Wednesday, February 26, 2014

August 16, 2001: Baltimore Orioles vs. Kansas City Royals

I would be heading back to college for my sophomore year at the Penn State Hazleton campus in a few days, and I packed as much fun as I possibly could in the last week of what had been a dismal summer.

My dad, a regular drinker and smoker all his adult life, suffered a mild heart attack in January 2001. An angiogram revealed an 80-percent blockage in his arteries, requiring quadruple bypass surgery that June. The technology of the time required surgeons to remove my dad’s heart from his body while keeping him alive with machines. This fact terrified me, despite the minimal chance of death. My dad was only 46 years old, but this surgery made his mortality more real than it had ever been.

Dad made it through the procedure fine and was home from the hospital five days later. He wasn’t cleared to drive or return to work until August, though he began driving again after only two weeks (a rule that apparently all male patients break, according to my dad’s doctor).

My stressful home life made it difficult to enjoy the Phillies’ promising season. Amazingly, they were best team in baseball through the first two months – off to their hottest start since 1993 – and they remained in first place at the All-Star Break. Young and speedy shortstop Jimmy Rollins became an instant fan favorite and motored his way to Rookie of the Year honors. Philly ended the season just two games out of first in a down year for the NL East, and it secured its first winning record since ’93.

You may be wondering why, as a last-day-of-summer treat I chose to see a team floundering 20 games under .500 over a team battling for a division title. The reasoning was simple; it was my last chance to see Cal Ripken, Jr. before he retired. That summer’s All-Star Game pushed me in that direction as well. All eyes were on future Hall of Famers Ripken and Tony Gwynn. Ripken homered in his first at-bat and was named the game’s MVP.

It would have been nice for my dad and I to see Ripken on the field that day, but he took to his DH position well, going 3-for-4.

This game also sticks out in my memory for an unpleasant reason. During one inning when the Orioles defense was on the field, some fans sitting near my dad and I began hurling verbal taunts at Brady Anderson, who was the closest player in view. They singled out the offensive struggles of the former All-Star, whose batting average tolled the Mendoza Line for most of the season.

For a reason I can’t fathom, I found their taunts amusing and joined in with them. I suppose I had yet to grasp that all major league players’ skills decline once they reach a certain age, and for Anderson, it was 37. Very few get to bow out as gracefully as Ripken, and Anderson did not deserve such harsh treatment, especially from his own fans.

By the time I got to college, I rarely received my father’s stern tone, but I heard it loud and clear when he told me to stop yelling at Anderson. I complied immediately, and though I didn’t reflect on my behavior until years later, I knew I had done something wrong. I had broken the code of respect that my dad always followed when he attended games. I not only violated the code but set a poor example of conduct for any younger fans sitting around us. I learned my lesson, and that was the first and last time I heckled a player on the team for which I was rooting.

The Kansas City Royals broke a scoreless tie with three runs in the sixth inning and three more in the seventh. Though my dad was mostly recovered from his surgery, watching a baseball game under the hot, summer sun was quite taxing. We left after the seventh, which would become a recurring practice over the next several years. The decision is easier to make when your team is losing.

2001 was a scary year for me and for the country after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, but life continued in New York and Washington, D.C., and I still had my father. We were lucky to build countless more memories together, with some of the best taking place in view of a baseball diamond.

Note: This game coincidentally featured some of the Phillies’ past and their future. Paul Byrd, who started the 2001 season with Philadelphia, won the game for the Royals. Future Phillies left fielder Raul Ibanez backed Byrd’s strong start with a three-run shot.

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