Most-indelible memories revolve around sports

Auburn's Chris Davis (11) after his 109-yard return of a missed field goal for the winning TD against Alabama last weekend: A memory for the writer's grandchildren.
Auburn's Chris Davis (11) after his 109-yard return of a missed field goal for the winning TD against Alabama last weekend: A memory for the writer's grandchildren. (AP)
Posted: December 09, 2013

At a recent housewarming party, the host, an old friend, escorted his early- arriving guests to the basement.

En route to the refrigerator, where five varieties of domestic and imported beers had been aligned as neatly as toy soldiers, he paused and pointed proudly to an old photograph on the wall.

After 64 years of residing in rowhouses in and around Philadelphia, my friend had retired recently and moved into a single home in Avondale, an hour - and a culture - removed from the bars, delis, and gyms he'd so happily haunted.

To mark this new start, this radical break from his past, he and his wife had jettisoned most of their belongings. But that beloved old photo - of his eighth-grade basketball team at Our Lady of Fatima in Secane - had made the cut.

Next to it was a yellowed clipping from a March 1963 issue of the Delaware County Times, one that his long-dead mother had carefully framed. Our Lady of Fatima, its headline noted, finished second in Philadelphia's archdiocesan tournament.

Not surprisingly, the images of those coltish youngsters, their faces strange yet intensely familiar, triggered a flood of recollections.

A half-dozen 60-somethings, who at that moment probably couldn't have located their car keys, began identifying each team member, detailing the position he played, the abilities he possessed or lacked, the future he would lead.

Soon, even before we reached the beer, our athletic autopsy had achieved such microscopic focus that we were recalling intramural games at Cardinal O'Hara from a half-century ago.

In our old bodies, we were still children.

As the litany of parishes, point guards, and playoffs persisted, I wondered what it was that made this such a delicious pastime.

Of all the varied memories we'd created and stored, why did those that involved sports seem to be the most vivid, the most indelible?

Robert Frost once wrote:

No memory of having starred

Atones for later disregard,

Or keeps the end from being hard.

Sorry, Bob, but on my journey to those lovely woods, they've helped a lot.

Those memories of having starred - even having just played or watched - help define many of us. They're the ties - and sometimes the wins and losses - that bind us.

Baseball, basketball, and football games are, after all, shared experiences. We attend because we hope we come away with a moment we can recount forever.

It's been 36 years, for example, since I witnessed the trauma of Black Friday - when the Dodgers stunned the Phillies with an impossible comeback in Game 3 of the 1977 National League Championship Series. Yet hardly a week passes that I don't reflect on that game and shudder.

And, if you know me, I've probably told you more than once that I was in the half-filled Spectrum that night in 1968 when St. Louis' Red Berenson scored six goals against the Flyers, four in nine minutes.

When we're lucky enough to witness remarkable events like those, they instantly become significant parts of our personal narratives. Whenever my obituary appears, I hope it begins, "Frank Fitzpatrick, an eyewitness to Black Friday and the carnage that was the 1964 Phillies . . ."

Until then, my limited number of brain cells continue to be preoccupied with Big Five doubleheaders, Catholic League basketball, Wilt Chamberlain, Dick Allen, Tom Gola, Franklin Field, the Palestra, even Little League baseball.

Maybe the answer is obvious and I am, like my Irish grandfather and namesake, merely a sentimental sap.

But there's likely something deeper at work.

Most of what we discussed at that party took place when we were teenagers. Those memories might be serving a necessary psychological function, crowding out the unease, the angst, and the occasional unpleasantness of adolescence.

If I was somehow able to erase it all, what kind of long-forgotten terrors might reappear? Exposed to daylight after all these years, would my adolescent neuroses sprout again like weeds?

Those of us who crowded around that team photo have led relatively long, interesting, and, I assume, happy lives. We've all got wives, kids, and grandkids. We've traveled, read, and consumed great quantities of hoagies.

And yet we're drawn so easily and frequently to vanished landscapes: to twilights at Connie Mack Stadium; to claustrophobic urban gyms; to sandlots and backyards.

If nothing else, these sports reflections have provided a time line to our lives.

I'm certain, for instance, that I'm not the only one who links specific sporting events to the days I was born, married, and became a father.

(In case you're interested, that would be (a) Johnny Mize's pinch-hit to beat the Dodgers in Game 3 of the '49 World Series, as recounted to me often by my Yankee-fan father; (b) St. Louis' squeaking by Steve Carlton and the Phils, 9-8; and (c) Carlton Fisk's dramatic homer in the '75 Series.

Last week I wrote here about the Philadelphia A's. That prompted a deluge of e-mail from readers who wanted nothing more than to share their own memories of Connie Mack and the team that broke their hearts.

One, from 73-year-old Frank Senner of Bensalem, was typical.

"My most memorable recollection of the A's was when I was at the stadium when the A's were playing the Indians and the A's walked an Indian to get to a rookie named Luke Easter and he promptly hit a home run over the right field wall. As a teenager, I also worked in the stands selling popcorn and Cracker Jacks. . . . Great times back then."

Eventually at my friend's housewarming, we found the beer and the television, whose output toggled between Ohio State-Michigan, West Chester-Bloomsburg, and a couple of basketball games.

By the time Auburn's Chris Davis ran back a missed field goal to beat Alabama, I was in an East Falls restaurant with my family.

I watched the amazing play on a bar TV, seated alongside my 4-year-old grandchildren.

Fifty years from now, if they're at a party and someone brings up the Auburn-Alabama game from 2013, I'm betting they'll remember that they saw it on TV in a Mexican restaurant.

At a table with that hopeless sports nut they called "Pop."


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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