Watching Baseball with My Dad
Written by Steve Rosenberg
Connecticut does not have a major league baseball team. Half the state roots for the Boston Red Sox, and the other half roots for the New York Yankees. Another, unquantifiable portion roots for the New York Mets, although most won’t admit it in public. I am a Mets fan, by inheritance if not by choice. My father started following the Mets during their inaugural (and awful) 1962 season, and I started joining him 20 years later when they were not quite as bad.
My best childhood memories were formed at Shea Stadium, a cavernous and poorly designed ballpark which was eventually demolished in 2009 when the Mets found something better. As a kid, I could not imagine anything greater than watching live baseball. I did not realize that, for my father, it was so much more than that. It was watching live baseball with his son. I get that now, as I try to teach the rudiments of the game to my seven year old.
Out of all the ballgames I watched with my Dad, the one that stands out is a night game from June of 1985, when we saw Dwight Gooden shutout the Chicago Cubs. Anyone who was a Mets fan in the 1980s will tell you how Gooden, a kid from Tampa, became the toast of New York. Gooden was barely out of high school when he became the Mets’ star pitcher in 1984. That summer, Gooden made many of the world’s best baseball players look like fools, earning himself the nickname “Dr. K” — the letter “K” being baseball shorthand for Strikeout, the pitcher’s chef d’oeuvre. His fastball could exceed 95 miles per hour, and it was not even his best pitch. Gooden’s curveball was so good that players dubbed it “Lord Charles,” in contrast to “Uncle Charlie” which is the common nickname for a curveball.
As amazing as Gooden was in 1984, in 1985 he was even better, leading the league in nearly every major statistical category and handily winning the Cy Young award for best pitcher. The kid from Tampa became New York’s son. An image of Gooden, in full pitching wind-up, looked down on the city from a 102 foot high mural painted on the side of a building in Times Square. Although he was only 20 years old, there was constant speculation that Gooden would become one of the best pitchers, if not the best pitcher, in baseball history.
That speculation proved short-lived. Over the next few years, Gooden’s performance gradually declined from supernatural to mortally flawed. There were news reports of cocaine addiction and struggles with the law, and he began missing playing time due to various injuries and ailments. By the time he retired from baseball in the year 2000, Gooden had amassed a decent record as a serviceable pitcher. However, he never came close to replicating his triumphs from the mid-1980s, and he never fulfilled the hype that had been placed on his back at such a young age. Some chalk this up to drug abuse, and some to shoulder strain from overuse. Others say that the league’s hitters simply learned to adjust to Gooden’s pitching style. Whatever the reason, Gooden’s career is deemed one of the biggest disappointments in Mets franchise history.
Yet in my mind, Doc Gooden is forever the kid from Tampa who stood larger than life over New York and all of baseball. I will never forget the June night in 1985 when my father kept me out way past my bedtime so we could see the good doctor operate live before a capacity crowd at Shea Stadium. I was 11 years old and my Dad was 43 (only four years older than I am now), yet that evening it felt like we were peers. We sat in the first row of the mezzanine section, overlooking the Mets dugout and the pitching mound beyond, bedazzled by the best-hurled game that either of us had ever seen or has ever seen since. Gooden pitched a complete game shutout, striking out nine batters over nine innings as the Mets beat the Chicago Cubs by a score of 1 to 0. While my father usually made me leave after the seventh inning so we could beat the traffic over the Whitestone Bridge, that night we stayed for the entire game. We still reminisce about it.
I think about Doc Gooden, and that ballgame in particular, even more as I approach my 40th birthday. The dreams that were sparked when I was 11 have fermented into memories that I am dying to share with my children. More than the game itself, I remember splitting a pretzel with my Dad, and guzzling my soda as he sipped his beer, feeling as close to him as I ever have. Within a couple of years, I would enter puberty and begin to distance myself from both my father and baseball; coincidentally, around the same time that Gooden’s career would decline from its early promise. On that June night in 1985, however, Dr. K was my hero and my Dad was a very close second.
Nearly 30 years later, the young Dwight Gooden is still lodged in the minds of Mets fans. This season, the Mets have a rookie pitcher named Matt Harvey, who is even more electrifying than Gooden. The 24 year old Connecticut native is one of the few bright spots for the Mets, who are a winning team when Harvey is pitching and one of the worst teams in baseball every other night of the week. If you want to see the Mets’ greatest pitching phenom since Gooden, run — don’t walk — to Citi Field, the Mets’ ballpark in Queens (www.mets.com). Better yet, drive or take the train. If you prefer to root for baseball teams that win even when their best pitchers are not on the mound, you might want to go to a New York Yankees (www.yankees.com) or Boston Red Sox (www.redsox.com) game.
Baseball in Connecticut
Major league baseball games can be pricey. While ballparks offer seats for less than $15 or even $10, those seats are often in uncomfortable bleachers or nosebleed sections far away from the field. The better seats usually run closer to $40 or $50, with the best seats costing hundreds of dollars. Add in travel, parking, and the cost of refreshments for a family of four or five, and you are looking at a long and expensive day. For a more “family friendly” experience, minor league baseball is the better bet. Minor league games are cheaper and less crowded than major league games, and they frequently have events and promotions which specifically cater to children. Here is some information about the three minor league teams who call Connecticut home:
New Britain Rock Cats
Class AA affiliate of the Minnesota Twins
Tickets: $6 to $20 (plus $5 parking)
2013 Season: April 4 – Sept. 2
Player to Watch: Alex Meyer, right-handed pitcher and former 1st round draft pick
Connecticut Tigers (Norwich)
Class A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers
Tickets: $8 to $20 (plus $3 parking)
2013 Season: June 17 – Sept. 4
Player to Watch: Brenny Paulino, right-handed pitcher
Tickets: $9 to $13.50
2013 Season: April 18 – Sept. 5
Players to Watch: Several former major leaguers, including Jeff Fulchino, a UConn grad who pitched for the Houston Astros from 2009 to 2011
In addition to minor league baseball, Connecticut has a number of college, semi-pro, and amateur teams, as well as the Stratford Brakettes — a nationally known, all-female softball team (www.brakettes.com). If you’re a history buff, you may want to check out the Connecticut members of the Vintage Baseball Association, who strive to recreate early baseball as it existed in the mid-19th Century (www.vbba.org). Handlebar mustaches are optional, as far as I can tell.
Be sure to bring the kids.