Take Me Out to the Ballgame
Jess Granger passed away from his third heart attack as he watched Wheel of Fortune in his apartment. An hour later I got the call from his sister Beth. Through her tears she told me the details and said she had made all the final arrangements. His funeral would be on Saturday. We had been friends for a long time, drawn together by our love of baseball. Raised in Boston,Massachusetts, on the south side of the Charles River, Jess was a diehard Red Sox fan while I had other loyalties that he would say changed with the direction of every wind that blew across the harbor.
While the preacher read from the Bible about passing through the valley of death, all I could imagine was all the ballgames we had attended sitting on the wooden planks in the left field bleachers of Fenway. There were more than a few times I could swear I heard a disembodied voice whisper, “If you build it he will come.”
He always wore his Red Sox jacket since it could get chilly in those bleachers, but he wore it no matter the weather since that jacket was his pride and joy. He would always tell me, “I don’t want there to be any doubt about which team I am rooting for.” Frankly, I was surprised Beth told me that he was not going to be buried with it.
“He never took care of himself.” Beth confided in me before the service. It was true, he was fond of cheap beer, fruity wine and fatty gourmet foods. The doctor would always tell him that he needed to watch his diet a bit more diligently, but I knew that would never happen.
He would always wolf down a few hot dogs dripping with chili as he cheered for his team.
“I wanted to play for the Soxs.” He would say with regret. “We played stickball in the Southie streets. Someone would always be on the lookout for cars that drove through our baseball field.”
“I played little league. Wasn’t much of a hitter.” I would add.
“So Ralphie, did you ever play in the street?” His sad brown eyes would look up at me like a sad puppy dog.
“I grew up in the suburbs. They had all kinds of ballfields.” I shrugged as he flipped through the channels looking for a ballgame.
“Of course.” He waved me off, “It didn’t mean nothing unless you played on the pavement.”
His remarks sometimes had a barb in them that were meant to sting. He grew up in a neighborhood that was primarily Irish Catholic with memories of a more austere bare-bones childhood.
He claimed that I had lived the soft, pampered life in upstate New York. I wished I could have disagreed, but the fact is I did live a pampered life where he had been raised with a strap and harsh words about how hard the cruel world out there was. Somehow he had gotten himself an MBA at Columbia University. We met at Searson’s Investment Firm in New York City. While the other junior partners cheered for the Bronx Bombers, he made it quite clear that he thoroughly hated the Yankees with every fiber of his being.
“Bums I tell ya, nothing but bums.” He would utter.
When the Red Soxs came to play the Yankees in a heated rivalry that had gone on since the Red Soxs traded Babe Ruth, he asked me to go to the evening game. With a non-existent social life, I decided to take him up on his offer. He showed up at my efficiency apartment wearing his Boston Red Sox jacket and ballcap.
“Ready?” He asked at the door.
“You’re gonna go like that?” I asked somewhat astonished by his bold attire.
“Sure, why not?” He held out his hands.
“You might get murdered wearing that.” I pointed at his jacket.
“Ain’t no New York punk gonna get the better of me.” He laughed defiantly.
“Alright, but if it goes down, I do not know you.” I grabbed my keys and walked out into the hall.
“I can take care of myself. Punks have never gotten the best of a Southy.” He nodded.
Two guys wearing the full regatta of Yankee gear including the number 44 on their backs with the name R. Jackson above the number blocked our way to the ticket booth.
“Fellas, we ain’t lookin’ for no trouble.” I held my hands out as a gesture of peace.
“Ain’t gonna let this puke into our stadium.” One of them with a seven o’clock shadow put his arm across the gate so we could not get through.
Before I could blink, Jess had the brute’s arm pinned up behind him so his thumb rested on the “J” of the name on his jersey.
“I could break this off and beat you over your thick skull.” He pressed his arm higher.
“Alright, alright.” He groaned.
“Shall we get our tickets Ralphie?” He shoved the brute and walked up the incline to the ticket booth.
“One day, punk, you will feel the wrath of the mighty Bombers.” The other brute growled from the shadows as he helped his partner to his feet.
“I highly doubt that.” He laughed as he paid for our admission.
“The curse of Ruth. Curse of Ruth.” He pointed his finger at us as if it were a gun.
As it turned out the Curse of Ruth was a stumbling block for Jess he could never quite get over. Every year the team seemed to have a team that was a strong contender for a pennant, but somehow they always came up short. Playing against the New York Mets in the 1985 World Series, Bill Bucker, a reliable fielder at first base, watched in horror as a ball hit by Mookie Wilson went dribbling between his legs. Wilson would eventually come around to score the winning run and Buckner would forever be tagged as the scapegoat who lost the 1985 World Series for the Boston Red Soxs.
So deflated by this, Jess decided to take a position in a Boston investment firm.
“I can’t bear this slum of a city.” He downed a glass of wine without hesitation.
“I’ll be sorry to see you go.” I admitted.
“Come to Boston. I’ll take care of you.” He poured himself another glass of Chardonnay.
“I’m a New York boy.” I shook my head.
“Don’t worry. With a little therapy, I can cure that.” His smile reminded me of a deranged leprechaun.
I went to Boston, but never quite felt at home as the old colonial strata turned out to be a shock to my system. Even a nice stroll along the Charles River seemed to be an exercise in social class. Jess told me that Southies were the lowest rung of the social ladder and he proved that many times when we went out. In one fancy eatery, the waiter treated us like bums and after being confronted by Jess, refused any further service.
“Hey, this is the way it is.” He told me as we sat on a bench facing the river.
“I don’t like it.” I shook my head.
“It’s the same anywhere you go, ya know.” He stretched his neck a bit.
“No it’s not.” I retorted.
“Yeah it is, it’s just here it’s noticeable. It’s in your face.” He leaned forward putting his arms on his knees. “Back in New York, they’re better at hiding the truth.”
“Whadda mean?” I jerked my head in his direction.
“Maybe you don’t see it cause you’re from there, but I did.” He stuck out his chin, “They see my reddish hair and I can see what’s going through their minds. Just another Irish thug. After a while I just want to say two things to them that ain’t happy birthday.”
“How come I’ve never seen it?” I asked with a deep sigh.
“Cause you’re used to it. Like Bob Dylan sang, ‘You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns.’ I seen it, because I was a jugular and a clown. So are y9ou still going back to the Big Crabapple?”
“Yeah, I’m gonna get on a train.” I felt a small tear in my heart as I spoke.
“I can’t go back.”
“I know. I don’t blame you.” I patted him on the shoulder.
“My sister thinks you’re hot, ya know.” He tapped me on the arm.
“Does not.” I laughed.
“She thinks you’re alright for a city punk.” He laughed too.
The train ride proved to be one of the longest, most excruciating trips I ever took in my life.
We kept contact by phone. I would always ask him how the Red Soxs were doing during the baseball season and he’d lie about how they were going to do in the Yanks. I was never a Yankee fan, but after I returned to New York, he was convinced I did it because I was a closet Derek Jeter fan.
He had his first heart attack when he was at Stella’s, one of his favorite grease pits in Southey. The doctor told him he needed to cut out the fatty food before his arteries rebelled. He was told to eat green stuff to which he turned up his nose saying, “He would only eat things that had a face.”
I came out to see him in 2004 and we followed our habit of going to watch the Red Soxs play at Fenway.
“Big Papi is having quite a year.” He paid for a warm beer.
“Yeah, he’s doing quite well.” I shook my head.
“What if they go all the way?” He winked as he downed half his beer.
“What are you, my doctor?” He turned his head toward me. “So how’s things goin’ in the Big Crabapple?”
“Good, we have a couple of big accounts ready to jump on our ship.” I smiled.
“What is the name of this ship? HMS Titanic?” He laughed, finishing off his beer and letting the plastic cup hit the cement.
“Very funny.” I squinted one eye at him.
“Pedro is pitching. This will be a good game.” He raised his hand to signal to the vendor he wanted another beer.
“So how is your cholesterol?” I asked.
“None of your damn business.” He said as he took the beer from the vendor while sloshing some of it on me.
By some miracle, Boston made it into the World Series that year and Jess got a ticket to one of the home games against the Cardinals.
“Why doncha take some time off and come see what a world champion looks like?” I could hear him flick his ticket with her finger.
“Can’t.” I shook my head, “But I’ll be one of the few guys in New York pulling for the Soxs.”
“Don’t bother. You’re only gonna jinx ‘em.” He sipped something from a glass.
“Whacha drinkin?’” I inquired.
“Never you mind.” He snapped.
“I thought you were taking it easy, Jess.”
“I am. I am sipping not gulping.” He chuckled.
“How ‘bout water?”
“You sound like my sister.” He took another gulp, “Ya know she’s still got the hots for you.”
“Not interested.” I shook my head.
“Are you gay or what?”
The question caught me by surprise. The pause became longer.
“Are you gay?” He asked.
Again I did not respond.
“You are gay, Ralpie B. Hammonds.” He chortled.
“I thought you knew.” I rolled my eyes.
“Ya never told me.” His voice sounded like a low growl.
“Nothing to be sorry about.” His voice returned to normal. “Beht is gonna be so disappointed though.”
“Why didn’t you get married?” I asked, biting my lip.
“No woman in her right mind would have me. Strike one, I am Southey. Strike two, I never stop drinking and strike three, I am a diehard Red Sox fan. She would always come second or even third. I couldn’t do that to anyone.” He gulped the rest of whatever he was drinking, “So, if you see me on the Jumbo-tron, cheer for me.”
He would never make it to the Jumbo-tron because he began having chest pains in the cab so instead of getting to Fenway, he wound up at the emergency room. Beth called me an hour later to let me know what happened. I hopped on a commuter flight from LaGuardia to Logan less than an hour later. Beth met me at Logan.
“He’s had a really bad one, Ralph.” She said with tears in her eyes. After a half hour cab ride we arrived at Boston Medical Center.
“No visitors.” The nurse stopped us at the entrance.
“How is he?” Beth asked, wringing her hands in front of her.
“He’s resting.” The nurse nodded. “In a few hours, he will be able to have visitors.”
“We’ll wait.” Beth nodded.
I fell asleep in the uncomfortable chairs when a nurse came out for us.
“He’s awake.” She informed us.
“Is he alright?” Beth asked.
“He has had a very serious myocardial infarction.” She said, unfolding the chart she was carrying.
“A what?” Beth asked.
“Heart attack.” I answered.
“Oh my.” Beth put her hands to her cheeks.
“They put a stint in.” The nurse reported.
“Will he be alright?” Beth asked in a little girl’s voice.
“There was some damage, but he will pull through.” She nodded.
I took a hold of Beth’s hand as we walked into his ICU room.
“Damn Soxs lost. They got their backs to the wall.” Jess’ voice was barely a whisper.
“How do you feel?” Beth took her brother’s hand.
“I’m fine except I am pissed my Soxs are in a hole again.” He smiled but his skin was the color of paste. “I want to pray for them, but it may be too late.”
As it turned out, it wasn’t too late. The Boston Red Soxs came back to win the next four. They were the World Champs nearly a hundred years after their last championship when Babe Ruth was their ace pitcher.
A year after that Jess passed away. I was happy he lived long enough to see his beloved team on top before he went.
“One please.” I put my card on the counter of the ticket booth. Dutifully the clerk ran my debit card and handed me a ticket to see the Boston Red Soxs at Fenway. I was in town on a business trip after becoming a senior partner on my sixtieth birthday.
I stopped by a concession stand and got a Boston Red Sox pennant so I could wave it during the game. No one would have a clue I was really from the Big Apple.
“Ralph, over here.” Beth waved to me from Section F on the first base side.
“Beth.” I embraced her, kissing her on her cheek. “How are you?”
“Old and cranky.” She laughed.
“You look great.” I held her at arms’ length.
“You gays guys are always quick with the flattery.” She blushed.
I had come as a promise I had made to Jess in a silent prayer at his funeral. Although it had taken me several years to fulfill the promise, I had finally made it to Fenway. As I sat there I felt sad that Jess would not be in the crowd, but there was nothing I could do about that.
That’s when I saw him. He was seated two sections down from us. His head was turned, but there was no mistaking the odd shape of the side of his head, the red hair. I sat next to Beth, but I could not take my eyes off him. It had to be Jess Granger. He was even wearing his old Boston Red Sox jacket and shouting out profanities to the visiting team. If Beth had seen him, she did not say a single word to me. I have no idea what the final score was either. It amazes me how old memories can sometimes raise the dead.