In the heart of Pennsylvania, there is a chocolate factory. You may have heard of it. For a couple of summers back at the turn of the century, I spent a lot of time around Hershey, Pa. I worked at a summer camp near the Nockamixon State Park and played soccer for the now-defunct Hershey Wildcats in the old United Soccer League A-League. I was 19 years old. It was a magical, formative time for me. And so wonderfully different from anything I had experienced before.
I grew up in the North of England, in an idyllic village on the outskirts of a failing industrial city. Bradford was the center of a booming textile industry with wool being the primary export, however, the city suffered heavily from deindustrialization and by the time I was born, there was deep-rooted social unrest and economic hardship. Sport was a beautiful equalizer, bringing people together and providing enjoyment. Whether it be playing cricket with Indian boys or soccer with Eastern European lads, it provided me with the window to learn about new races and cultures. One day, someone turned up at cricket practice with a baseball glove. “Er, what is that?” I asked.
And so my journey began.
Baseball didn’t exist in my world and trying to find anything that would tell me more in a time before the internet was almost impossible. I found a book in my library about “American Sports” and there were a couple of pages on baseball. That was it, there was nothing else. A few years later, I remember staying up to the early hours of the morning studying for exams when I flicked over to the new television channel just launched in the UK, Channel 5. And low and behold, I was watching baseball.
MLB on Five, presented by the lovable duo of Jonny Gould and Josh Chetwynd, was hugely successful in raising the profile of the game in the UK during its run from 1997 to 2008, reaching an audience of over one million during the World Series broadcasts. That was phenomenal considering games usually started at 1 a.m., and the studio was akin to Wayne and Garth’s basement. For fellow night hawks like me, though, it was a sanctuary of fun and discovery. A two-minute clip immediately gives you a taste of the charming and casual feel that resulted in the show gaining somewhat of a cult status.
I devoured every broadcast: the images of the game, the teams, the uniforms, and of course the gluttony of new terms and statistics. At that time I had no idea how I was going to pass my Statistical Mathematics exam. Thanks to this show, I began to understand terms in a way I could relate to. It was an awakening.
My love for everything stateside, which now included baseball, had been born out of a number of things that I had become interested in late in my teen years. U.S. television shows like “The Wonder Years”, “Dawson’s Creek” and “The X-Files” brought American culture and its favorite pastimes to my screen for the first time; I had studied U.S. history and watched the brilliant Ken Burns’ “The Civil War”; I read “The Catcher in Rye” by J.D. Salinger; and started to search out American fiction by writers such as Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Yates, and William Maxwell. I also read Kevin Canty’s “Into the Great Wide Open”, which gave me a sincere desire to travel in the US. Music was another huge influence. Singer-songwriters such as Ryan Adams, Josh Rouse, and Matthew Ryan completely altered my taste in music forever. I admired all this from afar.
“Ben, you turn 18 next year, what do you want for your birthday?” my Mum asked.
“I want to go to America, on my own,” I said. She laughed at first, but I went.
I went in January and snow had blocked the streets of Manhattan to an almost standstill. I got cheated out of $50 in Times Square by a fast-talking swindler on my first day in New York, “Welcome to the United States of America,” he said as he scurried off. But I walked the entire city and had some amazing experiences that I cannot even find the words to tell you about. Stumbling into a bar called Brownies in Alphabet City one night and listening to a band was a dream come true for an 18-year-old. “These guys are great, I said” to a guy next to me. “The Strokes. They are awesome,” he replied. I had no idea. This was before the release of their monumental first album, “Is This It.”
I returned to the U.S. that summer and played my first season for Hershey, staying with a family in the town and feeling very alienated from the new world I found myself in. It certainly wasn’t New York City. I did discover Philly, however, and also managed to take a trip to Harrisburg to catch the Senators play. I admit, I had little interest in the game and the players but I was warmed by the atmosphere.
My second summer in Pennsylvania was one I will never forget. I worked at a summer camp looking after a dozen 7-year-olds pretty much 24 hours per day. It was the hardest and most rewarding experience of my life. I grew up very quickly, shall we say. I was enjoying my soccer and the summer was warm and breezy. I was lucky enough to travel with a few buddies after the season finished and took a road trip through Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Chicago, and Milwaukee before staying in St. Paul, Minn., where I caught my first ever Vikings game.
At the end of the summer, 9/11 happened.
I had stood on top of the World Trade Center that summer, a mere month before the attacks. That sat heavy with me, I felt panic at first then a sad relief next. It could have been me; it wasn’t me. It was thousands of others. How do people pick themselves up from an experience like that? I was stuck in Minneapolis as my flight home had been canceled. Luckily, I could stay with my friends. Everyone was changed, everybody looked worried and uncertain about the place they lived in and the people who shared their time and space.
I never went back into Manhattan, I stayed out in Corona the day before my flight was due to leave as a friend of mine had a relative I could stay with for the night. It was an overnight Greyhound so I cannot remember seeing anything out the window when coming over the New Jersey turnpike. I remember arriving early the next morning and Jeff meeting me at the bus stop in Queens Village. He was a nice guy, solemn. In the car to his house, he asked me if I wanted to go to the Mets game that night, “It’s the first one, you know, since…” I politely accepted, and we didn’t say much the rest of the way home.
To my recollection, it was my fourth ever baseball game and the walk to the stadium was a weird hotchpotch of celebration and mourning. I remember a group of young men laughing and jostling with each other, I remember passing two women crying holding a framed photo of a man, and more so than anything I remember the stark dark blue evening sky illuminated by those legendary lights of Shea Stadium. Once inside I was taken by the intricate tangling of concrete and metal that defined the belly of Shea Stadium, more akin to the construct of a battleship than a baseball stadium. It was beautiful in a way a mechanic loves to look under the hood of a classic car. We took our seats and I looked out across a sea of people. I had forgotten how wonderful it feels to be a part of such a big crowd all in anticipation of sharing something you all love. I remember Jeff saying, “it’s not full, that’s a shame.” It was, but totally understandable.
I don’t remember anything about the game except two things: The first was missing Liza Minelli because we went to get hot dogs. The second was the sound of a home run. It was the bottom of the eighth inning, the Mets trailed the Braves 2-1 and the crowd sensed the impending doom. Piazza had a man on first base, and I remember Jeff saying “if it is going to happen, it needs to happen now.” The sound off the bat silenced the entire stadium for a frozen moment. Then, it was pandemonium. I didn’t even see the ball fly out of the park, people had swarmed and history was made. So many people looked at me straight in the eyes, hugged me, laughed, screamed with happiness, cried out. “WE ARE BACK, BABY!” said Jeff, and he threw his arms around me. I had known this man for eight quiet hours. It was indescribable.
The Mets closed it out, Jeff and I watched all the television coverage when we got back to his apartment. We had a couple of beers. It was just as sensational to watch all the footage as it was actually being there. The next day he dropped me off at the airport and I went home to the UK. We didn’t swap numbers or email or anything like it, none of those things really happened back then. We just shook hands and said goodbye. We shared that moment together, and he exists only in that moment for me. Thanks, Jeff. And thank you, Mike Piazza.
Mike Piazza was a wonderful baseball player, and he will be forever remembered in New York for hitting that game-winning home run at Shea Stadium in the first game of baseball to take place in the city post-9/11. It meant so much to everyone in that stadium. It was my first ever game at the stadium, and I am not sure if anyone there that night can say the same, however, it was an unparalleled, unique shared human experience that will always remind me of why I love baseball.
Baseball is important. It was then, it is now. Let’s hope we all see each other, appropriately spaced, at a game soon.
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)