50 Ballparks, Hot Dogs, and More

Many memories have been made across many a MLB ballpark. (via Grangernite)

“Not today boys,” was the immediate response from the blond-headed ace of the 1961 New York Yankees. My 10-year-old brother Jim and I were standing by ourselves near the players’ entrance to Yankee Stadium, hoping for the star pitcher’s autograph. That was my first major league experience in 1961 when my Dad drove us down from Plattsburgh, New York. Whitey Ford, baseball’s AL Cy Young winner and World Series MVP that year, had just brushed back two little kids. It shocked us and I haven’t forgotten it, but it was also the beginning of my adventure of visiting 50 ballparks, including the “game’s” current 30 parks, over the course of the next 58 years.

I played a word association game, going back and forth on whether to talk about the 50 parks themselves or memories of people. I concluded most of my memories are not about a ballpark’s structure, or even the game; they center on the people, the players, the fans, concession workers, and attendants at each game. If you’ve ever been to Toronto’s Rogers Centre, you probably saw artist Michael Snow’s sculptures called “The Audience” located above two adjacent stadium entrances. These two sculptures depict 15 different fan poses, including hecklers, people enjoying ballpark food, a father with his son on his shoulders, an onlooker with binoculars, and many more. One fan called the sculptures the “keepers” of the Rogers Centre. To me, those sculptures capture the nostalgia and essence of going to a game. The game is about the people who visit and what happens during the three to four hours that day at the park. Sure, I have many memories about the architecture of the parks and surrounding areas, but for me, people won out easily.

In July 1983, Seattle Mariners fans wanted to show their appreciation to Carl Yastrzemski after his last at-bat and last game at the Kingdome. The struggling 44-year-old aging star decided not to come out to a standing ovation; instead a teammate ran up the dugout steps with his bowed head, reached the top step, waved to the crowd and hurried back.

Back in 1989, after an enjoyable August day at the Wisconsin State Fair, we were off to Milwaukee County Stadium, home of the 1957 World Champion Milwaukee Braves, to watch the Brewers play the visiting New York Yankees. To say the least, the Yankees were in a season-long slump and their problems only became more apparent in Milwaukee. We watched Luis Polonia spend most of his pregame warmup flirting with teenage girls only to be arrested later by Milwaukee police for sexual assault of a young girl.

In 1998, my brother Chris, who worked for the Colorado Rockies owner Jerry McMorris, invited  three of his brothers to a Colorado Rockies spring training game in Arizona. We had the pleasure of sitting with Mr. McMorris during the game and afterward, he invited us into the clubhouse to meet many of the players, including Larry Walker, and manager Don Baylor. Dante Bichette showed us another aspect of the major leagues as he posed with a baseball snug against his flexed bicep for a national sports magazine photographer. The bicep seemed like it was about five times the size of the ball, no exaggeration.

In July 2004, while standing in line at Detroit’s Comerica Park to buy tickets, we encountered a confrontational Tigers fan who told us that since we were Yankee fans, we weren’t real fans of the game because we never had to suffer through a losing season.

As kids, my older brother Jim and I would play home run derby over a wall at the Plattsburgh Sewage Plant. We visited another wall in 2006 about the same height. By then Jim was a Boys and Girls Club of America director and had managed to snag two tickets for the front row on Boston’s Fenway Green Monster. We had a front row view of one of baseball’s treasured parks.

As a rule of thumb, we learn as kids that we shouldn’t make quick judgements about people. In 2009, Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, while working on a major league comeback with the Phillies at their Triple-A Lehigh Valley Iron Pig team facility, gave me a different perspective on him. He spent pregame graciously signing autographs for eager fans for what seemed nearly half an hour.

Meeting and taking a picture in 2015 with the gentleman Tony Oliva, the 1964 AL Batting Champion, at Minnesota’s Target Field was a real treat. One after another, fans came up to him to express their appreciation. He appeared to enjoy the interaction as much as his fans.

That same year, we watched the Yankees play the home team Tampa Bay Rays during September call-ups. As popular as the Yankees are in Tampa Bay, not one Yankee came out to sign autographs. while the entire Rays team, from Evan Longoria to the Tampa rookies, signed for fans before the game.

These are just a few of the many memories of traveling throughout the country taking in 50 ballparks. As a baseball fan, these are important people moments for me, but one ballpark experience stirs up all kinds of emotions. That day at the ballpark became really personal and is forever a reminder of family life back then.

“You did not eat lettuce and mayonnaise along with ketchup sandwiches when you were a kid. What a liar.”

“Oh yes, I did. I’ll light my own pants on fire if I’m lying.” Really it wasn’t so bad because mom would throw us a bone once or twice a week with spam or devil’s ham sandwiches to balance it out for lunch at St. John’s Academy. Those two condiments were a tiny part of my early character building. The white and red toppings had nothing on mustard though, good old mustard. Now that topping can stir things up.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

“Hey, get your hot dogs here,” so the stadium vendor shouts. Baseball has the infamous 1983 “pine tar incident.” My family had our infamous “mustard incident” 10 years earlier.

My father, Emmett, “Duke,” was a corrections officer, who for a long time worked at Clinton County Correctional Prison Hospital for mentally unstable inmates in Dannemora, New York. He’d work a shift from 11 p.m. until 7 a.m., then arrive home, take a nap, and proceed to work for State Farm Insurance in Plattsburgh from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day. He deserved a little slack to say the least. On weekends, when he could, he’d hit us fly balls and grounders, and play wiffle ball with us. Any whiners in those pick-up games were escorted out of the fenced in backyard for an early lesson in my father’s understanding of manhood. Of course, sips of Genesee and Schaefer beer for his boys were oh so good on those hot days summer days. Start’em early as they say.

In the early 1970s, Dad transferred to Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in downstate New York to accompany my mother, who had just been hired at the women’s prison across the street. On this summer day in 1973, he wanted to take his five boys to Yankee Stadium to watch the Thurman Munson-led Yankees play the Chicago White Sox, led by the controversial (and misunderstood) slugger Dick Allen, and future Hall of Famer Goose Gossage. Excited about the day ahead, we piled into the 1972 Ford Country Squire station wagon with its wood-grain body trim and were on our way to 161st street in the Bronx.

Our boys’ afternoon out began just the way we planned, a sunny day, bonding, and smiles for good old Dad; it was priceless. We arrived and settled into some good seats and a close game. But a happy ending was not meant to be. Around the seventh inning, our boys’ afternoon out fizzled like a spent firecracker. It was then that my dad gave my 14-year-old brother Jeff money to get hot dogs for all of us. Jeff came back and handed everyone a hot dog. It didn’t end well.

”You forgot to put the mustard on my hot dog. Go back and put some on my dog,” my Dad barked. Jeff’s response had a shock and jaw result; we were all shocked and all of our jaws dropped at once, including those of fans sitting nearby.

Before I tell you what happened next, the story needs a little more context. My dad had endured his trials, raising six kids ages 7 to 24, along with working two jobs. Jeff, the fourth boy in the family food chain, took more than his fair share of abuse as well. Jeff’s nickname within our team of five boys was Hootie Hoo. Why? Well, of course, in the summer Jeff went to bed after midnight each night and did not rise until at least noon the next day. Throughout the day, you could hear variations of the Hootie Hoo call depending upon each brother’s mood. Oh yes, we were clever. We had various Hooty Hoo tones; happy, sad, desperate, even a exorcist devil Hooty Hoo, which surely damaged the vocal cords. It was just one of our bits of abuse back then, bits that we were so damn proud of. Throw in my personal nickname “Bucky,” for being an adolescent who was sprouting crooked teeth and needed braces, for good measure. We were bullies. We thought we were perfect, and were mean to the bone, compensating for something missing in each of us. Jeff took a lot and it was just a matter of time before he gave back.

The yellow condiment dual continued. “Get your own f—n’ mustard,” countered the future Air Force Airman. Our Hootie was not yet a wise owl at this point in his young life. It seemed a concoction of emotions boiling inside of him had finally erupted. My dad’s demand and Jeff’s comeback became a battle played out by two desperate actors, each trying to save face.

Let’s get ready to rummmmble. From Bedford Hills, New York, in the light gray and brown trunks weighing in at 110 pounds is Jeff “Hootie Hoo” Ducatte. His opponent in the dark brown trunks, hitting the scales at 225 pounds “The Little Grizzly,” Emmett “Duke” Ducatte. Fans, look no farther than section 315 along first base for your seventh inning stretch entertainment this afternoon.

The great horned owl vs. the little grizzly, a classic matchup. All of us must have been thinking this isn’t really happening . My father would not, could not, and did not let this act of insubordination take place. Oh no, our leader had to react to this threat immediately or he’d be destroyed. He had defended South Korea at the 38th parallel; now he would defend the Bronx at the 40th. There would be no domino effect in this family of his. If he did not correct this wrong, first it would be Jim, then Tom, then Mike, and finally Chris who would try to challenge his authority, install a new base of power in his home.

You could see all kinds of emotions stirring in the man. He must stop and hold this line. Was that George Steinbrenner leaning over the edge of his suite just above us? Maybe he saw a future manager replacement for Billy “The Kid” Martin, in my dad, another Bronx fighter. “That guy might be our answer, Lee,” he might have said, turning to Lee MacPhail, his GM at the time. “Take a look for yourself just below us in section 315.” “Yeah, George, he’s a possibility.”

This adolescent, hormones raging, would not get away with this public outrage. “Let’s go. Everyone in the car,” shoyed the Duke, all 5-foot-8. Oh, this man knew the value of surprise. He could move his troops at a moment’s notice. The bottom of the seventh inning had begun and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” had just come on over the loudspeaker as we walked dejectedly down the exit ramp and left the ballpark. Perhaps it was my imagination — the words being sung were not clear with an echo in the runway — but it sounded as if the crowd was singing special lyrics for us as we hastily departed.

Their dad’s taking them from the ball game
He’s taking them out to the car
He’s not buying them peanuts and Cracker Jacks.
I doubt those boys will ever come back.

Oh those Yankee fans, they just had a feel for life, always rooting for the underdog. Now a hellbent ride home started north on the Major Deegan Expressway. One of the idiosyncrasies of the screaming corrections officer was about to emerge. When he would yell at one of us using a longer sentence, he’d used up so much air in one shout he was barely able to finish off his sentences, much like a spent balloon whistling away out of air.

The Ducatte version of “Family Feud” was now on full display. The leader of this caravan didn’t care if a seven-year-old boy was on board, either. The youngest clearly did not read the fine print on the waiver before he hopped on board for this trip, the clearly stated “WARNING, Father can be hazardous to your health.” The kid was getting his initiation. Jeff, before our eyes, the fourth brother, was quickly metamorphosing into the family rebel, as he and my dad went toe-to-toe, throwing f- bombs at each other between the front and the station wagon’s last seat.

My Catholic altar boy upbringing kicked in while sitting in the middle seat between the two combatants. A quick round of quiet Hail Marys (or was it Our Father’s) was necessary. Prayer was something I always turned to in times of crisis. He wasn’t having any of it. The man upstairs wasn’t listening. Forty-five more minutes of this battle remained, and on and on it went. One inmate had spoken out, but if the other four thought this outburst might free them to their inalienable first amendment rights, well, there was just no way. The mustard revolutionary had miscalculated his blood brothers’ support.The regime would survive this coup attempt. But had Jeff planned it in advance? The only clue was that my father was the only one who received a hot dog without mustard on it. Six hot dogs lined up on the counter, each waiting for their squirt, and one gets left out. Curious, very curious.

Really all that mattered was that the ever moody Duke of Dannemora struck the fear of bejesus in the rest of us. We all were about to experience repatriation to our warden back at the home facility the old- fashioned way. Good old bad vibes could get pretty heavy in each and every room in the house and it could go on for days. I had hope only by knowing I was leaving for Northern Arizona University that fall  to regroup.

We finally made it home to our upstairs two-bedroom apartment in Bedford Hills. As we stood on the steps just after entering, my mother, Saint Nancy, greeting us cheerfully, “Boy, you saw a great game.” We didn’t know it, but we had missed a Yankees comeback. All five heads lowered at once in fearful silence. Please stop, mom; we’re in tourniquet mode here. I don’t remember what happened after that. I do know that at the breakfast table the next morning no one said, “Can we talk about last night’s incident?” Oh no, the man with five boys and a girl wasn’t about talking things out. Open, free conversation or negotiation were not luxuries we had access to in our house. At that moment there were no winners, no resolution. Besides the Yankees, there were no winners.

My view of my father and that time have changed quite a bit over the last nine months. It’s something my usually pessimistic mind can’t figure out, but almost all my thoughts of this man are positive. In July of last year, I was asked if I would be interested in a background role as a corrections officer in the Showtime seven-part mini-series Escape at Dannemora, directed by Ben Stiller. Over the course of a dozen days, while working on the set just outside those prison walls with many retired corrections officers, my perception of the man who preached about getting a college education (and, oh yeah, take care of your teeth) started to change.

I guess time is a healer and has a way of spilling out the truth. Jeff and my father have both passed away. I’m now retired from education. I’ve seen what goes on with kids and how devastating bullying can be. It’s given me a much better perspective on what Jeff’s early life must have been like for him. Karma Jones has had some fun with me on that front and I’ve felt a lot of guilt about those times. Likewise, If my Dad’s journey was a thousand miles, all I needed was one to get a glimpse of the reality of my father and mother raising six kids. Jeff was only trying to find his place in a large, sometimes difficult family dynamic; my father simply wanted a better life for us than he’d had.

Fifty-seven years after Whitey’s brushback pitch, and 45 years after my family’s mustard affair, there’s one thing I can tell you for sure. Every time you go out to a major league baseball game, something could happen that you’ll remember for the rest of your life. I’ve got 50 of those memories.

Tom is a retired New Jersey public school educator and East Stroudsburg University professor in eastern Pennsylvania. He was an avid runner for 45 years. Besides following the Yankees and NY Giants, Tom enjoys juggling, darts, reading, and his Border Collie, Izzy. He expects to visit Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas when it opens in 2020.

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