For thirty-five years, the list echoed in my head over and over. Reds, Reds, Yankees, Yankees, Pirates, Phillies, Dodgers, Cardinals, Orioles, Tigers, Royals, Mets, Twins, Dodgers, A’s, Reds, Twins, Blue Jays, Blue Jays, Braves, Yankees, Marlins, Yankees, Yankees, Yankees, Diamondbacks, Angels, Marlins, Red Sox, White Sox, Cardinals, Red Sox, Phillies, Yankees. The list was stuck in my head like a bad song that resonates at the worst possible times. That was the list of teams that had gotten the last 27 outs of the baseball season each year in my lifetime. The San Francisco Giants were nowhere to be found on that list.
I had witnessed dynasties. I had witnessed epic World Series comebacks. I had witnessed teams end the longest of World Championship droughts. And I had witnessed teams that were still in their infancy win it all. The one thing I had not witnessed was my beloved San Francisco Giants record the last out on the last day of the Major League Baseball season.
After the Giants knocked off the Phillies in the 2010 National League Championship Series, I sent a text message to my brother (a life-long Yankees fan) expressing my excitement and anticipation. “I just want 4 more wins so I can finally buy that elusive ‘San Francisco Giants - World Champions’ shirt.” Almost as if to rub in the success that he has gotten to bear witness to in his 33 years, he replied smugly, “I can loan you one. I have 27 to pick from.”
It wasn’t as though I had never witnessed one of my beloved teams hoisting a championship trophy in my lifetime. The 49’ers had reeled in 5 Super Bowl Championships, and one of the longest running and most successful dynasties of the Super Bowl Era. The Pittsburgh Penguins had won back to back Stanley Cups in 1991-1992, and then added another in 2009. And technically, the Golden State Warriors won an NBA Championship in my lifetime – though I was about 5 months old, and a little too young to appreciate it. But the team that I was the closest to in my heart, the team that I wanted to see win it more than anything, the team that would send me to tears on so many occasions, both as a child and as an adult, had never been able to reach the pinnacle. They had opportunities. This wasn’t a downtrodden franchise. Sure, they had a bad run of things there in the early to mid – 1980s. But this was a proud and storied franchise. This was a franchise that boasts the most career victories of any professional team in any professional sport. More than those vaunted Yankees. And their career winning percentage as a team – second all time, to those damn Yankees. And it wasn’t as though they’d never won a World Series, either. They’d won 5 of them. Of course, they all came when they were the New York Giants, and hadn’t won one since 1954. In my lifetime, the Giants had made the post-season six times (1987, 1989, 1997, 2000, 2002, 2003). They made it to a one-game play-in for a Wild Card spot in 1998. But they lost to the Cubs. And they were tied on the final day of the regular season in 1993 with the Atlanta Braves. The Braves beat the Rockies on the final day of the season. The Giants lost to the Dodgers. The Giants won 103 games in 1993. Following the strike of 1994, Major League Baseball installed the Wild Card into the playoffs. The Giants would have been the Wild Card team in the National League in 1993. In 1997, the Giants won their first division title in eight years. Major League baseball’s rules were such that they had to go on the road for the first two games of the playoffs to play at the Florida Marlins. The Marlins were the Wild Card team. The Marlins won both games in the bottom of the ninth inning – utilizing the home field advantage Major League Baseball had given them. The Marlins won game 3 in San Francisco and the Giants were eliminated. Before the 1998 season began, Major League Baseball determined that this was an unfair advantage being given to the Wild Card teams, and amended the rules so that the Wild Card team would now have to play the first two games of the playoffs on the road. But the damage was already done.
I had seen enough near-misses, bad timing, random freak events and heartache to make me wonder if the stars would ever align for me to witness a Giants championship in my lifetime.
“Beth, you and Mark need to get David over here right away. The most fascinating thing is happening at my house right now,” my grandmother – a very demure woman for most of the 36 years I have known her – exclaimed, in almost a demanding tone.
“Ma, he’s got some friends over and they are playing in the backyard. What is so important that he needs to be interrupted?” my mother asked, shrugging off the demands of her own mother, never even putting down the knife she was using to chop up the carrots for that night’s beef stew. The phone perched between her shoulder and left ear, head cocked to the side so the beige cord could reach from the phone that was attached to the wretched flower wallpapered wall in the kitchen, all the way over to the cutting board, next to the sink. She peaked out the kitchen window long enough to see that my friends and I were playing a game of tag in the backyard of 4-11 Summit Ave. My friends and I were enjoying a cloud-free summer day, and my mother wasn’t in the mood to start an argument with her 4-year old son on the whim of her mother. That is, until she heard….
“Willie Mays and his agent are here for my open house.”
As those words echoed in my mother’s head, suddenly telling me that my friends had to go home so that we could go to grandma’s house seemed worth the fight. My father grabbed my one-year old brother while my mother shooed the children out of our backyard. Within 10 minutes of hearing “Willie Mays and his agent are here”, my parents had ushered several young children off our property, grabbed the diaper bag for little Jason, and loaded my brother and I into their green and brown wood-paneled station wagon for the 12 ½ to 15 minute ride (depending on traffic) over to where the ‘rich people lived’ – the side of town that my grandparents resided in.
Willie Mays was a hero to so many during his playing days. He spent almost his entire career with the Giants – both in New York and San Francisco. He was traded back to New York, to play for the Mets, in 1972. After he retired in 1973, he remained with the Mets organization, as their hitting instructor, until after the 1979 season. Willie had been in the market for a rather large home in the Northern New Jersey area, and as fate would have it, my grandparents were looking to sell their rather large Northern New Jersey Estate, and retire to Delray Beach, Florida. (Willie would not wind up buying my grandparents’ house.)
My grandfather was an entrepreneur of sorts, eventually buying a food services company, Alan Foods, and growing that business so successfully, that he was able to build he and my grandmother one of the larger homes in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. Not only was the 4,500 – square foot house more than spacious enough for the two of them after their three children moved out, got married and had children of their own, but the pool that they had built in their backyard next to their lighted tennis court was the size of most community swimming pools. And that is exactly what it became. Over the years, my grandparents had a circle of very close friends. Seven couples, all around the same age made up what my grandmother affectionately coined “The Mishpucha”. And as The Mishpucha was comprised of people all roughly the same age, so were their children and grandchildren. And as the families grew, the Aronowitz Pool quickly became the weekend hang out spot for everyone. But, as my grandparents were entering the twilight of their lives, and my grandmother’s particular disdain for cold weather increased, they felt it was time for a change. They had found a beautiful three-bedroom condo right on a golf course in Palm Greens, a retirement community in Delray Beach, Florida. With their large estate with all of its amenities on the market, Mays thought that this would be an ideal living situation, with an easy commute to Shea Stadium in Flushing, New York.
As we pulled into my grandparents’ long, circular, cement-paved driveway, my father’s face lit up when he saw Willie and what appeared to be his agent standing outside on the cobblestone walkway leading up to the front door, talking to my grandfather. My father was a life-long Yankees fan, and always argued that had it not been for injuries and alcohol abuse, that Mickey Mantle was the better player. That didn’t seem to matter on this day, though. Willie Mays was still Willie Mays, after all. My mother would re-tell the story years later to friends at some random holiday party that my father had one foot out the car door before he even put it in park. I’ve always assumed this was a slight embellishment, as he did have his 4-year old and 1-year old sons in the backseat. Nevertheless, he did have a speed walker’s pace as he made his way from the car, up the cobblestone walkway, with his hand out to shake Willie’s, even as he was still about 10 yards away. Meanwhile, my poor mother was left to tend to her boys, struggling to grab the diaper bag, Jason and hold my hand, so I didn’t go running up to this unsuspecting celebrity of a man. I was known to walk up to anyone – friends, family, friends of family, random strangers, and just start spouting out random things. A couple years later, I would be visiting my grandfather in the hospital, and a very nice nurse started asking me questions about him. Among them, she asked me what my grandfather did for a living. I was trying to tell her that he didn’t work because he was retired, but instead, I said, “he doesn’t work anymore because he’s retarted.” While this sent the entire hospital room into hilarious laughter, my mother did not want me to scare off Willie with one of my 4-year old rants.