[I wrote this column for USA TODAY in 1998 (October 14), shortly after yet another disappointing Astros year. A friend suggested I post it here. It starts off talking about my penchant for choosing underdogs when it comes to sports. Those days are long gone; this year I’m rooting for the best team!]
THE ELIMINATION OF my beloved Houston Astros from the National League championship contention has, sadly, left me with very little at stake in this year’s World Series. And perhaps it’s for the better. I’m not sure I have ever recovered from the first two times Houston fought for and lost the National League title. Nobody should have to
face such numbing heartbreaks too many times in one lifetime.
Oh, but it would have been so sweet, so precious – so glorious.
It would have.
It seems that when it comes to baseball, my life has been filled with would-haves, with wait-till-next-years.
From the very beginning, from my first-ever exposure to professional baseball, it was always “maybe next year,” because from the start I was somehow always choosing the underdog, the least favored.
THAT IS HOW it came to be that I became a Dodgers fan – a Brooklyn Dodgers fan – at a very early age. I’m not sure whether I could tell you exactly how old I was when professional baseball entered my life, but I can tell you that it made its presence known through the tinny car radio of my Uncle Adrian’s old Pontiac, as it sat on the edge of a flat North Dakota field where the grownups picked potatoes out of the black earth.
Because of our ages, my sister Carmen and I were not allowed to help in the fields; so we spent most of our days huddled inside the old green Plymouth that was our family car. It was a lonely time and often scary, for there were many times when the stooped workers were at the other end of the field, half a mile or so, and we felt utterly isolated.
We looked forward to the noon break when the rest of the family gathered around the fire my father had lit an hour or so before the appointed time, so that it could bake to perfection the large red potatoes he had nestled under its orange embers. It was those glowing shapes, also, that warmed and toasted my mother’s chorizo-and-bean tacos.
A few yards away, Tio Adrian’s family would be going through the same routine, and next to them, Victor and Lupe, my godparents, would have their own fire. And there would be other families beyond them.
Despite the cold and the harshness of the work, the mood was almost always cheerful, with much banter between the campfires. It was a time for jokes and for tales, all of which we were eager to consume. However, every year during that one week in October, we sat and ate mostly in silence, so we could concentrate on the muffled and crackling noise coming from Tio Adrian’s car radio – the broadcast of the World Series.
As I said, I was very young, and at that time, English was mostly an alien language. I knew very little about baseball and almost nothing about the major leagues. Actually, all those years I assumed there were but two teams that faced each other in that rite of autumn, and those teams were – you guessed it – the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers.
I’m sure the Dodgers must have won at least once during that time, but if they did, I don’t remember. I do remember that each victory by the Yankees – each home run, each hit – was celebrated with a raucous grito by Tio Adrian, who was a diehard Yankee fan. Even worse, my cousins – his children – took great delight in gloating over every win by their father’s team.
It was that – the gloating and smarmy celebrating – that made me not only a Yankees hater, but also forever a National League devotee.
In those simple days, I divided the forces of the world into two columns, the good guys on the right and the others on the left. And so the National League was entered on the right column, under Catholics, Democrats and Ford, while the American League joined the Protestants, Republicans and Chevy on the other column. (To this day, I have yet to buy a GM car, although I have been known to vote Republican once in a while — and some of my best friends are Protestant.)
The thing that was really special about those days was that the team loyalties were never able to overpower the sense of community, of oneness, that the series brought into our lives out there in the cold Dakota plains. Yes, we had been a community all along, with much in common. But almost always we were a community united against the frightening forces of nature and the outside world. During the World Series, however, we were united for something. During those days, we were brought together by 18 men whose faces we’d never seen, whose uniforms we could only imagine and whose stadiums we wouldn’t have been able to fathom had somebody tried to describe them to us.
I WAS TO remain a Dodgers fan, even after they moved west, but they had to be content with sharing my loyalty with the Braves (before they moved to Atlanta and became perpetual winners) and the Mets (until they won their first championship) and now my poor, hapless ‘Stros.
But it really doesn’t matter to me which two teams make it into the final round. The World Series remains a special, magical time and place. And somehow no large-screen color TV can replace or replicate the sensuous autumnal memories: the striking smell of freshly turned Red River Valley soil, the sibilant static of a distant and often-disappearing AM radio station warring with the grumbling roars of a field-side fire, the scent of a steaming black-skinned potato newly split in two, and always – always – the ricocheting rumble of a title-happy crowd that follows the electrifyingly beautiful bopping sound of wood whacking a tiny ball into the bleachers.