DETROIT – It is time for baseball.
This week, the Tigers’ full roster joins pitchers and catchers in Lakeland, Florida for the annual ritual of spring training, which always stirs memories for me.
My dad played for the St. Louis Cardinals, and for a half dozen years after his retirement was a Cardinal broadcaster before moving to the NBC network, based in New York.
For the first eight years of my life, I was a Redbird through and through. Every spring, we spent six weeks in St. Petersburg (home of the Cardinals).
I was required to work with a tutor several hours each day on school assignments brought from our home in St. Louis. But the rest of my days were spent on the beach or at Al Lang Stadium with my dad to watch the Cardinals.
Let me pause here to say that hate is a strong word we toss around too casually. I do not really hate blue cheese or Brussels sprouts. And it is irrational, even dangerous, to form an opinion of any group based on the behavior of one or a few individuals.
So, I suppose I do not really hate the New York Mets. But, if your goal is to touch a match to a dormant gas can of feelings deep in my soul, just mention their name.
As an 8-year-old, I both enjoyed and fully appreciated the privilege of my spring training experience. Before the Cardinals played, I could walk on the field with my dad as he mingled with heroes like Kenny Boyer and Stan Musial, who came to life from the bubble gum cards jammed in my back pocket.
I often wore my official replica Cardinals warmup jacket just like those heroes. I was one of the Cardinals. One sunny spring afternoon, the New York Mets visited St. Pete for a game. There I was, on the field, walking near the stands in my official Redbird jacket.
A voice called from the first row, “Hey kid.” I stopped, and turned. It was a man. In retrospect, I suppose he might have been a child himself, but when you are 8 years old, everyone older than 12 is a grown-up.
He stood among a group of other men wearing the colors and logos of the visiting team. His face sprouted a seemingly friendly grin and he asked, “You a Cardinals fan?”
A smile came to my face. “Yes I am,” I answered proudly.
It was the events of the next few seconds that cemented my decades long disdain for the Mets. His grin grew wider and he spit at me. I was stunned. He actually spit right at me. Thankfully, he missed his target.
I turned and quickly moved on, shaken but also angry. I mean, what kind of an animal spits at an 8-year old, pudgy redbird?
I suppose I was also grateful that my dad had been 10 steps ahead and didn’t see the incident. That scene might have gotten ugly.
Several years later, we moved to New York and I learned that baseball allegiance there was a binary equation. You were either with the Yankees or the Mets. There was no middle ground. My choice was easy.
Many years have passed, and maybe it is time to let it go. None of the current Mets were even alive when this fateful incident occurred. Maybe I should go to New York. Go to a Mets’ game. Forgive and forget.
Yeah. That is not gonna happen. Play ball!