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Memories are funny..that trip to the ballpark

by Brian Clarey

In the summer of 1974, when I was a scabby 4-year-old, my father took me up to the Bronx for a baseball game at Yankee Stadium.

Memories are funny… though there are long stretches of my young adulthood that have vanished from my gray matter forever, I still remember things from my early years as clearly as yesterday’s lunch. This trip to the ballpark was one of those.

I remember the drive up from my grandparents’ house in Morristown, NJ in my father’s brown Impala, how we got into a small fender-bender near the tollbooths on the George Washington Bridge that the other guy, also on his way to the game, waved off. I remember I brought my mitt to catch foul balls.

I remember looking in awe at the gates atop the stadium, which was new in those days, and feeling small in the throng that squeezed through the turnstiles. I remember holding my father’s hand tight.

I remember moving from the madness of the concession ring through the tunnel and into the bleachers and seeing the emerald diamond down there on the field, a pasture amid a small city. I remember it looked like magic.

During the game – I don’t remember who it was the Yankees played that afternoon… maybe Milwaukee? – the crowd rose to its feet with every crack of the bat, cheered in unison with every Yankee put-out and groaned with one voice when the Bombers failed to reach base. I remember thinking it was like church.

I also remember that the guy sitting next to me burned me with his cigarette and offered temporary first aid by pouring a little of his beer on it. Also notable: sitting a couple rows back was the guy we had hit on the bridge, and he had changed his mind about collecting our insurance information.

In another kind of column, I would save these two details for the last paragraph, but this weekend I scored a couple tickets to the Davis Cup tennis match between the USA and Spain in Winston-Salem. My father, in town for the holidays, wanted to go.

This time we take my car out on Interstate 40, and the drive is uneventful. But I feel a powerful sense memory as we walk from our car to the turnstiles at the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

A tennis match is a very different animal than a major-league baseball game. For one, the crowd is smaller. It is also older, more calm and considerably whiter than the mass that descends on the Bronx to see the Yankees play. At today’s doubles match, for example, Sen. Richard Burr is in attendance and it’s difficult to pick him out among the similarly sportjacketed weekend fans.

You have to be quiet during match play. You cannot stand up. And if you run to get a hot dog between games you have to wait until the next one is over before they’ll let you back into your seat.

More: If you catch a tennis ball hit into the stands, you have to give it back. And if the umpire makes a bad call, fans will still tell him how hard he sucks, though perhaps less lustily as they do on the baseball diamond.

I don’t have press credentials for the event, so we file into the place with the rest of the hooples and get a bratwurst and a bag of nuts. We take our seats about a dozen rows up from the floor, 30 yards or so away from a contingent of Spanish nationals – or, at least, fans of the Spanish Davis Cup team – and they’re clad in red and yellow, some draped in the Spanish flag. One of them has a horn, and he trumpets tiny fanfares between bits of action, a technique far less obnoxious than those employed by the hardcore USA boosters.

There’s a crew of them just behind us in red, white and blue. Some of them wear hats made from tennis rackets, and all of them take advantage of lulls in the action to shout practiced cheers to another group in identical uniforms across the arena floor in a frenzied, patriotic call and response. Three games into the first set the American fanatics have co-opted one of the Spanish group’s cheers, throwing it back at the Iberians with mocking cadence.

It’s a bit like a soccer match, but with gin and tonics.

The US doubles team, twin brothers Mike and Bob Bryan, fare well, taking the first two sets 7-5 and 6-3. The Spanish pair, Felicicano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco (who, incidentally, have much better haircuts that the American brothers), stage a comeback in the third set, taking it 3-6, and then battle through a fourth set to a 6-6 draw, necessitating a playoff set that the Bryan brothers will win 7-5. During the match my father and I cheer together, analyze strategy and game play, make fun of some of the people in the stands.

It’s cold outside when we walk back to my car and the drive back to my house is much quicker than the jaunt from the Bronx to northeast Jersey. But it feels exactly the same.

For questions or comments email Brian Clarey at editor@yesweekly.com

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