Yaz helped celebrate the end of fifth grade.
My father brought me to my idol, the Boston Red Sox slugger revered throughout New England. Carl Yastrzemski and I never got closer than several rows at Fenway Park, but for a suburban Boston boy smitten with the Sox, it was practically like sitting in the man’s living room.
Actually, on that June night in 1977, it was having more like a seat in heaven.
School had let out hours before. Summer stretched ahead of me, ripe with promise, but first, we had a ballgame to catch, just the two of us.
My dad and I settled into our seats down on the first base side of the venerable park’s grandstands.
The previous season, I visited Fenway for the first time with my Cub Scout pack, stashed away in the upper regions of the right field bleachers. A comeback Sox victory made for a thrilling day, but not the magic of a summer evening that lasts a lifetime.
I’ll never forget emerging from the dank cavern under the grandstands, walking through a portal by my father’s side and seeing, as I never had before, a green expanse cast in an early evening glow. Far beyond the towering Green Monster left field wall, across the Mass Turnpike, the famous Citgo illuminated sign already lit up the twilight sky.
I felt far removed from my everyday life, transfixed by this world of organ music wafting in the air, vendors hawking food and beer up and down the aisles and guys behind me shouting with thick local accents.
Even the yellow mustard on my hot dog tasted exotic.
The Baltimore Orioles were in town, and they had future Hall-of-Famer Jim Palmer on the mound. It’s funny, but other than the Sox winning, I don’t remember many specifics from the game. I forgot who started for us. Boston catcher Carlton Fisk, another destined for the Hall of Fame, made a spectacular sliding catch on a foul pop, and I’m pretty sure Yaz got a hit.
I could look up the details from that night, find the box score and see who did what. But I don’t feel the need.
Just the memory of being there with my dad, waking up the next morning to my summer freedom still on a Fenway high, is enough.
I thought of that night recently as I took my sons, Ted and John Michael, to our latest State College Spikes game. It wasn’t Fenway — where we’ll be sitting together some day — but it was live baseball on a summer night, one of life’s special pleasures.
Some paint baseball as boring, but I suspect that’s because they’ve only seen it on TV. They’re partly right. Not even the largest, highest-definition screen can convey the game properly. It’s just pitch after pitch from the same angles, interspersed with quick cuts to fragments of action and close-ups.
I adore baseball, but I find my attention wandering with televised games. It’s why I’ve always liked listening to the radio, an ancient summer ritual updated with Internet streaming. You can putter about while announcers fill your imagination with strikeouts, double plays and deep drives going back, back, back.
But the best broadcast is still no substitute for going to a game. You see details TV ignores: on-deck players stretching and swinging to limber up; infielders hitching their pants and hopping into crouches before every pitch; base coaches patting, slapping and brushing their way through sign sequences.
You hear the crack of clean singles, the slap of balls thrown across the diamond into the first baseman’s glove and the rasp of a head-first slide into second.
You perpetuate the odd custom of the seventh-inning stretch, standing up with thousands to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in several keys, a Tin Pan Alley chestnut the average person knows better than the national anthem.
At the Spikes game, we sang that ditty with gusto. We talked about batting averages, trying to predict who would get a hit. I explained a classic double play, how a change-up works and why a player can wind up on first base after striking out.
We carried on a tradition. My father grew up a New York Yankees fan following Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford. I lived and died with the fortunes of the Red Sox.
Ted and John Michael don’t have the same passionate allegiance, though they’re nominally Sox fans because they know I care. I have no expectations. As far as I’m concerned, they’re free to root for any team — even, shudder, the Yankees — or no one at all.
But largely because of the legacy of a few special hours spent long ago with Yaz, Jim Rice, Fred Lynn, Dwight Evans and the other titans from my childhood, I hope my children at least understand and appreciate baseball. Often elegant, sometimes ugly, the game is part of their history and culture, part of what it means to be an American.
It’s a gift I am honored to pass down.
Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620.
Follow him on Twitter @CRosenblumNews.