When I was eight years old, I discovered that Abuelo (that's Spanish for "grandfather") was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. He, my grandmother and their four children (one of which is my father) moved from the Island of Enchantment to New York in 1947, the same year Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. Robinson wasn't the only reason he became a Dodger fan, as 1947 was also the year Gil Hodges and Duke Snider came up to the major leagues to stay. The Dodgers won the pennant in 1947, making only their second trip to the World Series since 1920. They would make many more over the next few decades. Abuelo was hooked for life.
The summer of 1981 was special for both Abuelo and I. It was the year I became a Mets fan, but it was also the year of Fernandomania. That summer, when my parents and I went to visit my grandparents in Puerto Rico, the players' strike was nearing its conclusion. But just because there was no baseball to watch didn't mean there were no baseball stories to share.
Any time I wanted to talk about Mookie Wilson, my grandfather would remind me that he wasn't as fast as Maury Wills. (Wills was the first major league player to steal 100 bases in a season, swiping 104 bags for the Dodgers in 1962, which was 45 more than the entire Mets team stole in their inaugural season.) I knew better than to argue with him.
After a few minutes, the conversation would always turn to Fernando Valenzuela, who had taken the country by storm during his rookie season. Abuelo would normally be in bed by 10 PM every night, but if Valenzuela was pitching and the game just happened to be broadcast on the local television channel, he'd always stay up to watch the game on the 13-inch black and white TV. He'd keep the volume low so as not to wake my grandmother, telling me that he didn't need to hear the game because Fernando's pitching would tell the story. In the summer of 1981, he was absolutely right.
I'll always remember talking to him on the phone after the Mets won the World Series in 1986. He was thrilled that I was finally able to celebrate a championship, but he was also quick to remind me that despite the Mets boasting a pitching staff that included Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Bob Ojeda and Sid Fernandez, it was Fernando Valenzuela who led the National League in wins. (Valenzuela won 21 games for the Dodgers in 1986, his only 20-win campaign in 17 years in the big leagues.)
Oh, Abuelo. He really loved his Dodgers.
Two years after the Mets won the World Series, they played for the right to appear in another. But this time it was different. This time, the Mets were playing the Dodgers for the pennant. A member of the Leyro family was going to see his favorite team play in the World Series in 1988. But for that to happen, another member of the Leyro family was going to be disappointed that his team failed to reach the Fall Classic. It was about as awkward as it was ever going to get between me and Abuelo when it came to our shared love of the national pastime. In the end, it became one of the most important times in our relationship.
The Dodgers defeated the Mets in the 1988 NLCS, upsetting them in seven games. The Mets weren't the only ones upset by that result. The day after Game 7, the phone rang in our house. My mother picked it up, spoke for a few seconds, then called me over to the phone. It was for me, she said. It was Abuelo.
I thought it was strange that Abuelo would call me. After all, any time I'd speak to him on the phone, it would be my grandmother who called us and then she'd pass the phone over to Abuelo. (The men in the Leyro family have never been known as "phone people".) But this time, my grandfather let his fingers do the walking and he called me directly. Although almost a quarter century has passed, I'll never forget that conversation.
Not once did he mention the Dodgers in the conversation. Nor did he mention the Mets. Instead, he reminded me that there would be times in life when we'd question why things happened the way they did. He told me that he once went on a date with a girl when he was 18. She was his definition of "the perfect girl". She was smart, beautiful and came from a great family. He was sure after one date that he was going to marry her. Two dates later, she decided she didn't want to see him anymore. He was crushed.
After two years of wondering where he went wrong, he made the acquaintance of another girl. He wasn't attracted to her at first, but she listened to his story of lost love and gave him words of encouragement. They continued to talk as friends for nearly a year until he realized something.
He was falling in love. And this time, the girl he loved felt the same way about him.
The year was 1933. In 1934, they were married.
When Abuelo finished telling me the story of how he and Abuela met and fell in love, I thanked him for making me smile. I thought that was the reason he was sharing his story with me, because I was upset that my Mets had lost to his Dodgers and I would need some cheering up. But that wasn't why he told me the story. He then went back to the beginning of our conversation, the part where he said there would be times in life when we'd question why things happened the way they did.
For two years, he wondered to himself why the love of his life didn't love him back. But without that unexpected breakup, he never would have met my grandmother, a woman he would be married to until her death in 2001. He then told me to think about his words and to "never stop believing" before hanging up.
It took me until that evening, but as I was getting ready for bed, it finally hit me. Abuelo was using his story as an analogy. I was questioning how the Mets could lose to the Dodgers in the playoffs after defeating them 10 of 11 times during the regular season, just like he had questioned why the girl he loved couldn't reciprocate those feelings for him. He had to wait two years after suffering through a devastating heartbreak, but in the end, it netted him the love of his life. Therefore, what Abuelo was telling me was that he knew I was heartbroken because of the Mets' loss to the Dodgers, but before long, they'd be back and I'd love them more than ever.
You know what? He was right.
Sure, it took 11 years for the Mets to make it back to the postseason, but when they did, they went to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons and made their first trip to the World Series since 1986. And when they did, Abuelo was the first person who called me to offer a congratulatory message.
Abuelo didn't make it to see the next Mets/Dodgers postseason matchup in 2006, as he passed away five days after his 90th birthday in 2002. But when the Mets swept the Dodgers to advance to the NLCS in that magical season, the first person I thought of was him. What did I think of? That he didn't have to feel sad because the team he loved would be back. And they did, winning back-to-back division titles in 2008 and 2009. Somewhere in Heaven, I knew Abuelo was smiling.
There is a point to this personal story. You see, Abuelo was born on October 29, 1912. That means today would have been his 100th birthday. He and I never went to a Mets/Dodgers game together, but we didn't have to. The stories took us there.
When I was eight years old, Abuelo shared his love of the Dodgers with me at the same time I was trying to share my love of the Mets with him. He never became a Mets fan, just as I never became a Dodgers fan. But we shared that love of baseball that no rivalry can break. That love brought us together and provided me with some of my most wonderful childhood memories - memories that I continue to cherish as an adult.
Sometimes we question why things happen the way they do. I never have to question why I loved my grandfather. He was the most important man I've ever known.
Happy 100th birthday, Abuelo. And thank you for always taking me out to the ballgame.
Dedicated to Horacio Leyro (October 29, 1912 - November 3, 2002)