Shea held 55,000, and it was already two thirds full when we settled into our seats. The Cubs were taking batting practice, and there was a swarm around the cage at home plate. Ron Santo, Billy Williams, Jose Cardenal and Rick Monday were in one group, and as they rotated through, I searched the outfield until I saw him. As he turned to chase a fly ball, I saw the name castle across the back of his royal blue BP jersey. He caught the ball near the rightfield foul line, and a thousand kids screamed for his autograph. He smiled and waved and jogged back to a group of Cubs loitering in right center.
By then I had read many descriptions of Joe Castle. In high school some scouts had worried that he was too thin. He weighed 170 pounds when he was 18, and this had bothered a few of the experts. However, his father had been quoted as saying, "He's not even shaving yet. Let the boy grow up."
And he was right. In the minors Joe had filled out, thanks to a combination of nature and hours in the weight room. He had broad shoulders and a 33-inch waist. He wore his game pants tight, and one article in the Chicago Tribune gossiped about the avalanche of provocative mail he was getting from women across the country.
As I watched, Joe seemed to glide across the outfield. I saw my father in the Mets' dugout, sitting alone. It was far too early for him to head to the bullpen and begin stretching. Odd, though, that he was in the dugout. Usually, at two hours and counting, he was getting a massage from a trainer. With 90 minutes to go he put on his uniform. At 75 minutes he left the locker room, walked through the dugout and headed for the bullpen, head down, refusing to look at the opposing dugout.
The more I thought about it, the stranger it seemed. Baseball players, and especially pitchers, are fanatics about their rituals. My father was 3--1 in his last six starts and four days earlier had pitched perhaps his best game in the last five years. Why would he change things?
WHEN HE WALKED to the mound in the top of the first, the fans gave my father a rowdy welcome. When Rick Monday lined to short on the first pitch, the stadium roared again. Two pitches later, Glenn Beckert popped out to rightfield, and Warren Tracey was cruising.
The announcer said, "Now batting and playing first base, number 15, Joe Castle."
I took a deep breath and began chewing my fingernails. I wanted to watch, then I wanted to close my eyes and just listen. My mother patted my knee. I envied her apathy. Not surprisingly, the first pitch was high and tight. Joe, batting lefthanded, ducked but did not fall; nor did he glare at my father. It was a simple brushback. Welcome to New York. The second pitch was a called strike that looked low, but Joe did not react. The third pitch was a fastball that he slapped into the stands near us. The fourth pitch was low and inside. The fifth pitch was a changeup that fooled Joe, but he managed to foul it off.
I was holding my breath with each pitch. I was praying for a strikeout, and I was praying for a home run. Why couldn't I have both? A strikeout now for my father, a home run later for Joe, back and forth? In baseball you always get another chance, right? I pondered these things between pitches, a complete nervous wreck.
The sixth pitch was a curve that bounced in the dirt. Three balls, two strikes. Shea Stadium rocking. The Cubs 10 games in first place. The Mets 10 games back but winning. My father versus my hero.