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Not His Game

Welcome to Flashback Friday: Tales From The Log [1], a final-season tribute to Shea Stadium as viewed primarily through the prism of what I have seen there for myself, namely 358 regular-season and 13 postseason games to date. The Log records the numbers. The Tales tell the stories.

8/12/93 Th Atlanta 2-4 Gooden 11 35-42 L 8-4

It would be easy to say the sole purpose of football is to fill a few hours a week between baseball seasons. In theory, I believe that. When it comes to sports, just as it comes to life, there’s baseball and there’s everything else.

But let me give football a little credit as a practical matter. There are aspects of it I truly enjoy.

1) I honestly don’t have to know that much about it to watch it. What does a tackle do as opposed to a guard? I’ve never bothered to find out, but I’ve picked up enough Pidgin Football English to convince myself I’m as conversant in the game as Andy Robustelli. Quarterbacks shouldn’t throw into coverage. Smart coaches make adjustments at halftime. An explosive first step is very helpful. The rest is common sense: Don’t run a draw play on third-and-eighteen (a Joe Walton specialty); don’t score the go-ahead points with too much time left on the clock (because 48 seconds and two timeouts is an eternity); don’t grab a facemask or anything you wouldn’t want grabbed yourself.

2) I don’t have to follow a particular team to think I know something about them. Who’s on the Vikings these days? Damned if I know, but they used to be the Purple People Eaters. They had Gary Cuozzo and Norm Snead before they got Tarkenton back. It sure was cold at their games then. Dallas was the Doomsday Defense and Tom Landry and irritated everybody with that America’s Team crap. Pittsburgh had a Steel Curtain and a Three Rivers Stadium full of Terrible Towels. The Falcons and Lions almost always sucked. Still do, if I’m not mistaken.

3) NFL Films is awesome. When I was up nursing a horrible cold a few weeks ago, I kept searching ESPN for Super Bowl highlights, anything from NFL Films, just one lousy Joe Montana pass spiraling through the air, landing softly in Jerry Rice’s sure hands. I could watch their productions in the middle of an anthrax attack and forget anything was wrong. NFL Films could make a box of Kleenex riveting.

4) Though we have never institutionalized it, Chuck and I have a Sunday ritual in which he calls from Florida to discuss the score: the Bucs game…the Giants game…the Jets game…whatever game. Neither one of us gambles or is in a fantasy league, it’s just what we do. We spend about three seconds on the score and a half-hour reliving something John Madden said about Sean Landeta more than twenty years ago. Two Sundays back, when I was trying to sleep off the aforementioned cold, I was dozing when he called. I glanced at the clock and knew the Colts-Chargers game was underway. First and only question out of my mouth before rasping that I’d have to call him back later was “what’s the score?” He said that moment of putting football above all else did more than any other in recent memory to convince him that I am a Real Man.

Yes, football has its charms and has its purposes. It’s also got one thing that baseball simply doesn’t.

It’s got my father’s interest. It provides us with common ground, a shared language, something to mull like it matters. If Chuck and I indulge in a few laughs over football every Sunday, it is the course of the week where this sport definitively proves its worth to me. Somewhere between Monday and Friday, I will speak with my Dad. And we will have something to talk about.

Football. You bet.

He’s not a huge fan. He won’t watch the CFL at three in the morning or anything like that, but he does get into it. With his radio tuned faithfully to WNEW-AM every Sunday afternoon when there was an NFL blackout in effect, he’s the reason I chose the Giants over the Jets when I was a kid. And his later enchantment by everything green and ultimately futile is the reason I’ve followed the Jets at least as closely as the Giants (to the limited extent that I follow either), especially in the last ten or so years. He shifted, so I shifted. I’ve never asked why he shifted. I don’t ask him very much, actually. I just accept.

I have three favorite end-to-end football games from the past quarter-century: Miami’s upset of Nebraska in the 1984 Orange Bowl, the Jets’ insane 51-45 shootout win over the Dolphins in 1986 and, topping the list, Super Bowl XXV, January 27, 1991. It is no coincidence that I watched each of those games with my dad. I would have liked them fine by myself, but I loved that we cheered for victory in unison.

There was nothing festive about how we watched Super Bowl XXV. It was seven months after my mother died and he was getting ready to put the house up for sale. Plus he was taking his doctor’s direction to lose weight seriously. So when Stephanie and I came over to watch the Giants and Bills, all we ate were these terrible, Styrofoam chips from a cellophane bag. Didn’t make any difference. Our Super Bowl party consisted of sitting around the kitchen table glued to the suspenseful conclusion to the Giants’ unlikely march to this, their second championship. Now that’s what I call a Super Bowl party. There was the promise of a trophy for our ancestral team, sure, but there was also the not insignificant matter of some Super Bowl boxes I had bought into — I had Giants 0 and Bills 9 and it was 20-19 with seconds remaining. If Scott Norwood made a long kick, it would have been 22-20…and Stephanie had Giants 0 and Bills 2. In that sense (unless it was bizarrely blocked and run back), it was a no-lose proposition. But who wanted to win that way? The Giants who weren’t lining up against the field goal attempt were on the sidelines holding hands in prayer. We may as well have been doing the same.

My father doesn’t raise his voice often and almost never jumps up and down. My wife (then fiancée) is literally incapable of yelling and gives new meaning to the word reserved. But there they were, like me, on their feet, gasping and shouting and doing everything a crazy sports fan does. When the Giants held on, the three of us exploded like a first step. There were hugs and high-pitched screams and tremors that shook the chandelier over that kitchen table. We won the Super Bowl! We won the pool! I was thrilled. Stephanie was thrilled. Dad was thrilled. We all showed it. It was such a moment.

Then I had to go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like “wow, I guess this is the last Super Bowl we’ll ever watch in this house.” You would have thought Norwood had kicked his 47-yarder straight through the uprights. I had been moved to reflection and retrospection. My father wanted no part of it. He never has and I’ve never asked why. When I went to the trouble of implying that 29 years of family history in our house were about to come to an end, that we would never again have a moment like the one we just reveled in when Norwood had to kick from too far and our Giants emerged champions, he didn’t say “shut up” or anything like that. He just gave me this “yeah, all right, drive safe, talk to ya later” look.

OK, so we don’t go deep. We’ve never completed any kind of substantive father-son conversation. But we get along, y’know? We’re cordial. We chat amiably. I like him every bit as much as I love him. But he tells his problems to my sister, my sister tells them to me and I kind of, sort of ask him what’s going on and maybe he’ll clue me in, but mostly he’ll steer the subject back to something less onerous, like didja hear what Parcells said this week? I used to be put off by this triangulation. I used to clear my throat and try to elicit information directly from him. He doesn’t go for that. He doesn’t want to tell me directly what he doesn’t want to tell me. He doesn’t want to be reminded of what he doesn’t want to be reminded. It’s the last Super Bowl we’ll ever watch in this house? Why would I go and mention that?

So I won’t. I won’t do metacommentary with my dad. I’ll just enjoy what I can. I know I listed my favorite football games before, but you know what my absolute favorite football memory is? It’s a Saturday from 1985, the year I returned home after college. My mother goes out to do some shopping or whatever and it’s just me and Dad. The Giants are going to play the Steelers with a playoff spot on the line: win and get in. We’re going to watch the game, no big deal there. But his eyes light up, as if we’re putting one over on the watch-your-weight police and asks, “wanna get a pizza?” At first I thought he was joking, like we were in a beer commercial or something. We never did stuff like that, just me and him ordering a pizza and watching a football game. But he meant it. Let’s call the Capri and get a pie delivered.

Um, sure!

And we did. It was no big deal. it was just a pie. It probably had sausage and mushroom on it. The Giants won, clinched their playoff berth. It wasn’t a jump-up-and-down episode or anything. It was just…us doing something together. Watching football. Eating pizza. Nice. I wanted it to keep going. The next game that Saturday was the Redskins and the Cardinals. I was like, “hey let’s watch this one now.” But he lost interest and so did I and the pizza was mostly eaten and my mother came home and life went on.

Football did its job, however. It still does its job. It still gives us a few minutes of conviviality instead of awkward silences. It gives me the chance to say “did you see where USF is nationally ranked?” or “what was Mangini thinking in the fourth quarter?” It does, I hate to tell you, what baseball never has between us.

My dad doesn’t much care for baseball. It’s just not his game. I’ve never really pursued an answer as to why not. He mentioned a few times when I was growing up that his father and uncle dragged him to Yankee Stadium on a steamy Memorial Day, 1945, for a doubleheader against the Tigers (they split) where he drank warm sarsaparilla and he was jammed in among 70,000 and it used up all his patience where baseball was concerned. He was 16 then. The next time he showed any discernible interest in our National Pastime was the mid-1980s, when he and my mother climbed earnestly and enthusiastically aboard the Mets’ bandwagon. It still blows my mind to recall how into it they both were for about five years, how these two parents of mine who had always treated my baseball mania primarily with benign neglect were suddenly superfans. There would be nights when I was doing something else and my dad would call up the stairs: “Hey! Did you see what Mookie just did?”

Mind-blowing, I tell you.

Once Mom died, Dad suddenly recalled he didn’t like baseball. It was warm sarsaparilla all over again. There went one topic of conversation forever. But I wouldn’t let it go without a fight. You know those 15 pairs of tickets I was given for my 30th birthday? For the 1993 season that turned out so well? I had one goal for one-fifteenth of them. I was determined to go to a Mets game with my father because isn’t that what sons and fathers do? We had never done it, just the two of us. I invited him and, perhaps sensing it meant something to me, perhaps because he didn’t have a good excuse not to, he accepted.

It wasn’t that many years removed from those bulletins up the stairs, of my father being all over Mookie and HoJo and Doc and being on the same nickname basis with the Mets that I was and that New York was. Surely, I thought, we could summon up the remnants of that fervor for one more night.

Surely, I was insane.

The evening got off all right. Dad drove to my office in Great Neck and we had dinner at a coffee shop pretty close to the train station (he had his car radio antenna removed in the Shea parking lot on a rare family outing in ’75, so we agreed the LIRR was the way to go). I remember two things about our meal: We managed a steady stream of some of that amiable chat on which our relationship is built so I was relieved it wasn’t one long awkward silence; and dinner was over fast, leading me to think “oh god, what now?” There was plenty of time before our train and I had no idea how we were going to fill it.

I know, I said — why don’t we take a walk? Dad was really into walking and I could always use a little exercise. We could amble down Great Neck Road, turn right and then amble back up via Middle Neck Road for our train. Only problem was I kind of underestimated how long all this ambling would take. From worrying about killing time before the train, I was now worried that I would be killing my father because we were suddenly racing for the train. From leisurely stroll to dead-on dash, me in no great shape, him, you know, 64. We survived the sprint and made the train. I found it partially amusing, partially embarrassing (never wander away from your mode of transportation is a valuable lesson I learned that night). He was all right, but I don’t think he was too pleased with my sense of logistics.

We had some nice first base field level tickets. All my tickets that year were pretty good given that my brother-in-law picked them out in December. It was a Thursday night against the Braves who were beginning to make their move on San Francisco. As luck would have it, Dwight Gooden was pitching for the Mets. Almost everybody else from the glory days was gone, but Doc I knew he knew. I figured this would give us a point of entry through which to talk a little baseball and enjoy ourselves.

No, it didn’t work that way. I could point out Gooden all I wanted, but Dad wasn’t biting. I could even note the presence of Deion Sanders, a football guy, on Atlanta (he went to the same high school as Stephanie, which always seemed worth remarking upon), but that didn’t make much of an impression either. My father wasn’t rude or anything. Once we got our diet colas, we sat. I’d bring up baseball and he’d nod or something. I’d say something snarky about these awful Mets and he wouldn’t react. He’d just sip his soda. I had a co-worker in those days who once described a Baptist wedding at which there was no alcohol served. Once the men attending the ceremony learned that dispiriting fact, he said “they just sat there — and waited” until they could leave. That was my father with me at a Mets game in 1993, the only time we went together as father and son, son and father. He sat down, crossed his legs and waited until he could leave.

The Braves rolled the Mets (surprise, surprise) and two-and-a-half hours after it started, it was mercifully over. He could uncross his legs and toss out his cup and we could get our train back to Great Neck. Few have been the days or nights when I spent an entire game wanting to get the hell out of Shea Stadium. This was one of them. The Mets could have rolled the Braves and I would have felt the same way.

But Super Bowl XXV in the kitchen with nothing but a bag of Styrofoam and the Hurricanes over the Huskers when Tom Osborne went for two and Wesley Walker catching that overtime TD from Ken O’Brien to make it 51-45 and the pizza we had delivered from the Capri and those weekday conversations we’ve filled with tidbits and observations from the previous weekend…how did those Coors Light commercials from a few years ago go again?

Here’s to football.