Monday, August 25, 2014

Watching the Game from the Miracle Mets to Red Sox Nation

Baseball seduces its fans one at a time, speaking to them in whispers and shouts, its volume and language suited to each individual. Some follow in the footsteps of parents or older siblings, inheriting a love for a team or player. Some find the game on their own, seeking brotherhood among a community of strangers. Some love to play it, some love to watch it, some love to crunch numbers and debate the merits of men long dead.

Judy Lynn Johnson first heard the game speaking to her as a girl, when she and a childhood friend whiled away summer afternoons in New Jersey flipping baseball cards across the hardwood floor of her back hallway. Her best friend Janet, like so many others in the neighborhood, pulled for the powerhouse Yankees, while Judy cherished cardboard squares featuring the new kids on the block, the Mets. Mining her bubblegum cards for facts, she learned she shared a birthday with Ed Kranepool, and fell in love with the young first baseman, 10 years her senior. As she describes her crush in her memoir, Watching The Game: Meditations from a Woman’s Heart, it’s no less reasonable than any other childhood fantasy. Other girls may have fallen for actors or singers, she fixated on a slugging infielder.

The game grabbed hold of her tight, turning Florida vacations into Grapefruit League pilgrimages and transposing her and her classmates into pretend Mets when they took the field during gym class. It ironically relaxed its grip just as her team peaked in the fall of 1969, when the boys on her baseball cards gave way to boys in her hometown as high school football and its local heroes stole her affections. Shortly after celebrating the Miracle Mets’ championship, she cast the game aside to cultivate her interest in the theater and her academics. Even a random college date to Fenway Park couldn’t rekindle the flame. In the ensuing decade she’d go years at a stretch without watching a single game.

The game found her again far, far from her roots, in Palo Alto, Calif., where her Mets landed on her television one afternoon—and stayed there, thanks to a cable package that included Channel 9 WOR-TV and broadcaster Ralph Kiner. Now grown, an English professor married to a doctor, she reclaimed her team just in time for another title run, this time over the hard-luck Boston Red Sox, coincidentally, the team of her future.

Johnson and her growing family returned to the East Coast, this time to Cape Cod, deep in the heart of Red Sox Nation. A special night out was a trip to Fenway with one of her three children, several of which she recaps in great detail, including the game she fretted away, distraught about losing her wallet. A night salvaged when two young strangers provided dinner for her and her famished eight-year-old son. A night that slid back into the good memories column when a Fenway employee flagged her down on her way out of the stadium to share the happy news: Her wallet was found, contents intact.

“Our night at Fenway wasn’t about the money,” she writes. “It was never about money. It was about loss and surprises, kindness and grace, hot dogs in the media room, and being alive again after feeling like death. It was running across Yawkey Way after a Red Sox victory, feeling happy on a school night, and saying to my boy, ‘Let’s go get that Johnny Damon shirt!’ I remember how happily we walked along Lansdowne Street one beautiful evening in May, my baseball boy still glad to hold my hand under the Citgo sign, and the ballpark shining to light our way.”

Johnson writes lyrically, recapping memories of evenings watching major leaguer stars as well as less formal affairs featuring collegiate heroes summering in the Cape Cod League. Diamonds are her best friend, wherever they are laid out. Daughter of an ordained Dutch Reformed minister, baseball rivals only her love of her family and her religion, both of which are woven throughout. Most chapters open with a snippet of scripture (though Shakespeare and Ken Burns, among others, work their way into these leadoff spots as well). It’s a personal blend that makes Johnson’s story her own, unique to her, while also touching upon themes that entice so many other fans coming from so many other backgrounds.

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