When you’re a kid, it doesn’t take much to take joy in little things.
Watching trains click and clack, planes fly high in the sky or even a loud voice on Nickelodeon can all draw your attention for a few seconds and make you smile.
But there are few things from those formative years that truly stick with you and make an impact for the rest of your life. For me, one of those things that has never wavered has been my affection for baseball.
In those early years of childhood, a game was always on TV in my house. Live games, an old one on ESPN Classic or the rotating morning highlights on SportsCenter, baseball was omnipresent in the Battifarano household.
One of the first gifts I ever remember getting on Christmas was a brand new brown Wilson glove I used for years in Little League. I still have it in the garage.
I attended countless games in various places, never forgetting my first time catching a game at Fenway Park or sitting under the unbearable summer sun in stands at Doubleday Field for the Hall of the Fame Game.
But for me, nothing compares to the night of June 30, 2000 at Shea Stadium.
I’d been to Shea Stadium before. Riding the 7 train from Woodside to see the blue facade and neon baseball figures made me an my brother always fight to get to the left side of the train car.
Coming out of the tunnel of the upper deck to see the larger-the-life right field scoreboard appear out of nowhere made any kid stare in awe — myself included.
On this summer night shortly after my run in Kindergarten was over, we’d acquired tickets in the green seats of the mezzanine to see the Mets play the Braves for a Friday game that included fireworks right before the fourth of July.
Along with my immediate family, we’d invited a few of my uncles and family friends from church, one of which was a Braves fan who used to torment my brother and I, for obvious reasons. Atlanta was in the middle of its stranglehold on the NL East, and this was right in the thick of the John Rocker saga and Chipper Jones’ dominance over the Mets.
Did a team ever take as much pleasure in pummeling another on into smithereens? I mean, Chipper named his child Shea. It might not have been at the level of Red Sox-Yankees, but those teams did not like each other.
At this point, the Braves had just beaten the Mets after a gut-wrenching NLCS and they were 26–6 in the regular season against the Mets heading into this game. The two teams were arch-rivals for probably about five-to-eight years, but it was one-sided.
In that context, it wasn’t surprising to see this script play out similarly through 7 2/3 innings.
Mike Hampton didn’t have his best stuff. Melvin Mora looked out of place at shortstop. Brian Jordan hit a dagger of a home run in the top of the eighth to make it a pretty insurmountable 8–1 score.
“They’re gonna lose,” my brother pouted over and over to anyone who would listen in our section of seats. And to be honest, history was on his side. Even as an optimist, I had to admit his grim assessment looked right.
Even with a few hits to make it 8–3, it looked just like mere bookkeeping in what was an already-decided affair. But the Braves all of a sudden couldn’t find the strike zone. One walk, two walks and a third with the bases loaded made it 8–6. Kerry Ligtenberg and Terry Mulholland couldn’t find the strike zone and Shea Stadium was getting off its collective hands and all standing.
When Edgardo Alfonzo lined a single to left to tie the game, I couldn’t hear anything from anyone from our section. It was textbook definition pandemonium and delirium. It felt that like the noise had reached its apex by the time Alfonzo reached first base and the Vengaboy’s “We Like to Party” blared over the PA system.
But it was Mike Piazza who made the crowd reach its apex, when he blasted a three-run homer to give the Mets the lead and the eventual win. He squared up that screaming liner and made the crowd pause for just a millisecond as everyone awaited to see if the ball hooked foul or not.
The diminutive soon-to-be six-year-old I was, I didn’t see a damn thing. I heard the crack of the bat, everyone in front of me stood up and the building was shaking as if the Beatles came for a reunion tour. Never in my life before or since have I been in a place so loud when that ball cleared the wall fair to give the Mets a then-club record 10 runs in the inning — nine with two outs.
Armando Benitez did his best to blow the lead but the Mets hung on in one of the most memorable comebacks in recent memory. The fireworks show afterwards was just the topper on a magical day for a kid.
I look on that day with fond memories, for obvious reasons. On its surface, yes, it was a fun baseball game and in the grand scheme of things doesn’t mean much. It’s baseball and we all know there are more important things in life.
Yet, that day always stood out to me because it was then I had loved something for the first time. It brought my entire family together like no other event other than stuffy formal events could. We weren’t and still aren’t a rich family. Baseball was a way for us to enjoy the summer together; whether that was sitting around our 20-inch Sony TV or taking a weekend trip to Philadelphia to see Veterans Stadium before it was demolished or all going to one of my baseball tournaments.
I dug into the history of baseball, wearing out our VHS box set of Ken Burns’ “Baseball” documentary. I read every book on the history of the World Series, the breaking of the color barrier and anything I could possibly get my hands on. To this day, my friends love the party trick where I can rattle of the World Series winners by year off the top of my head.
Now, in what sure I’m surprises very few of you, I work in baseball and write about the Minor Leagues for a living.
And today, it feels bittersweet writing this knowing we won’t get a MiLB season this year. Seeing all team employees and concessions vendors and anyone who works at the ballparks being without much or any work this year brings tears to my eyes. I feel for them. I look forward to catching a game in Coney Island every summer with a Nathan’s hotdog. There’s something Americana about baseball, particularly at the Minor League level.
It seems to cliche to find meaning like baseball and apply it to your own life, but here I am. For anyone who’s read my posts on here, you know how many medical maladies I’ve dealt with over the last decade-plus. It mentally grinds you down to a pulp sometimes thinking it will only get worse until you reach the pitfalls of rock bottom.
Every now and then I’ll watch highlights from that game on YouTube when I’m in one of those ruts to remind myself that it can get better. Even I know it’s ridiculous to find existential or prophetic meaning from a nine innings at the ballpark. It sounds stupid, I know, but it’s a reminder of my childhood innocence and the infinite possibilities that you can only concoct in your dreams.
For my health and the return of baseball, it will get better and we will get through this time. Because if the damn Mets could pull off the improbable against the Braves, I don’t think anything is impossible.