Baseball began where the bridges spanned, at least it did for some. Abner Doubleday’s field was a ways, miles away, but remained in the region as did most of the other rumored beginnings of the longtime America’s Pastime.
Barnegat Bay invites souls into and out of the Atlantic Ocean on a daily basis along the south New Jersey Coast. The Thomas A. Mathis and J. Stanley Tunney bridges span it, the eastern ends sitting in Seaside Heights and the western in Toms River.
It was early September on The Shore and baseball was still holding its own against football in the stores and boardwalk tee shirt shops. More Yankee memorabilia was being sold than any, but the Mets looked like they’d had a strong season at the tills as well as on the diamonds. The Phillies, well, not so much. Loyalties were divided, for sure. However, if any were condemned it wasn’t obvious.
Fans were just warming to the Jets and Eagles and the 90-degree temperatures helped with the heating up part. Riptides rolled too close to the beach at Seaside Heights to allow swimming. The hordes did descend, though, on Labor Day Weekend. The Giants must be north Jersey’s team.
Don’t mention it to Congress because this one’s just nutty enough to take the time, and the action. Good sense though should tell us that some of us should never be caught in public in skimpy beachwear.
The Shore was a reflection. Of course, too, there are some others we shouldn’t allow to wear anything but swimwear — anywhere. Keep America beautiful.
So much for the eastern ends of the Mathis and Tunney. Signs, informative, took root on the other side. Those coming off or entering the bridges saw that they were traveling on the 1998 Little League World Champion Parkway, designated in honor of the Toms River All-Stars of that year. That team’s standout, Todd Frazier, now plays third base for the Cincinnati Reds helps keep the accomplishment alive, too.
Frazier still lives in Toms River. My wife did for a time and we drove past the old place, a house she hadn’t seen in 40 years. So, we lingered and she remembered. Later in the evening, she did again with friends on a tour the Class of 1975 took of Central Regional High School in Bayville, New Jersey.
Baseball again stepped up for notice. While a youngish superintendent told about 40 years of changes to a small band of members of the cheerleader squad, pep club and Future Homemakers of America of 1975, a tagalong visitor was stopped cold in his tracks by a wall decoration in the foyer.
It was a plaque honoring past Central Regional High School baseball standouts Mark Leiter, Al Leiter and Jeff Musselman. All went to the majors. They were pretty good.
When the weekend of reunion passed, New England called. Eileen, my wife, has relatives who stayed back east when her branch of the family moved west. So, the school reunion flowed into a family reunion and landmarks sped by outside the window of the rental car.
We went past the turnoff to The Meadowlands, hit the New York Thoroughfare off the George Washington Bridge and, after some slow moving because of traffic, got a short view of a small part of Manhattan. Next, came The Bronx.
Staring out the window, probably big-eyed and wide-mouthed, out one side of the car, Eileen asked about something in view on the other. “That looks like it might be a baseball stadium or something.”
I turned just in time to see Yankee Stadium flick right past my viewing range. Yogi, if I’d come to a fork in the road right then, I’d have taken it. (RIP).
The majesty of Yonkers Raceway was the next noticeable sports shrine noticed as before too long Connecticut greeted us into its lush and beautiful forests decorated with two-story brick and/or stone homes, some bordered by rock walls. Somebody good painted this picture. It has hung there for maybe two or three centuries. We passed quaint little towns with very old cemeteries.
I watched the history channel’s miniseries “Sons of Liberty” last winter and I had to blink a couple of times crossing Connecticut and into Rhode Island. Eyes can play tricks and they almost saw Sam Adams and the boys running those Redcoats through the woods. Might’ve, maybe.
On this trip I concluded that my Montana is so beautiful simply because New England’s visual qualities needed to be balanced on the landscape of the continent.
We picked up my wife’s cousin Bernie in Connecticut and traveled on to West Warwick, Rhode Island, where we were going to spend three days with her cousin Mike Kelley and his wife, Sharon.
It seemed like it hadn’t been 40 years since Eileen and her cousins last met. It didn’t seem like I didn’t know them at all before this, either. They were so hospitable, so friendly, so accommodating. We were so fortunate to have tour guides under the same roof.
Labor Day came the next day and Mike had gotten tickets for the five of us to go to Boston and watch the Red Sox play the Blue Jays at Fenway. Wow.
This Mariners fan learned the difference that day, about the east’s baseball fans and how they just know and just appreciate. It’s how they aren’t just fans and it probably travels well down the Atlantic Coast.
The Red Sox won big, 11-4, and Rick Porcello pitched well. He hadn’t for much of Boston’s lost season. The Blue Jays were playing well, on fire, the TV commentators kept saying, and so the result wasn’t really what was expected.
David Ortiz batted for the Red Sox in the eighth inning. He had smacked two doubles earlier on a 91-degree day at fabled and humid Fenway and sat on 497 career home runs. Fans crowded into the ballpark early with thoughts that hitting three that day wasn’t at all impossible for the “Big Papi.” In fact, they processed, it was probable.
However, the eighth inning had arrived and Toronto pitchers had kept him on the playable side of The Green Monster.
Fans stayed and hoped. The cheering was loud as he stepped to the plate. It stayed loud and even as the count evolved to one ball, one strike.
Next, came ball two and the roar was louder. At other games I’ve been to and if I’d even been in a similar situation, I’d have thought the fans were looking for more scoring, more runs, looking for maybe a walk if they couldn’t get a hit.
They knew, though, Ortiz was forcing a hitter’s count. The fans were not thinking walk. They were thinking hit and that a big one was certainly within the realm.
So, when ball three smacked catcher Russell Martin’s mitt, the Fenway faithful were on their feet. They were hollering. They were yelling.
Walk, schmalk. They knew.
The fastball was going to have to come in hot if this pitcher, former Colorado ace Jeff Francis, wanted to avoid the walk. Opposing pitcher’s fastballs travel well off the bat of Ortiz at Fenway. Boston knew and Boston cheered.
They absolutely knew Ortiz had a great chance of getting something good to hit.
He didn’t. Ball four may have never been such a letdown for the home team. They booed Francis.
What struck me, though, was they all knew — not just some of them like in Phoenix, San Diego or Seattle. They knew the pitch was going to be grooved or a walk.
The energy that situation, born from handed-down fandom tradition, created is likely what makes those East Coast rivalries so special.
The exhilaration of the moment was tempered by a somber walk, later in downtown Boston, through the Holocaust Memorial. Quotes etched onto the wall were from survivors. One was from a young woman, a mother, spared because she had a job as a servant to a German officer. She told of how she saw her younger sister and a friend, both teenagers, beg for their lives, stripping naked and offering themselves to a German guard in trying to keep from being executed. He shot them both and they died on the sidewalk, embraced in each other’s arms.
We rested the next day and then took in picturesque Newport, Rhode Island, where the rich categorize in degrees in a lifestyle paying homage to the Gilded Age. We toured a Vanderbilt summer mansion, “The Breakers” which stands as a monument to great wealth. Taylor Swift has a home near there, now.
Roger Federer talked to us at the International Tennis Hall of Fame — sort of. A hologram of Federer, so lifelike you want to ask him questions, gives a nice little talk about tennis to groups. The walk through the hallways, rooms and around the grounds is a stroll through tennis history. I never thought my first professional sports Hall of Fame visit would be for tennis, but it was certainly worth the time.
Newport is not only home to pro tennis activities but also America’s Cup yacht racing. We walked the wharves and admired the yachts docked at the piers. We ate great lobster salad and clam chowder at a seafood restaurant on Narragansett Bay.
Then we said goodbye and the span of America to travel was more than that covered by the Tunney Bridge. The memories, though, of baseball and Fenway, tennis and Narragansett, Jersey faves and The Shore, and old family and new friends remain close by — practically next door.