Once upon a time, schoolwork, religion and baseball collided in an emotional moral quandary with a messy but happy compromise ending. The year was 1973 and I was 15 years old.
I am both blessed and cursed with a freakish memory. I still don’t quite understand it and I swear I didn’t do anything to get it. It’s just there. It was a blessing in high school because it helped make schoolwork easier. What I’m trying to say is I got good grades. I know other students had to work their butts off while I just memorized words for spelling tests, equations for math tests, maps for geography tests and names, dates and places for history tests.
When I first met with my guidance counselor in 9th grade, we had never met before. First thing he asked me was if I knew what I wanted to do after high school. I replied, “Yes, I’m going to college.” He said, “Well, you have to get good grades in college prep classes to go college. Let’s take a look at your first report card, shall we?” Ten seconds later, he said, “Ok then, let me sign your hall pass. You can go back to your class now.”
Sounds wonderful, right? Well, it comes with a price. As a 15-year-old with a head stuffed full of useless facts and figures and absolutely *no* filter, it was easy to piss people off.
No, you’re wrong, Carl Yastrzemski batted .301 in 1968, not .305.
No, that’s not right, the capital of Ecuador is Quito, not Lima. That’s Peru.
No, that’s not how you spell Chesapeake. It’s C-h-e-s-a-p-e-a-k-e with a final “e”.
Life of the party, for sure. <eye roll> I thought my friends and classmates just wanted to know correct facts. Stupid me didn’t realize people just don’t like to be told they’re wrong. So as each quarter and year of high school passed, I was able to keep my grades up. My guidance counselor rarely called me in for any more meetings and my teachers pretty much left me alone unless I asked for help. Trust me, this isn’t humblebrag. I just somehow took courses where memorization was the key.
Side note: When I did go off to college, shit got real in a hurry. College rewards you for learning to think on your own and come up with your own original ideas. Nobody cares about Carl Yastrzemski’s batting average in college. I had to drop out of the Architecture School at Virginia because, even though I was good with a t-square and a ruler, I couldn’t come up with an aesthetically pleasing design to save my life. One A-School professor told me the shadows on my Ionic and Doric columns looked like fungus. Yeah, a C- fungus.
So I was born and raised in an old school, blue collar, Philadelphia Roman Catholic family. The Catholic Church was everything. The priests were royalty, the nuns were the strict authorities and if you ever met a bishop, you had to make sure you didn’t get light-headed from your brush with greatness. My family followed all the doctrine of a typical devout Northeast US Catholic family … Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, Lent and Advent observances, Confession every week, meatless Fridays, the works.
As most know, a big part of Catholic doctrine is the rules. And yes, the enormous guilt that results from breaking those rules. The Ten Commandments are huge. At 15, I was obviously not worried about coveting anybody’s wife. And I wasn’t too concerned about “Thou Shall Not Kill” either. But “Thou Shall Not Bear False Witness Against Thy Neighbor” is a tough one. That’s the one that gets you for lying. That one is a trip wire for anyone but it wreaks total havoc on teenagers. I know I was deadly serious about it. I will not lie.
So I know I’ve written about this before but here goes again … My late father and I bonded over baseball. He took me to my first Phillies game on September 1, 1964 when I was just six years old. I still remember holding his hand walking into Connie Mack Stadium in North Philadelphia and I still remember my eyes going wide when I first saw the vast green field and the crazy kaleidoscope of vivid colors on the billboards all over the stands. The crack of the bat, the sights, the smells, the crowd cheering, the four majestic soaring home runs the Phillies hit that day. I was hooked. More heavily addicted than the worst smack junkie. All I wanted to do was go to more baseball games with my Dad.
And we did. We went every year to more and more Phillies games. I remember sobbing in despair once when a Friday night game was rained out and we couldn’t go. And then my Dad said, “Don’t worry about it, son. Our tickets are still good. We’ll just go tomorrow for the makeup double header.” “What’s a double header?”, I asked. “It’s two games in one day”, he answered. I had to sit down so I didn’t faint with joy. Two baseball games? In one day? C’mon, Dad, don’t mess with me like that. That Saturday twin bill was one of the happiest days of my life.
And when I say bonded, I mean *bonded*. My father was an opportunist who rarely missed a chance to teach his offspring their next life lesson. And so it was on a hot summer night … would you offer your throat to the wolf with the red roses … while driving to yet another Phillies game on the dark single lane road through the New Jersey Pine Barrens when he decided it was time for “the birds and the bees” talk with his boy.
That’s right, my father educated me in the sweet mysteries of life on the way to a Phillies game. Gotta give him credit, the man knew how to multi-task. And when his speech was all done, he asked me if I had any questions. “Yes, I do have a question. Who’s pitching tonight?” I shit you not. I was locked and dialed in. Baseball was the only sweet mystery of life I was interested in. Besides, I didn’t believe all that ridiculous icky stuff he was talking about anyway.
So here we are at the confluence of all these powerful forces. Grades. Faith. Baseball. And now here comes the collision …
It was just an ordinary evening sometime in the spring of 1973. As usual, my dad was reading the Philadelphia Inquirer sports page with his feet up in his favorite living room comfy chair. And then he said, “Hey, Bob, look at this.” He handed me the Inky sports page and pointed to an ad in the lower right corner. I saw the Philles logo right away. And then I read the ad …
“Six Free Tickets To Three Phillies Games For Straight-A Students”
If he had handed me $10,000 in cash, I could not have been more emotionally overwhelmed. All my circuits flashed into overload. I swear the room spun. Wait a minute, you and me? To three Phillies games? This season? For free? This can’t be real. This is real?
“Yes,” he said. “Do me a favor and read the rest of the ad and figure out what we have to do.”
Okay, first off, the grades. Look, I’ve already explained this. My high school grades were the direct result of this freak memory thing. I had the straight A’s. So to get the tickets, I had to get my high school principal to sign the ad to verify my grades. That wasn’t a problem so let’s just leave it at that.
Next up was game selection. I looked at the offered dates and carefully picked three visiting teams I hadn’t seen the Phillies play before. My dad said he’d be able to go those nights so we were good there too.
And then disaster struck. A full Grade 7 Fukushima meltdown.
The fine print. At the bottom of the ad, there was a list of the counties in southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey where the promotion was valid. We lived in Ocean County, NJ, roughly 70 miles away from center city Philadelphia. Our family made that trip all the time. Christmas, Thanksgiving, weddings, funerals, and yes, ball games. It was nothing. Not even a consideration.
Back then, Ocean County was roughly … and I’m guessing here … maybe 65-70% fans of New York City teams and maybe 30-35% fans of Philadelphia teams. It was a hybrid rooting county with definite split loyalties. But it wasn’t on the list of counties for the free Phillies straight-A ticket promotion. Ocean County wasn’t on the list.
It. Wasn’t. On. The. List.
I lost it. Totally lost it. I looked up at my Dad in panic. “We can’t go,” I tearfully said to him. “Why not? What’s wrong?”, he wanted to know. “Ocean County’s not on the list. And there’s a line here on the ad where you have to say what county you live in. Ocean County is not on the list. It’s not on the list. We can’t go.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. We’ll just write in Burlington County. No big deal.”
And that’s when my world ended.
“But, Dad, that would be a *lie*.”
Boom. Imagine huge rolling cracks of thunder. Lightning ripping the sky apart. Cracks forming in the earth’s crust and swallowing towns and villages whole. The pillars of the temple crashing down. Fire and death and destruction everywhere. Yep, I was in the full throes of classic Catholic guilt. Gotterdammerung and Armageddon combined.
“Seriously, Bob, no one’s going to notice and no one’s really going to care. Let’s go see the Phils, okay?”
So here’s what we did. You’re gonna love this. I cut the form out from the newspaper and filled in everything but the county. I left that blank. Next day, I took the form to the principal’s office at school and asked him to sign it to certify my grades. I was desperately praying he wouldn’t notice the blank. He didn’t, of course. He just signed and said have fun.
Later that day, I gave the signed form to my Dad. He carefully wrote in “Burlington County” then sealed the form in a stamped envelope and mailed it the next day. I did go to confession a few days later where I tearfully confessed my lie to the priest behind the window. He gave me my penance which I quickly prayed off and then, as all Catholics know, immediately felt better knowing my “sin” had been lifted.
My Dad and I enjoyed our three free Phillies games that summer. It was baseball heaven being with him as it always was. I’ve said this many times before … I literally grew up, both physically and emotionally, sitting next to him at ball games in Philadelphia. Phillies, Eagles, Sixers, Flyers. Win or lose, those games with him were the touchstones of my youth.
The next year however, I filled the stupid form out myself. Wrote in “Burlington” and didn’t even bother the old man. Got the principal’s signature, stuck it in an envelope, mailed it out. Six more tickets, three more games, baby.
Final score: Baseball 1, Conscience 0.