Still a Giants fan, after all these years

Willie Mays is still a part-time coach for a team whose personality is now defined by Kung Fu Panda. AP Photo, Getty Images

NEW YORK -- If you drive north along the Hudson River on Manhattan's West Side, you eventually come upon a cluster of unimpressive yellow brick buildings hugging the corner of 155th Street in Harlem. It was there where my parents went to live shortly after escaping the madness of Europe in 1939.

My father, a man of distinctly European habits -- he wore a bow tie every day -- already spoke a formal, book-learned English by the time he arrived, but he rightly suspected that wouldn't suit him in the meaner streets of New York. He eventually found himself on the other side of 155th, the side that bordered on the Harlem River. There, tucked into a place called Coogan's Bluff, was a huge, rickety, oval-shaped ballpark called the Polo Grounds, home of the New
York Giants and just a short walk across a bridge from the more stately Yankee Stadium. Baseball's rivalries were more intimate in those days, and a game was as good a place as any for my father to figure out how to talk like the locals.

But he picked up more than a few choice new adjectives. He was infected with the rhythms of baseball -- the long, slow, measured movement of it all reminded him of his first love, soccer. The Giants had firmly become his team by the time I was born. By then we were living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and our afternoons and evenings were often punctuated by the laconic sounds of a game broadcast on the radio. I was sitting on the floor of a neighbor's living room one October afternoon in 1951 when a man named Bobby Thomson came to bat and hit the most famous home run in baseball history. Waiting in the on-deck circle as Thomson came to bat was a frightened 19-year-old named Willie Mays.

At 5 I barely heard the Shot Heard 'Round the World, save for the adults yelling about it in the living room. The Giants lost the World Series that year to the Yankees, and the Korean War forced Mays into two years of Army service. But by 1954, when his two-year hitch was over, I was ripe for my father's preaching of the gospel of Coogan's Bluff. A man would be coming back from the service, he said. He would be the greatest player in baseball. And his team, my father's team, my team, would win the World Series.

Sure enough, Willie Mays was baseball's most valuable player that year, and the Giants won the World Series. Willie made my father a prophet. And I vowed to be a Giants fan for life.

Easier said than done. Four short years later, the Giants moved 3,000 miles away and my father and I were stuck listening to Les Keiter's recreations of the games on WINS, punctuated by amateurish radio sound effects and blatant exaggeration (no fly ball failed to get to the warning track). Summers were a little better; sent off to camp in mid-Pennsylvania, I could pick up Phillies and Pirates games whenever the Giants were playing them. And yet the distance only seemed to feed my attachment. By 1962, when the rag-tag Mets joined the league and the Giants, that year's eventual NL champs, came to feast on them, I went to the Polo Grounds for the first time. It was a dump, but the Giants swept two, and I was in heaven. Asked who my heroes were for a sixth-grade scrapbook, I earnestly wrote: Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, and Dad.

Dad. Ever the practical man, he'd become a Mets fan by the mid-'60s, and was puzzled by my stubborn loyalty. "You don't even know these guys," he said to me once, as if 8-year-old me used to catch a brew with Willie and Monte Irvin back in the day. I said nothing. I had no words to explain to him how it was all about him. I didn't really understand myself.

Anyway, '62 was the last, best chance for his Giants. A heart-wrenching playoff win against the Dodgers to get into the Series, followed by a heartbreaking loss in Game 7 to the Yanks. (Now that was torture.) The Giants weren't much after that for the rest of his life; he died in 1984. One nondescript postseason trip surrounded by profound mediocrity. My interest waxed in the spring and waned by early summer. It's just too hard to care from 3,000 miles away when your team is going nowhere.

But then came the Bonds trade. And the Internet. And the MLB package on cable TV. And suddenly I could be a real fan again. I pored over gamecasts in the middle of the East Coast night waiting for a boldface line to say: Bonds homers to right, Kent and Bernard score. I wandered into the church of Kruk and Kuip, and sacrificed hundreds of nights of sleep to hear every word of their wonderful verbal tapestry. I was as hooked as ever, and I still didn't quite know why.

Around that time, I had the opportunity to interview Willie Mays in front of an audience of car salesmen. Not exactly a Broadway opening, but still … it was Willie, and I'd never met him before. He had a reputation as a brittle man, not unlike his godson, and I worried that my memories would be ruined forever. Not so. We had 45 minutes to get to know each other in the backseat of a limo, and I spent most of them telling him stories my father told me about the old Giants. How my father hated Jackie Robinson, because of something he'd done to one of the Giants. How he'd seen Willie catch a ball bare-handed. Score from first on a single; from second on a groundout. The reminders of his playing days seemed to bring Willie alive, and as he told me his version of those stories (every one of them true), I had the urge to tell the driver to pull over so I could call my dad and tell him. But he was gone some 15 years by then.

So, on Saturday night, in a sea of angry red at Citizens Bank Park, with two on and a one-run lead and a 3-2 count on Ryan Howard, I bowed my head and thought about him again.

Sure, I don't know these guys, Dad. But I know why I still care.

Gary Hoenig, former editor in chief of ESPN The Magazine, is general manager and editorial director of ESPN Publishing.