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Filling The Void: My Secular Baseball Bat Mitzvah

Becoming a teenager is a pretty big deal. You know what else is a big deal? Getting a World Series ticket as your birthday present!

Yankee Stadium by Ben Borkowski is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Filling The Void: My Secular Baseball Bat Mitzvah

Estimated Reading Time: 7 Minutes

Can you remember your best childhood birthday present? I definitely do.

On October 22, 2003, I turned 13 years old. Do the math if you want, you can’t scare me!

Now like any young girl with a secular, Jewish, hippie that married a shiksa for a father, I had no bat mitzvah. (Shiksa is a non-Jewish woman, in case you didn’t know). No party, no Torah portion, no awkward-below-the-knee dress I hated but had to wear anyway with half inch heels a babushka would own. My entrance into teenager-hood was not marked by a religious ceremony in the traditional sense. But it was marked by a religious pilgrimage of another kind.

My father gave me a ticket to Game 6 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium.

Anyone who has read an article of mine here knows what a “die-hard, sacrifice-my-first-born” sort of Pittsburgh Penguins fan I am. Well, I’m more complex than that, suckers! Much like my parents and their different religions, my parents raised me in a “split sports” household. My mother is a Pittsburgh girl who loves her Penguins and Steelers through every up and down. My father is a walking, talking, Bronx-born sports encyclopedia. He can tell you starting lineups for 1970’s championship hockey teams, what MLB pitchers from the 1960s were traded when and the six degrees of separation between actor Robert Duvall and New York Knick Bill Bradley.

Point is, he loves sports and I love sports. Growing up, sports were our thing. Football on Sundays. Losing my first tooth at Madison Square Garden to a soft pretzel (I mistook it for salt and swallowed it whole). An obsession with Muggsy Bogues and his miniature size, for we’re two short people. And baseball, always baseball. Specifically, the New York Yankees. Mantle, Gehrig, Pettitte, Jeter, Maris, Rivera, Berra, DiMaggio, Posada. In the prenup my parents didn’t actually have, my dad lost the Islanders but he got to keep each of his beloved Bronx Bombers. And he gave them to me. So when I turned thirteen, it was only natural that I go to my first and thus far only World Series game. At home, in old Yankee Stadium on October 25th, 2003.

Game 6: The Yankees are down 3-2 in the series to the Florida Marlins

It was the 100th World Series game ever played in Yankee Stadium. It wasn’t my first Yankee game in the stadium but it felt like the biggest one yet. I was shaking with anticipation the whole week leading up to it. I remember opening the box with the tickets in it and leaking tears from my eyes. Knowing me, I assume I was mildly screaming. Seen a girl see the Beatles for the first time? That was how I felt about that ticket. The three days between my birthday and the game were the longest three days any teenager ever lived.

In addition to my dad, we had another with us! Gary and my dad grew up together and to this day remain close friends. Gary is like one of my extra dads. His wife is an extra mom and his daughters, my extra sisters. They eat dinner with us for most major holidays. Generally, Gary and his family are one of the most positive parts of my life. Anyway, Gary came to the game too. It was an ultimate sports bonding experience for the three of us.

Dad, Gary and I took NJ Transit into Manhattan together, hopped the subway to Yankee Stadium and hiked about a million and one steps to the nosebleeds along the third baseline. We sat surrounded by some of the loudest, most passionate, and most drunk fans that evening. I was sure they were going to win, just cause I was there. Just cause that is how you think when you’re a kid. You’re going to the game of a lifetime? They’ll win for you.

We all know now: I was wrong.

In preparing to write this article, I watched a rerun of the entire game. Unsurprisingly, I still found it captivating and heartbreaking. It was different than watching it in the highest rafters. But the voices of the swearing peanut gallery and their beer soaked rage came roaring back as I watched.

I still heard the new swear words that I learned that night echoing in the memories, a plethora of homophobic slurs not often uttered on middle school playgrounds to preteen girls. Gary told them off once or twice, telling them to watch their mouth in front of a kid. I remember basically being one of the only youths up that high. Ever seen the musical Ragtime? There is a song called “What a Game” where a small boy attends his first baseball game and hears every semi-benign swear or racial slur they could fit into 3 minute song while his father objects to the men sitting around them. That was me in the game, except the lovable musical theatre characters were sloppy guys from Staten Island and the racism was graphic takes on fellatio. They yelled like this guy at almost everything.

Those memories are vivid, imprinted on my mind. So is the loss. However, I saw something in this rewatch that I didn’t the first time. I remembered the Yankees getting crushed. Slaughtered. Destroyed to embarrassment. In reality: it really was a close game decided by a few key plays. Andy Pettitte didn’t pitch the worst game in baseball history as I remembered. In fact, he threw 71 strikes, same as Beckett. The Yankees failed in the field. Aaron Boone made some bonehead moves. Pettitte specifically had a missed double play where he went to third instead of second base. The Marlins scored their second run shortly after that. He crumbled in the end and so did the team.

Mostly, Josh Beckett kept the Yankees from hitting anything well enough to score. The clearest moment of nostalgia and relived sadness was in the eighth. Yankees at bat, Alfonso Soriano on base and Jeter walks up. I remember praying, begging the baseball gods to let me watch my beloved Jeter hit a two run homer and tie the game. He looked ready. I mean, he was ready. He drove that ball as far as he could, it just wasn’t far enough. He flew out to center. The shut out was Beckett’s.

We left shortly before the final out.

My dad said “come on, you don’t need to see this” and off we went, like walking away from a car accident’s wreckage. We left before I could see the Marlins rush the field and celebrate. I was spared the carnage. I remember being sad, not much else after that.

It all changed after that.

I haven’t been to Yankee Stadium since. That’s the last time I was in any major league ballpark actually. Shortly after that, hockey went from serious fandom to serious playing in my life and most sports energy in our home was diverted. Training and school paused to attend NHL games, it didn’t stop for the Yankees.

The Yankees moved stadiums. That game was in fact the last World Series game ever played in old Yankee Stadium, so that’s a thing I can use in ice breaker games. New Yankee Stadium opened in 2009. I haven’t even been, but as a true Yankee fan, I still tell people I like the old one better. Maybe one day, I’ll be able to back that up. For now, this game marked a transition in my life. In leaving that game, I left the height of my baseball fanaticism inside the hallowed walls. I froze baseball in time, still holding Jeter close to my heart but never falling for new players the same way. I’ll watch passively, no longer able to tell you a player’s batting average. I left the sun and the grass for cold, sleek ice. I barely noticed.

Maybe it happened unintentionally, a natural switch to the sport I played. Maybe I couldn’t bear the first heartbreak of many in my teenage years coming so soon after the birthday. Or maybe I just outgrew baseball. A lot of other things changed after that. I stopped dressing in sports jerseys every day and grew my hair long. My flirting with boys transitioned from kicking dirt at them to pure awkwardness.

But watching this game again brought back a joy towards the game I’ve missed.

I yelled. My boyfriend laughed as I got angry all over again at something I already knew, the way only a teenager can. But whatever my adult sports fan persona is, I’m happy to find that my heart still holds a small spot for my pinstriped boyfriends.

Sarah Jane, Sarah, or SJ-depending on the source-is a director, educator, theatre artist and now, sports blogger. She lives in Queens with her darling, not-so-sports-fan boyfriend. She played ice hockey growing up for the NJ Quarry Cats and various other teams. Being team captain her last two seasons is the most important achievement of her life to date. She proudly also was about a quarter of the size of her opponents and often led her team in both penalty minutes and enthusiasm. She's a Pittsburgh Penguins and Steelers fan (thanks, Momma!) and a New York Yankees fan (thanks, Poppa?) and was given zero choice on all three of these teams. Other hobbies include reading non-fiction books, cooking, and being spunky. Check in with her for all your greater hockey needs!

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