Every year, just when I start to think that life is utterly meaningless and the world is going to hell, baseball starts again. Illustration by David Sipress
Baseball has started again, and not a moment too soon. I’m a Yankees fan, but I wasn’t always a Yankees fan. Growing up in New York, in the nineteen-fifties, I was a Dodgers fan and a Yankees hater—the two went hand in hand. Then came the Great Betrayal of 1957. The Dodgers left Brooklyn for the West Coast, and, suddenly, I was a boy without a team. I tried supporting the hapless Mets for a while, but my heart wasn’t in it. And, despite living in Boston for fifteen years, in the seventies and early eighties, I could never form an attachment to the exquisitely disappointing Red Sox—I had more than enough existential suffering as it was.
Then, in the early fall of 1996, my wife, Ginny, found herself watching a Yankees game on television and fell in love with Bernie Williams. By the seventh-inning stretch, she was a Yankees fan. After a brief, mildly painful struggle with my conscience, I hopped on the bandwagon, just in time to see Bernie, Derek, Jorge, and company win the World Series. Winning, as they say, cures everything.
My father also fell in love. In 1955, the year I was eight, the Dodgers signed Sandy Koufax, a super smart and handsome Jewish flamethrower from Bensonhurst, and Nat Sipress, a strictly secular Jew in the religion department, became a strictly observant one in the baseball department.
That July, my father took me to my first baseball game—the second game of a doubleheader between the Dodgers and the Milwaukee Braves. That day remains my most vivid baseball memory.
My mother arranged for her cousin Pete to drive us to the game in his taxi. My father had sworn off the subway years before, declaring that he’d “had enough of that in steerage” and wasn’t interested in “rubbing shoulders with every Tom, Dick, and Harry.” When Pete picked us up in front of our apartment building, on West Seventy-ninth Street, my father, wearing an elegant summer suit (he was always dressed to the nines, whether he was going to the opera, the corner deli, or a ballgame), announced that he and I would ride in the back of the cab “in case someone should see.” I had on a brand-new blue-and-white satin Brooklyn Dodgers jacket. Pete wore his usual plaid lumber jacket and flat brown newsboy cap. Like my father, Pete was just an inch or two over five feet tall. His most prominent feature was a large, doughy nose that appeared as if it had been stuck onto his otherwise normal face by mistake. He was always getting stopped on the street by people who mistook him for the comedian Jimmy Durante, a.k.a. “The Schnoz.”
Pete was a sweet, taciturn man. A graduate of DeWitt Clinton High School, he owned his own cab. If he had a reaction to my father’s occasional condescending behavior, he didn’t let it show. Although he lived in the Bronx, in the middle of Yankee country, Pete was a diehard Dodgers fan, so I’m sure he was just happy to be going to the game, and on my father’s dime to boot.
I remember being as excited as I had ever been on that ride to Ebbets Field. I have lived in Brooklyn Heights for the past thirty years, and have walked across the Brooklyn Bridge thousands of times—but that trip to the ballpark, in 1955, was my first crossing. My father lifted me onto his lap so I could see the towers and the cables, and the boats on the East River far below. He told me that he first saw the river, with the Brooklyn Bridge emerging from the fog in the distance, when he was five, through the window of a trolley as it crossed the Williamsburg Bridge—the last leg of the long, harrowing journey from Russia.
Driving through Brooklyn, we listened to the final innings of the first game of the doubleheader. When the Dodgers won, 9–7, I declared that they would win our game, too, and that the star slugger Duke Snider would hit two home runs.
“Don’t count your chickens,” my father said. Not counting my chickens was something he warned me about on a daily basis. But he wasn’t beyond a little chicken-counting himself. Getting to see our Sandy pitch that day was a definite long shot, since, at that early point in his career, he tended to be extremely wild and was used only sparingly by the Dodgers, in relief. However, as soon as we sat down in the second deck behind home plate, my father, with a touch of boyish excitement flashing behind the thick lenses of his glasses, told Pete and me, “He’s going to come in today—just you wait and see.”
“Let’s just hope he doesn’t screw up and walk everybody,” he quickly added, catching himself.
We couldn’t know that 1955 would be the magical year when the Dodgers would win their first World Series, finally defeating the hated Bronx Bombers, in seven games. In our game that July afternoon, they looked more like “Dem Bums.” The Dodgers scored two runs in the bottom of the first and then nothing after that, and were soon trailing, 7–2. The mood in the ballpark turned sour, as did my father’s. During the first few innings, he’d been cheerful and talkative, sharing insights with Pete, explaining stuff to me, buying us popcorn and sodas. Now he sat stiffly beside me with his arms crossed, saying nothing. His grumpy expression made me nervous, so I finally asked if everything was all right. In reply, he pointed to the Milwaukee Brave stepping into the batter’s box and said, “This guy’s going to hit a single.”
After that, every at-bat produced a prediction:
“Here comes a pop-up.”
“He’s going to hit a double.”
“Get ready for a walk.”
Soon, I was watching two games at once—the one on the field and the one in my father’s head—and each time a prediction came true I had to wonder if he had some sort of agency as far as the future was concerned. When he was right, he took no apparent pleasure in it. When he was wrong, he merely nodded and went on to the next prediction. Pete began quietly harrumphing, and, when my father correctly foretold a two-run homer by the great Hank Aaron, Pete shot my father an uncharacteristic dirty look and said he was going to the restroom.
The Braves tacked on two more runs at the top of the ninth, and people all around us started to leave. Pete returned, put on his jacket, and asked us if we wanted to get going. Before my father could answer, the Brooklyn manager, Walter Alston, climbed out of the dugout and strode to the mound. A moment later, the P.A. announcer bellowed, “Coming in to pitch for the Dodgers, Sandy Koufax!”
“Yes!” my father shouted, and hugged my shoulders.
Our hero did not disappoint, retiring the three men he faced in short order. My father helped me stand on my seat so I could follow each pitch as it streaked across the plate. One pitch in particular remains in my memory as a vivid film clip, which I can close my eyes and replay to this day. The Milwaukee batter, thinking the ball was headed directly for his head, jumped back and fell outside the batter’s box just as the pitch dropped on a dime and slid across the middle of the unoccupied plate, belt high—a perfect strike. There it was—an early sighting of what would one day be regarded as the most devastating curveball in the history of baseball.
“Did you see that?” my father cried, gripping my arm. “He landed on his tuchis! Right down on his tuchis!”
After the game, I walked between Pete and my father, each holding a hand, as we made our way through the crowd to Pete’s parked cab. My father wanted to keep pretending we were passengers, but I begged him to let me sit up front so I could see the bridge better on the way home, and he relented. As soon as we were settled, Pete looked in the rearview mirror and asked, “Tell me something, Nat—how come it’s only bad things you predict?”
“What do you mean?”
“All along, every time one of our guys came up, you predicted a double play or a strikeout or a pop fly. Then Aaron came up in the eighth for the Braves, and you predicted he’d hit that homer.” He turned to face my father: “Always with the bad things. It’s like you want them to happen.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
We sat thinking for minute or two. Then Pete started up the engine, grinned at me, took off his cap and placed it on my head. As we drove down Flatbush Avenue, I studied Pete’s astounding profile, thinking that he had it wrong—my father predicted the things he didn’t want to happen. I was far too young to understand why. I just figured my father was testing some dark superpower.
“He tests this power all the time,” I reminded myself—on everything from the weather (It’s going to rain all day tomorrow, no matter what they say) to impending doctor visits (This pain in my back will turn out to be back cancer). As far as chicken-counting was concerned, he was O.K. with it, as long as they were bad chickens.
Over the years, I came to understand that this was a form of self-protection: bad things were far more likely to happen than good, so he tried to inoculate himself against the inevitable by always giving himself a preëmptive shot of pain and disappointment in advance. In theory, he could cushion the blow and never be blindsided. And if by some miracle nothing bad happened? Well . . . Better safe than sorry (another favorite aphorism).
For Nat Sipress, whose past had often been perilous and uncertain, this dark view of the future was unavoidable. And, in spite of a relentless determination to assimilate, he was still a Jew who swelled with pride when his hero refused to pitch Game Five of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur (a holiday the Sipress family observed with a perfunctory fast and some pro-forma atoning at the synagogue, followed by a lavish lunch at King Dragon Chinese Restaurant, including my father’s favorite trafe extravaganza: jumbo shrimp wrapped in bacon). In the end, like any Jew living in the middle of the twentieth century, assimilated or otherwise, he had learned to expect the worst.
This predicting was contagious—I did it on my own the very next time I watched the Dodgers on television. It was fun, especially since I didn’t confine myself to predicting bad things. Predicting made me feel like I was in the game—more than just a passive observer. Only my own deepest assumptions about the worst usually coming to pass saved me from a gambling problem.
One early prediction nearly convinced me that I was the one who possessed the dark superpower. On October 8th, 1956, my fourth-grade teacher set up a television in our classroom so that we could watch the fifth game of the World Series between the Dodgers and the Yankees. By the fourth inning, the Yankees pitcher Don Larsen had retired every Dodger he faced. I turned to a classmate and announced, ominously, “He’s going to pitch a no-hitter.” Which Larsen famously did—a perfect game, in fact. Forty years later, at an elementary-school reunion, the classmate told me it was his clearest memory of fourth grade.
I’m still at it today. When the newest Yankees superstar acquisition, Giancarlo Stanton, struck out five times in a recent game, I was four-for-five—getting it wrong on his last at bat, when I let compassion and optimism fog my second sight. After a slow start, the Yanks are doing great this season. But it’s early days—Don’t count your chickens, the familiar voice in my head warns. So I shut my eyes and ears to any pundit who forecasts that the Yanks will go all the way, paying attention, instead, to those who argue that injuries and questionable starting pitching, along with stiff competition from the scarily talented Red Sox, will derail their playoff hopes. I also avoid articles with headlines such as “Impeachment Now a Real Possibility” or “A Blue Wave is Coming in 2018,” reading instead “How Trump Could Win Big Again in 2020.” Later this month, I’ll be going in for my annual physical. Never mind the fact that I have never felt better—I’ve found several horrible things online that are probably wrong with me.
The last time I spoke to my father, in late December, 1998, Ginny and I were leaving for a holiday in London. I called him from J.F.K. to say goodbye, and mentioned our excitement over the great lineup of plays we’d booked.
“Don’t count your chickens,” he reminded me.
“I won’t, Dad,” I sighed.
Two days later, my father died, peacefully, at home, at the age of ninety-three. We flew back to New York with four pairs of unused theatre tickets.