Our national pastime is played on a diamond. But for me last Wednesday night it was played in a circle — a full circle. I was a guest of Jackie Robinson’s widow Rachel at Citifield, the new home of the New York Mets.
The ball field had opened to mixed reviews only two days before. On Wednesday the rotunda, its entrance styled after the old Brooklyn Dodgers edifice at Ebbets Field, was christened. Various dignitaries, including New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, New York Gov. David Patterson, and Mets president Fred Wilpon, were present to honor the man who took baseball to the next level in 1947 — Jackie Robinson.
The rotunda is an extraordinary architectural achievement, with gigantic tiled photos of Jackie in action on its walls, and an oversized, blue number 42 standing tall in the corridor between the building’s entrance and the ball field.
The pomp and circumstance was a bit overwhelming, and I was moved to tears on several occasions.
My father first took me to Ebbets Field in 1954. He and my mother were huge Dodgers fans. Dad brought me down to the Dodgers dugout to meet Jackie and his son of my age, Jackie junior.
I was eight, and did not fully appreciate the magnitude of the occasion. But I did bleed Dodger blue for many subsequent years, and the remainder of my childhood was consumed by baseball. We would gather in the living room and watch televised games, my mother rising from her seat to kiss the television screen every time Jackie was about to take his turn at bat. I spent countless hours sketching baseball fields on large oak tag boards, pretending to follow the action with inside-out binoculars, as if I were the camera man. And I spent untold numbers of hours playing catch and hitting balls with my Dad, wearing my child-sized version of the official Dodgers uniform.
When the Robinson family tried to move to Stamford, Conn., in 1955, real estate brokers refused to show them any land in the white sections of North Stamford, near our summer home. Incensed, my parents created a local furor and shamed the real estate people into showing the Robinsons the property they wanted to see.
They bought land, and while their house was being built, the Robinsons moved in with us. I have many memories of that year, but one stands out — the day Jackie brought Lucy Monroe, the lady who used to sing the Star Spangled Banner before every Dodgers game, to our little softball field on the front lawn of our home, before our weekly Sunday game. I had a huge crush on her.
Eventually Jackie was traded to the hated Giants, and he decided to retire. Soon after, the two national baseball teams skipped town and headed west. But we had many wonder-filled years of family time with the Robinsons. Jackie senior became my surrogate father after my own Dad died in 1961. He taught me how to play golf and bought me my first set of clubs.
I eschewed baseball until 1962. Then the New York Mets were born and I adopted the likes of Marv Thrownberry, Choo Choo Coleman and Duke Snider, a familiar face from the Dodgers. I was a regular at the old Polo Grounds, and I still have a foul ball from The Duke that I caught while sitting in the second deck.
I followed them through all the painful and later exuberant years. I missed the 1969 Miracle Mets because I was on a photo assignment for the Atlantic Monthly in upstate Vermont, but I listened to the games on a crackly AM radio. I was at Shea Stadium for the 1973 playoffs, including the infamous fight between Pete Rose and Buddy Harrelson. I was there in 1986 with my sister Carly and my wife Ronni; we hugged and cried as Bill Buckner fatefully blew Mookie’s grounder. I felt I had died and gone to heaven. I even published a book — 25 Years of Baseball Magic — which celebrated the anniversary after that 1986 series. And I was there at Shea for the anticlimactic Subway Series in 2000.
With all these years of history stored in my emotional and photographic archive, I of course wanted to be there for Jackie Robinson night. And the festivities did not disappoint. Rachel and her son David (Jackie junior died tragically some years ago) and daughter Sharon were there to greet me. It was an emotional reunion.
Just before game time, there was a moving on-field ceremony, replete with a wonderful speech by Rachel, a visual demonstration of Jackie’s famous nine principles (courage, determination, persistence, integrity, justice, teamwork, citizenship, commitment, excellence), and a lineup of all the players wearing Jackie’s number 42. Finally, Sharon threw (or rather, bounced) the first pitch to Mets manager Jerry Manuel. She whispered to me, “I let the whole female population down,” and we both laughed.
The Mets won the game.
As we were leaving, I turned to Rachel and said “Can you imagine what my mother, your dearest friend, must be thinking right now, wherever she might be? [She died in 1994.] With Obama now our President and this over-the-top celebration of Jackie’s legacy?” She looked at me with those dreamy eyes and said: “Her vision has finally been realized.”