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Archive for the ‘Coming Of Age’ Category

The last baseball game I attended before the strike was at Yankee Stadium. Me and my co-workers for the summer were given complimentary tickets, along with several other youth and teen groups, in the left-centerfield bleachers. I defiantly wore my Mets hat to the game, which pitted the Yankees against the Baltimore Orioles. Wearing the hat of New York’s National League team proved to be the right move, since former Mets centerfielder Tommie Agee was in attendance, signing autographs in the bleachers; his appearance was part of the program that allowed us to get into The House That Ruth Built gratis. I still have that hat, which Agee signed on the green underside of the bill.

Back then, I lived for baseball. Well, I still live for baseball – make my living in baseball, even – but, in those days, I was obsessed. Every winter, I’d suffer through pangs of withdrawal because there wasn’t any baseball on television; I’d scour Sports Illustrated for any blurb or mention of the National Pastime. I eagerly anticipated the Mets’ first spring training game, which was always televised on WWOR TV. I loved WWOR’s spring training open – which featured a wooden crate filled with oranges that would be hammered shut and, after a time lapse, reopened to reveal that the oranges had turned into baseballs – not only because it was pure genius, but also because it signaled that another baseball season was around the corner.

But now, there was a possibility that the baseball off-season would be longer than ever. The team owners and the players’ union were at an impasse in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement and a strike was imminent. None of the so-called experts seemed to think the strike would be brief, although no one had any idea how long it would last. A few weeks? A few months? Into the postseason? Into the following season? Anything seemed to be possible except, of course, a quick resolution.

The strike deadline set by the players was four days away and in the back of my mind as I watched former Mets pitcher Sid Fernandez staked to an early 4-0 lead, only to leave in the sixth with the score tied. I was sitting behind the Orioles bullpen and just missed getting the baseball reliever Jim Poole tossed into the crowd when he entered the game in the 10th. Mark Eichhorn, who had been warming up alongside Poole, teased and tantalized the fans who asked him for a ball; it seemed like poetic justice when Eichhorn gave up Randy Velarde’s walk-off RBI single in the 11th to lose the game for Baltimore.

Three days later, when I turned on my green-and-white radio on August 11th, 1994 to listen to the Mets play in Philadelphia (the game was televised on SportsChannel, and Mom had yet to sign us up for cable television), I was hoping the game lasted forever. It didn’t, but it came close; Ricky Jordan’s walk-off RBI single in the 15th won it for the Phillies. And I turned off my radio and wondered when I’d get to hear Major League Baseball again.

I finished the month at a summer camp in western Massachusetts, where I spent a week and a half canoeing, hiking and pitching tents in the wilderness. We were only allowed to shower every few days and there was no access to television or radio. Occasionally, our travels through the Berkshires and Adirondacks would take us by a newsstand or a newspaper vending machine, which would lead me to check the front page of the paper to see if the strike had been resolved. And, in every instance, there was a front-page headline about the strike. And, in every instance, that front-page headline indicated that the players were still on the picket line. Chris, a Chicago White Sox fan who served as my camp group’s counselor that summer before resuming his studies at a small, liberal-arts college in Minnesota in the fall, picked up on my routine. “Anything?” he would ask, after he saw me peek at newsprint. I’d shake my head. Nothing needed to be said.

The routines and rhythms of my sophomore year of high school helped pass the time, but the strike was never far from my mind. Those of us who are baseball crazed tend to gravitate to other seam heads, and it was all we talked about. I mean, it was all we could talk about, since the strike eliminated typical fall conversations about the postseason – which wound up being cancelled – and free agency. None of us really understood all of the issues at play; we were just hopeless baseball romantics hoping and praying that our beau would return post haste.

I had Biology class with Jonah Parsoff, who loved baseball almost as much as I did. Almost. Jonah also claimed to know more baseball trivia than me, which simply wasn’t possible. So, I offered Jonah a challenge: I would give him five baseball trivia questions every day and I guaranteed he would never get all five of them correct. So, for about two months, I spent the first few minutes of Biology writing trivia questions on a piece of loose-leaf paper, which I would covertly pass to Jonah in the front of the class (I always sat in the back of all of my classes, much to my mother’s chagrin. “You wear glasses” she would ask, “why are you sitting in the back?”). Jonah would attempt to answer my questions and slip the paper back to me. I don’t think he ever got more than three right; I know he never went five for five. I took delight in Jonah throwing his head back in frustration once I gave him the correct answers – a gesture that would prompt Mr. Young, our Biology teacher, to ask “Jonah, is something wrong?” mid-lecture. And, thus, my place atop the baseball-trivia throne was secure.

While I spent most of my time in Biology goofing off, I took Global Studies seriously; I always took great interest in history, which was partially responsible for my love of baseball trivia. However, I was convinced that my teacher, Mrs. Goodman, was assigning us papers at an insane rate that was unprecedented in the annals of high school history. However, I had little issue with one assignment from Mrs. Goodman that allowed us to write a 5-page paper on a current event selected from a pre-approved list when I saw that the list included the baseball strike. I immediately set to work on my masterpiece, in which detailed the follies of both the owners and the players’ union. My heartfelt missive earned me an A, and some unexpected praise from Mrs. Goodman; she told me I was an excellent writer and I should consider working for my high school’s monthly newspaper. I never thought of myself as an above-average writer and seeing my byline in print never occurred to me. But wouldn’t it be cool to write about sports? I thought to myself. And, after approaching one of the sports editors, I became a full-fledged sports journalist, penning important pieces on weighty topics – like the upcoming cross-country season – much to the delight of readers everywhere. At least that’s what I told myself.

My Pulitzer still hadn’t arrived in early March, when Dad and I plopped in front of the television to watch the Mets’ first spring training game, against the Yankees. Except it wasn’t the Mets, at least not the Mets with which we were familiar. The broadcast on WWOR opened with Ralph Kiner and Tim McCarver explaining that they weren’t going to pretend that the upcoming game featuring replacement players was to the Major League Baseball standards fans were accustomed. Thank goodness, because it would’ve been hard to pretend. Nevertheless, Dad and I were glued to the set because we had no idea what to expect from these people donning Mets and Yankees uniforms. An over-the-hill Doug Sisk, the frequent target of Mets fans’ derision when he was a reliever in the 1980s, started the game and was as uninspiring as I’d remembered.

I don’t recall the score, but I do recall the Yankees led by a narrow margin when the bottom of the ninth dawned and they summoned a pitcher named Mike Pitz to get the last three outs. After we finished making fun of his last name, we watched Pitz load the bases with two outs, bringing up Lou Thornton. The day before, we saw a local sportscast where Thornton proclaimed he didn’t get a fair shake when he was with the non-replacement Mets a few years prior and he became a replacement player to prove he belonged in the Majors.

“Well Lou,” Dad opined as Thornton dug in. “This is your chance.”

Thornton worked the count full before swinging and missing at a pitch that was nowhere near the strike zone. Game over.

I don’t have vivid memories of where I was or what I was doing when the strike ended, probably because the ending seemed so anticlimactic. And it didn’t really end, per sé; future Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor issued an injunction against the owners, which prevented them from implementing new labor rules and from using replacement players. Thus, the owners lost a significant amount of their leverage and were essentially forced to work something out with the players. Shortly thereafter, a truncated spring training preceded a truncated regular season and the love of my life was back. Unlike many fans, I didn’t hold any animosity toward the players or the owners; even though I didn’t understand all of the issues that led to a strike, I figured both sides were probably each at fault to a certain extent. Regardless, I just wanted to see baseball. The strike was the first test of my passion for baseball and, strangely, it increased my love for the game. If I could still obsess over baseball even after dealing with the postseason being canceled for the first time in 90 years and after months of uncertainty, then nothing would mute my love for the National Pastime. And nothing has.

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Will my daughter know what a dial tone is? Will she know what it’s like to hear a busy signal? Will she know what it sounds like when a landline phone rings? Will she ever have to write down a message and will I ever have to explain to her how to answer the phone when she’s home alone in such a way that strangers won’t know her parents’ whereabouts?

Will my daughter know what a record is? Will she ever be scolded for running or jumping near the record player, thus making the record skip? Will she even know what a record skip is? Will she ever listen to the radio for hours, hoping to hear her favorite song a few more times? Will she know what it’s like to fast forward or rewind a cassette, just to hear that one song she really likes?

Will my daughter know what it’s like to wait until the summer to catch the television episodes that she missed? Will she watch her favorite movie over and over again, until the VHS tape wears out? Will she experience looking forward to Saturday mornings, because that’s when all of the cartoons come on? Will she know what it’s like to manipulate the television antenna in order to receive one of the seven available channels clearly?

Will my daughter learn how to sign her name? Will her third-grade teacher force her class to write in cursive, spending copious hours on the proper way to write a script Q or a script Z? Will she know what it’s like to write in longhand until her right hand starts to hurt? Will she ever have to rewrite a one- or two-page essay by hand because of one or two mistakes or misspellings? Will she ever use a manual pencil sharpener? Will she and her classmates have to share the one computer sitting in the back of the classroom? Will she ever use correction fluid?

Will my daughter ever look something up in a hardcover encyclopedia? Will she spend countless hours sifting through books in the library trying to find that one piece of information that’s vital to her class project? Will she know what a card catalog or what the Dewey Decimal System is? Will she keep returning to the library to look things up in one of the reference books they won’t allow her to take home?

Will my daughter hurt herself on a seesaw or a metal swing? Will she hang from the top of the monkey bars, knowing any false moves could lead to broken limbs? Will she skin her knees on the playground’s uneven concrete? Will she ever ride a bicycle or ride roller skates without a helmet? Will she ever play a pickup game organized by she and her peers and without adult supervision?

Will my daughter get four quarters from a relative and think she’s wealthy beyond belief? Will she know what penny candy is? Will she be able to go to the store on her own, without being driven by an adult? Will she and her friends be shooed away from the store’s pay phone because they’re making prank calls?

My daughter will learn the importance of a good, solid handshake and the importance of looking people in the eye. She will know the importance of speaking up and the importance of having her voice heard. She will be taught to say “please” and “thank you” and “no thank you” at the appropriate times. She will learn to respect her elders, teachers and coaches, even when she disagrees with them. She will be allowed to settle her playground and schoolyard disputes on her own whenever possible. She will know that education is important and that her schoolwork comes first. She will have the value of reading impressed upon her. She will be encouraged to be acutely aware of her surroundings and to try and walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. She will learn the importance of sharing and of valuing her fellow man and woman. She will be taught not to always judge a book by its cover. She will be forced to push herself intellectually and spiritually. She will be educated about serious issues like sex and drugs at the appropriate times and without words being minced. She will have several adult role models who will push and encourage her.

In many ways, my daughter’s childhood will be much different from mine. But, my hope is that her childhood will mirror mine in the most important ways.

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Writing Well

Most of my memories of first grade are a blur of sour milk, writing in black and white composition books – at some point we switched from writing on two lines to writing on one line – and going up and down the stairs. However, there are two days in first grade that I remember vividly. One is the day of the Challenger space shuttle disaster; we were watching that live on the brown television that was wheeled into our classroom whenever there was a shuttle launch. The other day I remember was when we learned the difference between the words they’re, their and there. Mrs. Hines went over the rules for when to use each word on the green chalkboard. She then gave us examples of sentences with the proper usage of each word before assigning homework that required us to come up with our own sentences using their, they’re and there. I eagerly did my homework that night and was pleased when, the next day, I learned that I’d gotten every sentence correct.

In the 26 years since I learned the difference between they’re, their and there, I can count the number of times I confused one for another on one hand, and still have several fingers remaining. I’m still not sure why that lesson resonated with me as much as it did. I do know that I get frustrated with people who use the wrong one. The English language has so many complicated and seemingly nonsensical spelling and grammar rules that are easy to screw up, but the rules governing when to use there, their or they’re are very simple; how can anyone mess that up on a regular basis?

Growing up, I had no choice but to pay attention to such details. Mom has a master’s degree in education and she specialized in teaching elementary school-aged children how to read and write properly. As her son, I was Mom’s pet project. In the days before the widespread popularity of personal computers, I spent many late nights writing and rewriting my elementary-school essays and papers by hand, until they were pitch perfect in Mom’s eyes. Just when I’d thought I’d fixed one mistake, Mom would find more mistakes. Every word had to be spelled properly, every sentence had to make sense, every statement had to be followed with details and corroborating evidence. Anything less, and I was sent back to my room, forced to do another rewrite, the cramping and soreness in my right hand be damned. I was a good student and Mom rarely helped me with my homework. But, she would always ask about my assignments. Any mention of an essay would be followed by “let me see it” and I knew I was in for a long night.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but Mom was molding me into a conscientious writer, but not just with the constant rewrites. Mom was a voracious reader and she helped make me into one, too. Mom didn’t always have a lot of money but, if I expressed interest in a certain type of book or in a specific author, Mom would provide those books for me; I easily had two to three times as many books as I did toys. Reading a lot of books, especially quality books, showed me what good writing should look like.

Growing up, I always assumed everyone saw and understood writing, spelling and grammar the same way I did. Of course, my classmates and I rarely shared each other’s writing and most of the writing I saw was written by professionals and/or professionally edited. However, the explosion of the Internet in the mid and late 1990s showed me – and the rest of the world – how bad many of us are at writing. In the days before it was easy to upload and consume video and audio online, writing was the primary means of communication on the Internet. In college, I regularly communicated with friends and total strangers through chat programs like AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ and was amazed how little some valued spelling and grammar. Of course, because you’re writing quickly and in short bursts, some rules are going to be ignored, intentionally or unintentionally. But, it was hard for me to take people seriously who regularly spelled words incorrectly or wrote emails with poor sentence structure. Mom always preached the importance of proofreading your writing, but that never mattered to me until I started communicating regularly on the Internet. The extra few seconds it takes to proofread a tweet or review an email before sending can be the difference between looking like a smart, thoughtful person and looking like an unintelligent buffoon.

There’s been a lot written about the decline in American writing due to the proliferation of things like Twitter, Facebook and text messaging. And, while I believe American writing seems poorer since the advent of such services, I think the real issue is greater exposure; if you couldn’t write before, few people would know. But, now, if you don’t know the basic rules of grammar or you spell like someone who’s never heard of a dictionary, your foibles are out there for the whole world to see. Literally. I never understood people who, when their poor spelling or grammar is pointed out to them, brush it off as not a big deal or unimportant (e.g. “Hey, it’s only Twitter. So what if I spell some words wrong?”). No one’s spelling and grammar is perfect all of the time, but we should strive to make our spelling and grammar as perfect as possible as often as possible.

The funny thing is, there are more tools than ever before to help us write well. Schoolchildren no longer have to do endless, time-consuming rewrites on composition notebook paper, like I did; instead, they can delete and backspace and cut and paste. If I spell a word incorrectly, it’s noted with a red, squiggly underline and the correct spelling is a click of the mouse away; I don’t have to flip through a thick dictionary or hope that I or someone else catches the misspelling during a subsequent edit. Of course, spell check doesn’t account for words that are spelled correctly, but used out of context; I probably see less outright misspellings on the Internet and more incorrect context mistakes. If I had a nickel for every time I saw people use fair when they mean fare, effect when it should be affect, your when they mean you’re or too instead of to, I’d be a wealthy man.

I wish everyone could get the education in proper writing, spelling and grammar that I got from Mom. But, what it comes down to more than anything is taking pride in what you write and in how you express yourself. Writing gives people a window into your personality, your intelligence and your attention to detail. Even if that writing is a simple tweet or a Facebook post and/or contains several abbreviations and colloquialisms, it’s important to get it right. Take pride in whatever you write.

There are always going to be some mistakes, but when people with poor writing skills aren’t challenged to improve, they’re being done a disservice. How else is their communication going to get better?

Yep. Still got it.

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One of the great things about growing up in New York City is its vibrant pro sports landscape. Each of the four major professional leagues has at least two teams in the New York metropolitan area, creating natural rivalries. Eight of the nine New York area sports teams have devoted fan bases.

The one exception has been the New Jersey Nets. I don’t know of a single fan of the NBA team that plied their trade in the Garden State. The Nets were an afterthought; a mediocre team playing in a mediocre arena that was difficult to get to if you didn’t have a car, in front of very few fans. The Knicks dominated the hearts and minds of the region when they were winning and, sometimes, even when they weren’t. Since we didn’t have cable for much of my childhood, I’d watch the handful of Nets games that were televised on WWOR, but only because I wanted to see the Nets’ opponents. I used to make fun of Spencer Ross, the Nets’ play-by-play broadcaster in the early 1990s, because he seemed to be forcing a nickname on every Nets player to try and improve their likability: Kenny Anderson, a talented point guard who had trouble with health and with consistency, was always known as either “Special K” or “Kenny the Kid”; power forward Derrick Coleman, who could be one of the best players in the NBA when he wanted to be, was known strictly as “DC”. Legendary Knicks announcer Marv Albert never had to resort to such shenanigans, I thought to myself.

The thing is, it didn’t have to be this way. When the then-New York Nets agreed to join the NBA for the 1976-1977 season, they were coming off an ABA championship. They also had Julius Erving, one of the most exciting players in basketball history. The Knicks were still competitive, but the core of their great teams of the early 1970s was aging. The Nets had a legitimate chance to make serious inroads into the hearts and minds of New York area basketball fans. However, Nets owner Roy Boe had to pay $3.2 million to join the NBA and make the first of ten $480,000 payments to the New York Knicks to get them to waive their territorial rights. Needing a quick infusion of cash, Boe sold Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers (but only after offering Erving to the Knicks in exchange for them waving the territorial rights payments. The Knicks refused). So, instead of entering the NBA with one of the greatest basketball players of all time and an opportunity to steal some of the Knicks’ thunder, the Nets had to settle for mediocrity and obscurity. They moved from Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum to New Jersey the next season and, despite some halfway decent teams in the early 1980s, were largely ignored. Erving, by the way, would lead the 76ers to an NBA title.

When it comes to sports, baseball was my first love and the NBA was my second. I grew up rooting for those talented Knicks teams of the early 1990s that would always give Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls a run for their money before coming up short. Mom was also a huge Knicks fan and we tried to go to their games at Madison Square Garden whenever we could. But, the Knicks always sold out and we were lucky to catch one or two games a year from the upper reaches of The World’s Most Famous Arena.

Before the start of the 1995-1996 NBA season, Mom decided to get us a seven-game New Jersey Nets ticket plan because all of those plans included at least one Knicks-Nets game. So, off we went from the Bronx, across the George Washington Bridge and onto the New Jersey Turnpike, to see the New York area’s neglected franchise. The Nets played at the nondescript Brendan Byrne Arena, which was named after the governor of New Jersey who got the facility built. During that season, the name changed to the Continental Airlines Arena; of course the Nets would play in the only arena or stadium in the area named after a corporate sponsor. I saw some great basketball teams and players that season. I saw the Bulls, who won an NBA-record 72 games that year, thrash the Nets, but not before Bulls bad boy Dennis Rodman got ejected, taking off his jersey as he angrily stalked off the court. I also saw the Detroit Pistons who were on the upswing with young stars Grant Hill and Allan Houston, a very good Indiana Pacers team featuring future Hall of Famer Reggie Miller, and the 76ers who weren’t very good but had exciting rookie Jerry Stackhouse. I also saw the Knicks, of course, who had the nerve to lose the game I attended.

Unfortunately, I also had to watch the Nets, who served in the Washington Generals role most of the nights we were there. Their most consistent player was Armen Gilliam, a journeyman forward known as “The Hammer”, complete with a hammer pounding a nail on the arena matrix board whenever Gilliam scored. The talented Anderson stayed healthy that season, but the Nets knew they weren’t going to be able to sign him long-term, so they traded him to the Charlotte Hornets in January. That season, the Nets gave out replica jerseys featuring the name and number of rookie forward Ed O’Bannon, their first-round draft pick, despite the fact he wasn’t playing like a future franchise cornerstone; O’Bannon was out of the NBA two years later. During one game, Nets general manager Willis Reed was shown on the video board and showered with boos. The Nets would finish the 1995-1996 season with a 30-52 record and fire head coach Butch Beard, who hasn’t coached in the NBA since.

Things did get better for the Nets on the court after that, culminating in back-to-back NBA Finals appearances in 2002 and 2003. However, the fans never did show up and the Nets continued to fight a losing battle for the hearts, minds and wallets of area sports fans.

But, that’s all changing because the New Jersey Nets are now the Brooklyn Nets.

I’m excited about the Nets laying root in Brooklyn. Many New Yorkers have already embraced the Nets’ new, black and white logo, the Nets have made several moves to improve their on-court product and their games at the brand-new Barclays Center will be a hot ticket all winter. No longer will the Nets’ location on the wrong side of the Hudson River prevent them from drawing fans and keeping and acquiring quality players.

As a Knicks fan, I suppose I shouldn’t be excited about the Nets’ improved prospects. However, I’m looking forward to the Knicks having a true geographic rival. I’m hopeful the Nets will force the Knicks to improve their on- and off-court product since the Knicks will no longer be able to rely on the fact that they have little competition regionally. I think the Knicks will always be the more popular of the two franchises, but the Nets will be able to make a dent as the years progress.

In the near future, I hope I can make it to the Barclays Center for a Knicks-Nets game. It will be neat to watch the Nets play in a bright, colorful arena that’s filled to capacity and easily accessible by public transportation. There will probably still be more Knicks fans than Nets fans there, but at least the Nets will have a decent number of fans rooting them on. It will be a completely different experience from the Nets games I attended in the mid 1990s.

And, this time, the Knicks better win.

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“Ma, please don’t call me Dobie.”

I was 16 years old when I uttered those words. I’d spent that summer working at New York City’s Central Park and the not-for-profit organization that employed me and dozens of other teenagers had a lunch in our honor at Tavern on the Green, the posh restaurant on the park’s edge. We were allowed to invite our parents to the event, so of course I invited Mom. But, I didn’t want her to embarrass me in front of my peers by calling me anything other than Robert.

Mom never called me Robert. Ever. I was a newborn when I got the nickname Dobie, thanks to a television show that went off the air nearly 16 years before I was born. Apparently,The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis had a profound impact on Dad. Legend has it that I did something as an infant that mildly annoyed him, leading Dad to utter “Dobie my son, Dobie my son”; that phrase was often repeated by the father of the show’s title character after one of Dobie Gillis’s many misadventures. After that, my parents, who had been looking for a nickname to give me – in part because my father, Robert Jr., was better known as “Rocky” and my grandfather, Robert Sr., answered to “Big Bob” – immediately seized on Dobie. It didn’t take long for Dobie to catch on with the rest of my family. The only holdouts were my maternal grandparents, who weren’t huge proponents of nicknames; they never called me anything other than Robert. Dad took his love for Dobie Gillis even further when he named our cat Zelda, the name of one of Dobie’s best friends on the show.

I was about four or five years old when I began to understand that my given name was Robert and that Dobie was my nickname. I thought having a nickname was really cool; no one else has a nickname, I thought. My bubble burst one day in first grade when my teacher, Mrs. Hines, asked the class how many of us had nicknames and more than half the kids in the room raised their hand. I was crestfallen. However, none of my classmates knew my nickname; I was always known as Robert in school and by anyone who wasn’t family or a friend of the family.

As I grew into an image-conscious preteen, I became hyper aware of when and where Dobie was used. My friends would call me at home and wonder what Mom was shouting to get me to come to the phone, but I played dumb. A few of my friends knew my nickname, but only the handful I knew I could trust not to use it against me; any fodder for schoolyard insults had to be kept close to the vest. I also realized I liked being called Rob, but I never grew fond of Bob or Bobby; Mom didn’t like Rob; I didn’t name you that, she would tell me.

Concerns about my nickname lasted into my teenage years, culminating in my directive to Mom not to call me Dobie in front of my peers at Tavern on the Green. Mom, being the wonderful and understanding mother that she is, obliged. The entire afternoon, Mom called me Robert. And, as I ate chicken with a knife and a fork for the first time, I realized how strange it was to hear Mom call me something other than Dobie; it was as if a different person who happened to sound just like Mom was calling my name. And, that’s when I realized it was fruitless to try and push Dobie aside.

Ever since, I’ve embraced Dobie. Most of my friends – especially the ones who’ve met Mom – know that’s my family nickname. I stopped worrying about the potential insults and barbs caused by my nickname, although it’s made clear to all that only a select few can call me something other than Robert or Rob. I enjoy telling the story of how I got my nickname; I’ve even watched parts of Dobie Gillis episodes on YouTube.

Nowadays, a handful of relatives and family friends call me Robert, rather than Dobie, reasoning that a grown man shouldn’t be called by his childhood nickname. However, neither Mom nor Dad calls me anything other than Dobie. And I would never ask them to.

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We hadn’t been in our seats for very long when Dad pointed out the changes Yankee Stadium underwent during its renovation in the mid 1970s. Over there was where the Yankees bullpen was, Dad said as he pointed to an out-of-place nook behind the rightfield fence. Right there is where me and my grandfather sat when he took me to Yankees games when I was your age, Dad explained as he pointed to a section of empty seats in dead centerfield that were blacked out and blocked off, serving as a batters’ eye. Dad also pointed out the changed outfield dimensions and the monuments beyond the leftfield fence, which Dad said used to be located in centerfield, where they were in play. I stared at the retired numbers painted on the wall out by the bullpens in leftfield; there were so many of them.

I was a budding baseball fan on that night in 1989, two days shy of my tenth birthday, but I was already acutely aware of the storied history of the New York Yankees. I wasn’t even a Yankees fan, choosing to root for the New York Mets like Dad, Mom, Grandpa and nearly everyone else in my family who mattered. Yet, I couldn’t help but be awed thinking about all of the great players who roamed Yankee Stadium’s lush green grass. However, I was too young to remember the last great era of Yankees baseball; I was a fetus when the Yankees won the last of their record 22 World Series, in 1978, and I was two years old when the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Yankees in the 1981 World Series, their last postseason appearance. The Yankees had been marked by discord, dysfunction and a revolving door of players and managers ever since George Steinbrenner became their majority owner in 1973, but they’d always won, their drama not adversely affecting their play on the field. But, that was starting to change.

Ever since their last World Series game, the Yankees had been competitive, but not good enough to get over the hump. Their teams were marked by high payrolls and very good offenses, but also by inconsistent play and mediocre pitching. And, the Yankees certainly didn’t play like a well-oiled machine on this overcast June night. They committed six errors, leading to 12 unearned runs for their opponents, the Baltimore Orioles. Four of the errors occurred in the first three innings. Two of the errors were committed by first baseman Don Mattingly, the franchise cornerstone and winner of multiple Gold Gloves for his fielding acumen. The Yankees were down 7-0 in the top of the third inning when manager Dallas Green pulled starting pitcher Andy Hawkins. However, two batters later, Steve Finley – a rookie I’d never heard of – hit a grand slam off reliever Chuck Cary. Rain was in that evening’s forecast and many of the fans in attendance began opening their umbrellas and chanting for rain to wash the game away during the Yankees’ disastrous top of the third. Much to their chagrin, the rain stayed away all evening as the Orioles cruised to a 16-3 victory.

By the end of the 1989 season, the Yankees had suffered their third losing campaign since Steinbrenner’s reign began. Not surprisingly, the year included a managerial change, with Green being replaced by Bucky Dent in mid August. Meanwhile the Mets – the redheaded stepchild of New York City baseball for much of their history – continued to capture the hearts and minds of New Yorkers with their young, brash ballclub and dominant pitching. The Mets finished second in the National League East in ’89, but they were a year removed from a division title and three years removed from a dominant season that ended in a World Series triumph. Clearly, the Mets’ star was rising while the Yankees’ star was falling.

The biggest problem the Yankees had in those days can be summed up in two words: starting pitching. The ’89 season fell in the middle of a stretch in which the Yankees had a different Opening Day starting pitcher for nine straight seasons. That year Tommy John – a 45-year-old who wasn’t expected to make the team – took the hill for the Yankees in the opener. John won on Opening Day, but was released less than two months later with a 2-7 record and a 5.80 ERA; he never pitched in the Majors again. In 1985, the Yankees opened the season with 46-year-old knuckleballer Phil Niekro on the hill. 1991’s Opening Day hurler was journeyman Tim Leary, who’d lost a league-leading 19 games the year before. In 1990, Dave LaPoint, who had a 5.62 ERA in ’89, got the ball in the opener; he was released the following spring training and saw action in only two more Major League games after the ’90 season. Hawkins wasn’t one of the many Yankees Opening Day starters of that era, but he was signed to a hefty contract as a free agent, only to disappoint. Even when he wasn’t disappointing, Hawkins was still losing; in 1990, he threw a no-hitter in Chicago against the White Sox, but the Yankees committed three errors in a four-run eighth and Hawkins and the Yankees lost 4-0. The next start, Hawkins tossed 11 shutout innings against the Minnesota Twins, but allowed two runs in the 12th and lost 2-0. It’s pretty hard to go 0-2 over a two-start stretch that includes 19 consecutive innings without an earned run, but Hawkins and the Yankees were able to make that happen (to add insult to injury, in 1991, Major League Baseball ruled that Hawkins’ performance in Chicago would no longer be officially recognized as a no-hitter because he only threw eight innings. That wasn’t Hawkins’ fault; since the White Sox led after 8 ½ innings, they didn’t have to bat in the bottom of the ninth).

But, the Yankees didn’t miss only on veteran pitchers. In 1984, the Mets began the season with 19-year-old phenom Dwight Gooden in their rotation and the Yankees, not to be outdone, put 18-year-old Jose Rijo on their season-opening roster. Rijo wasn’t a phenom, bouncing between the Yankees and Triple-A in ’84 before being traded to the Oakland Athletics after the season; Rijo later became a solid starting pitcher with the Cincinnati Reds, whom he helped to a championship in 1990. In 1986, 23-year-old Doug Drabek spent most of the year in the Yankees’ rotation before being shipped to the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he became one of the best pitchers in baseball, winning the National League’s Cy Young Award in 1990. Hard-throwing lefthander Al Leiter had great stuff, but struggled to throw strikes. Nevertheless, the Yankees refused to limit his pitch count. As a 23-year-old in ’89, Leiter threw 163 pitches in a start in which he walked nine, struck out 10 and allowed five runs; two starts later, Leiter walked seven and allowed four runs in a 130-pitch effort. Shortly thereafter, Leiter was dealt to the Toronto Blue Jays, where he had arthroscopic shoulder surgery before becoming a rotation mainstay and an integral part of championship teams with Toronto and the Florida Marlins.

The Yankees weren’t much better with position-player prospects. First baseman Kevin Maas – whose batting stance resembled someone sitting on the toilet – set a record by hitting 10 home runs in his first 79 Major League at-bats, but his performance went in the toilet after that. Outfielder Oscar Azocar liked to set fire to his bats, but he didn’t set the world on fire with his hitting. Hensley Meulens was nicknamed “Bam Bam” because of his prodigious power, but that moniker became a punch line as the outfielder struggled to make consistent contact. The Yankees had promising power hitters Fred McGriff and Jay Buhner in their system in the 1980s, but they traded both away. Both became All Star sluggers with other franchises.

I felt fortunate that I decided to latch onto the Mets rather than the Yankees. Sure, the Yankees had all that tradition, but they were a mess. Meanwhile, the Mets were winning with talented young pitching – Gooden was only 24 in 1989 and he’d already won a Cy Young Award – and scrappy position players scored runs in bunches in a lineup anchored by Darryl Strawberry, perhaps the National League’s best power hitter. The Mets finished second again in 1990, but at least they didn’t lose 95 games like the Yankees, who finished last for the first time since the Johnson Administration. But, Strawberry departed as a free agent after that season, Gooden struggled with injuries and drug abuse and the Mets started a freefall into mediocrity. Meanwhile, the Yankees seemed to have figured it out all of a sudden, making some savvy trades and free agent signings just as their farm system started to bear fruit. By the mid 1990s, the Mets were the rudderless ship and the Yankees were becoming dynastic again. To add insult to injury, both Gooden and Strawberry found themselves in Yankees pinstripes, where they redeemed their careers (Strawberry’s bouts with drug addiction became public after he left the Mets) and helped the Yankees win championships.

Nowadays, the Yankees aren’t quite as good as they were in the 1990s, but they’re still one of baseball’s best teams year after year. A generation of baseball fans has come of age knowing nothing but Yankees success. However, I remember an era when the Yankees seemed incapable of doing anything right and the Mets owned New York City. Where have you gone, Andy Hawkins? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

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It’s hard for me to believe 15 years have passed since Mom and I loaded up her Toyota Corolla and my grandparents’ Lincoln Town Car early one morning and drove west, and then north, until we arrived at Syracuse University for the start of my freshman year of college. It was raining when we loaded the cars, it rained the entire 4 ½-hour drive and rained even harder once we got to campus, but the lousy weather did little to dampen my enthusiasm. I had plenty of expectations, even though I didn’t really know what to expect. In the end, everything worked out: I got an education and I enjoyed my four-year stay at a great university. And, I learned a lot.

I learned that getting along with your roommate is important, and it starts with communication. Part of the reason me and my freshman-year roommate meshed is because we weren’t afraid to tell each other if something was bothering us; if he wanted me to turn my music down, he’d ask me politely and I complied. Ditto if he was doing something that I found annoying or intrusive. I was amazed when I heard from my fellow freshman who had issues with their roommates they never discussed. It’s best not to let things linger; much easier to nip things in the bud than it is to let problems grow until they become unmanageable or difficult to fix. My roommate and I didn’t have any significant issues because we didn’t let problems linger. We weren’t best friends, but we had a great relationship.

That’s another thing about that first year of college: just because you’re rooming with someone, that doesn’t mean that person has to be your best friend or the one you do everything with. As a matter of fact, doing everything with your roommate is the quickest way for the two of you to despise each other. It’s possible that you and your randomly selected roommate will eventually be in each other’s wedding parties, but the odds are stacked against that happening. Don’t force friendships, let them happen organically. With few exceptions, everyone winds up with at least a handful of friends by the time they graduate. Do things you’re interested in and try to associate yourself with people who are doing things that interest you and friendship will follow. You may meet someone who becomes your lifelong friend the first week of classes, but that’s not the norm. The person who wound up becoming my best friend at Syracuse lived on the same floor of my freshman dorm as I did, but we barely spoke the first two or three months of the semester. Now, we always manage to keep in touch despite living most of our adult lives in different parts of the country.

There’s nothing wrong with holding onto some things from “back home”; one of the first things I did when I arrived at Syracuse was put a New York City subway map on the wall next to my bed. However, the track record of freshmen holding onto that girlfriend or boyfriend from “back home” isn’t very good. At Syracuse, it seemed all of the freshman ladies began the year with boyfriends from home but, within a few months, those guys were a distant memory. Freshman year of college is like being on that MTV show The Real World; you’re better off going into it without any romantic attachments because those attachments rarely survive the experience. If you take a liking to someone with a back-home beau, be patient. When you start hearing about the problems the apple of your eye is having with his or her love, listen and try to contain your excitement. By the time they break up, you’re already entrenched. If I had a quarter for every one of my freshman friends who eventually wound up with the one they were pining for despite the latter’s initial romantic attachments, I would’ve had enough to do laundry for at least a week (By the way, don’t go to college not knowing how to properly do laundry. You may think laundry’s easy, but wait until you learn you shrunk your favorite outfit or that your clothes have turned different colors).

Don’t be one of those students who automatically assumes the town or city his or her college is located in sucks. When I first arrived in Syracuse, New York, I had little desire to learn anything about my new home. I made fun of the locals and their nasally accents, bemoaned the lack of a 24-hour public transit system, bitched when several inches of snow fell from the perpetually cloudy skies on Halloween, joked about the tiny and aging downtown and wondered why such a boring and lifeless community needed not one, but two daily newspapers – back then, Syracuse had a morning paper and an afternoon paper. The second semester of freshman year, I interned in the promotions department of a local radio station group, which forced me to go on remotes and appearances with the stations in Syracuse and the surrounding area. And, a funny thing happened: I realized Syracuse was a vibrant community with a lot of cool places and some decent entertainment options. I befriended a few of the locals and keep in touch with some of them to this day. Of course, it’s possible the community where your college is located is lousy, but at least give your college’s locale a chance and make an effort to explore it and learn about it before you declare it the worst college town in North America.

When I was in college, I used to joke it would be a lot more fun if it weren’t for the going-to-class part. And, you’re there to get an education, so you should take your schooling seriously. Don’t be like the guy who lived down the hall from me the first semester of freshman year who got an 0.9 GPA (We never saw him again after that first semester). But, when you can, try to take classes you think you’d enjoy. At Syracuse, I took a one-credit class in Basketball and a two-credit Beer and Wine Appreciation course. Unfortunately, work commitments forced me to drop a one-credit Social Dance class. When I was a senior, I took a freshman-level American History class, just because I love American history. Taking classes you like is the easiest way to boost your GPA and makes the mundane classes more bearable.

Ultimately, going to college is about leaving with a degree, but it’s also about having fun. If you’re away from home, it’s a chance to have minimal-to-no parental supervision for an extended period, along with few bills or responsibilities, a combination that likely won’t present itself again. So, get your work done, but enjoy your college experience. Go to the parties and hang out at the clubs and the bars. Spend endless nights staying up late with friends, and make a trip with them to the food court to get unhealthy crap from Burger King at three in the morning just because you can. Rush the court or the field after your school beats its biggest rival or pulls off a major upset. Get your heart broken and break someone else’s heart. Don’t be afraid to experiment – within reason. Don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone – within reason.

I knew I’d come full circle when it rained the morning of my graduation. But, just like the day I arrived at Syracuse, the subpar weather didn’t minimize my enthusiasm. I was leaving with a bachelor’s degree and many wonderful memories. Most importantly, I was leaving with peace of mind because I knew I’d gotten the most out of my college experience.

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