The first time I ever walked into a Major League Baseball stadium was August 1, 1982. I was 7 years old. My grandfather, Elek Keri, took me there.
Olympic Stadium was weird and unique for many reasons. Every sign, every hot dog stand, every player introduction was bilingual -- French and English, just like the city of Montreal. The Metro transported you through underground tunnels, dropped you off at Pie-IX station, then funneled you right into the stadium. Passing through the turnstile, you'd immediately encounter a band playing the Expos' unofficial fight song. For reasons no one could quite figure, it was a German oompah band. The song the band played? The Happy Wanderer.
Then, finally, the walk through the concourse and through the little portal that opened up to the playing field. I'll never forget what I saw next: The biggest building I could have ever imagined, jammed to the rafters with raucous fans who in retrospect were probably four Labatt 50s deep 30 minutes before first pitch.
It would be hard to imagine a better first-game experience. The defending NL East champion Montreal Expos against a St. Louis Cardinals team that would go on to win the World Series that year. Two terrific staff aces, Steve Rogers and Joaquin Andujar, facing each other. A delirious crowd of 51,353 fans (Seriously! You can look it up!). A dramatic seventh-inning comeback that fueled a 5-4 Expos win.
And lucky 7-year-old me, sitting beside my Papa Elek, one of the kindest, most wonderful human beings I have ever met, or will ever meet.
The first time I ever watched a Major League Baseball game on TV happened just a few months earlier. My grandfather, Max Levine, was the one who turned the game on for me.
The Expos were really good in those days, so good that Sports Illustrated at the start of the decade dubbed them "the team of the '80s." Of course, you'd never know it by listening to Max. Every time an Expos player messed up, he would hurl insults at the screen. Jeff Reardon was a good-for-nothing pitcher, because he walked some guy. Warren Cromartie couldn't hit to save his life, because he struck out one time.
No player drove him crazier than Rodney Scott. One of the fastest players in the league, Scott earned the impossibly great nickname "Cool Breeze." Max had other ideas. Though Scott excelled at stealing bases, drew a bunch of walks, and was a solid fielder in his prime, he was never much of a hitter. Completely lacking power, Scott would unleash feeble swings, trying to smack the ball down into the springy Big O turf so he could beat out infield hits. Max had a perfect way to describe that ugly style of hitting. To him, Scott wasn't "Cool Breeze." He was "The Woodchopper."
And lucky 7-year-old me, sitting beside my Papa Max, who despite his vitriol toward The Woodchopper was still one of the kindest, most wonderful human beings I have ever met, or will ever meet.
Today, we learned that Tim Raines will be inducted into the Hall of Fame. This is a happy day for Raines, whose accomplishments over 23 years in the big leagues make him a worthy inductee. It's a great day for Expos fans, who rarely had anything to celebrate about even when the team existed.
Still, it's not hard to become skeptical, even cynical, about all of today's pomp and circumstance.
Why should we care about any of this? Why are we driving ourselves nuts over a museum in a tiny little village in upstate New York? Why give a damn about a baseball player who retired a decade and a half ago, whose best years came with a team that ceased to exist at nearly the same time? Why care about sports at all, when there are so many seemingly far more important questions to ponder in the universe?
You can conjure a bunch of reasons for why we do care.
For one, we love to argue. We debate, rank, and scrutinize everything from breakfast cereals to pop singers to presidents. Switch to sports and we get electrifying plays, reams of numbers, and clear, binary results. Either your guy won, or he lost.
We also welcome the distraction that sports bring. Life can be damn hard. We get sick. We have our hearts broken. We watch dear friends and family members die. Sports have a way of lifting us up, away from personal tragedies or even the mundane frustrations that get us all down.
For me, sports are a proxy for the people I love, and loved.
My favorite team bit the dust 13 years ago. That same team traded away my favorite player, who went on to play for five different teams after his first run with the Expos. For all of their charm, being a sports fan can be so fickle, it can feel like rooting for laundry.
But those old memories never fade. More than the Expos or even Raines himself, being a fan was about sitting beside my Papas, watching those first games when I wasn't yet old enough to fully understand what I was seeing.
That's why, when Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson called Raines' name today, I, a 42-year-old man of relatively sane mind, jumped around and yelled like a damn lunatic. It's why I thumbed through so many old albums, and cried like a damn baby whenever I thought about those very first baseball games.
This summer, I get to take my son and daughter to Cooperstown for the first time. They're twins. Who also happen to be 7 years old.
At some point during the weekend, I'll bump into Tim Raines. I'll explain that my grandfathers were the ones who first instilled that love of baseball in me, the love that defines my career, and in many ways, my life. I'll then introduce Tim to my son.
Congratulations on making the Hall of Fame, I'll say. Please meet my little boy: Ellis Maxwell Keri.