In the spring of 2003, my oldest son, Nicholas, was diagnosed with leukemia. It was a relapse. He had first been diagnosed in the summer of ‘95, at 26 months. We had been there, done our hard times, and believed the worst was behind us. But again we settled into an exhausting routine of doctors and medicines, blood tests and spinal taps, the chemistry of hope and despair. Much, much harder for Nick the second time around.
Meanwhile, my father-in-law, Ed Ginsberg, a lifelong Yankee fan, contacted the New York Mets. He made phone call after phone call, telling one person after another Nick’s story. Weeks passed. While undergoing treatment, Nick got an infection. His immune system too compromised to fight it, Nick was forced to stay on IV-drips in the hospital for twelve long days until his temperature finally settled below 101 degrees. On one particularly bad day a letter arrived from Chris Brown, the New York Mets Community Outreach Coordinator. He invited Nicholas and three guests to a special day at Shea Stadium.
When Nick felt strong enough, down we drove from our home outside Albany, New York — Nicholas, my wife Lisa, his grandfather Ed, and myself. Chris Brown met us at the gate two hours before the game, shook our hands, and brought us inside to the secret, special places. He opened a door and led us onto the field, where Nick stared, solemn in wide-eyed wonder. We stepped into the dugout, felt the bats in their racks, eyed the neat rows of clean helmets, and snapped picture after picture. We walked into a long concrete hallway under the stands, where we stood nearly alone outside the Mets clubhouse door, as real live ballplayers — guys with names like Vance and Ty, Joe and Cliff — walked past us on their way to the indoor batting cages. Some players stopped and briefly chatted, signed baseballs, and smiled for photos with their arms resting on my son’s shoulder.
I’d been to Shea Stadium many games over the years. But this was something extraordinary. My first game was on May 17, 1968, the Mets vs. Hank Aaron and the Braves. I was seven years old. The game lasted sixteen innings. My father, who never cared a fig about sports, spent his time counting the foul balls that went into the stands. For Dad, that was the most interesting thing about the entire event — all those balls lost in the stands. Oh, the economy of it all.
I learned to love baseball from my mother, a former Brooklyn Dodgers fan who, after the Dodgers fled to Los Angeles, adopted the expansion 1962 New York Mets as her hometown team. She faithfully gave her heart to that hapless bunch in orange and blue. As I grew up, she taught me how to throw and catch, and somehow sold me on the preposterous notion that Ron Swoboda, the Mets thick-necked rightfielder, was graceful. I used to ask her, as I minced across the front lawn, “Am I graceful, Mom? Am I graceful?” She assured me that I was. I’ve come to see that my love of the game is impossible to separate from the love of my mother; I cannot imagine one without the other.
Standing within the gray, concrete hallways of Shea Stadium, I couldn’t help but think of my mother, and how our love of baseball had brought us to this singular moment. My boy, sick with cancer, smiling weakly into the camera, a Sharpie and a signed baseball in his hand. All those games we had watched together, our spirits dashed by defeat and lifted in victory. All of that time and energy invested, all of that life we poured into the game — all of it, truth be told, a little absurd. After all it is just a game. Not life, not death, and certainly not childhood cancer. But standing in that basement of old Shea Stadium, I knew with certainty that it all had been worth it. We will always be grateful to the Mets organization for the kindness of that day.
We loved the game. And sometimes, amazingly, it loved us back.
It was why I wrote the children’s book, Six Innings, why that book was so important to me. Because it’s all in there, all that stuff, a wave that carries the words along, the love of the game, a lifetime of baseball, and sometimes the hard things that get in the way.
Today my son, Nick, is almost 20 years old, healthy, strong, and attending college in upstate, New York. He remains, of course, a die-hard Mets fan. It runs in the family.