Thursday, October 29, 2020

In Honor of My Grandfather, Who Taught Me About Love and Baseball

My grandparents moved to Puerto Rico when I was three years old.  After they moved to San Juan, I only saw them for a few weeks at a time when my parents and I visited them during my summer vacation from school.  Because those trips coincided with the middle of baseball season, my grandfather always wanted to talk to me about the game.

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 Abuelo 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 in the modern era 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 a 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 Seven, 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.  Over three decades have passed since this call was made, but I'll never forget that conversation.

Not once did he mention the Dodgers while talking to me.  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 eighteen.  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 local girl.  Abuelo admitted to me that 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 she passed away 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 win the pennant, Abuelo was the first person who called me to offer a congratulatory message.

Abuelo didn't make it to see the next two Mets/Dodgers postseason matchups in 2006 and 2015, as he passed away five days after his 90th birthday in 2002.  But when the Mets defeated the Dodgers to advance to the NLCS in both campaigns, 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, as the Dodgers have won eight consecutive division titles and three National League pennants in the last four years.  Somewhere in Heaven, I knew Abuelo was smiling.  And now he's probably smiling even more, as the Dodgers just won their first World Series championship since the year he called me to tell me a story about love and patience.

There is a point to this personal story.  You see, Abuelo was born on October 29, 1912.  That means today would have been his 108th 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 108th birthday, Abuelo.  And thank you for always taking me out to the ballgame.



Dedicated to Horacio Leyro (October 29, 1912 - November 3, 2002)



Saturday, October 17, 2020

A Walking Tour of New York Baseball History

When a hitter takes a free pass, he walks - or runs, in the case of Brandon Nimmo - 90 feet to first base.  When I decided to pass through the city freely, traveling on foot to various sites of former and current ballparks to raise money for the American Cancer Society, I walked 64 miles, or 337,920 feet.

This two-day journey through all five boroughs took me to major league stadiums (Citi Field and Yankee Stadium), minor league parks (MCU Park and Richmond County Bank Ballpark at St. George) and several sites where professional baseball used to be played.  If you followed along on Facebook and Twitter while I was shuffling my feet, you saw me post short videos at each location.  If you didn't, that's where this blog post comes in.  Think of it as the Cliff's Notes to my walking tour of New York baseball history.

 

This place is a part of my past, present and future.  (Photo by Ed Leyro/Studious Metsimus)
 

The walk began on Friday, October 9, at Heritage Field in the Bronx.  This is where old Yankee Stadium used to stand from 1923 to 2008.  The field, which has not been well maintained during the current global pandemic, is where Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and the recently departed Whitey Ford established themselves as baseball legends.

There is not much left from the original Yankee Stadium in this area other than the large bat that used to stand outside the House That Ruth Built and a piece of the iconic frieze, which was originally above the upper deck of the old ballpark.  That frieze is now located by a running track located in the approximate area where the center field wall at the old Yankee Stadium once stood.

 

Batman vs. Mr. Freeze?  No, it's just a bat and a frieze.  (EL/SM)
 

From Heritage Field, I crossed E. 161 St. to the new Yankee Stadium, which opened for business in 2009.  Despite it being the closest major league stadium to where I live, I have never set foot inside the new stadium, and I'm okay with that.  Besides, I'd probably look just like this in all my photos if I ever entered the ballpark.

 

Doing my best Siskel & Ebert reviewing "Ishtar" pose. (EL/SM)


The Yankees weren't always known by that moniker.  In fact, they weren't always a New York team.  In 1901 and 1902, the franchise played in Baltimore as the original Orioles, then they moved to Manhattan and became the New York Highlanders.  The Highlanders took that name because they played their home games in American League Park, which was better known as Hilltop Park because it sat atop a hill in Washington Heights.  That was the future Yankees' home for ten seasons (1903-12) before their lease expired.  They then left the park and the Highlanders name to move to the Polo Grounds and play as the New York Yankees.

Hilltop Park was demolished in 1913, but over a century later, there is still one reminder that a ballpark once rose atop the hill.

After I crossed Macombs Dam Bridge into Manhattan, I made my way to Fort Washington Avenue between W. 165 St. and W. 168 St.  This is the current location of the New York Presbyterian / Columbia University Irving Medical Center.  On the east side of Fort Washington Avenue, just north of W. 165 St. is a set of two gates that lead to a garden and chapel.  These gates are usually locked from the outside, but as one person left the gate furthest away from W. 165 St., I took advantage and went in before the gate locked shut.  Walking to the back of the garden across from the chapel, I found a plate-shaped plaque that was dedicated on the exact spot where Hilltop Park's home plate was once located.  It's a shame that it's not easily accessible to the public, but as long as you don't mind sneaking in - the garden is technically a public space even though it's behind a locked gate - the Hilltop Park artifact is there for the viewing.


Behind a locked gate, this home plate is definitely safe.  (EL/SM)

 

When the Highlanders moved to the Polo Grounds in 1913 and became the Yankees, they shared their new home with their National League counterparts, the New York Giants.  The Giants had only been in existence for a little over a quarter century, but they already had quite a history with their home ballparks.  In fact, their home in 1913 was the fourth such edifice known as the Polo Grounds.

The original Polo Grounds was built in 1876 and was located between Fifth and Sixth Avenues from 110th to 112th Streets, just north of Central Park.  Polo was originally played there before the original New York Metropolitans called it home from 1880 to 1885.  The Metropolitans, who played in the American Association, shared Polo Grounds I with the National League's New York Gothams, who began play in 1883.  Two years later, the Gothams became the Giants.

In 1886, the Giants no longer had to share a stadium with the original "Mets", as the Metropolitans baseball club left polo for cricket, vacating the Polo Grounds to move into their new home in Staten Island at the St. George Cricket Grounds, where they played for two seasons until the team ceased operations.  The Giants' residence at Polo Grounds I ended after the 1888 season, when the city of New York decided they wanted to extend the Manhattan street grid north of 110th St.  Needing a new home, the Giants played two games at Oakland Park in Jersey City, NJ before temporarily moving to the St. George Cricket Grounds.  While they played in Staten Island for two months, a new Polo Grounds was being erected under Coogan's Bluff in upper Manhattan.  That ballpark opened in the summer of 1889.

Polo Grounds II was not the only park in the area.  Just two blocks south was a ballpark that housed another baseball team known as the New York Giants.  Those Giants were part of the Players' League and they played in Brotherhood Park in 1890.  When the rival Players' League folded after just one season, the National League's New York Giants moved into Brotherhood Park in 1891 and renamed it - you guessed it - the Polo Grounds, the third such park with that name.

The third Polo Grounds was built out of wood, which as we all know is quite flammable.  Sure enough, in April 1911, Polo Grounds III was destroyed by a fire, forcing the Giants to relocate to Hilltop Park for two months while a new Polo Grounds was being built on the same location as the burned down building.  Learning from the past, Polo Grounds IV was built out of steel and concrete, allowing it to survive everything except a demolition ball, which was used after the second iteration of the Mets left for Shea Stadium in 1964.

In over half a century, Polo Grounds IV housed the Giants (1911-57), Yankees (1913-22) and Mets (1962-63).  The site now houses the Polo Grounds Towers, an apartment complex that overlooks the Harlem River.  There are still several reminders that baseball was once played there, including a new Polo Grounds Towers sign that's painted in the old New York Giants' colors and the John T. Brush Stairway, which used to lead fans down Coogan's Bluff into the Polo Grounds.


Also the first home of the New York Mets.  (EL/SM)

 

The Yankees and Giants were just two of the three major league teams that called New York home prior to the formation of the Mets in 1962.  Brooklyn once had a team as well, but they weren't always called the Dodgers.

From 1883 to 1891, the Brooklyn Atlantics, Brooklyn Grays, Brooklyn Bridegrooms and Brooklyn Grooms played at the first Washington Park in the neighborhood of Park Slope.  This ballpark was located between Fourth and Fifth Avenues from 3rd to 5th Streets.  Currently, a public park with that name can be found where Brooklyn's first National League team once played.  After leaving Washington Park in 1892, the team moved to Eastern Park in Brownsville.  But when fans failed to follow the team to their new digs in Brownsville, the club moved back to a new Washington Park after the 1897 season, located just a block away from the original ballpark.

This park, in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn, was home to the team with many names, as they were known as the Bridegrooms in 1898 and the Superbas from 1899 to 1910 before finally setting on the Dodgers in 1911 after the people who dodged the trolleys in the vicinity of Washington Park.  Brooklyn played at this Washington Park for fifteen seasons (1898-1912) before moving to Ebbets Field in 1913.

Washington Park might not be standing anymore, but the building's wall still is.  A short 12-mile walk from the Polo Grounds Towers, on the corner of Third Avenue and 1st St. in Gowanus, is a wall that looks exactly like what you'd expect a late 19th century/early 20th century ballpark wall to look like.  The brick wall that was behind center field runs for part of 1st St., while the wall that stood behind the left field area of the park takes up all of Third Ave. from 1st St. to 3rd St.  The photos below show what that exterior wall of Washington Park looked like.


Washington Park wall.  (EL/SM)

 

Once the Dodgers left Washington Park for the new Ebbets Field in 1913, they became the Superbas once again before taking the new name of the Brooklyn Robins in 1914.  That name stuck for nearly two decades until they finally settled on the Dodgers for good in 1932.  The Dodgers played at Ebbets Field for another quarter century before failed attempts at a new ballpark in Brooklyn or Queens caused the team to move to Los Angeles, taking the Giants with them to the Golden State.

The location of Ebbets Field in Crown Heights (the area was part of Flatbush when the Dodgers called it home) is now covered with apartment buildings.  Similar to the Polo Grounds Towers in Manhattan, the Ebbets Field Apartments (also known as the Jackie Robinson Apartments) rest on the location of a former major league ballpark.  This apartment complex also remembers its history, with a cornerstone on Bedford Ave. that notes what used to stand there and a home plate marker just outside a laundromat within the complex, which can be seen by walking into a nondescript entrance on Sullivan Place.  (The former address of Ebbets Field was 55 Sullivan Place.)


The site of the House That Jackie Built.  (EL/SM)

 

Before the Dodgers settled on moving to the west coast, one of the areas they were looking at for a new stadium was in Queens.  And seven years after Brooklyn got out of Dodge, Queens had its own team when Shea Stadium opened to Mets fans in 1964.

The Mets became New York's one and only National League team in 1962, setting up shop at Polo Grounds IV for two seasons while they waited for Shea Stadium to be completed.  Once they moved to Flushing, the Mets stayed at Shea for 45 seasons - the same number of years Ebbets Field hosted the Dodgers/Superbas/Robins - before moving across the parking lot to Citi Field in 2009.

By the time I walked the ten miles from the site of Ebbets Field to the former home of Shea Stadium, the sun had set on my first day of walking, so I ran the Shea Stadium bases, which are conveniently marked in the current Citi Field parking lot, before taking one last photo with my Studious Metsimus colleagues outside the Jackie Robinson Rotunda entrance at Citi Field.


Time for bed.  There's still another day of walking to go!  (EL/SM)


Day two of my baseball walk (Saturday, October 10) began where the first day ended - at Citi Field.  Although the sun had not officially risen when I got there, there was enough daylight to take photos of the area where Shea Stadium used to be and the special purple and back bunting above the Seaver Entrance, which was named after the late Tom Seaver.


May "The Franchise" rest in peace.  (EL/SM)


With the major league parks out of the way, it was now time to go back to the minors.  From Queens, I walked over the Kosciuszko Bridge to Brooklyn, made my way through Greenpoint and Wiliamsburg, then scampered over the Williamsburg Bridge to Manhattan.  Once in Manhattan, I made my way south through Chinatown and the Financial District before arriving at the Staten Island Ferry terminal.  Since it's not possible to walk to Staten Island from another borough, I got on the ferry and walked around the boat as I made the 25-minute trip through New York Harbor.  Once the ferry docked at the St. George terminal, I walked a short distance to the next stop: Richmond County Bank Ballpark at St. George, a.k.a. the home of the Staten Island Yankees.

The Staten Island Yankees have played in the New York-Penn League since 1999.  In their first two seasons, they played their home games at the College of Staten Island Baseball Complex before moving into their current home in St. George.  The parking lot of RCB Ballpark is also home to a bit of baseball history, as that was the former location of the St. George Cricket Grounds, where the original New York Metropolitans and New York Giants played in the 1880s.

The ballpark in Staten Island has several unique features, such as the likeness of the Verrazzano Bridge above the video board in left field, a panoramic view of the Lower Manhattan skyline, and a Wall of Fame dedicated not to former players, but to the baseball scouts who discovered some of the best players.  If only that Wall of Fame wasn't located behind the first base stands, invisible to mostly everyone in the stadium.


Seriously, couldn't this have been located where it could be, you know, seen?  (EL/SM)

 

From Staten Island, it was back on the ferry to Manhattan, followed by a walk north to the Manhattan Bridge, which I crossed to get back into Brooklyn.  On my way to the final destination of this two-day baseball trip, I made a stop at Barclays Center.  Why did I stop at a place that was built for basketball, hockey and non-sports events?  Because it is also the home of a piece of Brooklyn Dodgers history.

Outside the arena, on the corner of Atlantic Ave. and Flatbush Ave., is a lone flagpole.  But this is not just any flagpole.  No, my friends, this pole once flew at Ebbets Field and was brought to Barclays Center in 2012 to commemorate the return of professional, major league sports to Brooklyn.  (The NBA's Nets have called Barclays Center home since 2012, while the NHL's Islanders played there from 2015-19.)


O say, does that Ebbets Field banner yet wave?  Yes.  Yes, it does.  (EL/SM)


I had already walked over 50 miles between the two days.  I had visited two current MLB stadiums, the sites of several former major league parks and had even seen some artifacts from those current and former parks that are still standing.  I had just one stop to go.  And to do so, I had to walk as far south as I could go on foot in Brooklyn.  I had to go to Coney Island.

By this time, I was walking at a Bartolo Col√≥n home run trot pace.  But I was determined to make it to my final destination.  I walked eight miles through the neighborhoods of Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, Kensington, Borough Park, Midwood and Gravesend, with no other baseball sites to slow me down.  And right before sunset, I finally made it to Coney Island.  Once there, I passed by Luna Park.  I also passed by Nathan's.  I did not pass by MCU Park, which was the end of my journey.

Once the Brooklyn Dodgers left for California after the 1957 season, the borough of Kings was left without professional baseball for 44 years.  It wasn't until the Cyclones came to town in 2001 that Brooklyn had a team again.

The Cyclones started in St. Catharines, Ontatrio, as a minor league affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays.  They played in Canada from 1986 to 1999, before moving to Queens in 2000 as the Queens Kings.  Although they played in Mets country, they were still the New York-Penn League affiliate of the Blue Jays.  Finally, in 2001, and nearly half a century after the Brooklyn Dodgers considered building a new home in Queens, the Kings moved from Queens to Brooklyn, setting up shop at KeySpan Park in Coney Island, which was renamed MCU Park in 2010.

Brooklyn had a professional baseball team again and this bum was done with his walk.

 

Forgive the blurriness.  It was late and I was tired.  (EL/SM)

 

In just two days, I covered 64 miles walking through all five boroughs and saw more New York baseball history than I ever thought I could.  But most importantly, I helped raise $2,100.00 for the American Cancer Society.

This was a 36-hour period I will never forget and one my feet will probably never forgive me for.  But I certainly hope they'll get over it.  After all, it was a baseball trip.  And taking a walk is always good for the team.


A walk is as good as a hit.  In this case, my walk was a hit.  (EL/SM)