I think of my Dad a lot since his death in 2006. But there’s one place where I consistently feel him right beside me: at Nationals Park.
Sometimes I think I go to Nats games by myself just so I can pay closer attention to the things Dad wants me to see: the first view of the impossibly green field; a batter’s elegant swing; the runner fraternizing with the first baseman; the little girl holding her daddy’s hand.
Dad would have joined the chants, made friends with the little boy sitting beside him, and bought me a beer. And he would have kept score.
I keep score. Dad taught me back in 1969, when the New York Mets gave a ten-year-old girl the greatest sports experience of her great sports life: an improbable miraculous Who Are These Guys world championship.
The Amazin’ Mets. Dad had plunked me down in front of our new color TV to watch the 1968 World Series. I knew the basics from our neighbor’s back yard. But Dad explained the intricacies of strategy, the excitement (and disappointment) of execution, and the intoxication of being a fan.
Especially that. In April 1969, Dad bought me my first baseball glove and, eventually, a Mets cap and a Mets pennant. He taught me how to read the National League standings, how to draw meaning from the box scores, and how to fall in love with a team.
We watched games together whenever we could, even if I had to go to bed in the 4th inning. Dad brought my sister and me to our first game, even though the traffic was awful and the parking worse. The Mets won that game and obligingly won many more that year. When a black cat crossed in front of the dugout of the powerful Chicago Cubs, we knew the miracle could happen.
In September, Dad taught me about playoff races and Magic Numbers. And every morning I awakened to a scrap of paper with a number — 12, 10, 9, 7 — on my bedside table. This was the Magic Number counting down to a first place finish. And essential information for me, because both the Mets and Cubs ended their games after my bedtime.
1969 was the first year of Division play. The Mets, Cubs and Saint Louis Cardinals played in the Eastern Division, and the Atlanta Braves and Cincinnati Reds played in the Western Division. (Truly, this arrangement distorted my sense of middle-America geography for decades. I remember my astonishment when I finally realized that the Western Division cities of Atlanta and Cincinnati were east of the Eastern Division cities of Chicago and Saint Louis.)
The Mets won the division by 8 games, and faced off against Hank Aaron’s Atlanta Braves. Three wins in those days propelled you to the World Series.
Everything was exciting. And to my ten-year-old heart, everything had the enchantment of a fairy tale, with the inevitable happy ending. I knew the risk of loss, having experienced 62 of them that season. But more importantly, I experienced the extraordinary life-altering certainty that We Would Win.
And Dad cultivated that in me: a confidence that miracles could happen, that everything is possible, that my act of believing — fervently and completely — could make a difference.
A high-risk strategy, perhaps. Indeed, I gaped incredulously when the Baltimore Orioles defeated Tom Seaver and the Mets in Game One of the World Series. Then the universe righted itself. The Mets raced to four straight wins, and sports’ greatest title was ours.
The Mets won. The Amazin’ Mets had won.
And I learned that miracles do happen, that everything is possible, that sending into the world all the positive energy a ten-year-old girl can muster can change things — or at least make me believe that it could.
I saw magic that season: a group of underdogs delivering joy to a little girl who — swept up in the miracle and feeding the miracle — assumed this was how it would always be.
And I was right. The very next season, a ten-year-old girl in Baltimore discovered baseball at her father’s side and experienced the miraculous. And the season after that, baseball magic enchanted a ten-year-old girl and her father in Pittsburgh. And on and on.
I had had my magical year. Let others have theirs.
Now, as a Nats fan, hopes and disappointments collide each season. But I need to remember that there is always a ten-year-old girl who falls in love with baseball the same year her team magically goes all the way. And I hope the magic never leaves her, as it’s never left me.
I hope she’ll hold her daddy’s hand after each loss and each win. That she’ll gasp in awe with him at the park’s impossibly green field. That she’ll high-five a neighbor and give her dad a hug.
And I hope, with every baseball moment she is still so lucky to have, that her dad sits right beside her, wherever he may be.
I hope you share a baseball memory, or any sports memories, with me. When I read this aloud to a small group, people approached me with story after story. I’d love to hear yours.