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Back To My Sports Fan Roots

May 24, 2008 - John Whittaker

One of my earliest memories is visiting my grandfather in a yellow apartment building.

He made me corned beef hash that burned a little in the frying pan and created this light, stinging smoke in his apartment. As we ate the hash, we watched the Yankees playing the network Game of the Week on this old, black and white TV, with big dials on the side.

I don't remember who won the game. I only remember sitting on Grandpa George's floor, with a plate of Hormel hash, watching baseball. It might have been the moment I became a Yankees fan. It was definitely the moment I became a baseball fan.

Why am I thinking about this now, you might ask? There are a lot of deep answers to that question, but mine is simple -- I kind of miss that simpler time of my life as a sports fan. I'm not sure having information at my fingertips 24 hours of the day has made me a happier sports fan.

Can you imagine a 4-year-old kid now watching a baseball game with wavy lines on the screen and nothing to entertain him except the game? There was no immediate fantasy scoring, no score box cluttering the screen, no in-booth visitors to talk about their newest movie.

It was just me, Grandpa, hash and the game.

A while after my family moved to Chautauqua County, my grandfather came to live with us in our house in Dewittville. He had a garden out back, and when the Yankees were on WPIX, we'd sit in his bedroom, munching carrots from the garden and watching baseball at night during the summer.

I'd sit on the edge of the bed, waiting for Don Mattingly to come up, hoping he'd get a hit. Grandpa would tell me about listening to Red Barber call Mickey Mantle's games on the radio in enough detail I feel like I've seen Mantle play, even though he retired eight years before I was born, his beautiful uppercut swing a mere memory. I'd watch Dave Righetti come in to close a game (we saw a lot of his then-league-record 46 saves in 1986 in black and white) and I'd hear about how Whitey Ford, the chairman of the board, never needed help from the bullpen, whisping strikes across the outside corner and winning big game after big game.

If the Yankees weren't on WPIX, with Billy Martin, Bill White and Phil Rizzuto -- still my favorite announcing team -- calling the game, we'd watch the Mets on WWOR or Cubs on WGN, always during the day, just happy there was a ballgame on.

Those televised games, and they were only televised two or three times a week, the newspaper and adults were your only sources of information if you were a sports fan. I learned baseball history not from the Internet, but from my grandpa, who had seen Babe Ruth play live and knew more about the game than I will know.

There was no instant updating on Yahoo, no bottom line on ESPN and definitely no YESNetwork, where a Yankees fan can be buried in all things pinstriped.

After my grandfather died, I remember summers hanging out with Teddy. At 3 p.m., we'd sprint to the paper tube to find out what happened in the game the night before. We'd pounce on the paper as soon as it arrived, wanting to see how Mattingly or Jose Canseco (yeah, I know, Teddy had bad taste) did the night before. If one of our guys hit a home run the night before, we'd sit through SportsCenter hour after hour to see the highlight.

Then, we'd go into my backyard and play one-on-one baseball -- me as the Yankees, complete with that year's main lineup, and Teddy as the A's and later the Rangers (after Canseco got traded). I'd get into a low crouch, just like Mattingly, and then, like that swing I'd seen a hundred times on TV and a million times in my head, uncoil at the ball as the crowd went wild.

I'd jump at entire articles about the Yankees because they were kind of rare in those days, or feel so lucky when a woman from my church (thank you, Jane Currie) would give me her old copies of The Sporting News that I'd pour through over and over again, for weeks at a time, memorizing their content.

I wonder how I'll be able to translate that love of a game with my son -- when he's the first person to be the Yankees centerfielder and Patriots quarterback who also played point guard at Syracuse, a real three-sport star, remember you heard it here first -- in this age of instant gratification and information oversaturation. YesNetwork.com gives me 5 new Yankees articles a day. CNNSI.com gives me a sampling of all the beat writers covering the Yankees. Video clips abound whenever I want them.

I've come to realize part of my love of the game comes from cherishing the moments the game was on and the hard work it took to be a fan. Now, I'm the guy who, when the Yankees aren't televised -- and they have 150 of their games televised on their own network -- on a Friday night, gets a little ticked that missing one game upsets my little applecart.

It's weird for me, 31 years old, to be writing about the good old days and how things were better when I was growing up. I always said I'd never be that guy. I swear I'm not that old, though the gray in my hair says otherwise.

But, thanks to Grandpa George, I am that guy, and I don't regret it a bit - though I think my expanding waist sometimes regrets that hankering I get for corned beef hash when I'm watching a ballgame.

What can I say, the best habits die hard. 

 
 

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George Griffing, my grandfather and the reason I'm a Yankees fan. I don't remember my Grandpa Ben Whittaker much, but Grandpa George and I were pretty inseparable during baseball season, and the rest of the time, too.