At times, when I see a name or a picture, a memory vividly pops into my head. I can recall what it felt like to be somewhere, I can hear myself having a conversation with a person that took place decades earlier. It is more than a memory and less than a vision.
A few weeks ago, as a familiar name popped up on the television, informing me that someone with whom I had a fleeting, rather trivial encounter was gone. The memory of that brief moment, standing on the stage beside this legend, came rushing back into my conscious.
My father was a handball and racquetball champion. Growing up in Brooklyn, these were the low cost, low stake games he played after school, on weekends, and eventually after work. They were street games, pick-up games he played regularly with friends from his neighborhood. He claimed that playing kept his mind focused and helped him to stay physically fit. I think he appreciated the physics and math involved in the game’s strategy.
Throughout my life, he regularly participated in game after game, tournament after tournament. He played ball all over the tri-state area, near our home in Poughkeepsie, at West Point Military Academy with many decorated officers, and back in his old Brooklyn neighborhood.
Many of these tournaments took over our weekends when I was young. Despite the hours spent watching my father hit a small ball against a wall or three, I never developed a particular love for handball or racquetball.
I was a die-hard baseball fan. I yearned to be spending my weekends in the South Bronx, in the house that Ruth built, watching Bucky Dent, Thurmon Munson, and Lou Pinella slam one over right field and into the stands. I liked the fanfare, the nationally televised games, the teamwork, and the baseball cards that went along with the game.
My father preferred to be the action rather than watch the action.
Despite my pleas, my whining, my nagging, my childhood weekends were not spent in the Yankee stadium’s stands.
So, I maintained my front seat to infinite handball and racquetball tournaments. My mom referred to us as the “pit crew” for the games. We supplied water, snacks, towels, and a change of clothing. Plus, occasional cheers and moral support, depending on how cranky we were and how much we would have preferred to be doing something else that weekend.
Four times a year, various award ceremonies were held for these tournaments. My father joked that these dinners were his apology to my mother for making her sit through countless hours of handball and racquetball. My mother grudgingly admitted that she enjoyed these ceremonial dinners, as they provided an opportunity to meet new people, and the celebrity guests were entertaining.
I regularly complained that this did not excuse our lack of Yankee’s tickets, as I was not sufficiently entertained by my parents’ stories about the journalists, football players, politicians, and actors who told a funny joke or made a noteworthy gaff.
Still, I received no seats at the stadium.
In the fall of 1978, when a baseball legend was the scheduled keynote speaker for the IBM Country Club awards ceremony, I was offered my mother’s coveted seat at the dinner. It wasn’t an afternoon in the South Bronx, but it did involve baseball.
The player wasn’t a Yankee, and I was not a Braves or Brewers fan. I had several of his baseball cards in my “not a Yankee” pile. Yet, this player’s contributions to the game were monumental, as he broke Babe Ruth’s homerun record only four years earlier and held the record for the most – 2,297 – runs batted in. My eight-year-old self wanted to know if he secretly dreamed of being a Yankee. Because, who wouldn’t want to be a Yankee?
While I wanted to wear a Yankees cap to the dinner, to show my allegiance to my team, my mother insisted that I wear a flowy purple dress with my hair partially pulled back in a pretty floral barrette. As a compromise, my mother gave me a Yankees sticker to wear, rather than a pin.
I would be the youngest person attending this adult event. Meeting the baseball legend, Mr. Hank Aaron.
I don’t recall much about Mr. Aaron’s speech, other than that he spoke affectionately about his father, who first introduced him to baseball, and the need for athletes to build endurance. My most vivid memory of the soft-spoken baseball legend was shaking his hand as my father took me up to the stage with him to accept his award. I suggested that my father could beat him in a game of racquetball. He chuckled heartily. His laugh echoed through the room as he kindly responded, “Well, young lady, I bet he’d be a solid competitor.”
For years, when I lamented that I never sat in the stadium that Guidry, Dent, and Munson ruled, my parents would remind me of my evening with Mr. Aaron. And my father would repeat the story of my brief conversation with Mr. Aaron.
When I heard that Mr. Aaron passed away in January, about a year after we lost my father, I suddenly heard Mr. Aaron’s deep laugh and saw his welcoming smile. I could see myself standing on the stage. And I could see my father smiling, proud that I was confident enough to ask a question.
In a perfect universe, if there really is a heaven, Mr. Aaron is playing a pick-up game of racquetball with my father right now.