Fathers get a lot of the credit for instilling a love of baseball in their children, but for many of us our mothers also played a crucial role. My parents bought me a backstop when I was a kid, unprompted. Considering the number of hours I spent playing baseball (and softball) growing up, it was an ideal gift. But there was an underlying message with the gift: We're tired of playing catch with you, now you can do it alone. And I did, often.
The backstop wasn't a great replacement for a human. If you threw the ball in the red square (the strike zone), the trajectory didn't send it back to where you'd thrown it from. Instead, it would shoot into the air about 5 feet, then promptly die about fifteen feet in front of the net, forcing me to pace solemnly between the backstop and my makeshift mound, a piece of molding from a bathroom remodel, after every throw. I spent hours looking for the sweet spot, the exactly spot where the ball would rebound into my glove with the sort of pop Javy Lopez got when he threw the ball back to Greg Maddux after a strikeout.
I appreciated the backstop and it gave me hours of enjoyment that I would have otherwise spent in the driveway shooting free-throws, but I still wanted companionship for playing catch.* Most days, I was fortunate enough to have three choices: My sister, my father, and my mother. I could convince my sister to play catch if I promised to do something for her afterwards. After ten minutes of chasing her errant throws, I'd tell her I'd had enough. With my dad, I knew that if I caught him at the tail end of his yard work, or fumbling in the garage for something wearing his shoes, he'd join me for a few minutes. Admittedly, I liked throwing with him the best because he threw hard and with great accuracy, but there was something special about playing catch with my mom, too.
*I say "play catch", not "have a catch." Perhaps the usage divides along the Mason-Dixon line, but I had never heard the phrase ‘have a catch' until I watched "Field of Dreams."
My mom and I couldn't be more opposite. I'm pushing 6'0", she stands a petite 5'1." She's confident and outgoing, more caring and more generous than I could ever hope to be. She's levelheaded; I'm more of a dreamer. Growing up, the only thing we had in common was that we're both deep-feelers, and that led to a lot of conflict since we both got hurt easily. For better or worse, she was the type of mother who didn't have many hobbies of her own because she selflessly gave herself to her children and husband. I know that traveling, gardening, cooking, and crafts make her happiest, but she spent a lot of time volunteering at our schools, shuttling us between sporting events and clubs, and for a time, coaching my softball team.
My mother, all five feet of her, ran drills like a sergeant. She made us run laps around the field and timed us with a stopwatch when we ran bases. She stood at the plate hitting countless ground balls for fielding practice, and if we missed one we'd have to take a lap before we could get back in line. She'd fill in lineup cards, give guidance, and bring enough Gatorade for everyone. She was encouraging, giving even the bad players an inning or two, and she stayed until the last kid was picked up. I asked her one day why some kid's parents didn't come to games and practice and she didn't disparage them. She explained that every parent wanted to be there, but some weren't that fortunate.
She couldn't hit fungos forever, though. My mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and hitting grounders and playing catch soon became too difficult. Memories of her sliding hard through the grass while we played pickle were replaced with her keeping score, putting chalk lines on the fields, running the concession stand and, as I got older, sitting in stands as I played high school ball.
Even on days when mom wasn't feeling well, she was there. I'll never comprehend the schedule finagling she did to raise two daughters, work a full-time job, volunteer with countless organizations, and still manage to get there before first pitch with my lucky bandana. All I know is that I'm eternally grateful to her dedication to playing catch when no one else would, for the hours she spent watching intently without ever complaining, and for the numerous times she rushed me to the hospital for x-rays and stitches. After I broke my foot during a game, she drove to several stores looking for crutches because the hospital didn't have any long enough. I waited in the car since I couldn't put pressure on it, and when she finally found them, she waved as she left the store, carrying crutches taller than she was. We never seem to say "thank you" enough in the moment, so I guess I'll say it now. Thanks, mom.
These days, neither of us plays catch much anymore, though we sometimes attend a game together when she's feeling well enough to go. Strangely, I think she'd rather be back at the Little League complex watching me play catcher than she would Alex Avila -- but I assume most moms feel the same way. Read on to see how other people's mothers (and grandmothers) brought other fans closer to the game.
"My mother told me to stop messing with baseball stats and to finish my dissertation."
-- Sean Forman, the brains behind Baseball-Reference.com.
Pictures of Strawberry
The only game my mother and I were at together was my first time at Shea Stadium. I was a young Mets fan desperate to see them play at home. She indulged me on July 3, 1990. However, she was never anywhere on time, so we got there in the bottom of the first. As we made our way through the concourse, the crowd was on their feet cheering. I was nearly having a panic attack over missing something exciting and asked, "What's happening!?" She didn't know. (It turned out to be a Kevin McReynolds home run.) It was glorious to walk out among the cheers while seeing the scene I'd seen on WOR hundreds of times.
We sat about 20 rows back from the Mets' dugout. (It'd turn out to be the only time I ever sat in the orange seats.) My eyes were glued to the field. My mother was never a big baseball fan, but she loved me dearly and spent most of the game just watching me enjoy myself tremendously. She'd ask questions about baseball and the Mets that I'd answer with a confidence that I don't display in many other topics. Darryl Strawberry hit two home runs, one of them a bomb that busted a few lights in the massive right field scoreboard. I think it was on his second homer that she raced down the aisle toward the field and snapped photos of him running the bases. There is no chance she would've been at that game if not for me. But that night she was happy because I was happy. -- James Ziegenfus, baseball fan and music reviewer for Gapersblock.com
Fenway on Mother's Day
When I think about my mom and Mother's Day and baseball, the first thought is an obvious one -- in the past few years since I've moved back to Massachusetts, taking her to Fenway Park as her Mother's Day present has become something of a tradition, and she's warmly embraced all parts of being a Red Sox fan. She loves watching David Ortiz stride to the plate. She loves "Sweet Caroline." She loves wearing her Carlton Fisk t-shirt in Fenway's ancient seats and sitting in locked attention while Jon Lester stares in at the catcher. She doesn't have an ironic bone in her body; every joy there is authentic and true.
But when I dig a little more deeply into my baseball memories with mom, I go to a less obvious place. She's always liked baseball, peripherally, dating back to Fisk and Yaz and the 1970s Sox, but she wasn't a really serious fan until recently. But still, when I'd visit her at the grocery store at work as a kid, she'd have the baseball cards I liked set aside for me -- packs of Topps and Fleer, maybe even Donruss. And in the summer, if I wanted to watch the Sox, the living room TV was tuned to TV-38 with little argument.
In 2009, I brought her to her first real game, and it was there that it all clicked; the Red Sox rallied in the ninth-inning that night against the Angels, Alex Gonzalez drove in the winning run and she was nearly delirious with excitement. And she told me that that was the moment she truly understood how great the game can be.
Before that, baseball hadn't been thing, but she knew it was mine, and she was happy to let me chase that interest, first through cards and later as an adult and perpetually aspiring writer. She didn't always "get" the game, per se, but she does now. And she always "got" me. -- Nick Tavares, infographic artist and proprietor of Saves and Shutouts
Dodgers players' mothers on the field last Mother's Day ( Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE)
My grandmother taught me about loyalty, using the Chicago Cubs as her blackboard. She watched me after school when my parents were at work, and nothing could beat being at grandma's during baseball season. I would get there around the fourth inning, and she would give me perfectly buttered toast and a scoring update. We talked about Ryno and "Andrea" Dawson and my favorite, Jody Davis.
As she aged, her love for the Cubs never waned. She was firmly on Sammy Sosa's side during the home run race in '98, cursing Mark McGwire daily. She was heartbroken in 2003, when the Cubs looked like World Series contenders. When she had surgery to repair her broken hip, she was groggy coming out of the anesthesia, but had one question: "Did the Cubs win?" When she died, we laid her to rest wrapped in her favorite Cubs blanket.
She would get aggravated with the team. I'd ask her how they played, and she'd shake her head, and say, "LOUSY." She wondered if she would ever see them win a World Series, which she didn't. But it never occurred to her to look for another team, or quit baseball altogether. Every spring, she would have hope that this was the year.
I miss her every day, and I know that the day I'll miss her most is when I see the Cubs win it all. This year's team won't be the one to do it, but I know the Cubs' day will come. My grandma taught me so. -- Maggie Hendricks, @MaggieHendricks
Two Generations in the Bronx
My grandmother Esther's family had immigrated from Poland to Boston at the beginning of the 20th century and then relocated to the Bronx, New York, beating the Yankees there by several years. When they did get there, my grandmother was ready for them, attending games in the Ruth, Gehrig, and DiMaggio years. She kept up with the game, too, so when I fell in love with the game around the age of 14, she was ready for me: To this day, I enjoy the memory of arriving at her house early in the afternoon on October 5, 1985; the Yankees were playing an elimination game against the division-leading Toronto Blue Jays, and I was pleasantly surprised to find her not only watching, but properly furious with Jays starter Doyle Alexander, who was in the process of holding the Yankees to one run in nine innings. "Look at him. He was hopeless when he was here," she said disgustedly, correctly remembering that during his 1982-1983 stint with the Yankees he had gone 1-9 with a 6.16 ERA.
My mother's baseball experience picked up where my grandmother's left off. She too began in the Bronx, not far from Yankee Stadium, and it was natural for her to become a fan. As I devotedly read my Bill James and became fascinated with the statistical side of the game, my mother, who had never shown any great interest in mathematics ("Just get through it," she used to tell me when I expressed boredom and frustration with my math class in virtually every grade up through college), revealed that many nights when my grandparents thought she had been sleeping she had been under the covers holding a small radio to her ear, listening to the Casey Stengel-Mickey Mantle-era Yankees and carefully keeping score and updating the players' statistics in a series of carefully-maintained notebooks. The experience had prepared her to do something that most parents find virtually impossible -- find common ground with a teenaged son.
I miss my grandmother very much; she was both scathingly critical and a relentless iconoclast. When we talked baseball, and she turned her cynicism on the Yankees, I learned something extremely valuable about the limits of fandom, about not being blindly worshipful of anything or anybody, even a baseball team. As for my mother, she has always made it a point to be curious about the things I am curious about, to try to understand the things her son is experiencing so that we could talk about them as one person to another rather than across some kind of disconnected authority figure-subject or older-person-younger person divide. And just think -- she got started on learning baseball 20 years ahead of time, when she hadn't even thought of me yet. That's dedication. --Steven Goldman, Managing Editor SBNation.com/mlb
I was a high school pitcher -- not a horrifically bad one, but since I'm writing this now it should be clear I wasn't that great, either. Still, my mother always encouraged me to practice. She never badgered or pressured, just offered positive encouragement. That may not sound spectacular, but now that I have kids of my own I understand how difficult it is. Giving anything only positive support, regardless of circumstance, is a feat. The value to me was indescribable.
Still, I tried to pay it back as best I could. I was the second-best starter on my high school team behind a kid named Andy Bailey. (No, as will be clear in a moment, not the Andrew Bailey who pitches for the Red Sox.) I was elevated when Andy was diagnosed with cancer. He attended games before things got bad. He attended a game I started against the best team in the conference. We were not the best team in the conference, but we won and I struck out something like eight guys in seven innings. We didn't win because of me, but I played an important role in it.
In our postgame huddle Andy presented me with the game ball. It was and remains the greatest achievement of my monumentally modest sporting life. When I got home I gave the ball to my mom. Two decades later she still has it, encased in one of those plastic ball holders you buy at baseball card shops. It sits there, by her bedside, and every time I see it, I'm flooded with memories. It used to remind me of Andy and of that overwhelming feeling of sadness when Andy died, but as time as gone on it has taken on different meaning. Now, it's less a memento given by my deceased teammate, and more my mom's. She's the one who earned it, with her devotion, with love, and with encouragement. I haven't forgotten it. I'll never forget it. Happy Mother's Day, Mom. -- Matt Kory, Over the Monster and Baseball Prospectus
Bert Blyleven is the Man in Her Life
My mom likes baseball okay, but the biggest baseball fan in my family who is not me is definitely my 95-year-old grandmother. She was born when Babe Ruth was still playing, remembers when Jackie Robinson broke the color line, and can tell you about going to see the St. Paul Saints and Minneapolis Millers when they were the closest things to major-league baseball in Minnesota. She and I talk about the Twins on the phone once a week or so. She watches every single game.
A few years ago, at the Twins' winter fan fest, I managed to get Bert Blyleven to say hello to her over my cell phone. He asked her if her grandson had always been so pushy, and tried to convince her I had grown a purple mohawk. He has essentially become the man in her life for six months a year since my grandfather passed away, and hearing his voice made her giddy. I named her first great-grandson after her husband, and I'm pretty sure that getting her the chance to talk to the Twins' broadcaster was the happiest I've ever made her. I'll send her flowers this year and when I call her we'll talk about Joe Mauer and Oswaldo Arcia, both knowing, even with the decades that separate us, we are as connected by this game as we are by her daughter, who likes baseball okay. -- Mike Bates, SB Nation Designated Columnist
Corned Beef at Comiskey
My mother's paternal grandfather grew up very religious. When she attended White Sox games with her father and zadie (Yiddish for Grandfather), they'd pack their own food because there wasn't kosher food available at the ballpark. As they entered the turnstiles, they had lunch boxes stuffed with sandwiches piled high with corned beef. It's not often you replace the smell of ballpark food for that of a Jewish deli, but she told me that when people in the section would catch a whiff of their food, they would turn to them, salivating. We tried to keep the tradition alive, but as we got older, the stricter ballparks became about fans bringing in their own food options. While a majority of baseball fans find themselves craving a hot dog and a cold beer at the game, I always seem to have a hankering for corned beef on rye. I have my mother to thank for that. -- Ben Heisler, Producer of MLB Network Radio's evening show, "MLB Roundtrip" on SiriusXM. Heisler is also a Senior Writer for The Honest Brew and host of "The Honest Brew" podcast.