Not long ago, my daughter Sofia was pulling her soon-to-be four-year-old son in a wagon down a street in Brooklyn, New York.
Gus – currently obsessed with all things prehistoric – was wearing a cartoon bird Orioles baseball cap courtesy of yours truly. I’ve been a die-hard Birds fan since the home team swept the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1966 World Series when I was not much older than Gus is now. In the natural world, this is called “imprinting.”
Up or down and often flat-out awful (as so many seasons have been since the glorious epoch of Earl Weaver), I bleed Oriole orange. For six months every year, my abiding companion is baseball on the radio, the way I first embraced the game at the kitchen table with homework, a bowl of ice cream and Brooksie at third.
When I gave Gus the cap a few years ago (some guy named Hanser playing third), he thought the cartoon bird was a duck. And while he spots “the bird” everywhere when visiting his ancestral Crabtown, the child has yet to attend his first game.
“Soon,” says his mother about a visit to Camden Yards. “Maybe next year.”
Time, however, may be running out. As Fia gave Gus a wagon ride, a man sped by on a bicycle and shouted: “PUT A YANKEE HAT ON THAT KID!”
A despised derby on so tender a dome?
From the day Gus was born in Lower Manhattan a few weeks after the 2018 World Series I have wondered about the possibility that he might one day adopt the pinstriped (fill in with vulgarity of choice) as his team.
Hard to swallow: The New York Yankees (excuse me while I spit) began as the Baltimore Orioles when the city’s original, short-lived American League team disbanded after the 1902 season. The franchise was sold to a Gotham cop and his businessman partner for $18,000, less than 2022 season tickets in the Bronx.
The team was moved to New York and called the Highlanders until “Yankees” was formalized in 1913. Major League Baseball would not return to Baltimore for 50 years when the lowly St. Louis Browns arrived in 1954.
In many circles, the National Pastime is religion. How powerful is the doctrine? Back when I covered the city’s community of Orthodox Jews, I interviewed a rabbi who’d taught for many years at the Ner Yisroel rabbinical college on Mount Wilson Lane. I asked this learned man if the students – boys, after all, being boys – were mischievous.
“No,” he said, but then paused. “Perhaps one or two might turn on a radio during Shabbat to check on the baseball.”
Here along the shores of the Patapsco, the one true faith has been represented by an orange bird since 1882. Long before the Brooklyn cyclist unleashed his rude comment (lack of civility being synonymous with Yankee fans), wonder turned to worry: Might my first-born grandchild – exposed to the fealties of kids Big Apple to the core – be taken in by the glitter of false gods?
These are the fears of a third-generation Baltimorean who saw his first game on 33rd Street against Yastrzemski and the Red Sox in Boston’s pennant winning year of 1967; witnessed the only grand slam by a pitcher in a World Series when Dave McNally belted one over the wall on 33rd Street in 1970 and delighted to the antics of Moe “Hot Foot” Drabowsky.
As an 11-year-old, I was in the stands for the only game of the 1969 World Series in which the Birds beat the New York Mets before dropping four in a row in one of sport’s great upsets. Many are the youngsters like me who learn – either in the stands or in the field – that baseball will break your heart long before puppy love does.
The possibility of having a Yankee fan in the family is more heartburn than heartbreak.
The Mets, however, I could abide – they’re a National League team, have long played the underdog, loom large in Baltimore lore because of the ‘69 Series and, as the great Roger Angell wrote, “There is more Met than Yankee in every one of us.”
And all humanity is better for it.
One of Gus’s friends – a fellow Brooklynite named Casper, soon to be five – is a Mets fan and often wears a Pete “Polar Bear” Alonso No. 20 jersey when they play together. The boy’s father is a Mets fan and his mother, with roots in the Bronx, wore a pinstripe onesie as a baby.
What persuaded young Casper to root for the Mets? That the Amazins have been in first place all year under the guidance of former Orioles manager Buck Showalter? Or because dear old Dad is a lifetime fan? Nope.
“His love for the team took off when his father took him to a game and the giveaway was a comic book about the “Polar Bear” and his superpowers,” said his mother Liana, who went to college with my daughter. “When the game is on, Casper asks if Pete is up to bat.”
What is the Oriole Bird if not a superhero? Can Polar Bears fly? Not yet.
Added Liana, “I hope for your sake Gus stays loyal to the O’s.”
And therein lies the truth, the crucial point that my daughter (who sold lemonade at Camden Yards during high school) and her husband (a surfer with no team allegiances) would quickly point out.
My sake – not so much about Gus but Ralphie, the good field/no-hit Little Leaguer who rode the bench and played hours of catch in the backyard when the hometeam was a dynasty.
My father, who enjoyed fishing and crabbing on the Chesapeake, probably attended a half-dozen ballgames his entire life, usually because I asked him to go. In 1968, through waterfront connections, he got the entire team – including Curt Motton! – to sign an autograph book for me.
But he didn’t care if I rooted for the home team or Peggy Fleming. The only thing my old man ever pushed me to do was bring home good grades. When the report cards slipped in the 5th grade, I wasn’t allowed to play ball that year. I could have been a contender.
Given all that’s truly important in life and the fact that the extended Alvarez family is extremely close, why should I care which baseball team my grandson roots for. Or if he’ll even give a hoot?
Because blood is blood, tradition isn’t constricted by geography (“Next year in Cooperstown!) and the Patapsco Nine are having the most exciting season in memory. But mostly because…
THE YANKEES SUCK!
Rafael Alvarez once asked Brooks Robinson for an autograph as the Hall of Famer was hurrying down Lexington Street near City Hall. Brooks, of course, complied. Alvarez can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org