Baseball’s detractors say it’s too slow. too boring. too old-fashioned. Not enough people being maimed like football. Not enough bling like basketball. Even its fans know its problems-the games take too long and the most vital games start so late the younger players are past their bedtime. The World Series could end in November, and if it does, the Mets’ Matt Harvey or Jose Bautista of the Bluejays might get frostbite. But baseball can and does play a special part in the life of its fans that just isn’t possible for another sport where only a handful of games makes up a season. And the great deeds of certain players make the sport what it is.
The year, 1977. That season became the topic of a book and TV series, “The Bronx is Burning.” I was 14. That’s no easy age for anybody, least of all for a blind kid in a school where the only golden rule was “watch your back.” I couldn’t even watch my front, so I was a born target. What happiness I knew was provided by the Yankees. They had won the league championship the year before and would take the World Series that year. And among their honor roll of great names-Munson, Jackson, Rivers, Hunter, one of my favorites was Albert Walter Lyle-known to fans as Sparky Lyle. He’d been with the Red Sox since 1967 but finally got to the major leagues when the Yankees got him in 1972. (sorry, Red Sox fan.) 1977 would be his third time as an All-Star and the only year he took the Cy Young award. That wasn’t an award relief pitchers usually got then, and still isn’t. His dad was a carpenter, his mom worked in a coffin factory. Appropriately, his slider was death on opposing hitters. Ted Williams had taught him the slider, proclaiming he Williams couldn’t hit one even if he knew it was coming. The Yankees struggled early on in 1977 but when they got hot Lyle was a huge part of their machine. Following them from April to October, 1977 did more than I can say to make a difficult year easier to deal with. In years to come Lyle would be traded for Dave Righetti among others, and write one of the funniest baseball books I ever read, “The Bronx Zoo.”
Major digression alert. Major digression alert. Sparky Lyle will return to this column in a moment.
Fast forward to 2015. I’ve written in this column about the back injury I suffered in January and the surgery I underwent in early March. 10 days after the surgery, I suffered a pulmonary embolism, which is to say a blood clot in my lung. It can be a fatal condition, but by the grace of God my life was spared. Once it became clear I would live, things got truly scary. To get better health care I was moved from South Carolina and its benign weather to New Jersey. That was concerning enough. I assumed my wife would stand by me, since her idol was Christopher Reeve. She could tell you chapter and verse about his injury and how his wife Dana stuck by him until his dying day. Since my injury was nowhere near as bad as his, I thought my wife would be there even though the road of therapy would be long, rough and rocky. I thought at the end of that road we would return to South Carolina. She didn’t stand by me. I began to hear rumblings of mutiny in April. If you’ve never heard them, they sound like this: rumble rumble rumble. mutiny mutiny mutiny. In May she asked for a divorce, and the papers followed soon after. From the first rumble, I had many a long, cold night. As those nighttime seconds which seemed like hours crept by I wondered over and over again if God had done me any favors, or would it have been more merciful of him to end my life in March in South Carolina.
Like Mighty Mouse, here came baseball to save the day. It happened in many ways. All through April, while I took physical therapy as an in-patient, the TV got the YES network which shows the Yankee games. A borrowed radio from one of my sisters got the Mets games. My roommate was a Yankee fan. Together we watched the Yanks lose a 19-inning game to the Red Sox on April 10. Though it ended at 2:30 AM the nurses were kind enough not to make us turn the set off. When I was released I went to stay with my sister and her husband, where I normally write these columns. My brother-in-law is a Mets fan to the core. It’s impossible not to catch Mets Fever in his company, and most nights since I moved there we have followed the fortunes of the Flushing 9.
Meantime, my friend Peter Hayward sent me his tape recorded collection of great baseball games from the past. My assignment was to convert them all to MP3s, and when that job was done I would send them to him on flash drives. In this way we would both have copies of these great old games going back as far as 1934. So, by the hour when there was no live game on or no physical therapy to attend, I copied and listened to the old masters-Red Barber, Mel Allen, Harry Caray and many more. As I told Peter, that job did much to keep back the dark thoughts when things were as bad as they could be. Further, my brother Bob had the idea I should begin this column, which I did on August 21.
On June 7, a group of my family went to a Somerset Patriots game in Bridgewater, NJ. The Patriots, of the independent Atlantic League, lost 11-9. In my wheelchair I witnessed my first baseball game in many years. Yesterday was my second Patriots game. My brother was with me, guiding me along with the walker that has replaced the wheelchair I had in June. Bob noticed and recognized none other than Sparky Lyle. Remember him from the start of this column? He had managed the Patriots from 1998-2012 guiding them to five pennants. Starting in 2013 he became manager emeritus, a post he holds today. Bob asked if I wanted to meet him, advising that it would be a difficult walk if I wanted to make it. Did I want to meet him? The heroic lefty who saved so many Yankee games? Would I walk to meet him no matter how difficult the walk might be? Is George Washington’s face on the dollar bill?
As it turned out, when our plan became known somebody arranged for Sparky Lyle to come up where we were sitting and talk to me. Talk about an exciting moment. The most memorable thing Lyle told me was that he narrated the audio version of his book “The Bronx Zoo.” I’d say that book jumped right to the top of my wish list when he told me that.
So to sum up, had my life not been spared in South Carolina, I wouldn’t have experienced the Mets’ resurgence. My friend Peter’s game collection would never have been made into MP3s for future use. This column would never have been thought of, and I would never have met one of the many Yankees who caused me such great excitement in the difficult years when I was a teen. For all the cheap shots its detractors take at the old ball game, it still has a power all its own, besides the power of its hitters and pitchers. But that’s just baseball, as I see it.