacation and at the hotel we ended up meeting Don Mossi, a Bay Area lefty who’d pitched for a number of MLB teams and had recently retired. Giants third baseman Matt Williams signed a ball for me in 1999 when I was volunteering to collect signatures for the soon-to-be new ballpark. And I got a photo with former Giants coach Bruce Bochy a few years ago when I met him at a charity event. But no words were spoken between us and he was not very friendly, to be honest.
Julie spent the last 15 minutes of the Frederick team’s exciting nailbiter of a game taking surreptitious photos of the mystery man at the end of our row – enlarging them, studying them, even analyzing his ring. She became convinced that it was Shawon. I wasn’t as sure, but I developed an ingenious and foolproof plan to ferret out his identity.
I would use my feminine wiles with Boomer and enlist his help without his ever realizing it.
It was clear that no one in our group would have the nerve to approach the stranger in our row and ask him who he was. But Boomer was obviously not shy. This big dude would help us – I just knew it.
When the game ended and Boomer was getting up to leave, I had to act immediately.
“Do you see that man sitting at the end of our row?” I asked him. “Do you think it could be Shawon Dunston?”
He looked over that way, interested.
“Do you mean the guy who played for the Cubs?”
“Yes,” I said (inwardly perturbed), “but more importantly, for the San Francisco Giants.”
“Well, I’ll go ask him.”
Boomer strolled over to the mystery man and I could hear him saying, “Those ladies over there were wondering if it was you.”
Holy cats, it was Shawon Dunston!
“It’s him, ladies!” Boomer bellowed over his shoulder as he left.
Wow. The guy who’s been on my wall for a quarter of a century was now sitting near me in a virtually empty stadium in Frederick, Maryland.
I had to act. Throwing restraint to the afternoon breeze, Julie and I walked over, and I told him that we were from San Francisco and that he was one of my most-loved Giants and I wanted to thank him for everything.
This man, as I might have expected, was so gracious and kind. He explained to us that his son – the little 5-year-old in my photo – was playing outfield for the opposing team, the Lancaster Barnstormers, but he’d hurt his hamstring in the first inning of the first game (which we had missed). He joked that he didn’t like his son’s long hair but that it had come “from his mother’s side.” I asked whether he was still advising the Giants, as he’d been a couple of years ago, but he said that he’d left in 2020 and was “a nobody” now. We told him that he most certainly was not a nobody.
I’m typically not a celebrity groupie or a “fangirl” type, but for the first time in my life I asked a stranger for a picture. He seemed thrilled to oblige.
By the way, I would like to add that the man is in incredible shape. I felt like I was putting my arm around a stone monument.
As we were walking out of the stadium afterwards, Boomer zipped out of the parking lot in his truck and honked. We waved wildly and yelled our thanks.
These days I often have to remind myself that serendipitous moments are possible even on the most ordinary of days. So although I may not be feeling 100 percent, or I may be wanting to just slouch lazily on the couch eating Funyuns, it’s better to simply get up and leave the house.
There’s always a chance for happenstance.
Quick note: my piece in The San Franciscan is finally online!
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
December 28, 1974 [age 19]:
“I picked up Jeanne [my friend who was visiting from the East Coast] at 12:30 at the airport in San Francisco and we left for our L.A. and Mexico vacation today. [We were in my old, tiny 1971 Toyota Corolla.] The trip was routine, save for a little rain, until we got to the Ridge Route [the 8,000-foot highway grade going from Kern County down into the L.A. basin]. Then it began to snow, and we had the brilliant idea of turning off to play in the snow. The exit, however, turned into a snowy mess, and we barely could move. Rather than get back on the Highway 5 on-ramp, Jeanne, who was driving, took the wrong road and we drove along parallel to the freeway but 100 yards away for half a mile, sliding in the snow. When we finally realized what was happening, we were isolated, alone, afraid, and unable to turn around. So we had to BACK down the road the half a mile, stalling every now and then. It was a nightmare. Back on the freeway we crawled along, and we learned that the CHP had closed the road down right after we’d gone through. But finally, driving in through flooded streets, we made it to Grammy’s house at 9:30. I’ll just never forget praying and shaking with fear on the Grapevine while we passed all those broken-down car corpses covered with snow.”
December 29, 1974 [age 19]:
“Yesterday we headed towards Mexico, settling down for two nights in the Motel 6 right on the border. Today we spent time first in Encinada [sic], walking around and buying liquor, then drove back up north, stopping for a walk on a beach. We parked in Tijuana so we could go into a bar (my first!) and drink margaritas. I had two (the second one was free, on the bartender) and then we drove off towards the border back into CA. Luckily we just looked innocent enough, I guess, to get past the customs inspectors, because the car in front of us had to pull over and open their trunk but we just had to answer a couple of questions. Thank goodness, because we were smuggling in 5 bottles of tequila and mezcal in the trunk.”
December 31, 1974 [age 19]:
“Of all of 1974 today had to be the most exhausting day. All morning and afternoon long we walked the entire length of the San Diego Zoo. Then at 5:00 [my friend Jeanne and] I drove to Anaheim, and the wind was blowing so violently that the Toyota swerved all over the road. We got to Disneyland and sat out in the parking lot drinking the mezcal from Mexico [it had a worm in it and tasted terrible!] until we ran into the Disneyland gates at 8:30 p.m. and had a great drunken time inside all night long going on the Matterhorn and the Haunted House and I loved the Pirates of the Caribbean that looked all purple and flowing through my hazy eyes.”
January 3, 1974 [age 19] [Ed.’s note: get out the violins again]:
“O you new year with your frightening implications. Why this black fear of life? [My friend] Jeanne and I are traveling on different roads. She likes meditation and I am skeptical, so she accuses me of not wanting to try new things. The past is falling away. Oh, it is terrible. I am alone. I want to be a writer and it’s such a useless dream. I have no direction. My personality twists within but never reaches the surface. How could I have been so naïve as to think that my friendship with Jeanne would never end? She is in love with Steve and ready to begin her happy new life with him in South Carolina. It’s really agonizing for me, and I’ve been bitter and cold. I should understand that she simply cannot continue dragging her life in the California mud. She has to settle down with her man. I’ve got to say goodbye for her sake. Her happiness is much more important than my sense of loss. So I’m here shedding tears for something lost and gone.”
January 4, 1974 [age 19]:
“[My friend] Jeanne and I drove home up the coast today, a gorgeous drive along 101 in our t-shirts, while we listened to The Band on my cassettes. It was warm and clear and we stopped to drive on Pismo Beach. I got to telling her about our Stations of the Cross ritual at St. Victor’s with all the incense that would make me so nauseated and I made it so funny that she laughed uproariously. After that we talked a fair amount, much more so than we had all week, about her love life with Steve and then about mine. Of course, I don’t have one. I tried to hint that my enigmatic relationship with Ted is more than platonic but of course it isn’t.”
January 5, 1975 [age 19]:
“The open road stretches before me now. I dropped [my friend] Jeanne off at the airport and she said that she would write and not break all of her California ties. I drove home alone not in utter sadness but in a dreamlike trance, watching the highway, knowing that this was the real culmination of my dependent existence, and that from now on a new life must begin: I must start making plans for the future, go back to school, leave home eventually, meet new people, tear myself away from the old. My new age has not dawned yet, but a red glow appears on the horizon. It won’t be long.”
January 11, 1975 [age 19]:
“I think I committed a felony today, which is pretty dumb since I’m majoring in law enforcement. Jeanne wanted me to buy her a lid of dope and mail it to her back East. I really didn’t want to do this at all; buying and carting dope around is a dirty and risky business. So I prayed that I would make it through safely. I called G– and he told me I could buy a lid from him for $15. I drove out to his house, gulping and shaking all the way, and bought the contraband. It was a small rectangle of stuff wrapped in thin Saran Wrap, about 5” by 2” or so. I had never seen a lid before. I put it in my spare tire compartment and drove home with EXTREME caution. Later, when the parents were gone, it turned out that disguising and wrapping was a problem. G– had given me the idea of taking a leg off a doll, so I went out and bought a $2 doll, but I discovered that the opening wasn’t quite big enough when, to my horror, it began spilling out on [my brother] Marc’s bed. Then I looked around my room for a suitable container and my eyes fell upon a can of tennis balls, so I emptied it, wrapped the dope in foil and put it in, stuck a tennis ball on top, shut the can, lay it in some straw inside a box, put a note in, unsigned, sprayed Lysol all inside, sealed the box, wrapped it up with a pound of package sealing tape, addressed it, wrote ‘Happy Birthday!’ on it, put 70 cents’ worth of stamps on it, and mailed it myself from the postal substation at work. I think it’s foolproof.”
January 16, 1974 [age 19]:
“One day this week after [my teacher’s aide job at a local high] school, Nancy Schwalen, a teacher, was talking to me about our future trip to San Francisco and about nightlife there and drinking and she suddenly asked, “Well, how old ARE you?” and I said nineteen and she said, “It’s funny, but I have a sister who’s your age and a freshman in college and you seem so much . . . .” and I KNEW she was going to say “younger.” All my life I’ve had this feeling that I’m socially very inept, very young. It’s a terrible insecurity. If only I were to be myself rather than talk embarrassedly to hide something. So I’ll work on it, on being as natural and as open as I can. But I still worry so desperately, about not keeping pace with my comrades, about being a little child forevermore. “ . . . . Older,” she said.
I have a brilliant idea about how to make the game of baseball much more enticing for spectators: each team must allow a fan to play one inning.
I’ve laid out this scheme to more than one baseball aficionado, and surprisingly it has not been taken seriously.
Here’s my proposal:
Before every game, any attendee who wants to voluntarily participate in “Bocciardi Baseball” is issued a numbered ticket indicating whether that person is a fan of the home or visiting team.
Shortly before the game starts, one lucky fan of each team would be selected in a drawing. And that person would get to play an inning of the game! Offense and defense. He or she would have to bat and play in the field. No designated hitters allowed.
There would be, of course, no limitation on eligibility. Participants could be of any age (18 and over), gender, or ability.
I’ve often wondered how a coach would manage the team in this scenario. What position would the fan play? I think it would have to be an infield position; that way, the other three infielders could help cover the entire territory.
Yes, it brings up a lot of logistical difficulties. Each team would need to have all sizes of uniforms and shoes at the ready, for one thing. But just think about what a scream it would be to watch. Consider the revenue!
Obviously in my fantasy I would be picked to play an inning with the Giants. If they put me at first base I could potentially be very effective, considering that that was my position growing up. In the 8th grade our coach – Sister Barbara Anne – called me “Stretch.”
(Disclosure: that nickname may no longer apply.)
October is ending, glorious October. In San Francisco there is no changing of the leaves. But as the days shorten, the summer fog typically begins to wane. The sun finally reveals itself, although lower in the sky, and the air snaps like an apple. Most years, there are occasional washes of rain. Not enough to keep us indoors for long, but enough to feel like a quick autumn cleanse.
This is also the best time of year for sports fans. The baseball season heads towards the World Series, and football season is just gearing up. Meaningful games are taking place on chilly fields, with a lot on the line. There’s always someone to root for, always a sense of anticipation.
I grew up near the foothills of San Jose, surrounded by nut-brown orchards. As kids, the neighborhood boys and I adhered to the professional sports seasons religiously, playing whiffle ball in the spring and summer, flag football in the winter, and basketball on rainy October driveways in the fall. My best sport, I would say, was street flag football. On knee-grinding asphalt. We lived on a very steep hill, so teams facing uphill were at a decided disadvantage, but no one cared. I could catch anything and no one could catch me. Whatever the sport, we played until darkness closed in and our parents dragged us inside, against rigorous protestations. We were endless stores of energy.
Every night before bed I would fantasize about playing professional football. My favorite player was Jimmy Taylor, a powerful Green Bay Packers fullback. His number was 31, and because of him I wore that number throughout my life.
My mother, Beverly Steger, was an outstanding athlete in the late 1940s at Glendale High School in southern California. It surprises me how well-supported girls’ athletics were at her school. She played just about every conceivable sport, was frequently featured in the Glendale News-Press, and in the summer of 1950 was recruited after graduation for a regional semi-pro softball team.
Mom never played slow-pitch softball – always fast-pitch – and she was a feared hurler. Only once during her high school years did her stoic, often belittling father come out to watch her play. On that particular day the coach decided to move her from the mound to shortstop – a position that she had never played and a move that, Mom thought, squashed the possibility of her finally impressing her father. The first hit was a line drive between her and third base. She dived for the ball and made a miraculous back-handed catch, body parallel to the ground. “White shorts on, legs exposed, everything skinned up,” she told me. “But,” she added proudly, “I showed him, didn’t I?”
Luckily, my own parents were truly interested in everything their children did. In high school I played basketball, softball, tennis, and badminton, and Mom and Dad came often to watch me play (well, Dad didn’t have much of an excuse not to – he was already on campus because he was the principal!). But I was just an above-average athlete, not an outstanding one, and my nerves hamstrung me.
Investments in girls’ sports then were at their lowest point. I remember playing basketball outside on terrible cement courts. (When I first started, girls had to play a ridiculous six-person, half-court, zone-only game, with just two dribbles allowed.) And coaching was often sub-par. In softball, for example, I insisted on using my own bat, which was a massive wooden club that I could barely swing. I just liked the feel of it. But no one ever told me that I’d never be able to get any bat-speed on that thing.
Of course, my best sport – flag football – didn’t exist for girls in my time. I had one opportunity to play in high school on “Powder Puff Football” day and as I recall it was a travesty, a comedy of ineptitude.
A few days after I graduated in June 1972, along came Title IX, which provided that girls’ and women’s sports funding in federally funded schools should be equal to that offered for boys and men. (A revolutionary concept!) The Women’s Sports Foundation says that in the ensuing 35 years, female participation increased 904 percent in high school sports and 456 percent in college sports as a result of the legislation.
I just read an AP piece about how girls’ flag football is “soaring in popularity” at high schools around the country. In fact, the California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section has voted to approve it as an official sport for girls.
I wish I’d been able to take advantage of Title IX. I wish I could have played flag football or, better yet, joined a Little League baseball team. What if I’d had better coaching, a lighter bat, and a modicum of confidence? What if I truly had been taught the fundamentals? Maybe I could have played at least at the college level, who knows.
I don’t know how professional ballplayers survive the grief when they retire from their game. Their final moments on the field mark the end of their youth and the loss of the incredible camaraderie of playing a team sport. In my twenties and thirties I managed softball and basketball teams in San Francisco, learning what teamwork meant, discovering the cheapest pizza-and-beer joints in the City, figuring out how to close down the after-game bars and still drag myself into work a few hours later, and – most importantly – making intense lifelong friendships.
But I hung up my cleats at about age 40, realizing that although I could still run well on the basepaths, it was beginning to take me waaaay too long to get my legs moving out of the batter’s box. It was time.
I miss it so much.
Sometimes Julie and I spend the end of our day bragging about our athletic exploits. And by the time we’re done, the tales of our sports heroism have become bloated with exaggeration. Did you know, for example, that when playing intramural football Julie once did a full pirouette in the air while going up for a fingertip catch in the endzone? But did you also know that while playing street football I once went out for a pass, leaped, snagged the ball with one hand, and came down in a cactus? Completion!
The World Series will end this week (and what a thriller it’s been so far), but before the baseball playoffs started this month I made a mental list of the postseason teams and my feelings about them:
Teams I love:
Their new name may be terrible, but they play old-school baseball.
They haven’t won a World Series since 1948.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is in Cleveland.
St. Louis Cardinals
It’s a storied franchise.
Three great players are retiring this year (Pujols, Wainwright, and Molina).
I love New York but hate the Yankees, so the Mets get my support.
Darin Ruf, one of my ex-Giant boyfriends, plays for them after a heartbreaking trade this year.
Their manager Buck Showalter used to manage the Orioles, who play in Baltimore, an area where many of my friends live, and I really like the name “Buck.”
Toronto Blue Jays
Bob Brenly, one of my all-time favorite Giants, played for the Blue Jays after he was released by the Giants.
Also, there is nothing to hate about Canadians.
San Diego Padres
Haven’t ever won a World Series.
Players don’t have gross scraggly beards.
The great Tony Gwynn (RIP) played with them for TWENTY years and often took less money than he could have gotten elsewhere because he wanted to stay with the Padres.
But a deduction for Manny Machado. Ick.
Teams I’m torn about:
Caught cheating when they won a World Series in 2017 (but it was the Dodgers they beat that year so I’m torn . . .).
I really, really, really want future Hall-of-Famer and Renaissance man Dusty Baker, who managed the Giants for 10 years, to win a World Series as a manager.
The underdog Phillies beat the abhorrent Atlanta Braves in the 1993 postseason (see below), so there is a very large and special place in my heart for the Phillies.
But a deduction for Bryce Harper. Ick.
They’re the only MLB team to have never been in a World Series.
But I loathe the Seattle football team (Seahawks) – and their gum-snapping, USC-cheater coach – with the heat of a thousand suns, which has poisoned me against any professional team from Seattle.
Tampa Bay Rays
They’ve never won a World Series.
But in game 6 of the 2020 World Series, the Rays’ manager foolishly removed pitcher Blake Snell, who’d allowed only two hits, which led to a *&^%$#@ Dodgers win. Unforgiveable.
Teams I loathe:
I got an ulcer during the 1993 baseball season, when the Braves beat out the Giants (104 wins to 103) in the last great pennant race before wild cards were instituted.
Also, their “tomahawk chop” is a loathsome nightmare.
I’m sick of them and their endless piles of money.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Odious. No need for an explanation.
As I’ve written before, someone once asked me to explain why I love watching sports and I found it hard to come up with an answer. For me, much of it revolves around passion and adrenaline and hope, and the older I get, the harder I fight not to lose those things. As a profoundly emotional person I don’t think I ever will, but I make sure I keep stoking the fire.
One of those passions is a fierce sense of place. I know it sounds ridiculous to believe that your local team somehow represents you and everything you live for, but that’s how I feel. When I was growing up, San Jose didn’t have a professional sports team; my allegiances lay with the Giants and the 49ers because San Francisco was the closest big city. After having lived in the City for more than 40 years now, my ties have only grown stronger.
But it’s also a form of love. Sports allow us to care fiercely about something outside ourselves — a person, a school, a town.
As a child I was famous in my family for insisting that we delay dinner and keep the television on after any team won a postseason game because I wanted to see what I called “the happy locker room scene.” Champagne dumped on heads in sheer reverie. (Pre-goggles, when men were men!) That’s really what I lived for. Sports allow us to be fervently happy for others.
Julie once told me that she’d seen her father cry just a few times in her life. Once was when he thought a tornado was bearing down on his family. (It missed them, thank God.) All of the other times were because of sports teams (especially the UK Wildcats).
As for my own father, well, on a memorable October afternoon in 1988, I saw him literally crawl across the floor in anxiety as 49ers quarterback Steve Young ran out of gas and tripped and stumbled across the goal line after a miraculous 49-yard game-winning run against the Vikings.
Sports fanaticism is something we can share when we watch a game together and root passionately for our team. We can scream, scare the dog, throw popcorn in the air, high-five each other, and spill our beer together, collectively, with one heart.
As the great sportswriter Roger Angell once said, “It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificantly and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a professional sports team. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring – caring deeply and passionately, really caring – which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives.”
A couple of weeks ago I tried on an old glove that I hadn’t worn in a couple of decades. I must have broken it in really, really well because it was still soft and, unlike me, hadn’t cracked one bit. Three of us played catch in a local park and it felt sooooo good. I can still catch the ball like a champ, but now that I’ve had rotator cuff surgery, let’s just say that I don’t think I’d do too well as a fan-player in my made-up baseball game. I probably can’t throw 30 feet, let alone 90.
While we were tossing the ball around, some twenty-somethings walked by, looked at us gray-hairs, and smiled.
Is the passion we have for sports all about playing or all about watching? Well, it’s both. It’s about the way our lives evolve – starting with the little child watching games on TV with family and falling asleep dreaming of scoring a winning touchdown. Then the glory years of playing sports ourselves, perhaps too long, until dusk falls and the toll on our bodies forces us to stop. And finally, in the autumn of our years, we become mostly spectators again, relishing our memories, lying about our exploits, rooting heartily against the teams we disdain and lustily for the teams we love.
For me, the passion and the adrenaline make me feel alive. They keep me, somehow, young.
And how can we make it last?
Play catch no matter our age, before winter really sets in.
Watch football with people we love on chilly Sunday afternoons.
And hold close the memories of those childhood basketball games on slippery neighborhood driveways in a warm October rain.
Oh, for the fun of them, when I was one of them.
And when October goes The snow begins to fly Above the smoky roofs I watch the planes go by
The children running home beneath A twilight sky Oh, for the fun of them When I was one of them
“When October Goes,” by Johnny Mercer and Barry Manilow
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
September 6, 1974 [age 18]:
“And so today another chapter in my life begins. I was hired for the teacher aide’s job. (I think Mr. Salazar’s daughter didn’t actually want the job.) It will be $365/month gross instead of the $500 Dad told me. I had to go down to the Police Department to get fingerprinted, then drove to the bookstore to buy ‘Ulysses’ and two Jack Kerouac books. Tonight, all is quiet. Everyone is tired from their first couple days at school. I’m lying around and thinking about my writing, which is ca-ca.”
I’ve also saved the lives of Jenna Bush, Amy Carter, both Obama girls, and Ron Reagan, Jr.
As you can see, I haven’t been partisan.
These fantasies (yes, none of this really happened) have been a part of my evening ritual for decades. I go to sleep each night imagining myself to be the hero I have always wanted to be. In these scenarios I never knew that the people I was rescuing were public figures. And sometimes, but not always, I would sustain gruesome injuries.
So why did these people falling from burning windows have to be the children of Presidents? Because I figured that only then would I be invited to appear on the Johnny Carson show and be lauded as a hero in front of millions of Americans.
(Never did I consider the fact that Presidents’ children might have had Secret Service Protection and would more likely have been rescued by someone with sunglasses and a gun. That would not have fit well with my design.)
I hear people overuse “amazing” so much these days that I could just scream. If everything and everyone is amazing, then nothing is amazing. Let me tell you something: a horsefly can catch a pellet fired from an air rifle. Now, that’s amazing.
Along those lines, the other overused word that gripes me is “hero.”
As I’ve said before, to me a hero is someone who throws himself on a grenade. He risks his life to save another person or, on a larger scale, his family, his community, or his country. And he is selfless. He does it for neither fame nor money.
(Needless to say, a hero doesn’t have to be a man, but I didn’t want to get too mired in pronouns here.)
So if I ever really do catch someone falling from a burning building, would that act fit the definition of heroism? I’d say so, unless before I started my sprint I yelled at an onlooker to film the whole thing so that I’d go viral and end up on Colbert.
My great-uncle Reuben Steger, whom I discussed at length in “Their Last Full Measure,” was a true hero. He absolutely knew he was going to die at the Battle of Buna in World War II when he saved at least half a dozen lives running through machine gun fire to drag his wounded men to safety. Eventually, on the sixth or seventh foray, his luck ran out. He was 25 years old. The Army gave his parents the Distinguished Service cross he earned for “extraordinary heroism.”
Of course, one needn’t die in order to qualify as a hero. A couple of weeks ago I read a news story about Chief Warrant Officer Joe Rosamond, a helicopter pilot with the CA Army National Guard. Thirty families were trapped at a place called Mammoth Pool in the wilderness, taken by surprise when one of the California fires came raging at them at a savage speed. All ground attempts at reaching the stranded campers had failed. A rescue effort by a CHP helicopter had likewise failed. Another plan had been diverted because the air conditions were so hazardous. Finally the operations commander called off all rescue attempts, but Rosamond was already in his chopper and on the way, not to be dissuaded. He was determined to save those people or die trying, and frankly, there was a good chance he would. He couldn’t make out anything past half a mile, even through his night-vision goggles. By the time he landed on a boat ramp, his own windshield was black with ash and it was impossible to see through it. Then he had to go back twice. Twice. The operation was so harrowing that afterwards he would liken it to his missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. He saved 214 people.
And what about Harriet Tubman, the brutally-beaten slave who escaped and made 19 return missions to rescue dozens of slaves using the Underground Railroad, each time putting herself willingly in grave danger? Had she been detected, she would have been drawn and quartered.
Or the unbelievably courageous divers in 2018 who rescued 12 young boys and their coach from a cave in Thailand. The undertaking was physically treacherous and mentally terrifying. All of the kids, and their coach, survived. But one of the divers, Saman Kunan, died of asphyxiation in the cave. (Another one, by the way, died 10 months ago from a blood condition he contracted during the rescue.)
Or Amy O’Sullivan, who made Time’s list of 100 influential people last month. A long-time ER nurse, she helped care for the first COVID-19 patient at Brooklyn’s Wyckoff hospital. A short time later, she came down with the disease herself and spent four days intubated, hooked up to a ventilator. After two weeks she went back to work.
When we were very young, my siblings and I had an album called America on the Move. It was part of the 1959 multi-LP set “The Golden Library,” which featured collections of patriotic tunes, songs about faith, nursery rhymes, and other music. One of our favorite songs from the album was “Casey Jones,” about the railroad engineer who gave his life for his passengers on his “farewell trip to the Promised Land.” I actually have a one-minute recording of the Bocciardi kids singing this tune in 1962:
Jones, a railroad engineer, died in 1900 at the young age of 37. On his last run, with six cars of passengers, the train was heading out of a blind curve when the engine’s fireman spotted a freight train parked on the track ahead. It was too late for Jones to stop, and he knew it. After yelling at the fireman to jump, Casey stayed aboard, blowing his whistle and braking the train as it went crashing through four of the freight train’s cars before leaving the track. He spent his last moments on earth mitigating the potential effect of the collision on those for whom he had responsibility. All of the passengers (and the fireman) survived. Casey did not. The story goes that his body was found with his hand still clutching the whistle and the brake. He was a true hero.
But what about those who display extraordinary selflessness without risking their lives?
I’d like to call attention to one of my favorite ballplayers: Buster Posey, the storied catcher for the San Francisco Giants.
Sure, he has potential Hall of Fame stats, is a six-time All-Star, won the NL Rookie of the Year award in 2010, and was the National League MVP in 2012. But he’s not a “hero” to me. I think it’s ridiculous that we so commonly apply that label to athletes who hit baseballs or sink baskets or score touchdowns while playing a game they love and pulling in more money annually than most of us will ever see cumulatively in our lifetimes.
But there’s something special about him that I recognized when he first came up with the Giants. He went about his business quietly. He wasn’t a showboat. His teammates immediately looked up to him. I’d say that he’s been a steadfast role model.
But this season he proved to be much more than that.
Just a few days into the summer preseason, Buster had just finalized the adoption of twin premature baby girls and had been told that after spending at least four weeks in neonatal intensive care, the babies would have vulnerable immune systems for a number of months. He reported to camp for a day or two but was visibly tortured. After talking to doctors, he made a decision that was personally excruciating but, for him, clear-cut.
He opted out of the 2020 baseball season altogether.
“These babies being as fragile as they are for the next four months, at minimum, this ultimately wasn’t that difficult a decision for me,” he said. “From a baseball standpoint, it was a tough decision. From a family standpoint and feeling like I’m making a decision to protect our children, I think it was relatively easy.
“My wife, I, and our other children are just overwhelmed with joy to welcome them into our family to love them unconditionally and just share life with them.”
Buster and his wife Kristen gave up $8 million when they made this choice.
Now, let’s face it, that’s a drop in the bucket for them and will make no difference in the quality of their lives whatsoever.
But Posey also gave up a season of, for him, just a few dwindling seasons left. He is 33 years old, and for a catcher, that means he’s nearing the end of his playing career. After a lackluster 2019 as a result of postsurgical difficulties, he’d been absolutely tearing up the first Spring Training in early 2020, hitting a whopping .455. This had the potential to be a dominating year for him – perhaps his last. Yet he opted out. For most professional athletes, that would be tantamount to torture.
The most noble among us, though, are willing to devote ourselves to causes well beyond our own self-interest. To country, or community, or family. Buster and his wife have been struggling to adopt – which in and of itself is a selfless act – ever since they had biological twins in 2011. But meanwhile they have been devoting their energies to the Buster and Kristin Posey Fund, which is dedicated to battling pediatric cancer through awareness and research.
“It’s not acceptable,” Buster once said about childhood cancer. “We can’t sit here and talk about how bad this is, we’ve got to try to help.”
To whom much is given, much will be required.
Buster has given back in abundance. Not just talk, but action. Not just money, but time. He’s what a man – especially a man of means – ought to be.
He has character.
So I want another category. I want a category for people who make personal sacrifices for others, even though those sacrifices might not involve life and death.
I’ve decided to use “lodestar.”
Buster Posey is my lodestar. Add that to his legacy.
So as I sit here today on this metaphorical pier, at the edge of the Pacific, while the country rocks and swells and stumbles darkly behind me, I think of all the lodestars still lighting our way. I think of all the great men and women who silently, and without acclaim, provide reason, patience, calm, truth, integrity, and sacrifice.
Ever the optimist, I believe that, with time, they will help bring us back to our once-noble home.
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
9/20/72 [age 16]: “Oh, I am so excited by the prospects of learning. All the books I’ve gotten – they all are filled with so much wonderful new information that I want to read very word and to keep them forever. I don’t like the early hours of college; in fact, I have to pick Robin up at 6:45 tomorrow because she has to get there especially early. I don’t like my lack of sleep. And of course my laziness makes me extremely adverse [sic] to studying, or any kind of work. But the bright promise of learning – I think it is worth everything.”
9/21/72 [age 16]: “I wonder if I am the only near-17-year-old in the entire world who has had such a meager love life. I am so-o-o-o lonely for real companionship. I don’t think there is any guy I really like right now, and I may never have the chance to. I am young, have a weird voice, and am far from good-looking. In fact, I’m not sexy at all, and I suppose I suffer from lack of feminism [sic]. My face . . . oh, yecch.”
9/27/72, ONE WEEK after starting college [age 16]: “Boy, I’m so tired! College requires such a large amount of reading – I get headaches every day now. Between tons of homework and my daily Bible reading (which takes quite a bit of time) and my daily letters and baths and hairwashings and homework, I never have time for FUN anymore!”
10/4/72 [age 16]: “At dinner tonight, Dad told me that my dear beloved [former high school teacher] Mr. Bernert told him that whenever he hears that ridiculous song ‘I’m the Happiest Girl in the Whole USA’ by Donna Fargo, he thinks of ME. I’m still trying to figure out what he could possibly mean.”
10/4/72 [age 16]: “Our first biology field trip today was to Alum Rock Park [in San Jose]. I enjoyed it, because, besides the fact that I am in love with Dr. Shellhammer, the teacher, I now have a far greater ecological appreciation for the Park. And to think I used to call it a dumb place . . .”
10/5/72 [age 16]: “I had the ‘tremendous’ privilege of seeing the Vice-Presidential candidate Sargent Shriver today at [San Jose State]. I was with Mary Pasek, and I almost fainted. Why? Because 1) it was very hot and I had on a sweater OVER a jumper, 2) there were 4000 people there, 3) I hadn’t had lunch at all, and 4) I suppose he wasn’t too thrilling for me to listen to.”
10/14/72 [age 16]: “Since Sue came home this weekend I took her and Barb to Baskin’s and Robbin’s tonight. Night driving scares me. Then we came to our house and talked. I loved it. Sue is religious now, very into the Bible, and she is exceedingly happy, just in the way she talks it shows. We talked of religion, mostly, and once more I felt warmed over with love for humanity. Mom laughed at the whole affair, saying, ‘You feel obligated to be worldly. Why can’t you talk about fishing, like boys do?’ ”
10/16/72 [age 16]: “It was strange, but Mrs. Espinosa called today (you know, the school nurse who I went skiing with) just to see how I was. It was really nice. The thing is – I honestly keep wondering to myself how anyone could LIKE me, let alone care enough about me to call. I mean, I’m such a quiet, sullen, moody, morose person.”
10/18/72 [age 16]: “Our Biology field trip today was to Villa Montalvo, and Dr. Shellhammer walks so fast that the rest of us have to jog. But I did so willingly; I have developed a passionate love for running. I first saw that in the movie ‘Tribes,’ where the guy claimed that he could do any physical feat by putting ‘mind over matter,’ and I then thought it was a bunch of bull, but now I really believe it. When I am running, I can daydream – as long as I am not running uphill, where concentration is required.”
10/25/82 [age 16]: “I got my second English paper back today with a B- on it. I have always taken great pride in my writing. It would not be too bad if Dr. Haeger’s comments were justifiable, but I disagree with 95% of them. I like my word choice better. Also, I certainly am not going to change my style. The fragments, dots, dashes, etc. that I use are not accidental grammatical errors; they are techniques I use on purpose to contribute to the effect of the paper. Hmmm. Last week I claimed that I had no interest in grades. Perhaps I should rescind that.”
10/27/72 [age 16]: “I was thinking about [San Jose] State today, how I love it but I hate it. It’s far too big. There are so many people that I’m forced to be alone, solitary in the midst of others. Is that understandable? There is no chance to cultivate any close friendships, or really get to know anyone. We have 25,000 students! I spoke with Yolanda Parra today and she seemed so open and loving. But she gave me a blank stare when I mentioned my ‘there are so many people that I feel all alone’ theory. I’m beginning to wonder if I’m a ding-a-ling.”
10/28/72 [age 16]: “[My friend] Judy came over today at 12:30 and we worked on her essay on busing for 4 hours. Actually, I wrote the whole thing – just dictated while she wrote it down. I’m glad I could help, but – what do I know about busing??!”
10/29/72 [age 16]: “Tonight I asked Robin over to watch ‘Yellow Submarine’ and a Peanuts special, where my beloved Linus won an election! I love him – he’s so cute and kind and wise and intellectual. He’s my man.”
12/5/72 [age 17]: “Barb and I rode up and down the elevators at Duncan Hall yesterday. We had just eaten an entire bag of too-salty cornnuts on empty stomachs. Then these elevators – in Duncan Hall they’re so FAST that your stomach exits. We got in two separate elevators on floor 6 and rode up and down trying to find each other. Eventually we did, but only after I’d gotten a million drinks of water on a million different floors . . . plus the cornnuts, plus the elevators – Barb and I were so nauseated. We each went home, took two aspirin, and went to bed.”
12/11/72 [age 17]: “Gadzooks! Robin has decided to have a wild party sometime during Christmas vacation. I guess it’ll have all the vices, bar none. For some totally absurd reason I would love to go, so that I could at least know that I have been in a tempting environment and have resisted it.”
12/12/72 [age 17]: “I have almost resigned myself to the notion that there is no possibility of my ever becoming lucky enough to fall in love. And how can I live my life alone? True, I am young, but I see future repetitions of my present daily, weekly, monthly, yearly pattern. It’s almost unbearably depressing, yet I remain clinging to the hope that perhaps someday I will stumble miraculously upon him. In the meantime, I sit and wait . . . and cry every once in a while.”
12/19/72 [age 17]: “I’m still worried about Law Enforcement and if I will indeed remain with it. There are so many things I want do to: be a psychologist, work with the physically handicapped, read to old people, get people off drugs, write, be a cop. And I don’t think that I could do everything at once. And the thing that I would really like to do, above all else, is to move out and go to college for 50 years. Of course, I’d have to have a part-time job on the side.”
12/23/72 [age 17]: “Another rotten day. Both the 49ers and the Raiders lost by way of flukes in the last few seconds. Pittsburgh caught a deflected pass near the ground and ran a touchdown in the last 5 seconds to be victors over the Raiders. And the stupid Cowboys scored two touchdowns in the last 2 minutes to wrest victory from the deserving hands of San Francisco. The only good thing was [my cousin] Ronnie’s appearance. I love just looking at him – he’s so cute and now he has a moustache. A pleasing sight is no substitute for sweet victory, however.”
12/25/72 [age 17]: “About all I do up here [in southern CA at my grandparents’ house] is listen to music. [My uncle] Fred brought over his two-record set of Neil Diamond’s live concert at the Greek theater (which he and [my aunt] Jackie witnessed) called ‘Hot August Night.’ It’s an eight-dollar record! While I listen to that I’m writing an entry for my journal about the past year called ‘Shades of 1972 Revisited,’ which is so lengthy I may never finish. Otherwise, I’m wearing the grooves out of ‘Sounds of Silence’ and ‘Songs for Beginners.’ I don’t write while I listen to those because I love them so much that I need to listen intently.”
1/5/73 [age 17]: “Once again, for the jillionth time, I feel terribly guilty. [My friend] Robin has decided to move out tomorrow – has even informed her parents – and I didn’t discourage her in the least. I feel as if I’ve contributed to the ruination of a young person’s life. She doesn’t have much money, and her parents will be hurt. Will Robin regret it forever? Will she go off the deep end, as I believe she already has? (I heard rumors, partly verified, that at her party she gave a couple of weeks ago there was a lot of ‘making out.’)”
1/6/73 [age 17]: “It was once again brought to my attention today that as far as practical knowledge and skills go, I am a total failure. My complete uselessness in the household infuriates Mom to high degrees. But I need not know how to cook exotic things for myself, because I can easily subsist on hamburgers and root beer.”
1/8/73 [age 17]: “Our tennis class was cancelled today so Barb and I took the bus (a first for me!) to her house where I had rice and egg fu yung and won ton soup. Wow, what a lunch! Her parents were astounded at my universal appreciation of food.”
1/12/73 [age 17]: “We came up to Clearlake today and I’m freezing to death. One small fire and an inadequate heater cannot warm my perpetually shivering body with their meager warmth. Small things make me happy, though. They bought us a colossal bag of sunflower seeds, which makes my studying much more enjoyable.”
2/1/73 [age 17]: “My constant praying has paid off. The wait in line outside from 6:00 to 10:00 to register for this semester was not too bad. I had on long underwear (with no bra – it felt weird), my yellow sweatshirt, Levis, and my blue jacket. The only parts of me that got cold in this freezing weather were my feet – they turned numb. I was number 83 in line and got all the classes I wanted AND the sections I wanted! (except tennis, so I took badminton) God is a great guy, but today he was exceptionally terrific.”
On a beautiful May day in 1954, on an innocuous ballfield in Charleston, South Carolina, two Negro League professional baseball teams faced each other in a preseason game. It wasn’t a particularly big deal for the players. The dry infield dirt, as usual, crunched under their spikes. Gloves were oiled, rawhides roughed. But looking back now, it’s clear that that moment was definitely a big deal. Three of the players warming up on the field that day were women. They were the only women, in fact, to ever play professional baseball.
Mamie “Peanut” Johnson was pitching for the Indianapolis Clowns. Infielder Connie Morgan was on the bench. Toni Stone was up to bat for the Kansas City Monarchs. Johnson had been throwing a shutout until Stone stepped into the box and sliced a base hit to the outfield. But she took a careless lead on the next pitch and Johnson picked her off first. It was baseball as usual, but they were not the usual ballplayers.
They were the girls of summer.
Baseball as usual, of course, has disappeared for now, and we don’t know when it will return. I’d been planning on writing about these three women for nearly two years, but I backed off when I learned that a play about Toni Stone was due to open in San Francisco this March. Frankly, I was incensed that the theater company had stolen my idea.
Because of the pandemic, unfortunately, the live production of Toni Stone didn’t happen. Yet perhaps now, more than ever, we need stories like these. You do not have to be a sports fan. This story is about much more than that. It’s about sexism, racism, talent, and guts.
From her earliest days in Saint Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, where most of the Twin Cities’ black population lived, Marcenia Lyle “Toni” Stone had an absolute obsession for baseball. She thought of nothing else, dreamt of nothing else. “Whenever summer would come around [and] the bats would start popping, I’d go crazy,” she said. But it was the 1930s, and her parents thought it was unnatural and unseemly for a girl to be crazy about a “boys’ game.” On top of that, Toni wasn’t at all interested in makeup or dresses or boys or any of the girlie fascinations that were thought to be “normal.” Everyone called her “Tomboy Stone,” and it was not necessarily a flattering moniker. Still, no one could deny that she was the best athlete, of any gender, in the neighborhood.
Stone started out playing in a summer Catholic boys’ league because a priest named Father Keefe needed someone to beef up his church’s ballclub. She then joined her high school softball team but quit after a year because the pace was too slow. But one spring day in 1936, at the age of 14, she stopped at a local park to watch a bunch of young white ballplayers coached by a man named Gabby Street, who had once played for the San Francisco Seals and the Washington Senators and who was then managing the minor league Saint Paul Saints. On that particular day, he was running a baseball camp for white boys in the area. Toni desperately wanted to play, and she was unaware of the fact that her race and gender were two strikes against her. Two strikes meant nothing to her anyway. So she began a campaign of relentlessly haranguing Street so that he would allow her to prove her skills.
Although Stone didn’t know it at the time, Gabby Street was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The group’s activities had begun to wane nationally, however, and the last Klan meeting in Minnesota had been held seven years earlier. Street began to wear down. “I just couldn’t get rid of her until I gave her a chance,” he said later. “Every time I chased her away, she would go around the corner and come back to plague me again.” Second base was her preferred position, so he asked her to field grounders and hit a few balls. And he was more than impressed. A few days later, on her 15th birthday, he bought her a pair of baseball shoes, and she thought it was a miracle. She had never owned anything “official” like that. He also allowed her into the baseball camp. Those white boys couldn’t believe their eyes when a black girl walked onto the field.
But she quickly proved her mettle.
Although Toni was not a good student in high school, she became an astute student of baseball in that camp. The game is packed with more nuance than those who don’t follow it could ever imagine. Under Gabby Street’s coaching she also honed her athletic abilities and learned the more intricate skills, to the extent that she was asked to join a few summer barnstorming teams of amateur African-American ballplayers. In addition to her comfortable position at second base, she’d play center field on those teams and sometimes even take the mound to pitch.
Barnstorming teams typically were based in cities that had no major league teams, and they spent much of their time on the road. (Note: The Minnesota Twins, formerly the Washington Senators, did not move to Minnesota until the 1961 season.) Keep in mind that in that day and age, being on the road for Toni and her teammates was not all fun and games. On one of Toni’s trips to Bloomer, Wisconsin, with her Twin City Colored Giants playing a white team, the man announcing the lineups blithely declared over the loudspeaker, “And now the starting lineup for the niggers.”
After dropping out of high school at the age of 19, Toni left her barnstorming Minnesota teammates behind and hopped on a bus headed for California, to see “what was over there on the other side of the fence.” Her sister Bunny lived in San Francisco, where men and women of all races had come to work in the shipyards. It was 1943, and the war effort was increasing. Toni had no idea where Bunny lived, and depending on when she would later re-tell the story, she had somewhere between 53 cents and $7 in her pocket. Her belongings consisted of a few items of clothing, her Goodwill baseball glove, and the cleats given to her by Gabby Street. To find her sister, the only thing she could do was comb the city’s streets. Incredibly, a few days after she arrived she was walking down a random alley when Bunny happened to look out the window and spotted her!
As I’ve written before, San Francisco is a mix of cultures, with so much to offer that any marginalized person can come here and find identity and acceptance. That happened to Toni. “I love my San Francisco,” she once said. “I had my hardships there. But they treated me right. Old San Francisco folks taken me over.” She had long had a passion for jazz, and the city’s Fillmore District was alive with it. She would hang out in Jack’s Tavern there, not only listening to the music but engaging in conversation with people more worldly than those she had known in her neighborhood back in Saint Paul. It was there that she would meet Aurelious Pescia Alberga, the much-older man whom she would eventually marry. He and the owner of Jack’s got Toni a spot on a local American Legion baseball team. Needless to say, she was the only woman on the squad. The team was part of a junior league, which required its players to be 17 or younger. It was now 1948, and Toni was 27 years old, so she decided to “change” her age by subtracting 10 years from it. It got her onto the team, but it also was the genesis of a long lie, and in years to come her fake youth would create unrealistic expectations and prove to be more of a hindrance than anything else.
Ultimately Toni found a place to live in Oakland through a priest at St. Benedict’s (because of Father Keefe, she would always have a soft spot for the Catholic Church). And she wrangled a job at Foster’s Cafeteria in the Fillmore District, although she would soon need more money and would end up doing physical labor down on the docks.
The next year, Stone was recruited by the San Francisco Sea Lions, a black barnstorming team that traveled throughout the country. (Note: The San Francisco Seals, part of the Pacific Coast League, did not include any black players.) She played second base and hit leadoff. Virtually no records were kept of those games, so no stats are available for me to quote. We do know that at some point Toni discovered that she was being paid less than her teammates, so she joined the New Orleans Creoles when they presented a better offer – which would indicate that her play was impressive. The Creoles went 44-8.
Better records are available for 1950, and by the middle of the season Toni was batting close to .300 for the Creoles. Meanwhile, she continued to fib about her age. She was a 29-year-old posing as a teenager. But she still had guts like no one had seen before. During one game in Iowa, a double-play throw from her third baseman ripped its way through her weakly made glove and knocked her out cold. Her teammates stood around pouring water on her (I’m not sure how that “treatment” was supposed to help), and when she regained consciousness she immediately stood straight up and screamed “Let’s go!” It stunned the crowd.
It was after the 1950 season, though, that Toni did a more audacious thing. She went and got married to the 67-year-old Aurelious Alberga.
No one really knew why she did it. In the first place, she had never had a boyfriend, had seemingly no interest in sex, walked around in men’s clothes, and, frankly, had been considered by many to be a lesbian. Yet her marriage to Alberga, in whatever form it took (they had separate bedrooms from the start), would last until his death.
Alberga was a well-known black social and political leader, and he provided stability and financial resources to the couple. But for a while, at least, he resisted the idea of her playing baseball, so she sat out for about a year and concentrated on home repairs and domestic chores.
Meanwhile, she was dying to get back to the diamond. During her hiatus she wrote to the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League – the one featured in the film A League of Their Own – but it was not only “all-American” but also all-white, and she never received a reply.
By 1953, some of the Negro League players had joined Major League Baseball (MLB), which had integrated six years earlier, and few Negro League teams remained solvent. But half a dozen were still in existence, including the Kansas City Monarchs and the Indianapolis Clowns, who had won the 1951 league championship. The Clowns’ young shortstop, Henry Aaron, had left for the Boston Braves in the middle of 1952, and they needed infielders. The players were well aware of Stone’s play with the barnstorming Creoles, when her powerful arm, her defensive abilities, and her speed (she’d been able to run the 100 in 11 seconds) had impressed them. So she was offered a spot in the Clowns lineup for the 1953 season and joined them for spring training that year. The owner did try to convince her to wear short skirts on the field, but she threatened to quit and he relented. I mean, seriously, who can effectively slide in a skirt??
At this point, don’t forget, everyone assumed that Toni was 21 years old, and they also assumed that she could move like a dancer and run like the wind. But she was a full decade older than that and edging past her prime.
After only two days of practice (the extent of “spring training,” in those days, for the Negro League) and a month of preseason games, Toni Stone officially played her first game as starting second baseman for the Indianapolis Clowns on May 15, 1953. She was 31 years old. As she took the field against the Kansas City Monarchs in Beaumont, Texas, she earned her place in history.
She was the first woman to ever play professional big-league baseball.
Just a few words, at this point, about the Negro Leagues. They were not minor leagues; they were not repositories for lesser talents. They were the beginning of organized professional baseball for black (and Hispanic, by the way) athletes who were not yet allowed into Major League Baseball. That would not happen until 1947, when Jackie Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers. Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, and Willie Mays were some of the former Negro League players to follow Robinson into the majors and ultimately into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
The Negro Leagues lasted for 40 years, but they started to wane significantly once MLB began attracting their best players. The owners typically weren’t compensated for the departure of their superstars, and many of the teams went bankrupt. By 1960 they were defunct. The loss was bittersweet, because the Negro Leagues had helped spur economic growth in black communities and helped provide a sense of social cohesion among people of color. Their passing was greatly mourned.
This year we celebrate their 100th anniversary. It was in February 1920 that Andrew “Rube” Foster – owner-manager of the Chicago American Giants – convened a meeting with the owners of seven other independent black baseball teams to form the Negro National League. For true baseball fans and also for historians, it’s a really big deal. In fact, on June 27, 2020, all MLB players, coaches, and umps are (were?) slated to wear a Negro Leagues logo on their jersey. A host of other celebrations have been planned as well. The nature of those commemorations, however, remains to be seen.
A little more than halfway through that ’53 season when Toni Stone made history, her Indianapolis Clowns were in last place, despite Toni’s .364 average – fourth in the league. (Ernie Banks, by the way, was in second place.) Still, the team ranked first in attendance among all the Negro League teams – due almost exclusively to the presence of Stone, most observers agree. By season’s end, though, her batting average had dropped to .243, and almost all of her hits were singles.
It gave her cause for worry, especially because at that point a couple of other women were about to join the team.
Mamie Johnson was living with her grandmother in Ridgeway, South Carolina, when she first started playing ball in corner lots as a little girl. According to Michelle Green’s book A Strong Right Arm, a “pie plate was first, the broken piece of flower pot was second, and the large root about three feet from the lilac bush was third.” Home plate was the “smooth white lid of a five-gallon bucket of King Cane sugar,” the sweetest in the South. The “baseball” was a bunch of tape wrapped around a rock. And Mamie could throw that thing, powerful and smooth. She had a fastball, a change-up, and even a knuckleball, and the neighborhood boys had a tough time connecting with her pitches.
When Mamie’s grandmother died in 1945, it was decided that Mamie would move in with an aunt and uncle in Long Branch, New Jersey. She was about 10 years old, and it was not a popular move with her. Not only did she miss the sweet southern air, but there was no baseball at the school she had to attend. It was just softball, and she hated it and refused to play. The ball was way too big, and the pitching was underhand. Sissified blasphemy! But she had gumption, and one day she passed by a field on which a bunch of kids were playing baseball. All boys, of course. And all white. (Sound like a familiar story?) Although told she couldn’t play, Mamie noted that the team was sponsored by the Long Branch Police Athletic League and she hustled right on down to the police station to ask the officers – repeatedly – about whether local laws prohibited a girl from playing baseball. Eventually she wore everyone down and was allowed onto the team, which ended up winning the division championship two years in a row.
For a couple of years Johnson played for other sandlot teams, as well as for an all-black semi-pro club. Like Toni Stone, she also got wind of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, and in her case she actually took a bus with a friend all the way down into Virginia to try out for the team. Once they arrived, though, exhausted but ready to play, they were told that no “colored girls” were allowed.
In 1953, when Johnson was playing for a sandlot team, a man in a pinstripe suit who’d been watching their games for three weeks came up to her after he’d witnessed her strike out a series of batters with a particularly voracious fastball. (By the way, she was about 5’2” and weighed 92 pounds.) His name was Bish Tyson, and he was a former Negro League ballplayer and now an unofficial scout. He told her that the Indianapolis Clowns, a Negro League team, would be coming to town for some pre-season exhibition games and would be looking for new players. He was taking a gamble on her; after all, she had no high-level experience on the playing field and no exposure to skilled coaching.
When she arrived at the field in September for what she thought were widespread tryouts, she discovered that the only person trying out was her! She also noted that the Clowns had another female playing for them – second baseman Toni Stone. Mamie did well in the batter’s box and threw to some great hitters that day, and right there on the spot they signed her. She’d be allowed to play in postseason barnstorming games throughout the fall and then would join the permanent roster the following season. Johnson quickly quit her job selling ice cream and boarded the Clowns’ bus, without getting a lick of input (or approval) from her husband. “It didn’t make any difference because I was going to play anyway,” she said.
By 1954 Johnson was in the regular pitching rotation and took the mound about every six days. Her curveball came to her when, in Kansas City, the legendary pitcher Satchel Paige complimented her throwing arm. He was retired from MLB and back to playing in the Negro Leagues with the Monarchs. He told her to stop squeezing the ball as tightly and showed her his curveball. Allegedly. Years later, at a conference about the Negro Leagues, Mamie corrected the story. “He didn’t teach me how to throw it, he taught me how to perfect it,” she said. “I knew how to throw it.”
One day she faced hard-hitting Hank Baylis, third baseman for the Monarchs. Baylis reportedly stepped out, turned around, and hollered to the fans, “Why, that little girl’s no bigger than a peanut. I ain’t afraid of her!” She reached back, uncorked her fastball, and struck him out. “Call me Peanut,” she yelled back at him. From that point on she was Peanut Johnson.
At the end of 1953 the Clowns were also starting to look at Connie Morgan, who would be a more direct threat to Toni Stone because Morgan, too, played second base. Toni started to see the writing on the wall. Peanut Johnson and Connie Morgan – two 19-year-olds – were both slated to be her teammates on the 1954 Clowns. Toni was in her thirties, and the decision had been made that only one female at a time would be in the lineup. To add insult to injury, owner Syd Pollock offered her $350 a month, which was less than the $400 a month she’d been paid the previous year. So she made the decision to sign with the Kansas City Monarchs, who offered her $400 a month and the possibility of a $200 year-end bonus.
Constance Enola (“Connie”) Morgan, born in 1935 in Philadelphia, had played five seasons with the all-girl North Philadelphia Honey Drippers, with whom she’d logged a .368 batting average. She’d read about Toni Stone and the Indianapolis Clowns in Ebony magazine and penned a letter directly to Syd Pollock, requesting a tryout. He obliged in October 1953, and she signed a two-year, $10,000 contract after impressing the team with her defensive skills at second base. She was right out of high school. She’d never had male teammates, and at that point most of her time on the field was spent behind the dish, at catcher. But she could play any position except pitcher, and she shared the same chutzpah and self-confidence that Stone and Johnson possessed.
We don’t know as much about Morgan as we do about the other women, but we do know that her defense was spectacular. She was only 5’4”, but she was strong, and manager Oscar Charleston – a Hall of Famer, and universally considered to be one of the greatest ballplayers of all time – said “her throws across the diamond rank on par with many major leaguers.”
So, what was life on the road like for Negro League players? The teams played almost every day for eight months, with two (and occasionally three!) games on Sundays. Unlike MLB ballplayers, who usually had days off for travel, Negro League players had no such luxury, often riding on a bus for up to 400 miles between games with no break. Syd Pollock meticulously recorded every conceivable kind of stat, and according to his publicity material, “The Clowns have traveled 2,110,000 miles. Once played in a town with a population of 476 and had 1,372 fans at the game. Largest crowd 41,127 in Detroit. Smallest 35 in Lubbock, TX during a tornado. Have had the same bus driver for 17 years, worn out three buses and 19 sets of tires.”
By the way, for bathroom breaks, the bus would stop so men who had to pee could just line up on the side of the road and do their thing. The women, of course, had to walk off into the woods or a culvert, often in the middle of the night.
While traveling in the South, the players had to drink only from certain water fountains and shop only in certain stores. Many of the gas stations were “Whites Only.” Restaurants below the Mason-Dixon line often provided no service to black customers, and much of the time those places were the only food establishments in the area. Once in a while the players would be allowed to go to a back window to pick up cold food. When white people were traveling with the team, sometimes they would pick up a load of food at “white” cafes and bring it back. But they had to be careful; servers had been known to spit into glasses of Coke being served to black people.
As for hotels, many refused rooms to black people, and it was often a scramble if schedules got changed. The Negro Travelers’ Green Book helped out when the team was traveling in the South. But for Toni, there was an added burden. It started when she was turned away at some of the hotels – the few who would serve African-Americans – because they assumed she was a hooker for the players. When the hotel owners pointed her in the direction of the nearest brothel, she found that the kindness of the ladies there was better than some of the everyday treatment she received from the outside world. The women not only provided her with a place to sleep but also fed her, laundered her uniform, gave her extra money, lent her a car, and often even attended her games. It was the prostitutes who always helped her out in life, she would say years after she’d left professional baseball.
One night after a game in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Toni’s rattletrap team bus caught on fire for no apparent reason. Almost all of the players’ belongings and equipment were lost, although Toni had managed to grab her glove before bailing out of the bus. No one, of course, immediately stopped to lend a hand. When a sheriff finally came by, he called his dispatcher. “Nothing serious,” he said. “Just a bus burning up with niggers on it.” Help didn’t arrive for two more hours.
The players knew they had to be infinitely careful about their behavior, especially in southern towns. The smallest of infractions –and sometimes no infraction at all – could get them jailed or killed. “Reckless eyeballing” was one of the ridiculous charges potentially facing a black man. Any white woman could accuse any black man of looking at her too long, and he could be put away. Coaches would tell rookies to “keep their heads down and their mouths shut.”
At ballparks in the South, black major leaguers usually were not allowed in clubhouses and were required to change clothes on the bus. Even more ridiculous – if that’s possible – black fans often had to completely leave the stadium to use a toilet!
Unlike today’s ballplayers, who sit out a game if they have a hangnail, the Negro League players had no physicians available and simply had to play through almost every conceivable injury or health condition outside of a coma. Players who got spiked, for example, would make paste from coal-stove soot, rub it on the (often very deep) wound, and lay a spider web on top of everything to protect the wound because there were no bandages available!
Toni Stone, in particular, was no stranger to being spiked, or to being hit by pitches. Many of the men in the league – including some on her own team – resented playing with or against a woman so much that they either ostracized her or blatantly tried to hurt her. Some teammates even threw to her directly in a baserunner’s path to make it easier for the opposing players to gash her with their metal cleats. She ended up with a lot of scars to prove it, although later she would shrug them off as being battle wounds.
Meanwhile, sportswriters were beginning to be more callous about the women in the league, considering them to be novelties and concerned that they were somehow emasculating the men and the sport. “It’s thrilling to have a woman in one’s arms, and a man has a right to promise the world to his beloved – just so long as that world doesn’t include the right to play baseball with men. . . . This could get to be a woman’s world with men just living in it!” screamed one such insecure writer.
After 1953, the league was on its last breaths.
Connie Morgan played only one full season with the Indianapolis Clowns. She never quite found her footing offensively, hitting only .178 with seven singles, a double, one stolen base, and one RBI in 45 at-bats.
Peanut Johnson hung on for a bit. She played for parts of three seasons with the Clowns and ended up with a dazzling win/loss pitching record of 33-8 and a batting average reported to be between .262 and .284.
The 1954 Monarchs season was not a good one for Toni, who was now 32 years old and 12 pounds over her typical playing weight. She was trying too hard, and her batting average never crossed what is now derogatorily called the Mendoza line (.200). As a result, her temper was closer to the surface. During one game she was called out by the ump on a pitch she thought was a ball, and the catcher yelled “pussy high” after the ball crossed the plate. Enraged, she leaped on the catcher’s back. She would later say that she didn’t know what made her the maddest: the call, the catcher’s vulgar and sexist remark, or the fact that manager Buck O’Neill loved retelling the story.
The Monarchs would come in last place.
Toni Stone retired at the end of the season. The owner gave her $400 for the month but refused to hand over her $200 year-end bonus. It wasn’t the money that mattered, though. “Not playing baseball hurt so damn bad,” she lamented, “I almost had a heart attack.”
After these three women left the game, no woman would ever play professional baseball again.
Toni had a hard time adjusting to life after Negro League baseball. She settled back into her home on Isabella Street in Oakland. Her mom and sister lived nearby, but she felt unmoored. She spent time alone with her mementos, reliving the glory days, and occasionally she took to drinking a bit too much. She was always suspicious of visitors claiming to be sympathetic reporters, who on more than one occasion stole her mementos. But she was also suspicious of bona fide reporters, who, she thought, would go to great lengths to make her seem more sophisticated, educated, or feminine than she really was.
In the 1960s, though, she emerged from her funk. She began playing rec baseball and coaching neighborhood teams. She attended Oakland A’s baseball games, sitting by herself behind home plate. In June of 1975, Stone threw out the first pitch at a Giants game. She also did work for local hospitals and served as an occasional home caregiver. When her ancient husband Alberga turned 100 years old in 1984, he asked Toni to give up playing recreational baseball, and finally she agreed. She was in her sixties. After he died at 103, she could often be seen riding her bike around Oakland.
Peanut Johnson earned a nursing degree, moved back to Washington, D.C., remarried twice, and had a 30-year career as a nurse. After retirement she managed the Negro League Baseball Shop in Maryland, which not only sold memorabilia but also taught the public about the historic nature of the Negro Leagues and about living during Jim Crow. It was impossible to get baseball out of her soul, and she remembered only the good times. When asked how she felt about her days in baseball, she would say, “Have you ever won a million dollars? Just to know I was good enough to be there was a tremendous thing for me. If they didn’t let me play, I wouldn’t be who I am today, and I’m very proud of that.” She passed away on December 18, 2017, at the age of 82.
Connie Morgan went back to business school, graduated in 1955, and enjoyed a career that included working for the AFL-CIO, the largest union federation in the country. But her subsequent days working for a furrier aggravated her arthritis, and when she switched to driving school buses she developed kidney disease and had to retire at the age of 40. According to Martha Ackmann, Morgan “rarely talked about the Negro League. To many who saw her, she was just the lonely woman who sat for days by the window of her Federal Street row house with only the light of a flickering television set.” In 1995, she was inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, and the next year – after living with constant dialysis – she succumbed to her kidney problems at the age of 61. For years her grave at Mount Lawn Cemetery in Philadelphia was unmarked. A travesty. But in 2014 she was finally given a headstone through the Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project.
Incredibly, the Baseball Hall of Fame did not even officially recognize the Negro Leagues until August of 1991. Seventy-five former Negro League players were invited to Cooperstown that year, and Toni Stone was one of them. It was the second-happiest day of her life. The happiest, according to a tale she would oft repeat, was the day she got to hit against Satchel Paige during a barnstorming game. Paige loved to toy with batters by outright asking them, ahead of time, which pitch they’d prefer to see. He did the same for Toni. “It doesn’t matter which pitch,” she yelled back. “Just don’t hurt me!” Satchel had a lot of pitches in his bag o’ tricks: the bee ball, the two-hump blooper, and a raft of others. She didn’t even know which one he unleashed on her, but she smacked it over second base. Yes, that was the happiest day of her life.
Toni Stone Alberga died of heart failure in an Alameda nursing home on November 2, 1996. She was 75 years old.
A year later, a baseball field named for her was dedicated at the Dunning Sports Complex in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
The year Toni Stone died, Minnesota playwright Roger Niebor wrote a play entitled Tomboy Stone that had a brief run at the Great American History Theater in Saint Paul. “I suppose the number of women who could travel and play like that, discriminated on the basis of race and sex the whole time, would be few,” he said. “And to do it with the energy and intensity of Toni Stone evidenced the power and beauty of the human spirit and made me proud to know her.”
To “power and beauty” I would add “fearlessness.” Those women needed to be physically tough and to have no problem squatting in a dark culvert at night or playing through serious injuries with no medical attention. And they had to be courageous enough to suffer relentless racist and sexist taunts and all the other consequences of breaking barriers more than a decade before the Civil Rights Act was signed.
Finally, I would also add “dignity.” No matter what they faced, these women continued to live their lives with self-respect. And when they retired from the game, and their departures garnered no attention, they showed no traces of bitterness over the ways they were exploited by team owners. Even in later years, when they spoke of their reverence for the game and for their time in the big leagues, they never dwelt on the fear they lived with on the road, the inconveniences, the scorn.
They played with passion, these women. Passion got them through the tough times.
Like a lot of war veterans, Toni Stone “didn’t talk too much about her baseball life,” said her niece, Maria Barlow. “But she was the first woman to do a lot of things. She wouldn’t consider herself a feminist, but she knew that she wanted more in life and she was fighting for it. She stood up to people, like the white owner, and fought for her pay. She stood up for herself. I saw the letters that she wrote. And she did it all by herself. She didn’t have anyone helping her or clearing the path for her. My aunt was one of the strongest women I’ve ever known.”
All three are gone now. But they represented the best of America. And for a brief moment in time, they were our girls of summer.
Note: Much of the information in this piece was taken from the beautifully researched Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone by Martha Ackmann and from A Strong Right Arm: The Story of Mamie “Peanut” Johnson by Michelle Y. Green.
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
7/24/72 [age 16]:
“I don’t know if I mentioned this before, but I have begun reading the Bible. Seriously, and completely. I have only gotten through Genesis. It is interesting reading, though sometimes the ‘Jason had two sons, Esau and Aron, and Aron had . . .’ and it continues for pages is boring. It may take me a year or two to read it, but I want to conquer it, just as I conquered ‘Leaves of Grass’ (of which I finally bought a copy, the cheapest paperback available, 95 cents).”
8/5/72 [age 16]:
“I rode [my bike] down to Confession tonight. Big deal, I missed Mass once. But I won’t miss it again. Hey, Auntie Jackie called yesterday and asked if I could fly down to her house [in southern CA]. I really want to go, and I love to fly, and I’ll be AWAY. But Mom and Dad are against it, and as yet they haven’t produced an answer. If they say no, I’ll croak!”
8/8/72 [age 16]:
“The [Santa Cruz] beach was awful today – it was completely cold and gray and overcast and there were absolutely no waves at all. No surf + no sun = no fun. (A Paula Bocciardi original – perhaps I should have it patented.) I didn’t even go in swimming, although I did wade a bit. Mom and Dad still haven’t given me an answer on the trip down south. They better hurry. If they don’t let me go, I will stay mad the rest of my life!”
8/10/72 [age 16]:
“It’s hard to believe that I got to come down South [to visit my relatives in southern CA] today. At 6:55 we took off from San Jose, and Grammy and Grampy picked me up in Burbank at 7:43. Fantastic, that plane ride! I mean, all by myself and it was so miraculous looking down on the earth. I was not afraid at all. I also love it down here. [My aunt] Jackie is a neat-type parent, and I like her way of life (except her house isn’t very clean). Today I was introduced to a new way of life. We drove down to [my aunt’s friend] Renee’s store. I met Renee – she’s a middle-aged hippie and owns a boutique shop and sells organic health foods. A friend of hers was in there, another free-spirit musician, playing his guitar and singing. The place smelled like a funny spice, which I can still smell, and was so hot I almost passed out. Also, I had one of her homemade organic fruit drinks and it nauseated me.”
8/14/72 [age 16]:
“I pulled one of my traditional ‘Paula Bocciardi the klutz’ tricks today. Dad had given me five dollars for this trip [to southern CA] along with the strange words ‘Don’t spend it’ (don’t ask what that’s supposed to mean) and [my cousins] Carla and Ronnie and I went down to a record store in Hollywood to get Andy Williams’ ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ for Carla. I stuck the bill in my pocket and – ack! – it had a hole in it. I LOST it! What will Dad say?”
8/15/72 [age 16]:
“Oh, wow, today was the best day of all. Grammy took [my aunt and cousins] Jackie, Kathy, Lisa, and me (Carla was too tired) to Magic Mountain in Valencia. I loved it. You pay $5 to get in, but after that ALL THE RIDES ARE FREE, yeah. I liked the log ride because there are two slopes that are straight down. And I also liked the bumper cars, because we met some guys (I swear they are all cute down here) and had a ‘war’ with them. From 8:00 to 8:45 we saw TRINI LOPEZ (free!). And Grammy saw GLEN CAMPBELL stroll by, and I’m sick because I didn’t see him. 1:00 to 11:00 – total time, 10 hours.”
9/9/72 [age 16]:
“Mom and Dad and [my visiting uncle and aunt] Fred and Jackie and [my cousin] Lisa and I went off to the Cannery and the wharf and Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. I’ve seen them a million times but I love San Francisco for its hilaric [sic] craziness. The city has a grand, majestic, mysterious beauty but the cars and the people and the streets – they’re all crazy. Two guys came near to blows in the middle of traffic and some girl who thought she was a witch was cursing some guys, and the musicians – it’s so crazy!!”
9/11/72 [age 16]:
“The very worst possible thing has happened. Dad mentioned tonight that we are going to Clear Lake this weekend. O, I did so want to make the most of this very last weekend before I start college! I don’t want to go to that horrid place I hate so dreadfully! Maybe if I play it straight and be calm and cool and good, something’ll happen. Please, God!!”
9/14/72 [age 16]:
“Today was a nothing day except I found out some wonderful news. We are not going to Clear Lake this weekend. I wanted everyone else to go and just let me stay at [our friends] the Rosaleses at night, but instead we are not going at all. Now I feel guilty. I don’t know if I should, since I HAVE put up with it for so often. Maybe it wasn’t wrong to ask – God heard my fervent, fervent prayer and granted it, so perhaps it’s okay. I don’t know. I can’t help but feel guilty, but my joy and relief right now overrules it. Yeah.”
9/15/72 [age 16]:
“The time for college is growing near, and I am no more emotionally prepared for it than I am sensible, and THAT’S not at ALL. My car pool situation is very confusing, which doesn’t cheer me up at all. My best friend and teacher and confidant is going away, and the thought of homework kills me. Only a few days left, and I am so scared. Oh, my aching heart.”
9/16/72 [age 16]:
“I went to see ‘On a Clear Day’ and ‘Last of the Red Hot Lovers’ with Jeanne, and something a lady in the latter movie kept saying has been bothering me. She was always in a constant state of depression, and told Alan Arkin that he couldn’t be able to think of three kind, loving, decent human beings, and I’m wondering if humanity is all that bad. Who would my three be? [My cousin] Carla, Sister Kathleen Mary, and Abraham (my Bible hero). Linus and Charlie Brown aren’t real, and Christ is God. I don’t know if I could think of anyone else.”
There’s a moment, as you’re heading to a Giants game from the west side of town, when your Muni train rises out of the darkness of the Market Street tunnel and rumbles into the sunlight.
It’s a moment I always anticipate, but this time it was particularly meaningful.
Until recently I didn’t know whether I’d be able to get to the ballpark this year. Typically I attend all the Giants weekday afternoon games, but for the last six months I’ve been suffering from savage nerve pain. For those long months I felt as though my eyes had been burned raw from the inside out, preventing me from seeing one ounce of beauty in the world around me.
But as fall became winter and turned again into spring, slowly and almost imperceptibly I started to get better. The murky tunnel in which I’d been existing started to recede behind me. I could finally start to clutch the world around me and feel the sensations of each moment clearly. It was time to take in a ballgame.
When the T-Third Street train climbs out of the tunnel and onto the city’s surface streets, the sun emerges like a gift, and the vivid appearance of San Francisco’s people and textures makes you feel like you’re passing through the opening curtain of a sumptuous play.
It was a cloudless April afternoon. As our train poked its head out onto the Embarcadero, my very first sight was the magnificent, colorful “Cupid’s Span” sculpture sitting romantically on the shore, its red arrow partially drawn. Tourist boats and cargo ships went about their business. Scores of people strolled along the promenade towards the stadium, past the piers, past the palm trees, past the choppy waters of the bay. Most of them were dressed in orange and black, all of them hopeful and happy.
We got off near the main entrance to the ballpark. Our animated crossing guard was earnestly attentive to the elderly, and to parents with children. We all felt protected. Everyone was chatting. Our friend Mona remarked that just being there lifted her spirits. I said that it felt like we were about to enter the enchanting gates of Disneyland.
Once we got inside, Mona mentioned that it was our mutual friend Holly’s birthday. Holly was a fervent Giants fan who passed away from cancer 11 years ago at a much too young age. She was also a tequila lover, so we immediately determined that our very first order of business was to have some shots in her honor. Bellied up to the bar, we clinked a toast and Mona downed a shot of fancy tequila while Julie and I each slammed back a jigger of Maker’s Mark. Moments later, as we weaved our way along, Mona blurted out that man, she was really feeling that tequila. I suddenly realized that I was almost blind with liquor. “I can’t see! I can’t see!” I kept yelling, laughing.
It had been a long time since I had quaffed a shot of booze. I felt like a swaggering buckaroo in a Nevada saloon. The day got warmer.
People who claim that the best seats are right behind home plate are not necessarily true baseball fans, especially at the Giants ballpark. I recently heard Mike Krukow, one of the team’s announcers, say that if he could sit anywhere he wanted, outside of the announcer’s booth, he would sit in the upper deck, first base side.
I agree, and that’s my chosen spot. It gives me a bird’s-eye view of the entire stadium, the huge fiberglass glove and Coke bottle behind the left field bleachers, the retired numbers of the greatest Giants ballplayers, and the World Series flags whipping in the wind. Beyond lies the bay, dabbed with sailboats. The dramatic white span of the Bay Bridge is visible east of Yerba Buena Island. And standing far in the distance are the gently rolling hills of the East Bay.
I always insist on grabbing my Sierra Nevada beer and my Crazy Crab Sandwich early so that I can be at my seat when the National Anthem is played. And yes, I know that my favorite sports meal usually involves a hot dog. But there’s nothing in San Francisco quite like crab and sourdough.
The bread, I believe, might be the best thing about the crab sandwiches at the ballpark. The Boudin sourdough is cut thinly and spread with a mixture of garlic, parsley, and butter. Inside lies the sweet, tender Dungeness crab, mixed with a hint of lemon juice and a light bit of mayo to keep it together. Ripe red tomato slices rest on top of the crab. The whole thing is then toasted to a golden brown and served hot. God help me!
We were at our seats on time. A school band from Healdsburg began playing the Anthem. Hand on heart, I looked to the right of the scoreboard, out in deep center field just behind Triples Alley. Yes, our flag was still there.
I thought about the past six months and the unrelenting nerve pain that had sizzled through my body. I thought about all of the times I had considered giving up completely. Who would care, I actually wondered at one point. But working against that desperation was a reserve of patience, strength, and will that I never knew I had. And when I was at my very lowest, the phone would often ring. That does it. A surprise phone call. A suggestion. A kind word. My beautiful friends and family. “I believe in you,” one of them said. “I believe in your ability to cope.” Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Our seats were in full sun. I felt safe. I’d left almost all of my pain behind me in the tunnel.
Our long-postponed road trip to Kentucky would be happening soon. The thought made me smile.
A cool breeze came in softly off the bay. A lone seagull flew white against the blue sky.
The players had taken the field.
I settled back and slowly brought my cup of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale to my lips. Its hue was a vivid amber, its fragrance clean like the clear crisp water of the Cascades. I took my first baseball sip. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
3/11/72 [age 16]:
“My cold is still fairly bad but I am up here at Azama’s and Moore’s cabin anyway. . . . Skiing [at Bear Valley] wasn’t really that fun. Until lunch we were mainly trying to stay on our feet. It takes really long to get up if you fall. I was really a klutz, and Mrs. Espinosa was a chicken, so we stayed on the beginner’s slope. Mrs. Moore kept on repeating, “Why did you fall?” It made me mad. Then I got so hungry I could eat a bear. Luckily, lunch was fantastic. They had made us delicious sandwiches and I ate five of them. Miss Azama told me that skiing uses a lot of energy and that’s why I ate five sandwiches. After lunch we watched the Celebrity Ski Race, and I snuck under the tape and got pictures of Clint Eastwood and Peter Graves up close! Unbelievable! In the morning they made us something called sourdough pancakes and I had 13 of them. They were fantastic.”
2/7/72 [age 16]:
“Last year I saw a skiing movie in English called ‘Ski the Outer Limits’ and it was so beautiful I was hooked right then and there. Well, Miss Azama and Mrs. Moore asked Colleen, me, and Marie Ehrling, our Swedish foreign exchange student, to go up to their cabin for a weekend in March. I can’t wait. They’re going to teach us to ski. It’s going to cost us $15. They said the first day is the worst. I may, with my great coordination, find myself wrapped around a tree.”
2/6/72 [age 16]:
“This guy named Jerry in my English class has this crush on me. But I’m not going to spread it around like I did with Jeff last year. Jerry is kind of a baby but he’s nice. He’s played basketball with me a lot after school. And he sits in English and throws paper wads at me. Romantic, huh?”
2/5/72 [age 16]:
“You see, I don’t believe in finals. All they do is test a bunch of facts.”
2/4/72 [age 16]:
“We went to see ‘Dirty Harry.’ It was [my brother] Marc’s and mine first ‘R’ movie and [my sister] Janine saw it. Can you believe that? When I was eleven I got to see really good movies, like ‘The Love Bug.’ ”
Well, how odd. That was the entire, precise Facebook message, including caps and exclamation points, that suddenly appeared on my new smartphone at 3:15 p.m. on October 3, 2014.
Now I just had to figure out why in the world my friend Mona, whom I hadn’t seen in a few years, had sent a message out of the blue shouting “son of a bitch!” at me without so much as a greeting or an explanation. How does one respond to such a thing? What did it mean?
Mona and I had gotten to know each other back in the 1980s, when she decided to sponsor my softball team. Other than my move to San Francisco in the 1970s, that team was the single most significant influence in my life. The lessons I learned, and the powerful friendships I made, informed my life’s course at a time when I most needed direction. And I have been blissfully bound in the mesh of those relationships, filament by filament, ever since.
As time went by, after Mona married and had a couple of children, we’d just naturally lost touch for a few years. She and I are very different in a million ways. She owned the first female-run network telecommunications company in the country and has been a serial entrepreneur ever since. She’s energetic, gregarious, and progressive. I’m more reticent and conservative, and I prefer the back of the stage rather than the front. She has a warm voice and a beautiful crinkly smile and she wears her feelings on her sleeve, while mine are often deeply concealed. But at our essence we’re both passionate and emotional, culturally similar. And as with all old friends, the bonds between us have abided.
Anyway, that October afternoon I was glued to the television watching a baseball game. When the “son of a bitch” message popped up, I’d been digging around in a wooden bowl for old maids. You know what they are – those partially popped kernels of popcorn at the bottom of the bowl that are so crunchy and satisfying. I’d just finished eating a sports meal, or at least my definition of one. A Paula Bocciardi sports meal consists of three items: a hot dog, popcorn, and a beer. I prefer Hebrew Nationals, Pop Secret Homestyle, and Sam Adams Boston Lager.
As I sat on the couch, crunching on the last of those old maids, I racked my brain for some kind of meaning to Mona’s expletive. At first I figured it was a mistake. Maybe she hadn’t meant to send it at all. And why no explanation? Did she really expect me to understand what she meant, especially since we hadn’t spoken in so long? It must have been meant for someone else. Maybe she was sitting in a boardroom somewhere, seething about something, and she’d fired off the message to the wrong person.
But then I started laughing. I figured it out. It was right in front of my eyes. I was watching game 1 of baseball’s Division Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Washington Nationals. The Giants were ahead 3-0 going into the 7th inning when coach Bruce Bochy pulled out starting pitcher Jake Peavy – who had a shutout going – and brought in the ever-erratic reliever Hunter Strickland, who allowed back-to-back homers by Bryce Harper (whom I loathe anyway) and Asdrubal Cabrera.
It was after the homer by Cabrera, when the score was suddenly 3-2, that Mona flew into a baseball rage and messaged me.
Assuming that my clever deduction was indeed correct, I messaged her back. The exchange was exactly this:
M: Son of a BITCH!!!
P: No kidding!! Plus I hate Bryce Harper.
M: Then I hate him too!
P: He’s an a-hole. On the plus side, I love Joe Panik. i just gotta first iPhone. This is fun!
M: Panic is a fun player to watch. Strong infield, I love Brandons!
P: I agree! Now we need to suffer through 6 outs. I need some bourbon.
The beauty of the whole thing was the fact that someone knew me well enough to correctly assume what I was doing at a particular moment in time. And to assume that I would know exactly what she was talking about, despite the years since we’d last talked. Within seconds we had effortlessly relinked ourselves. That kind of friendship is a precious gift.
I probably have hundreds of ballpark memories, but my most cherished are those that were shared with friends whose hearts beat with the same love of sports. In the first season the new Giants ballpark was open, tickets were nearly impossible to get, but my good friend Julie R. and I developed an elaborate scheme to score some seats, part of which involved my cozying up to a workmate whose boyfriend had season tickets. Armed with a couple of his unwanted seats, Julie and I went to our first day game at what is now AT&T Park on June 14, 2000. What made that day almost unrivaled in San Francisco history is that the temperature was 103 degrees. For San Francisco, that means you have practically entered the gates of Hell. (The average temperature for that date, by the way, is 69 degrees.) I would send an e-mail to my sister-in-law Lori later that night, telling her that it was 91 degrees inside the house at 9:00 p.m. (no one has air conditioning here). I also reported that I’d been reading Rolling Stone magazine that evening, and that the inks on the cover had melted in the heat and run all over my legs.
In any case, Julie R. and I were not to be deterred from seeing that game. We were intrepid sports fans and we were not going to let the heat get to us, even if we boiled to death. Our seats were, of course, in the blazing sun; they were very close to the field, along the third base line. We endured the conditions as long as we could, but after an hour and a half, with sweat cascading off of us, we decided that our hearts were racing dangerously fast and we needed to seek shade. Only when we turned around did we realize that no one else in the stadium was sitting in the sun. And I mean no one. It was 111 degrees on the field, we had heard, and I believe that we were possibly close to death at that point. Plus we hadn’t had a thing to eat; as Julie later said, “My mouth was so dry I couldn’t swallow.”
The fans, it seemed – at least, those who were still there – had crowded into any empty spots they could find in the shade. There was very little shade left for us, but we eventually managed to spot four seats under an overhang, and we quickly grabbed two of them. Shortly afterwards, however, along came the season-ticket seat owner. He was with only one companion, so we asked him if we could use his other two seats. It was then that we realized that he was drunk as a loon. He was stumbling and slurring, his zipper was half-down(!), and he declared that we could use his seats only if Julie R. gave him a hug! (She ended up being the one next to him, thank God.) So the typically reticent Julie had to close her eyes and reluctantly hug him. It was hard for me to control my laughter, and at the same time I was utterly relieved that he wasn’t sitting next to me. Anyway, whenever the Giants did something good, he would sort of put his arm around Julie, but she was sweating so much that he would then draw it back in revulsion. He did this repeatedly because he kept forgetting that he’d tried it earlier! Luckily, he left before the game was over and we were able to enjoy the rest of the afternoon baking in peace.
Whenever either of us recalls that game, we burst out laughing. It’s just a funny, funny memory that can never be replicated.
Temperatures exceeding 100 degrees at AT&T Park are, as one might expect, rare. In my estimation, the ballpark had to have been designed by a meteorological genius, because no matter how chilly and windy the San Francisco days and nights might be, inside the park it’s usually fairly temperate, as if you’ve entered another town altogether. The team’s former stadium, of course, was Candlestick Park, which was not so temperate and had a worldwide reputation for its blustery, howling winds. Longtime rumors have it that Giants pitcher Stu Miller was blown clear off the mound there during the 1961 All-Star game. Witnesses agree. Miller, though, claimed that he merely “waved like a tree” in the sudden gust.
In any case, my favorite Candlestick wind story was not Miller’s. My friend Erlinda and I were there for one of the rescheduled 1989 World Series games, and she told me about an acquaintance who had brought a little boy to the park for his very first game. When it was over, the boy gushed about what a great time he’d had, and she asked him what his favorite part of the game was.
“The flying napkins,” he answered.
Another only-in-San Francisco moment of a totally different nature came during a game in August of 2002. Barry Bonds hit his 600th homer that night. Julie S. and I were sitting in a good seat down the third-base line. A yo-yo sitting in the row on front of us, and slightly to the right, was constantly standing up and blocking my view of home plate. I could have stood up, too, but then I would have been obstructing the people behind me. It was very frustrating, and these two young guys beside me asked me if I could see. “Not at all,” I said glumly. They were peeved on my behalf. They shouted to the guy a polite request to please sit down, but he belligerently told them that he was going to do what he damned well pleased.
Their furious San Francisco response? “Well, that’s not very mature!!”
The next day, I ran the situation by my friend Carl – a Yankee fan and consummate New Yorker. I asked him what would have happened had a similar situation occurred at Yankee Stadium. His answer was that the scenario would have progressed thusly:
Man stands up and blocks people’s view.
Someone: “Down in front!”
Man does nothing.
Someone else: “Hey! Sit the f— down!”
Man does nothing.
A fight ensues and the man gets beat up.
The year after the ’89 earthquake, when many of my workmates and I were displaced from our damaged building, I somehow finagled a work situation in which I was allowed to edit manuscripts from home. (Remember, this was before the concept of telecommuting existed.) No one ever checked up on me, and I would steal away to Giants day games by myself at Candlestick. I was never caught, and in fact this is my first public confession of those crimes. (Honest as I was, though, I would always make up the hours and work late into the night after I got home.) I would walk two blocks to 19th Avenue and catch the 28 bus for its very circuitous route to Candlestick Park. (The bus schedule was dubious; I remember that one time the driver made us wait 20 minutes while he parked and bought something at a garage sale!) I shared the bus with five-foot-tall little old ladies from the Sunset, all of them wearing baseball caps adorned with pins marking some Giants event or another. They were hale and hearty and always undeterred by the Candlestick chill.
These days, I still go by myself go to all the Giants weekday afternoon games. I’m a loner, so that’s just fine with me. But sharing the games with others is so much better.
Last year, Mona treated me to a seat at the ballpark on Opening Day against the Dodgers. When Hunter Pence hit his grand slam, I believe I actually crawled up Mona’s arm. She paid me no mind. She also participated in one of my fantasy leagues last year, drafting an all-Latino team as her “strategy.” It was not a particularly successful strategy, but I wished I’d thought of it nevertheless.
My mother became a hardcore Giants fan in her later years, and I took her to a handful of games at AT&T Park, where she always insisted on having a glass of (bad) red wine with her crab sandwich on sourdough. She thought Brandon Crawford was a hunk. Those are some of my most beautiful memories.
During the 2012 playoffs, Mom was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery, so we watched the Division Series together in her hospital room. When Buster Posey hit his grand slam against the Cincinnati Reds in game 5, we tried to maintain quiet and dignity so as not to disturb the other patients on the floor. Then we heard the whoops erupting from the other rooms and echoing along the hallways.
When the San Francisco Giants finally won the World Series in 2010, it was their first title since they’d arrived in the city in 1958. A lifelong fan, I wept for three days after that Series. My emotions partially sprang from the happiness I felt for the ragtag group of players who pulled off that improbable victory – especially for Andres Torres and Cody Ross, good-natured and grateful guys who had been put out to pasture until the Giants picked them up. But mostly I cried for the fulfillment of my 50 years of hope and longing.
That night Julie S. and I took the bus down to the Civic Center, where a celebration was brewing. All I could think of was the night the 49ers won their first Super Bowl in January of 1982. Cynthia and I had raced out of our 9th Avenue apartment into an exuberant crowd of celebrants. It was a spontaneous and delirious gathering. A young man – a stranger to both of us – suddenly swept Cynthia up in his arms and kissed her. We were all smiles; there was no harm or disrespect intended. The whole thing looked like that iconic World War II photo of the kissing strangers in Times Square – a sailor dipping a nurse and planting a joyful smooch on her when the news broke that Japan had surrendered and the war was over.
But the Civic Center in 2010 wasn’t like that. It was mostly a bunch of drunken college girls who may or may not have had any idea how the game of baseball is even played. We came home quickly, dejected. But the next day I was listening to Gary Radnich, one of my favorite Bay Area sports show hosts, on the radio. And he launched into a speech about how the lingering euphoria in the air was most decidedly not for the youngsters. It was not for the bandwagoners. It was not for the casual fan. It was, he said, for the battle-scarred veterans.
It was for the little old ladies with the pins in their caps. And frankly, it was for me, too.
People wax poetic about baseball all the time, and they often talk about the concept of renewal. Spring Training is a metaphor for that. It’s a way for the team to rebuild and refresh itself, and for the fans to revive their sense of optimism for the coming months. Everything starts all over again. I look at friendship that way. Sometimes it waxes and sometimes it wanes, but it can always be renewed. The ties, they bind.
The Giants take the field at AT&T Park in just a few hours for their 2017 home opener. The ticket prices were just ridiculous, so Mona and I decided to go to a sports bar instead and watch the game from there. It’ll be the two of us, then, throwing back some Boston Lagers and cheering our way through a 3-hour ballgame, tethered gently by 30 years of friendship and the beautiful, delicate filaments of memory.
The World Series begins on Tuesday, and I for one cannot wait. For those of you who don’t follow sports very closely, it will involve two of the most storied teams in baseball: the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians. The Indians last won a World Series in 1948. But Chicago’s drought beats that dubious record by decades: the Cubs have not been to the Series in 71 years and have not won it since 1908. That’s a 108-year deprivation.
For me, though, this historic Series will be slightly marred by one thing. One guy, actually. His name is “Marlins Man.” And I loathe him.
I first became aware of Marlins Man last year, when he showed up at the All-Star game in July. He was constantly on camera because he sat right behind home plate, and he was wearing an orange Miami Marlins sweatshirt and an orange visor.
Then he became a fixture during the playoffs and World Series, always sitting behind home plate, always wearing the ubiquitous Marlins outfit. (Mind you, the Marlins were not in the postseason at all.) Of course, all of the other fans were wearing the colors of the two teams involved. But not Marlins Man. He really stood out. He was a blazing beacon in orange.
It amazed and intrigued me that one guy could somehow score a ticket – right behind home plate – to every playoff and World Series game. (Well, not every playoff game, obviously, because sometimes multiple games occur simultaneously and he had to choose one.) How can that even happen? It’s not that these tickets are easy to come by. And the chances of getting a coveted seat in a particular section on camera must be very, very slim.
So I did some research on the guy.
His name is Laurence Leavy, he’s 60 years old, and he owns a big law firm in Miami. And it’s not just baseball games he attends. He’s also inhabited choice seats at the Kentucky Derby, the Super Bowl, the NBA finals, etc.
So how does Mr. Leavy score the tickets? Generally he gets them off of StubHub – a site on which season-ticket holders sell their unused tickets. He apparently has no problem getting them because, as he boasts, “people will sell them for good money.” He says the price he’s able to offer is equivalent to an entire year’s worth of seats. So we’re obviously talking YUUUUGE bucks.
I use StubHub myself. That’s where I buy my tickets to all of the Giants weekday afternoon games. I set myself a price limit of $20-$40, and I sit in the highest-level seats, in sections 312–314 because they’re near the escalator and Tony’s Slicehouse Pizza, which also happens to sell Sierra Nevada beer. Nirvana.
Marlins Man, obviously, is in a far different league. He’s unbelievably wealthy. During the 2003 World Series, he apparently bought an entire section of seats and brought 104 people to sit with him. There was nothing wrong with that, of course; the Marlins were actually in the Series that year, and I am not one to unilaterally demonize the rich. He did a generous thing, and wealth in the hands of good people can do immense good.
Why, then, does Marlins Man bother me so much? I’ve asked myself that question many times.
First of all, I hate that he wears the same outfit to every game he attends. The same orange Marlins sweatshirt, no matter the weather, the event, or the location. And I hate that he wears a visor, for cryin’ out loud. Why not wear a baseball cap, as everyone else does? Visors are for accountants, bookies, blackjack dealers, high-society Napa ladies, and golfers (not that there’s anything wrong with any of those people!). To make matters worse, he often wears the visor sideways, which really gripes my keister. It just looks ridiculous.
I hate, too, that he hardly ever watches the game. He’s either blathering to the fans around him or obsessed with his cell phone. Since he has no particular allegiance to either team involved, he doesn’t feel a burning need to focus on the game. In the ninth inning of Saturday night’s Cubs victory, for example, while the Chicago fans were at once nervous and weeping with joy, he was turned with his back to the camera, taking selfies. What a jerk.
I’m not the only one who takes issue with this guy. During last year’s World Series between the Kansas City Royals and the New York Mets, the Royals were royally miffed that he was there. They tried to bribe him with World Series paraphernalia if he would just jettison the *&^%$#@ orange sweatshirt. And they even offered to move him to a private suite. But he refused. After all, he’d paid $8,000 for his ticket. And he certainly was well within his rights to wear what he wanted and sit where he wanted. But still, it was almost a deliberate attempt to flaunt his power and show up the Royals fans. What a putz.
He also got into a beef with some Indians fans once, so this upcoming World Series should be interesting. After the incident (which is too unclear to recount), he actually engaged in a Twitter storm with Indians fans and somehow ended up tweeting something about the “Japs.” Lovely. What a bully.
It bothers me, too, that he feels he has to have seats directly behind home plate. In my view, those seats should go to diehard loyal fans. Instead, Marlins Man admits that he wants those seats so that he will be on camera for the entire game. If he fit in with the crowd, and didn’t make such an effort to call attention to himself, no one would notice him. But what a shameless publicity hog.
Of course, Marlin Man’s ability to get those seats also means that someone is willing to give them up. This is what really puzzles me. If I had a World Series ticket, and the Giants were playing, and I could be sitting a few feet behind Buster Posey, would I sell my ticket to this obnoxious dude from Florida? That hypothetical recently prompted a conversation between Julie and me. I asked her to imagine that she had such a ticket and that Marlins Man offered her money to give it up. How much dough would it take? I declared that for me, it would take half a million dollars. Julie said that she would sell out give up the ticket for $10,000. (I was aghast.)
Mostly, though, what bothers me about Marlins Man is that this one wealthy guy can have continuing access to the most coveted seats at the most significant sporting events in the country. There are people throughout this nation who would give their eye teeth to go to one of those games, but they can’t afford even the least expensive of regular-season games, which are now – like everything else – beyond the means of so many. The concept he represents is what most of us know to be true – that wealth equals power, and part of that power is the ability to have anything one wants and to wield control, however subtly, over the less wealthy in the process.
I’m sorry, dear readers, to have put this guy’s visage in your heads, because if you tune in to the World Series, he is going to haunt you. I guarantee that he will be at every World Series game starting Tuesday, sitting in his usual spot, and you will not be able to avoid his garish presence. I’ve been thinking about sticking a Post-It note on my TV screen over his vile head.
But keep in mind that you will be witnessing history. I cannot wait to watch these two great teams play for the greatest title in the greatest American sport. My heart lies with the Cubs, because of family and friends and that 108-year dry spell. But I will not be dismayed by a Cleveland victory if that happens. These are two honorable teams, each of them deserving.
And if your eyes should fall on Marlins Man, just avert them. This rich, orange, entitled, self-besotted, intimidating cretin of a media hog may lurk around for a little while longer. But come early November, when the contest is over, we will be rid of him. And what a relief that will be.
By the way, I would love to hear from my readers as to how much money they would be willing to take for a coveted ticket. Don’t limit this to the World Series. Imagine it’s a ticket to something you revere. It could be the Super Bowl, or the NBA finals, or Wimbledon. It could be front-row seats to see Streisand or Springsteen. Or a chance to ride with the Blue Angels. Just let me know how much lucre it would take for you to sell your soul!
I’ll never forget the night I was sound asleep in my San Francisco apartment when the phone rang and a friend of mine demanded that I leap out of bed and rush immediately to the Symphony.
I had just started work for the state Administrative Office of the Courts, at a job I thought would be temporary but, as it turned out, lasted 26 years and netted me a pension. We worked only until 4 p.m. in those early days (ah, the 80s!), and my new co-workers told me about their “tradition” of periodically heading out to the Cliff House bar after work to quaff a few on a Friday night. I happily agreed to go along, and that night they introduced me to the delightful but merciless beverage called the Long Island Iced Tea. This insidious assassin of a drink contains five different alcohols, with a little Coke thrown in for good measure. I certainly hadn’t been a teetotaler up to that point – far from it – but I had no idea what that drink was. The very first sip was absolutely delicious – it tastes, of course, like iced tea – so I downed a tall one and then ordered another, unaware that the copious amounts of hidden alcohol in that lovely amber cocktail could kill a horse. About halfway through the second one, I realized that I couldn’t feel my feet.
So I stopped drinking and left for home, probably on a bus, because I’m sure I wasn’t driving. It was only about 6:30 p.m., but of course the minute I got home I decided it was time for bed.
I was already slumbering soundly when my friend Kay called. She worked as a marketing person for the San Francisco Symphony and had two tickets for the Symphony that very same night. In about an hour. Insisting that I go with her, she wouldn’t take my protestations seriously. “Good God, Kay,” I groaned, “I’m already in bed! My contact lenses are being disinfected and I already have my retainer in! And I’m sure my hair by now is a rat’s nest. Plus I just drank the equivalent of four liters of alcohol and can’t feel my feet! Forget it.” But one of Kay’s gifts was the power of persuasion, and for some reason I acceded to her demands and dragged my sorry self wearily out of bed.
I hardly had time to get dressed, but I managed to pull on some nylons, the only dress I owned, the only shoes with heels I owned, and the only coat I owned, which was a London Fog raincoat, even though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I thought I should try to look elegant.
Mind you, I was not a Symphony type of gal. In addition to rock and roll, I definitely loved Big Band and the great American crooners. But to a great extent I’m a cultural philistine, and I keep my distance from the refined arts. So I had never been to the Symphony or the Opera and had intended to keep things that way. Still, I had heard a few classical pieces and thought to myself, “Well, some of that stuff can be rousing and might get my adrenaline going. How bad can this be?”
I’ll tell you how bad. What I didn’t know until the music started was that I was in for an evening of ancient chamber music, performed by a string quartet. Four people with violins on a stage. The best way I can describe the entire night is that it went like this:
With an occasional:
Needless to say, it was neither rousing nor inspiring. It finally got to the point where, much to my amusement, I thought I heard the older gentleman next to me sawing logs. Then a loud snort came out of me and I realized, to my mortification, that I was the one who’d been snoring.
When Kay drove me home after the evening mercifully ended, I told her in no uncertain terms that she owed me BIG TIME. What I demanded in return was that she get us two tickets to see Tony Bennett when he appeared with the Symphony later that season. She thought I was joking. “Tony Bennett?? You’ve got to be kidding me. That old guy? What are you, a senior citizen?” But I would not back down. I loved the man, and she was going to take me to see him. She teased me about it for months and proclaimed my uncoolness to all of our friends, but I kept my resolve and won.
I had been a Tony Bennett fan for nearly my entire life. When we were kids, my mother kept a radio on top of the refrigerator, and it was on KABL night and day. Mom was first and foremost a Sinatra fan, but she certainly loved and appreciated all of the sophisticated adult (i.e., non-rock) music of the time. I absorbed all of it.
Sinatra, I thought, was an actor as much as a singer, and his style could practically conjure a feature film out of every song. Perhaps because of my age I wasn’t a fan of his woeful laments like “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” that he recorded when Ava Gardner was about to leave him. But I adored his big-band and swing tunes, Sinatra at the Sands with the Count Basie Orchestra being an album I could listen to every day.
Tony Bennett, to me, was jazzier and less mercurial. He didn’t have Sinatra’s urban rakishness, but his voice was so good that flair was unnecessary. He could do ballads and he could do swing, with equal weight. He was never breezy. His voice had a hint of Italian huskiness to it, like a little bit of peppery seasoning on a tender filet.
Sinatra famously said Tony Bennett was “the best singer in the business.” Is there a greater endorsement?
Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born in Queens, New York, in 1926. He studied music and painting in school but dropped out at the age of 16 because his family needed the financial help. During World War II he served on the front lines with the U.S. army infantry – an experience, by the way, that spurred him to become a lifelong pacifist. After the war, he decided to study singing and acting. Pearl Bailey discovered him in Greenwich Village, Bob Hope put him in his road show, and Columbia Records signed him in 1950. Lucky for us. Since then, he has sold more than 50 million records.
Tony’s life wasn’t without its problems. When music labels began demanding that singers record rock albums in the 1970s, he hated compromising his principles so much that he apparently would get sick before recording sessions. The rock records didn’t sell. His second marriage dissolved, his lack of business savvy brought him to near financial ruin, and he got involved with drugs. Fortunately, his son Danny helped him completely resurrect his career. He got Tony booked on “MTV Unplugged” in 1994 and exposed him to a hip, younger crowd. The Unplugged album from that show won the Grammy for Album of the Year, and Tony was hot again.
Tony Bennett is a gentle man, happy and grateful, with an artist’s sensibility and an abundance of class. He walked with Martin Luther King in the Selma-to-Montgomery marches. He’s an accomplished painter whose works hang in the Smithsonian. His paintings have been commissioned by the U.N. and he was named the official artist for the 2001 Kentucky Derby. He is tirelessly involved with a host of charities. He and his wife founded Exploring the Arts (which promotes arts education) and the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens, a high school dedicated to performing arts instruction. Right now he’s in the middle of a tour that runs at least through November and includes a show next month at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
On August 3, he turned 90 years old.
Most people don’t know that “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” was written in 1953 by two gay World War II vets, George Cory and Douglass Cross. They lived in New York City after the war but strongly missed what George called “the warmth and openness of the people and the beauty [of San Francisco]. We never really took to New York.” They moved back to the Bay Area in the late sixties, and three years after Douglass died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 54, George took his own life. The coroner’s office reported that he was “despondent over failing health,” but I wonder about his broken heart.
After it was written, “I Left My Heart” languished until late 1961, when Tony was looking for a song to add to his repertoire while he was on tour. Not even realizing that the tune would be a hit, he sang it for the first time in December 1961 at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, where his tour culminated. He recorded it in January 1962 and it was released as the “B” side to “Once Upon a Time.” The rest is history. It won the Grammy award for Record of the Year, and Tony won for Best Male Solo Vocal Performance, his first Grammy.
San Francisco adopted “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” as the city’s official song in 1969. In 2001 it was ranked 23rd on the “Songs of the Century” list compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.
On Friday, August 19, San Francisco organized a huge celebration for Tony by unveiling a statue of him in front of the Fairmont Hotel. The Giants game that night was dedicated to him as well. I had decided months ago to attend both events, and I was determined to follow through with the pledge, despite the fact that I was suffering from vertigo.
(Yes, I’ve been dealing with dizziness for about three months, on and off, and am not happy about it. It’s become clear that it has something to do with my ears – so I probably don’t have a brain tumor, which is always my initial assumption – and I’m going through the process of getting medical attention. But I’ve been living in a disoriented fog of dizziness, nausea, and general ennui on and off since May. It was so bad last week that I wasn’t able to work on my blog because I just couldn’t focus. I hated not posting something, but it also made me realize that there is no way I can come up with 52 good ideas a year anyway! So now I am reconciled to the fact that Monday Morning Rail won’t be published every single week. At least my misery has resulted in a revelation.)
Anyway, that Friday morning I found myself walking up Powell from Market Street towards the Fairmont. It may not have been the best choice of routes, because in that area Powell Street is so steep that you practically need climbing gear trying to summit it. I was huffing up the street at a pretty good clip, though, silently congratulating myself for being in such decent shape after not having exercised in many weeks because of the *&^%$# vertigo, when I looked to my left and a young woman and her three-year-old child went skittering past me up the hill like a couple of mountain goats.
I could probably write a 100,000-word love letter about San Francisco, and maybe I will someday. The subject, though, is probably much too broad and much too emotional for someone like me to adequately capture. I would undoubtedly lapse into clichés or drunken sentimentality. But let me just mention that the two hours I spent in front of the Fairmont were arresting. The fog, of course, was hanging over us, somewhat lightly, but enough to keep me cool in the almost constricting crowd. There were tourists, residents, babies, parents, old folks, and people of all colors. The bells of Grace Cathedral were ringing melodiously and with grandeur. The San Francisco Chief of Protocol (I love that quaint designation) spoke, as did the mayor, and Nancy Pelosi, and Dianne Feinstein. Behind the blue birthday balloons – some of which were lurching and popping in the wind – the Fairmont’s procession of international flags lined its historic façade. I was thinking about the Fairmont and how it survived the 1906 earthquake, and how I loved the hotel’s tropically decorated Tonga Room and its thatch-covered floating stage and its exotic drinks, and how the Fairmont had been the site of our wedding reception and I had actually, truly, gasped when I first saw the view from the room. About then, a cable car stopped behind us and remained there for the ceremony, the conductor ringing its bells periodically with great spirit and joy.
Three very elderly women were standing behind me, and I could tell that they were native San Franciscans – probably Italians. They spoke with a classic San Francisco accent, and yes, there definitely is such a thing among the old-timers. My cousin Jerry, who was born in San Francisco, used to speak with a combination of Boston and New York accents – an articulation cultivated specifically by the Irish and Italian Catholics who lived out in the Mission District. Sure enough, when one of the speakers joked that the world is divided into people who are Italian and people who want to be Italian, the ladies cheered. I knew it! Anyway, these women were about 4-1/2 feet tall at best, all dressed to the nines. And they had that unselfconscious way of speaking their mind and not caring who is in earshot – common to the elderly, I think. “The papers said this ceremony was going to be on the Fairmont lawn,” one of them declared loudly. “There’s no lawn at the Fairmont. What a bunch of crap!” She was right about that. When Dianne Feinstein came out to speak, one of them sucked in her breath at what she must have considered a fashion faux pas. “Oh, my,” she hissed, “can you believe she’s all in red?”
The sun finally broke through the fog, with its usual good timing. Tony Bennett walked out to much applause and his huge statue was unveiled, depicting him with his head thrown back and arms raised upwards, singing with great heart, as he always does. The real Tony choked up and told everyone, “You have been so wonderful to me. I’ll never forget this day.” I felt embarrassed to be fighting back tears myself, but I stole a glance at the young man beside me and he was sobbing!
That evening, Julie and I took the streetcar out to the ballpark for Tony Bennett Night. Tony didn’t sing, but he said a few words. The entire stadium sang “Happy Birthday” to him. I had a crab sandwich on sourdough.
After every Giants home victory, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” is piped over the public address system at the ballpark. While most people file out of the stadium, I always stick around to listen to the song. For those three minutes, I relish not only the victory but my great fortune to have spent a lifetime loving both Tony Bennett and San Francisco.
That night, the Giants won 8-1.
You know, something else sticks with me about the day. Mayor Lee made a point of saying that while the city is facing new problems that need to be resolved soon, “we also need to celebrate what is right and what is great about San Francisco.” To me, everything about that day was right and great.