I can still name all the players on the New York Mets back in 1986, the year they won the World Series– Sid Fernandez, Gary Carter, Darryl Strawberry, Lenny Dykstra, Dwight Gooden, Mookie Wilson…. It was the same year we moved back to New York; the year my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer. It was also the year before I stopped watching baseball altogether.
Growing up, we spent almost every Saturday afternoon in the back of my grandfather’s drug store in Sunnyside, Queens. The radio was always tuned to elevator music or a ballgame, while my sister and I kept busy with coloring books and cookies from the Italian bakery next door. My mother helped count and sort pills, placing them in orange plastic containers for customers to pick up. Sometimes my sister and I got to help out too, stacking cigarette cartons on the shelves behind the counter—Marlboros, Salems, Newports, Lucky Strikes; sweeping the front of the store; or straightening up (and stealing from) the candy section by the cash register.
If I was bored, I’d write stories and show them to my grandfather during slow hours. Invariably, he would take out a pen from the pocket of his pharmacist’s shirt to correct my spelling and show me how I could say the same thing using much simpler language. My grandfather himself was a man of few words who never spoke about his own life– about the 16 gunpoint robberies he’d survived; about the framed photo of his older son Michael that never moved from the top of his dresser; or about his monthly visits to a place called Creedmoor where his younger son Peter had lived since he was 13.
I only knew my grandfather in the quiet, tender moments we shared together, separate from any tragic past or uncertain future. In the evenings, I’d sit on his lap in a well-worn armchair while he watched t.v. and smoked his pipe and cigars, letting me take a drag or two as well. It was in these moments that I fell in love with many things: the smell of tobacco on a man’s shirt, the stubble from his chin on my forehead and cheek, and the focused yet unpredictable action of baseball as it unfolded into nine succinct chapters.
It was a story told between the lines–the secret nods and hand gestures shared between pitcher and catcher; the slight curve on the ball that determined the outcome of a play; the subtle intuition of the batter about whether to bunt or swing full out; the solo decision of a player to run or to stay on base. It was the wordless intimacy among teammates and their own trust in themselves that felt safe, and the comfort of my grandfather’s presence that made that safety real.
While we sat there watching the game, my grandfather and I had our own type of morse-code language that was just our own. He would squeeze my hand silently, asking:
“Do you love me?” (four squeezes)
I would answer: “Yes I do” (3 squeezes back)
“How much?” he’d ask (2 squeezes).
And then, with all the strength I could muster, I would squeeze.
After my grandfather died, I never talked about him to anyone, letting parts of me disappear along with him. But now, 30 years later, as spring training approaches, I can’t help but remember the sacred ritual that we shared. I feel the lure of the game once again, with its delicate narrative and the unspoken rule I also learned from my grandfather: that less is often more. Mostly, I long for that irreplaceable experience of loving someone with all your heart, that feeling of sliding into home.