Hall of Famers
“In here!” my 9-year-old son Johnny says, pulling me into the Babe Ruth room at the Baseball Hall of Fame, pointing at the Louisville Slugger Babe Ruth no doubt used to hit one of his 714 career homeruns. We walk through rows of display cases; Johnny’s enthusiasm building as he examines each artifact.
Johnny’s passion for baseball is an ongoing pleasure for me, a sign of how my father lives on through my son. Johnny is named after my father who died of heart failure five years before Johnny was born. Dad played AAA baseball for the Red Sox; a southpaw pitcher. As Johnny and I walk through the museum I imagine snapping a photo of him with his grandfather; my father’s large arm over Johnny’s shoulder buddy style. Instead, I snap a picture of Johnny next to a life size painting of Hank Aaron.
I wonder what my father would think of my little boy, so much like him, who hits left handed and who can strike out the side in any given game. Though my father rarely talked about his baseball career, I imagine maybe in this setting he would tell Johnny everything, all the stories I heard secondhand after Dad died.
I brought Johnny to the Hall of Fame for spring break, my four older kids home with my husband. Having Johnny to myself was a unique occasion for one-on-one time with my youngest son. I’d booked a hotel with a swimming pool. I wanted to make it all special, squeeze every memory I could from the trip. I’d even told Johnny, just for this weekend, I would be a Yankee fan like him, instead of my usual role as a Red Sox fan. “Babe Ruth played for both teams,” Johnny had said giving me some leeway, “but lets be for the same team Mommy, OK?”
Johnny wore his baseball mitt the whole four-hour drive from Connecticut to Cooperstown, reading Sports Illustrated for Kids on my ipad, reciting some stats from the backseat. We drove down one-lane roads, through small towns – Cobleskill and Broome, past Hubcap Heaven and the Cob Knob Driving Range, ramshackle houses pinpointing the start of another town.
When we arrived in Cooperstown, we parked near the batting range then walked through low hanging fog down Main Street, past rickety shops that displayed baseball memorabilia in dusty windows. I gave Johnny quarters for bat-shaped gumballs. We reached the Hall of Fame and started our tour on the second floor watching a 10-minute movie in the Grand Stand Theater, which was made to look like Comiskey Park, complete with stadium seating. The show ended with images of baseball cards projected onto the ceiling. My son looked up, his mouth wide, and I imagined my father looking down at him. I felt a combined love for my son and my father at the same time.
My father loved baseball season, and it was baseball season now. Johnny’s Little League had started and I volunteered to be the “lady coach” as the boys called me. I had stood on the field with twelve 3rd graders wondering why I took this position, but I knew like so many things, I did it for my father, because he had been a coach and taught me what I know about throwing a baseball and keeping both hands down for grounders. And maybe Dad could see me, and my son, together on the field.
After going through 200 years of baseball history in the museum we went down to the official Hall of Fame on the first floor where Johnny raced to find the bronze plaques for his favorite inductees. I took three photos of him in his Yankee Cap next to Babe Ruth’s plaque. After, we went to the gift shop and I bought baseball bat pens for our Little League team and spoiled my son with pennants, pencils and so many packs of baseball cards.
Back at the hotel, Johnny, the only 9-year-old I know who watches ESPN, turned on the TV and opened his baseball cards, praying for Babe Ruth. “Will Grampy be in one of these packs?” he asked, just to please me. The first pack was all duplicates of cards he already had, same with the second and third packs; mostly dupes. “I’ll trade them,” he said, trying to stay hopeful, and I knew I’d be the lucky recipient. I’d long taken to trading baseball cards with my son as a pastime.
Johnny saved the World Series pack until last, frantic for Babe Ruth. He stopped mid-flip. There was Babe, in his Yankee uniform. Johnny looked at the card, it seemed too much for him. He separated Babe from the pack, laid him on the table and took a photo of the card with my camera. I congratulated Johnny on his good luck. It seemed, even with all the museum attractions, this moment with the Babe Ruth card was the highlight of his trip.
“Time to go to the pool,” I said.
“I can’t leave,” Johnny said. “Someone might take my baseball card.”
“Lets keep it in the gift shop bag,” I said, holding the bag open. But he secured the card in a sheath of plastic that had been wrapped around the hotel glasses, and brought his treasure to the pool. Shirtless, in his bathing suit and baseball cap, the two of us took the elevator down. I sang Take Me out to the Ballgame and Johnny sang parts along with me, raising his fingers for the one, two three strikes you’re out refrain.
That night Johnny slept with Babe Ruth under his pillow. I had a dream about my father. Unlike most of the dreams I had of Dad, where he is nettled with tubes as he had been in his final days, in this dream Dad was young and strong in his Red Sox uniform, just like the photo I keep of him on my desk.
In the dream, my father and I played three-way catch with Johnny in the backyard. “Our boy can throw Martie,” my father said, calling me by the nickname he gave me, which I’ve not heard since he died. The dream was so real it was hard for me to wake into the new day; my head foggy, I saw the outline of my son in his Yankee pajamas asleep on the bed next to me, and swore I saw my father there too.