It will be spring soon and, more to the point, baseball season. This knowledge brings me some joy and not a little anxiety, due to the birth of my son almost a year ago. I'll see him playing on the rug or, now that his teeth are coming in, chewing on the coffee table, a CD case, or, last week, an actual rock, and the thought will hit me: Shoot, he's going to expect me to know about baseball.

As a nine-year-old, I knew a lot about the subject. I'd sit on the front stoop of my house around 6:30 A.M., trying to will myself onto a bicycle to deliver 20 or 30 copies of Newsday to local subscribers. I hated this job. Pay was crummy, the hours stunk, and the newspaper bag was so weighted as to send me, more than once, tumbling head over wheels. Also, the guy in charge was constantly upping the number of papers he delivered to my stoop, in what I thought was a crooked attempt to inflate the number of subscribers in the area. (As a matter of fact, Newsday did get into trouble for something like this not long ago.)

Fortunately, distraction was near at hand in the sports pages. Under the influence of a friend and his optimistic family, I'd become a Mets fan. This was Queens, after all; but the Mets had been the worst team in the National League. My second grade teacher, Sister Dominic, was a Mets fan, and her brand of classroom tyranny seemed at one with the all-sacrifice, no-rewards life of a true Mets partisan. The Mets had won the World Series in 1969, but this was a distant, almost mythical instance of unlikely triumph, one that had long since given way to the deadening routine of likely defeat.

But just as I was beginning my career in the news business, Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden were beginning their careers with the Mets. Oh, the wonder of the back sports page as it announced every few days how many strikeouts Gooden had achieved, sometimes with K's almost as large as the page itself. While my customers were wondering where their papers were, I was reading about the most recent game, and then enjoying a second, repetitive, story about the most recent game. I'd ponder the league rankings and sometimes even read an article about those lowly Yankees over in the Bronx.

The rest is well-known baseball history. Doc Gooden, along with several other terrific players, carried the Mets to World Series victory in 1986. This swift rise to greatness was accompanied and then followed by much turmoil, as drugging, boozing, and brawling corroded the Mets image of baseball excellence. At the start of the 1987 season Doc Gooden was in rehab.

Having started as a Mets fan when they were an awful but likable team, I was increasingly angry that they could not behave in a manner becoming to a great team. "Ya gotta believe" was one of their slogans. Well, within a few seasons, I didn't, not anymore. For good reason, they were soon being called "the worst team money could buy," and I had stopped delivering the newspaper. My customers were no doubt relieved.

Lately baseball has come back into my life. It started with some minor league games in Prince William County, Virginia. Then I took more than a passing, though not quite a rooting, interest in the new Washington Nationals. Also, I resumed the habit of watching playoffs and World Series games.

Currently, I am an example of that hated species, the fair-weather fan, interested in the good times and just a little too busy for the bad times. Also, I am more or less without a club, which in the monotheistic world of baseball fans amounts to heresy. Worse, there are baseball caps in my house that I wear to cover up my pillow-head, bearing the logos of teams I don't root for--and this doesn't bother me.

Except when I think about my son. For good or ill, many a lesson in character is taught through sports. I want to be at his side commending patience in adversity when our team is in a slump, and grace under pressure when a game, or a series, or a season, or a career, is on the line. All the legitimate examples and maddening clich├ęs about integrity and hard work that baseball provides I want at my disposal as a father.

This season, I'll try to be a better fan--rooting for whom I'm not sure. But for starters, maybe I'll swing by the baby store to see if they sell any teething toys in the shape of a baseball.


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