[Yesterday was no good, so let’s join our man Hank from two days ago instead.—AB]
Because it’s summer, and because it’s baseball, my son Henry and I hopped on a train from Anaheim to San Diego to catch the Yankees against the Padres in a Sunday afternoon matinee. The drive from L.A. to San Diego can be painless or soul-crushing depending on traffic, so I felt like I was already ahead when we settled into our luxuriously large seats on the top deck of Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner headed down the coast. It would be the most relaxing two-hour drive imaginable.
Folks on the East Coast probably take the train regularly or even daily, but in California it will always be a novelty, with the trip as much fun as the destination. The first family we saw on the train was a young Amish couple with an infant and two toddlers. They sat facing each other across a table with a deck of cards to pass the time. It was as if Amtrak had hired them to enhance the already quaint atmosphere. We were headed to San Diego, but we’d taken a detour through Lancaster County.
As the train rumbled down the California coast, sometimes only inches from the sand, we sped past children building castles, couples flying kites, and surfers riding waves, and my son asked the questions he usually asks. Who is my favorite Yankee now that Derek Jeter has retired? Who is the best player on the team? Who do I hope hits a home run today? Difficult questions all.
We walked off the train in downtown San Diego at 10:15, giving us just enough time to grab breakfast (chilaquiles and pancakes for me, chorizo and eggs for Henry) before heading to the ballpark. Petco Field is absolutely amazing. I had been there once before for a night game, but it simply must be seen during the day, when it sparkles like the jewel that it is. The stands weren’t yet open when we arrived at 11:30, but the grounds were already buzzing. Children played whiffle ball in a mini-Petco, families laid out picnic blankets on a large green overlooking the field, adorable dogs and cats sat waiting for adoption, and to complete the carnival atmosphere, a man on stilts walked through the crowd giving directions.
A bronze statue of Mr. Padre himself, Tony Gwynn, stood atop a hill overlooking it all, and as Henry and I made the short climb to pay tribute, I explained to him that Gwynn was not just the greatest Padre ever, he was probably the best pure hitter of a baseball I had ever seen.
When the attendant finally raised the gate and allowed the patrons into the park, we walked the concourse and headed to our seats — Row 21 behind the Yankees’ first base dugout. Always the rule follower, Henry wanted to find our seats and immediately sit down, but I guided him instead towards the field, pointing out players that he knew — Michael Pineda here, Masahiro Tanaka there. But then I saw someone that he didn’t know but who had been larger than life in my childhood — Reggie Jackson. He stood on the dirt in front of the dugout wearing a blue golf shirt and a white Yankee cap, having a conversation with an official while casually catching baseballs from fans, scrawling out his signature, and tossing them back.
“That’s Reggie Jackson, Henry. He’s one of the best players ever to play for the Yankees.”
“Can we get his autograph?”
I didn’t know. I had nothing but a scorebook for him to sign, and that didn’t make much sense, so we sprinted up the steps and looked for a souvenir stand with a baseball. We bought a San Diego All-Star Game commemorative ball for nine bucks, headed back, and found that the crowd had more than doubled in size. I stood behind two or three rows of people and noticed that Reggie was more involved in his conversation than he had been before. He was talking, only signing occasionally. It didn’t look hopeful.
“Will he sign it?”
“I don’t know. Keep your fingers crossed.”
“Hey, Reggie,” I called down to him. When he looked up, I held the ball in my hand and shook it, like a pitcher asking the umpire for another ball. He pointed directly at me, I threw him a strike, and he returned it with his autograph, just as Henry had hoped. (Not until typing that last sentence did I realize that I played catch with Reggie Jackson, which is pretty cool.)
“You da man, Reg! You da man!”
And he kept signing, working his way down the left field line for thirty minutes or so.
The game was still an hour away, but we’d already gotten our money’s worth, especially considering my expectations were rather low. These have been troubling times for the Yankees, but I still watch. This team doesn’t deserve to be in the playoffs, and as we sat in the park where the All Star Game will be held, it was hard to find a Yankee who deserved a return trip next week.
But there will always be hope. The 28th World Series win is always on the horizon, it just seems like that horizon is farther away than most would like. Even so, as we settled into the stands we were surrounded by Yankee fans. To my left was an older gentleman from the Bronx wearing a Staten Island Yankees cap and spinning stories of players from fifty years ago. “Mickey Mantle, Moose Skowron, Tommy Tresh… The good ol’ days!”
Rookie Chad Green gave us a peek at the good ol’ days that might lie ahead as he dominated the Padre hitters with a fastball that sat in the low to mid 90s and a brand new cutter that produced eight strikeouts over six innings. (The Yankee rotation has been a train wreck all season long, so it was no surprise that Green was given Nathan Eovaldi’s slot the morning after this performance.)
Meanwhile the Yankee hitters were showing minor signs of life while allowing Padre starter Andrew Cashner to wriggle off the hook time and time again. Didi Gregorius (one of Henry’s favorites) delighted the Yankee crowd with a laser that slipped just inside the foul pole for a home run and a 2-1 lead in the fourth, and for the next three innings it looked like that was all the offense would be able to muster.
As Mark Teixeira walked to the plate to lead off the eighth inning, a chorus of grumbling rippled through the crowd. He had struck out three times already, and at no point in any of those at bats did he look remotely comfortable. It wasn’t just that he was swinging and missing, he was flailing and missing. My friend from the Bronx was disgusted.
“Here comes Teixeira to strike out again.”
I wasn’t as pessimistic as he, but I couldn’t argue. As if on cue, Teixeira swung at the second pitch and popped up a ball to short right field. We thought. It was a towering fly, but for some reason right fielder Matt Kemp kept drifting back and drifting back and… finally the ball settled into the seats for a home run. I stood with outstretched arms as if I had witnessed a miracle.
Joe Girardi sent Alex Rodríguez to pinch hit to lead off the ninth. (A quick word about the lack of the DH. This was my first time scoring a game in a National League park, and it makes for a messy scorebook. Just another reason to bring the DH to the senior circuit.)
But back to A-Rod. Love him or hate him, he’s the ultimate lightning rod. He hopped out of the dugout as soon as the Yankees came off the field, and the show began. Yankee fans recognized him right away and stood to get photos on cell phones and iPads, but it wasn’t until his name was announced that the Padre fans began their booing. More than at any point in the game, the park was alive, and each of his mighty swings drew a surge of electricity from the crowd until he finally grounded out harmlessly to first for the first out of the ninth.
After Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner reached base with a walk and a single, it looked like the Yankees might be rallying, but my friend wasn’t hopeful. “Teixeira will probably ground into a double play.”
“Don’t worry, he’s hot now!” I was obviously joking, but the words had only just escaped my mouth before Teixeira pounded the first pitch he saw deep to right center for a three-run homer and a 6-1 lead. I could only doff my cap in respect as Big Tex rounded the bases celebrating his 401st career home run, those three helpless strikeouts a distant memory.
Coming into the game I had hoped to get an up close look at the Big Three. Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller had pitched the seventh and eighth, but now Aroldis Chapman wouldn’t be needed. Until he was. Anthony Swarzak yielded a two-run bomb to Alex Dickerson, and Chapman was in the game before the ball landed in the stands. After a fly ball to center, a strikeout, and a weak ground out to third, the game was done. Yankees 6, Padres 3.
Even in this dark season, there is still hope. Rookies still dazzle, sluggers still hit homers, relievers still hurl hundred mile per hour fastballs, heroes still sign autographs, and fathers still take sons to the ballpark. Baseball is still baseball.
As we walked from the park to the train reviewing all that happened, Henry asked what my favorite part had been.
“That’s easy. Spending the day with you.”
“Yeah, me too.”