The Day the New York Mets Stepped Up to the Plate

My son, Nick, and wife, Lisa, during more tremulous times.

My son, Nick, and wife, Lisa, during more tremulous times.

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.

Another Preller tradition: We take crappy photos.

Another Preller tradition: We take crappy photos.

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.

JP & Nick @ Shea

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.

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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.

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27 comments

  1. Hey, James. Beautifully written piece. I just picked up your book on Amazon. Looking forward to reading it!
    Bill

  2. Thank you, William. I had to think twice about including a mention of the book in that post, since I don’t want to use this blog to promote my real career — first published in ’86, I’ve been working full-time as a writer since 1990 — but in the end concluded that the book, which includes a fictional version of Nick’s illness, was a legitimate part of the story. It also includes a sly tribute to Game 6 of the NLCS, where I transposed full innings from that game onto the Little League field. Just for fun, and not that anybody’s ever noticed.

  3. IB says:

    That’s really something.

  4. Frank Dunne says:

    Jim, as I read this I was choking up. Kids… they do that to you! I didn’t know about that part of your life. As I was reading, I was truly nervous about the “end” of the story. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Michael Geus says:

    Long day at the office, sorry about joining the commentary so late. Six innings is a great book, I will gladly mention that. The Prellers are a great story as well, a wonderful Mets family, three generations and counting.

  6. [...] So I’ll direct you to it. Right this way, people —> Click on this link right here. [...]

  7. These are the stories that really make baseball truly amazing. Probably my own personal bias or just singular focus on the game, but it seems these types of history laden and very personal connections occur more in relation to the greatest game ever invented.

  8. CharlieH says:

    DAMN, Jim… Just…wow. That is a beautiful story. And go Nicholas!

  9. ManhattanMetsFan says:

    Beautiful story. I’m so happy for your son and your family. Glad to see our Mets don’t always do the wrong thing all the time.

    • MetsFaninLA says:

      Well told James. Having been raised in NYC by a single mom who was a die-hard Mets fan (because her beloved Dodgers abandoned her), AND having a 20 year old daughter, we share much common life experience.
      I’m buying your book today. In 2006 I was able to take my daughter to Dodger stadium to see the Mets finish the sweep. We stayed and sang and chanted with happy Mets fans for about an hour after. As if we had overthrown the castle. She talks about it to this day as one of her favorite life moments. Thanks for putting your story into words.

      • That’s on my list — taking your daughter to a game at Dodger Stadium. Wait, no. I mean, attending a game at Dodger Stadium. Do you know that great, great Ry Cooder song, “3rd Base, Dodger Stadium?” Brilliant. BTW, Mike & I recently shared our thoughts on John Maine, where I got the opportunity to recount bringing my sons to Game 1 of the 2006 NLDS. Remember the double play at home?

        http://2guystalkingmetsbaseball.com/?p=5822

        JP

        • MetsFaninLA says:

          watched that play from my office with TWO rabid Dodger fans. A moment of beauty. Series was over right there.
          Dodger stadium was always the prettier version of Shea. Felt even prettier when security was ushering out the remaing 600 people belting out the Jose chant, which echoed throughout the empy stadium. I’ve been lucky enough to see the boys play here. Angels stadium, Petco in SD and AT&T in SF. And I’ve seen King Felix beat the yankees at Safeco (bonus). It’s a trip. But the pure excitement of walking down the 7 train platform at Shea will always be burned in my brain. Even when I was one of 3500 in the late 70′s.

          • Rich, if you are ever nostalgic about the late-70′s Mets, you should hurry over to Citi Field. Last year, it gave off a strong 1979 vibe. You’ll be able to whiff it again this season — at least, until they bring up Wheeler and d’Arnaud, at which point I believe it might start feeling like 1983.

            Thanks for your comments, appreciated. Mike & I have been making an annual pilgrimage to see the Mets at far-flung ballparks, but haven’t been cleared by the wives yet for the West Coast Swing. We’ve been to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago, D.C., Baltimore, some others. Atlanta this coming May. Always a treat. San Francisco is highest on my list, such a great city. Okay — back to work!

            JP

    • You know, they really, really did right by my son and more than anything, that’s what I hope this post conveys, our sincere gratitude. I’m sure that folks in the Mets P.R. Department and Community Outreach make all sorts of small gestures all the time, every day, and I just hope that somebody in the organization reads this and realizes the value of his or her work. I want them to know that these little things they do for ordinary people can mean a lot — and never be forgotten.

  10. What a beautiful, wonderful story. Thank you so much for sharing.

  11. Ken says:

    Beautifully written. Most importantly, it has a happy ending….

  12. W.k. kortas says:

    I agree with the wise Mr. Miller; this is some damn fine writing.

  13. Michael Geus says:

    You have got to go Jimmy, I loved it, and the Mets weren’t even playing. Sit in the Upper Deck, the view is just wonderful beyond the fences.

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  15. Terrimac says:

    Putting that chapter of your life into words must have stirred a lot of feelings for you–all of the anguish of how you were worrying about Nick and his future probably overshadowed the event at Shea that at any other time would have thrilled you beyond belief. It is so heartwarming to me that you can write about it now and look back and know that the Mets made a memory for Nick that he will never forget. You wrote such a wonderful story, thanks, Jimmy, so much for sharing it with us.

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