I glanced at the clock yet again.
“Please,” I thought, “hit one-thirty.”
Soon my teacher was grabbing my shoulder.
“Your father is here for you, Aram.”
I jumped out of my seat, picked up my book-bag and ran to the lower school office where my father was waiting.
“Where are you headed?” my principal asked.
Before my dad could finishing saying “the doctors office,” I yelled, “a baseball game!” The principal glared at my father. We didn’t care.
I was going to Opening Day. My first Opening Day.
I can’t remember what I ate for lunch yesterday, but I can remember every single detail of that Opening Day. The second we parked the car, I could feel the energy in the air. Even at a Florida Marlins game, in a football stadium, I could feel the Opening Day buzz. It was impossible to harness that sensation, a feeling I only felt twice a year as a kid — Opening Day and Christmas.
I still get chills thinking about my first time walking through the tunnel as the stadium revealed itself to me. I had no expectations. I had no idea what I was going to see. But as I walked out it all hit me at once: the roar of the fans, the sounds of vendors pitching their wares, the smells of popcorn, hot dogs and freshly cut grass.
My dad got his peanuts and I got my Cracker Jack (true story) and we sat down in time for player introductions. Sure, it was my first game, but I already knew every player who would have his name announced. I was ready for this. My all-time favorite Marlin, Juan Pierre, was leading off and Josh Beckett was on the bump.
My father taught me to appreciate greatness when I saw it. I remember him telling me to enjoy watching guys like Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Greg Maddux, among others, reminding me that I’d tell my children that I had seen them play, just as he did with some of his favorite players of the 1970s and 1980s — Mike Schmidt, Johnny Bench, Reggie Jackson.
The Marlins were playing the Braves. That meant John Smoltz was on the mound for Atlanta this particular Opening Day. The entire car ride my father told me how great Smoltz was and to watch him closely. He wasn’t wrong, but he wasn’t great this day. The Marlins knocked him out in the second inning, hanging up a crooked seven on the teal monster out in left field. Smoltz came out to taunting applause from Marlins fans. I remember thinking to myself that this John Smoltz guy sucks.
Maybe that day. But Smoltz, now a Hall-of-Famer, would have the last say about that.
The Marlins went on to win that game, 9-0, and I thought the team was World Series bound. My father and I returned a week later. I looked around as we pulled up, wondering where all the cars were. We must have been early. We walked into a game that had already started and I saw a sea of orange seats. “Where is everyone?” I asked my dad. He chuckled and told me to get used to those crowds. Boy, did I. We didn’t really care though, we kept each other’s company just fine. We dissected every player’s stats as they showed up on the big screen. My dad snapped pictures of the notable players, as he always did.
My dad rarely took his friends to games; usually it was just me and him. I enjoyed the time we spent together there and really couldn’t imagine going to the game with anyone else. I guess he felt the same way because not long after he came up with the idea of attending all 30 baseball stadiums. Together.
I instantly went to my computer and googled all 30 baseball stadiums, picking out the ones I wanted to go to first. We made a list, looked at dates he could take off from work and it all began. Our journey became one of the most important things in our lives, one of our most frequent topics of discussion, something we could always look forward to and look back upon.
The first stop on our first major trip was over 3,000 miles away in Seattle; our west coast journey was officially underway. Felix Hernandez was on the bump, the “King’s Court,” a section dedicated to Hernández, where seemingly thousands of Mariners fans dressed in yellow and waved their yellow “K” signs, was out in force and the King was dominant, racking up double-digit strikeouts.
Two days later was San Francisco, my favorite stadium to date. We arrived an hour before first pitch and may have been among the last fans to walk through the turnstile. The atmosphere was electric, the excitement was contagious. Caught up in the madness, I even bought a Buster Posey jersey that I would wear only one other time. Minus the impulse purchase, everything about that day at the ballpark was perfect. We could see the edge of McCovey Cove from our seats, the jibs of sailboats poking up from behind the wall in right field.
I walked out to right field between innings and looked out at the cove, filled with sailboats and fans in kayaks hoping to get lucky and fish out a home run swatted over the right field wall.
“Can we do that?” I asked my dad eagerly.
“That water is cold and has sharks in it,” my dad responded, hoping to deter me from the idea.
The next day we took a train to Oakland to watch the Athletics. As we got off the train we crossed a bridge that takes you over train tracks with scrap metal, barbed wire, all kinds of heavy industrial objects you can imagine below. Another 100 yards ahead was the stadium. Keeping tradition, my father and I took a picture in front of the entrances of the stadiums we attended. As we approached the stadium my father asked the stadium employee where the main entrance was.
“You’re looking at it,” the man said.
The entrance was a mostly plain concrete wall with an “Oakland Athletics” banner hanging down, which may have been fastened with a zip-tie. What the stadium lacked in beauty, though, it made up for by playing host to spirited fans. It was a week night crowd but the fans in attendance were rowdy, banging drums and chanting in the right field stands, crazed over every base hit.
Following the game, we boarded the train to return to San Francisco. A man stumbled into the train and fell down into the chair next to me. He looked pale. I was 12 and I had no idea what was wrong with the guy, so I didn’t move. Just as my dad was going to tell me to get up, the man vomited on my shoes.
“Welcome to Oakland,” my father said.
Next stop was Los Angeles. As you approach Dodger Stadium, it sits up on a hill looking down on the LA suburbs. When we were finally able to make our way through traffic and park, I got out of the car and did the full spin, taking in the scenery. As we walked towards the home plate entrance, behind us was the Los Angeles skyline. When you enter and look beyond the outfield, you can see palm trees and hills out in the distance.
Once we were settled in our seats I noticed people were giving me angry looks. At first I thought it was all in my head. But the Dodger fans’ anger towards me was blatant. One fan yelled at me, a 12-year-old, “The Giants suck!”
Confused, I just shrugged it off. The Dodgers weren’t even playing the Giants that day. He must have been drunk, like that Oakland fan, I thought. Then another fan said, “Posey is soft!” That prompted me to look down, noticing that I was wearing the Giants jersey I had bought earlier in the week. In a rush to beat Los Angeles traffic, I threw the jersey on and left the hotel room. My first taste of a classic rivalry that dates back to the early 1900s in New York City. Even a young kid could understand that’s a long time for hate to fester.
Anaheim was next for us, just outside of Los Angeles. Anaheim was my most fun stadium of the trip. Not because of the stadium. The park, as a whole, was average. But it just so happened to be the All-Star game. The excitement for an All-Star game helped overshadow the slightly dated look and feel that the stadium projected. I was eager to see my favorite Marlins players, Hanley Ramirez and Josh Johnson, take the field representing the National League and I couldn’t wait to see that waterfall in centerfield I had seen so many times on television.
Overall the experience was memorable, seeing all of the game’s best players on one field is something I wish every kid can experience.
My dad gave me that.
Petco Park has a one of a kind baseball-feel that rivaled AT&T Park in San Francisco. Another stadium in a nice part of town where fans can walk to from downtown bars or restaurants. The stadium offers fun for all ages; there’s a giant sandbox beyond center field for kids to play in with a miniature baseball field nearby, an incredible Hall-of-Fame exhibit boasting the history of the Padres, and good food. The built-in “Western Metal Supply Co.,” building in left field is a unique touch that gives the stadium a feel like no other. But even on a weekend, the crowd was small.
These fans, I realized, weren’t beating down the doors to watch the Padres play.
My father liked for us to attend notable games whenever we could. Before we even decided to travel to all 30 stadiums, my father surprised me with tickets to Game three of the 2008 World Series in Philadelphia - between the Phillies (of course) and the then Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
My cousin joined my father and I on our trip to Philadelphia. We arrived around 3 p.m. and decided to go straight to the stadium. We had to eat Philly cheesesteaks at Tony Luke’s, of course. We figured we’d enter the stadium early and watch batting practice. Just as the gates were scheduled to open, around 5:30 p.m., rain started to fall, canceling batting practice. With nothing to do and over two hours until game time we decided to walk around the stadium and explore.
Eventually, at 7:30 p.m., the game was officially delayed. We had done about seven laps around the outside of the stadium in the rain playing catch with a novelty World Series ball my father paid way too much for. Around 8:30 p.m., as the rain persisted, we decided to enter. Covered in ponchos, we took our seats — and waited. I looked to my left and noticed a familiar face.
“Dad, isn’t that the guy from Benchwarmers?” I asked.
My dad laughed and said “Yes, that’s Rob Schneider.”
I was a shy kid, afraid to approach a legendary “A-list actor” from one of my favorite movies. In any event, my cousin got a picture with him instead.
The rain persisted until around 10:30 pm; we had been at the ballpark for about six hours and counting, and the anthem was finally sung. Despite the long wait, the crowd was fired up, as you would expect in Philadelphia. I had never been to a game of this magnitude, where every hit, play, and pitch mattered. Another thing that stood out to me was the length of time between innings. My father explained that was how “the TV stations make money.” Right on cue, the PA operator asked the fans to stand up and cheer as loud as they could as the broadcast streamed back live from commercials to show people in their living rooms how electric the atmosphere at the ballpark was.
The game went on as the Phillies held on to a one-run lead for a majority of the game, thanks to a Carlos Ruiz home run. As the clock hit midnight the temperature began to plummet, settling into the low-30s. I was in my eighth hour at the stadium, with freezing rain beginning to fall, and I did not want the game — this night — to end. The Rays would tie it up late, forcing extra innings. I was ecstatic. As we reached the 11th inning, the temperature had fallen into the 20s.
The time was just before 2 am. My 10th hour at Citizen’s Bank Park was the one that did me in. I went from not wanting the game to end to nearly falling asleep in my seat. Up came the bottom of the 11th. Virtually none of the crowd had left and everyone in attendance was on their feet willing the Phillies to a Game three victory. The Phillies finally came through for their fans with an 11th inning, walk-off hit.
After 10 hours, one of the latest ending World Series games of all-time was over. We would eventually make it back to our hotel around 4:30 am, just enough time for a quick nap before our 8 am flight.
What I thought would be a normal World Series game ended up being the longest and most interesting day of my life. But that’s what makes baseball the special game it is, you truly have no idea what to expect when you step foot in the ballpark; every baseball game is unique.
Fast forward a few years to 2014, the year the best baseball game I have ever experienced took place. Having only been to the old Yankee Stadium, my dad and I still needed to knock off the new one. What better time to see the new Yankee Stadium than Derek Jeter’s final game, a player I grew up idolizing, despite not being a Yankees fan.
From the age of seven I was practicing my Jeter-patented jump throw from deep in the hole at shortstop. My dad, who was also my little league coach, would yell at me across the field.
“That ball wasn’t even hit hard. Come around in front of that you hot dog!”
This time my grandfather, a Bronx native, who grew up watching some of the all-time Yankee greats, joined us. I’ve repeatedly commented on the atmosphere of the stadiums I attended throughout this piece because when a crowd is really into a game you can almost feel the energy, it seems tangible.
While the Yankees were nowhere near contention, it felt like Game seven of the World Series. “Der-ek Jeee-ter!” chants erupted every five minutes and every time the Yankee-lifer took the field. When Jeter stepped to the plate he received an ovation like no other, accompanied by hundreds of thousands of flashes on each pitch, lighting the stadium up like a Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center.
The Yankees entered the top of the ninth inning up two runs. With fans assuming they may have seen Jeter bat at home for the last time, the crowd went wild when he took the field. However the Orioles, playng spoiler, tied the game in probably the most celebrated blown save in baseball history, because you-know-who was due up in the bottom of the ninth.
If you are even mildly a sports fan you could guess what happened next. Jeter came through, just as he had his entire career, with a walk-off single. Pandemonium. A storybook ending forever etched in my mind.
My father and I would go to other stadiums over the years, traveling all over the country — Arizona, New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Tampa, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Oakland, Seattle, San Diego and San Francisco.
Not every game was as interesting as the others, but it didn’t really matter. We – my dad and I – enjoyed knocking another stadium off the list in our quest for the magical 30.
Getting to stadiums became more difficult when I started college at Syracuse University. We utilized breaks early in my freshman year to attend both stadiums in Chicago, watching Jose Fernandez pitch one of his final games at Wrigley Field. My mother and father traveled up to Syracuse to visit and watch a couple World Series games with me on television. After the Cubs won, my dad and I had Marlins Opening Day in April to look forward to, just as we did every year.
But 2017, as it turns out, would be the first Opening Day I would miss in over a decade. On March 22, 2017, two weeks before Opening Day, everything changed.
I woke up that morning worried about the Spanish exam I had later that day. Leaving that classroom, those moments, will haunt me as long as I live. My mother called me. She struggled to find the words to tell me. My father had been found unresponsive. He had a massive heart attack. The doctors tried everything.
He was gone.
I fell down to the ground and laid still. What had I just heard? What do I do? Where do I go? I got up and walked in the single-digit freezing cold, wandering aimlessly. Where do you go, what do you do, when you find out you will never see the most important person in your life ever again?
What was I supposed to do?
I got the next plane home to see my family, my mom and older sister. I was still numb, in disbelief. Nothing felt real. My dad had to be there when I landed as he always was.
I was angry at the world. Confused as to why someone like my father would be taken away from not only my family, but from everyone. There were days I would sit in my car and just scream. I punched holes in walls, isolated myself from the people I loved, my mind was filled with darkness, emptiness. I stared in the mirror and I did not recognize myself. I couldn’t imagine life without my father. I was living life in an 0-2 count, fouling off tough pitches, battling as best I could.
After the funeral, I was lost. There was nothing I could do. My connection was gone. Somehow that night I got my first bit of sleep in days. I dreamed of being in the ballpark with my father.
And when I woke up I realized what I needed to do.
A few days later, I told my mom I was going to see some friends. I booked a flight to Washington, D.C. and I went to a Nationals game. I had never been to a baseball game alone. I bought two tickets, almost not accepting that I would be going to the game by myself. It wasn’t until I pulled out two tickets and handed one to the man at the turnstile that I realized it: I really was attending this game by myself.
Nationals Park was sold out and jam-packed; excluding the one seat next to me, the seat my father was supposed to be sitting in.
What am I doing?
As I sat in my seat I realized how impulsive the decision I had just made really was. I was in D.C. alone, without telling my family my plans — something I’d never done, something that felt crazy, erratic, not thought out. But for the first time since my father died, I was doing something that felt right, felt familiar, felt necessary.
A lot of people won’t attend a sporting event by themselves. I never did. But this game proved to be both special and difficult at the same time. I felt the tug of war deep within me. I was surrounded by 30,000 people. But I was alone, almost invisible. Being at a game with my father, or a couple friends, was enough to make me feel comfortable. This was the first time I could look to my left or two seats over to my right and not see a familiar face. The ticket guy telling me to enjoy the game was the only interaction I had with a person the entire day. But I now realized why the entire thing made sense, how it was, I don’t know, cathartic.
I was locked into baseball. That is my comfort zone. That is the gift my father gave me. Maybe I wasn’t alone, after all.
As a life long baseball fanatic I like to think that I don’t miss much of the game I am watching; I take everything in. But when you factor in the roughly 300 pitches thrown by both teams in a game and the three hour, five minute duration of a typical MLB game, it is nearly impossible not to miss at least a little of the action.
This was the one game I can say I did not miss a pitch.
And I didn’t miss the great snag a fan made in the front row of the second deck, as he leaned over the railing to haul in a foul ball. I didn’t miss Abraham Lincoln’s comeback victory down the stretch to beat George Washington and Thomas Jefferson in the “Presidential Race.” And I listened to the conversations taking place around me.
The next day, I took a train to Baltimore. Did the same thing, all over again. This time I truly enjoyed the game and the comfort of Camden Yards. I talked with the people around me. I debated, bantered - all of the things baseball fans do at a game. A light drizzle was falling on me. I was safe and okay.
I ask you: did baseball save me?
For my final ten stadiums — Denver, Houston, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Toronto, Kansas City, Minnesota, and Arlington — I want to do something my dad would appreciate: I want to help others use baseball to propel them forward.
Before my father took me to baseball stadiums he brought me to cancer centers and underprivileged children’s centers; he showed me what was important in life.
So I’m thrilled to be teaming up with Gilda’s Club, a foundation that empowers cancer patients and their families, a place that has always been special to my family. I want to take children who are fighting their toughest battle, or who’s parents may be, to a game. Maybe these people can use a little light at the end of their tunnels, inspiration to keep fighting; a fun day at a ballpark that nobody can take from them, just as nobody can take from me my days at the ballpark with my dad.
I am joined in this endeavor by Gilda’s Club, I am joined by my family and my friends, I am joined by Armando Leighton Jr.
My dad, the man who saved me.