As a boy my father fled Nazi Germany with his family and continued his youth in New York City in the days when three major league teams were based there, but baseball never took root with him. Still, he understood the importance of the sport in his adopted homeland. In the 1950s, when his friend Jack Wolff slopped in front of a TV repair shop on Broadway to watch a Yankees game on Yom Kippur, my father thought to himself: a real American. Years later, when my older brother, David, and I were balky about making Sunday trips from Long Island to Manhattan to visit our paternal grandparents, my father would lure us in with stories of his mother's history in the game. "She's not widely credited," he would say from the front seat of our car, "but Oma Bambi invented baseball."
The complexities of the infield fly rule may have eluded my father, but he took us to Cooperstown and Shea Stadium and watched our own little games anyhow. I have a picture on my desk that shows my father, David and me at Shea in the summer of 1969. My father is in the middle, an arm around each son, wearing white socks and sandals, a lens cap protruding through the chest pocket of his shirt. David has a scorecard pencil in his.
Baseball got my brother and me to read newspapers, which pleased my father, and to talk about players being traded and sold, which appalled him. When we skipped school to go to Opening Day at Shea, he liked that. Baseball was the national pastime; my father knew that well.
Nobody calls baseball the national pastime anymore, not seriously anyway. Basketball has become the game of city dreams, and suburban kids have embraced soccer. During the 1994 baseball strike—while watching the Ken Burns series oozing sentiment on PBS—I reluctantly concluded that a great, long-running American opera, the one about baseball and fathers and sons, was finally over. Baseball would return, I knew, but it would not be the same. It would no longer be handed down, generation to generation.
And then came the third Sunday in April. The morning air in Philadelphia, where I live, was warm and fragrant two weeks ago, and the urge for baseball suddenly became irresistible. My son, Ian, and I, caps on our heads, marched out the front door and into the station wagon. Ian was eager. He is three and just beginning to discover the world beyond the doors of our house.
"Daddy, please go to the park?" Ian said.
"We're going to the ballpark," I said.
"Go to the ballpark!" Ian said. He knew this would be a first.
When we arrived at Veterans Stadium, the Philadelphia Phillies were taking batting practice. The stadium started to fill, in little mellow waves, the way it always has on warm Sundays. Ian pointed toward home plate. "Who's that?" he asked.
"The Phillie Phanatic," I said.