Bonkers for Baseball

Janet Stiegler, Contributing Writer

The word “April” comes from the Latin “aperire,” meaning “to open.”  To many, the month is synonymous with budding flowers, fresh rains, and religious celebrations of renewal. But to me, April ushers in Opening Day of Major League Baseball.

Raised to root for the hapless Mets, I still remember that week in October 1969 when our family crowded around the television to witness one of the greatest upsets in Series history—the Mets defeating the Baltimore Orioles in game five of the World Series.   Even my mother, who preferred vacuuming to televised sports, sat on the edge of the sofa, whispering, “come on, Koozie” to Jerry Koosman, one of the Met’s starting pitchers. My favorite was Ron Swoboda, the right fielder who, in the top of the ninth of game four, dove for a sinking line drive that would have put the Orioles in the lead. The famous catch was replayed repeatedly, with Swoboda floating on angel wings before coming up triumphantly with the ball in his glove.

My friend Debbie and I were Met-crazy. As pitcher and catcher on the girls’ softball team, we pretended to be Tom Seaver and Jerry Grote.  We dressed up as our favorite players on Halloween and sent them fan letters, most of which went unanswered. We memorized everyone’s bios and stats, including birthdates, marital status, and children. Once a month, we traveled by bus and train to Shea Stadium for a game and autographs. Arriving early, we would coax one over from the players’ carpark or during pre-game practice. We collected half a dozen signatures that way.

Once, when shortstop Buddy Harrelson was exiting his car, Debbie screamed, “Buddy, we love you! Can we get an autograph?”  Surprisingly, he headed in our direction, and since only a few fans were milling around, the guard let us in.   After Buddy signed Debbie’s yearbook, she kissed him. I was too stunned to do the same, but Debbie’s brazenness won my admiration. It was all we talked about for the rest of the week.

Probably the nuttiest thing we did was sneak into a hunting convention at which Ron Swoboda and first baseman Ed Kranepool were featured. I don’t know if they were hunters or not, but who cared? They were coming to a restaurant in our town, and we would be there. After much begging, my mother reluctantly dropped us off outside the venue. The agreed-to-plan was that we would look around for a few minutes, take a picture, then leave.

As waiters walked in and out of the ballroom with trays, we slipped inside. The room was dimly lit, filled entirely with men, most older than forty, bearded, some smoking, others sitting around tables with their hands around a drink. A few chatted quietly, but most had their eyes on a speaker and deer carcass projected on a screen.

“There they are!” whispered Debbie, pointing to one end of the dais. We crouched down and surreptitiously made our way closer to the front. Several of the hunters gave us quizzical looks, while others winked and smiled. I snapped a few distant photos and planned our strategy. We would go to the dais at the break, politely ask for an autograph, then take a picture with the stars. “But don’t try to kiss them,” I told Debbie, “not here with all these people.”

Finally, the speaker’s voice winded down, and the lights came up. As we readied ourselves to race to the dais, I felt someone yank on my ponytail. We turned to face my frowning mother, telling us it was time to vamoose. “But we are so close!” I cried. She sighed and reluctantly agreed to let us approach the dais, but when we turned back, it was too late. A group of hunters had already surrounded the ballplayers.

The few pictures we did develop were grainy and dark, and it was hard to tell who the subjects were.   But we had a great story, a memory that Debbie and I continued to laugh over 50 years later.