Saturday, July 18, 2009

My One Autumn with the Yankees

My dad’s family stared at him, horrified. It was the spring of 1958, and their beloved Brooklyn Dodgers had just moved to Los Angeles, leaving them devastated. The relocation didn’t bother my dad as much as his parents and older sister. The rebellious thirteen-year-old proudly wore his brand-new New York Yankees jacket to the dinner table.

My dad has always been a bit confused when it comes to team allegiance. He grew up a New York Giants fan, became a Redskins fan when he moved to the Washington area, but made my brother, JD, wear a Cowboys shirt when he was a little boy. JD would rather not talk about it.

My dad’s NFL order of teams goes Redskins and then Giants, and he generally doesn’t mind the Cowboys. He’ll even root for the Giants when, toward the end of the season, a New York win will harm their divisional rival Redskins’ chances of making the playoffs. “It’s up to the Skins to get the job done,” he’ll say. “Why would I root for the Chiefs over the Giants? I probably can’t name three guys on that team.”

When I was an early teenager, my dad’s favorite baseball team was the Baltimore Orioles, with the Yankees coming in second. JD and I investigated. In the 2000 season my dad always rooted for the Orioles, except when they played the Yankees with Roger Clemens, David Cone, Andy Pettitte, or Orlando “El Duque” Hernández as the starting pitcher. That occurred 9 of the 12 times the two teams played each other.

My allegiances are more clear-cut: Redskins for life, Seattle Mariners before Ken Griffey, Jr. left for Cincinnati, and then the Orioles. There’s just one blemish.


I got cancer at the perfect time of year—the NFL season was in its first month, and the baseball playoffs began just days after I started treatment. Like usual, my Orioles didn’t participate, and Griffey had recently departed the Mariners, which swept the White Sox in the first round. Without a horse in the race, I just watched, allowing my favorite childhood sport to take my mind off disease, chemotherapy, and dangerously low blood counts.

My immune system hit rock bottom on the first Saturday in October, in 2000. I spiked a low-grade fever late in the afternoon. I turned on the Mets/San Francisco Giants playoff game as I frantically collected my things. My heartbeat was rapid, more from the fear of not knowing what happens next than from my acute anemia. My doctors were of the opinion that fevers equal potential death, and that’s all I knew.

I stuffed my bag faster than my parents packed theirs, so I begged them to hurry, wondering if these empty minutes brought me closer to the mortal demise my doctors described. My mom drove on the nearly-empty highways more concerned with getting me to the hospital safely than my ticking time bomb.

We arrived to a calm hospital staff and not the frenetic one I expected. The nurse put me in a regular hospital room devoid of intensive care equipment. Nothing had to be resuscitated. Dr. Dunks looked me over, noting the acne that had spread across my back was worse than J.J. Redick’s. I hadn’t been eating much the past week. I missed going to school, and my friends, and my old life that was wrenched away from me.

Engrossed in the baseball game that was now in extra innings, I ate the entire chicken sandwich my dad had fetched for me, forgetting I hadn’t had an appetite. In the bottom of the 13th inning, Benny Agbayani crushed a homerun to catapult the Mets to a 3-2 victory.

My dad walked me down to radiology to get a chest X-ray. We got to talking about the Yankees, and how, even if you hate them, it’s hard not to respect some of their players’ postseason performances. Through 1999, Derek Jeter had a .326 batting average in the playoffs. Through that same time period, El Duque’s ERA was 1.02 and Mariano Rivera’s was a staggering 0.38 with 13 saves. Rivera hadn’t given up a single run in his last 18 postseason appearances, including 6 World Series games. He may be the best postseason pitcher ever.

I was sixteen years old and needed something to hold on to during that first month of cancer treatment. With Jeter, El Duque and Rivera, the Yankees weren’t going anywhere until they would beat the Mets in the World Series on October 26. I adopted the Yankees as my team, sharing them with my dad who rooted for them three-quarters of the time against his “favorite team,” the Orioles.

JD bought me the red Yankees hat that Fred Durst—lead singer of Limp Bizkit—made famous. He later got me a green one, and my aunt—the same one whose jaw dropped at the dinner table so many years before—bought me a Yankees World Series hat. I wore my hats around school with pride as all my hair fell out, carrying a note in my pocket authorizing me to wear them because hats normally weren’t allowed at school.

The following season was Cal Ripken, Jr.’s last before retirement. His rejuvenated play and storybook home run in the 2001 All-Star game restored my love for the Orioles, and, naturally, my hatred for the Yankees. But I’ll never forget how, that autumn, baseball in general and the Yankees more specifically renewed me with joy when all seemed so lost.


Anonymous said...

Well-written. Unsentimental. I love this post.

Mary L. Tabor said...

well-written. Unsentimental. I love this post.

jennrubenstein said...

i have to say that i had to go back and re-read because after the part about j having worn a cowboys jersey, i threw up a little bit and didn't comprehend the rest of your post. oh no, here it comes again... i'm crushed.

i'll be working out kenny's ticket situation soon... i'll email you. but i don't know if i can look at j (or your dad) the same again...

Benjamin Rubenstein said...

Yeah, I'm sure JD would rather that have remained private knowledge. As for my dad, let's just be thankful the Giants haven't become his Yankees.

ESPN Magazine released their fantasy football preview issue. I'm starting to get excited...

Mary L. Tabor said...

Good writing is all about the "unsayable." And good writing makes some uncomfortable: it is edgy, it is close to the bone, it pulls no punches, it bares the soul. If we writers fear the territory of the heart--and by that, I mean the beating organ that connects to the brain and the soul--we best go into the art of writing Hallmark Cards and forget writing memoir.

Benjamin Rubenstein said...

Thank you, Mary. Two well-written stories in the span of six months--I'm on the way up!