For a week I went back and forth on bringing my three year-old daughter to the Rays game on Sunday or taking the opportunity to see Tim Beckham and Nick Barnese while the Charlotte Stone Crabs were in Dunedin. My daughter usually catches the first inning or two of the game with me each night on the tube before I put her to bed and prides herself on her lineup introductions, but I had my doubts as to whether she had the patience to endure a live nine-inning major league baseball game. Given that Carlos Pena has become her favorite player, the toothbrush holder giveaway was too much to turn down. We booked a babysitter for the toddler, and alongside my wife and daughter I was off to my first family baseball game as a parent.
I didn't have high hopes for my daughter's ability to sit still so I had already cleared my contingency plan with my wife of dropping them back off at the house along with the Pena gimmick before heading to Dunedin to catch what was left of the Crabs double header should she prove not to be ready for live action. Little did I expect, just how much fun we were about to have.
I was raised on baseball. At the age of five I began to collect baseball cards, and every Sunday when I got my $1 allowance it was off to Lionel's Play World to buy a triple pack of 1984 Fleer cards. Never intending to collect cards for their value, I would organize them into teams, find a game on the tube and then proceed to write down each player's number on the front of their card as they came up to bat or took the mound. My friends and I would then take our cards and flick them against the wall, with whoever came the closest winning the the other's now bent-cornered card. That same year, my Detroit-born father took me to a World Series game in Detroit where I pretended like I was two so he could carry me in despite having just one ticket. Watching the Bless You Boys Detroit team from the back of Tiger Stadium, I pondered aloud if perhaps we could get better seats next year. I've long been appreciative of my dad for taking me to the game, but on the way to the Trop today it dawned on me just how much he sacrificed his own die-hard fan's enjoyment of the World Series game, to have his nearly six year old son sit on his lap from a bird's eye seat.
The following year we moved to a new neighborhood where reliever Joe Sambito of the Houston Astros lived. For months in advance of moving I rushed to the morning paper to see if Sambito got in the game for the Stros. On my first birthday following our move, my neighbor and his mom took me down the street to introduce me to my hero, Joe Sambito. Joe couldn't have been nicer to a neighborhood kid, giving me a bunch of team collectibles and autographs. Sambito's generosity didn't end there as every now and then he would show up at my family's house with a new batch of goodies. When he moved on to the Red Sox, we made a trip up to Fenway Park. Joe surprised my family by taking me right over the railing into the dugout and clubhouse during the game. There was no political skin in the game for Joe; this was not some sort of team charitable obligation for the sick or underprivileged, nor were there any media or camera present. This was a larger-than-life baseball player making a huge impact on a upper-middle class boy's life out of his love for the game and the goodness in his heart.
When I watch games today, I obsess about game theory, managerial decisions, and advanced statistical evaluations. Today, I saw the game through the lens of my childhood once again. The Rays fell behind early, but instead of lamenting about batting average on balls in play, we cheerfully partook in chants of "Let's Go Rays!" and "Charge". We bought cotton candy, and cracker jacks, and sang "Take Me Out to the Ballgame". I watched my daughter light up dancing in the aisle between innings and cheerfully doing her batter introductions. For the first time I was able to appreciate Raymond and the Rays Team through the eyes of my daughter. I witnessed how they brought the game to life for a three year-old. Balloon makers in the concourse and kiddie games made a nice mid-game break to recharge my daughter's patience battery. Finally when the game was over after an hour's wait, I was able to run alongside my daughter around the base path following the game as she positively was glowing. It's been a long time since I've noticed so little detail about a game, yet I can't remember having so much fun (Game 7 of the ALCS not withstanding).
I recognize many or most readers of this blog have little patience for Family Day at the Trop with all the little tykes roaming around competing for time on the Jumbo-tron. However, I sincerely hope that someday you get the opportunity to be the proud papa spreading your love of the game on to your own child, as my father did for me. There is something so wholesome and sacred about our nation's past time that can easily get lost in my adult-game of make-believe baseball analyst. Hats off to the Rays organization for doing such a wonderful job putting together a terrific family experience. Someday my kids will know of BABIP, but for now Raymond, the 7th inning stretch, and player intros will help build a nice bridge to get us there. On the way home it dawned on me that my dad's die-hard fandom may have made a sacrifice at the 1984 World Series, but that was easily offset by the enrichment of sharing that timeless moment with his son. The Rays may have suffered a disappointing loss at the end of a disappointing homestretch, but my family undoubtedly went home winners. And tonight if the shadows should spook my daughter in the night, Carlos Pena will be there on the wall to protect her.