When I was five years old, we had this Saturday morning tradition. Dad would take me and my two-year-old brother Barry to 7-Eleven, or Schepps, for something out of the ice cream freezer. I think I usually went with a Banana Fudgsicle, Barry one of those orange Push-Ups, or maybe a Drumstick.
There were four games in town in the mid-70s, one of which was king. My parents were religious Dallas Cowboy fans (not that that distinction made them even remotely unique in these parts). Fall Sundays were devoted to football, usually at our house or the Donskys', with Halleck's chicken, chips and El Fenix queso, and Pepsi as the everyday lineup, and a mess of all kinds of other stuff in rotation around it.
Pulling up to Schepps on one of those Saturday mornings, I asked Dad how many Cowboy players he knew personally. Upon learning that the answer was zero I questioned why he cared so much whether Dallas won. I have no recollection what his answer was. But the question, and the parking space we pulled into while my question hung in the air, are etched permanently in my memory.
There were also the Texas Rangers and Dallas Tornado and Dallas Blackhawks. The latter two were never televised. The Rangers were televised roughly once a week, which made them no different from the Cowboys in that respect. They were different in just about every other possible way, though. Rather than serve as the focal point of the day, the televised Ranger game, if anything, was generally background scenery while we got ready to go swimming somewhere.
My most vivid memories of Ranger games on TV in the mid-70s involve Mark Fidrych firing a gem against Texas (while at either the Kreislers' or Bruckners' house, waiting to swim); Eric Soderholm driving in a game-winner against Texas in the ninth (ruining my mood as I dove into the pool at the Viroslavs'); and Willie Horton hitting three home runs in a game (while at Grandma and Papa's, about to head to the pool). I have it stuck in my mind that Adrian Devine pitched in the game that Horton went nuts in.
When I was seven, we graduated from weekly ice cream to a pack of Topps, baseball half the year and football the other half. (I can't remember whose idea it was to make the switch, but I like to think it was mine.) I still remember the older man who ran the Schepps grabbing the cardboard box full of wax packs off the top shelf of the candy aisle, pulling out not the top pack but one near the bottom of a stack and promising me and my brother that there'd be a Cowboy in it. And he was right: a few cards in (seems like Lem Barney and Vern Den Herder delayed the gratification, though there's no way I actually remember that part), Rayfield Wright's All-Pro face smiled at me, keeping to himself the secret of how Schepps Man knew. The bookmark-grade slab of "gum" was an afterthought, if that.
The love affair with sports no longer belonged only to Dad.
I'm not sure when baseball separated itself from football for me. My parents weren't really baseball fans. If I'm really honest with myself, the time when football was no longer riding shotgun, and instead began to take a backseat, was probably 1984, when the Cowboys started missing the playoffs -- until that time I was as crazy a football fan as I was a baseball fan. As demoralizing as it was to have my football year end with the regular season, I look back on it and realize how it set me up to be somewhat of a snobby fan. It's easy to slither off the bandwagon when a team you expect as a child to go to the Super Bowl every year has as awful a win-loss record as 9-7!
Further back -- and the fact that I vividly remember this tells you how snooty a Cowboy fan I was ... how entitled I felt ... even at age eight -- the Cowboys had a 1977 home game against Tampa Bay blacked out because they failed to sell out Texas Stadium (The horror!). What I remember about that is the stroll on which Mom took us (including my five-month-old sister Mandy) around Pennystone and Blue Trace, with the game on the radio, courtesy of Verne Lundquist and Brad Sham (I've always been a radio guy anyway, in both sports, from those days until now).
I was profoundly sad. The blackout shook my eight-year-old soul like a stock market crash. Because in those days, Dallas Cowboy ups and downs were Jamey Newberg ups and downs.
But Dallas went on to smack the Broncos in the Super Bowl that year. I celebrated by working and reworking my jigsaw puzzle that winter of Randy White and Harvey Martin mauling Norris Weese. A thousand times.
So how was it that baseball kept up with football in those years? Dallas was winning 11 or 12 games every season, finishing atop the division almost without exception, while the Rangers would annually hover around .500 (with the exception of the 1977 Willie Horton club, which won 94 times but still finished eight games behind the Royals). How was it that my affection for the Rangers didn't keep as company the Tornado and Blackhawks, rather than the Cowboys?
Because of the tosses with Dad or Barry, or the daily games of streetball, or the pitchback in the backyard? Doubt it; they were all just as likely to involve a football as a baseball.
I think it was a few things. Football was a once-a-week event, baseball a daily ritual. Though we never missed an opportunity to meet Roger Staubach at Neiman's or Drew Pearson at Joske's, it was a lot easier to catch Jim Sundberg and Mike Hargrove at John Mabry Clothiers, or Jim Fregosi and Bill Fahey and Roy Smalley at Northaven Field to kick off the Little League season. And the world of baseball cards proved to be limitless, football cards not so much.
(Anytime I hear "Philadelphia Freedom" [Elton John], or something by Cliff Richard [thank goodness that's pretty much a non-existent possibility these days], or "Steal Away" [Robbie DuPree], or "Too Much Time on My Hands" [Styx], or "Still the Same" [Bob Seger], I immediately think I'm in the car with Mom, as she's about to drop me off at whatever mall the baseball card shop "Remember When" was located at.)
Once I was old enough to play organized ball, there was lots of baseball, no football. There were summers when the game was part of my routine every day, either games at Northaven or practices at Walker or scorekeeping at Churchill. And Risenhoover and Merrill on the radio at night, bringing me Rangers baseball as I drifted to (or fought) sleep.
And as for the Rangers, those years of mediocrity probably solidified a loyalty that Cubs fans made an art, and that Cowboy fans have never really shown, or understood. It's easy to root for a perennial winner; there's more character, though, in standing behind Sisyphus and helping push.
The game itself has always captivated me. You can't find a book about football in the same league as "Nine Innings" or "Men at Work" or "Three Nights in August," none of which I imagine would show up on a list of the 100 best baseball books ever written. I'm a competer -- which I know isn't a word but which still connotes something different than "competitor," I think -- and I find irresistible the chess matches that make up the at-bats and the innings and the games and the series and the seasons and even the off-seasons in baseball. I say that now as a fan; once upon a time it was as a player.
There was a photo of Bucky Dent one '70s spring in Street & Smith's, hurdling a runner trying to break up a double play, and a shot in the same magazine of Robin Yount ranging into the hole, and they made me want to be a shortstop. It was my home on the baseball diamond for 12 years, until my high school coach put me on the mound as a junior and made me a pitcher-outfielder my senior year. (My day to pitch? "Bullet the Blue Sky" on my headphones, on the bus headed to Loos Fieldhouse or Reverchon Park.)
I hated Coach for moving me to the outfield. And then I wished someone had moved me sooner. It's where I ended my baseball career one year later and two years after that, in that one week in Austin, that one day in Georgetown, and that one final week again in Austin. I love the outfield. I loved shortstop more; but I was better as an outfielder.
To this day there are guys I played with in Little League and middle school and BBI and high school and those 10 days at Disch-Falk and that one at Southwestern and on the intramural softball fields with whom I keep in touch. Maybe that's what it's been, more than the baseball cards and the transistor radios and the Street & Smith's and even the chess matches, that's responsible for my latching so acutely onto baseball. I've been able to share my passion for this game with so many people, a group that has multiplied exponentially the last eight years.
Erica just started Kindergarten. And though she didn't know any of her classmates beforehand, it won't surprise me if she sat down to eat lunch last week with someone who one day will stand up at her wedding.
And on that day when her mother and I give her away, I hope to remember these Kindergarten days well, and the things I was thinking about as we were getting her ready to head out the door that first morning. One of which was which kind of ice cream she'd pick out that afternoon.
Jamey Newberg, author of www.NewbergReport.com as well as six annual Bound Editions of the Newberg Report, is a lawyer at the Dallas firm of Vial, Hamilton, Koch & Knox, maintaining a practice specializing in general civil litigation, school law, and insurance coverage. He earned his undergraduate degree, his law degree, and two "Thanks, but no thanks" pats on the back from Coach Gus after trying to walk onto the University of Texas baseball team in 1987 and 1989.