How My Nana Inspired My Love of Sports

My Nana is sitting in a folding chair, on a patch of lawn behind her brick apartment building in Rockford, Illinois. She’s got her little transistor radio on the table, and a baseball official scorer’s book in her lap. The Cubs are playing at Wrigley. It’s a typical summer afternoon in the fateful season of 1969.

I can still picture her there, faithfully charting each at bat of the game, as she did every day. Nana knew the Cubs inside out: each player’s stats, strengths, and weaknesses.

I loved sitting next to her, sharing baseball on the radio. Sharing the joy when they won. Sharing the sadness when they collapsed in the stretch, passed by the hated Mets, who rolled to a World Series win.

My Nana’s enthusiasm first sparked a love for sports that grew quickly. I decided at age 10 that I when I grew up I wanted to do what Lloyd Pettit did: describe the drama of games on the radio for excited fans like my Nana and me.

It wasn’t just baseball. My younger brother and I would often get dropped off at my grandparents’ place on fall Sundays. There was football on the TV and a big bowl of M&Ms on the coffee table. Sometimes I would turn down the volume and attempt my own very crude (but excitable) play by play calls. My grandparents somehow tolerated this. To a point.

Very early in life, I learned an important lesson: to be a true fan is to often have your heart ripped out. And then stepped on by the cleats of the Mets, or the skate blades of the mighty Montreal Canadiens, who stole the 1971 Stanley Cup from my beloved Blackhawks in Game 7. My pillow was wet with tears that night. And again two years later, when the Canadiens did it again. Hadn’t Montreal won enough Cups? Life as a fan wasn’t fair.

Four decades later, the Cubs were poised to at long last end the suffering on the north side of Chicago. Throughout the World Series, I had strongly felt my Nana’s presence. She’d been gone for many years, but I was experiencing something priceless with her. The Cubs rallied from three games to one down to force Game 7. This time would be different! This time the Cubs would NOT blow it! This was destiny.

Despite my nerves, I had a strange feeling of confidence, a feeling that grew as the Cubs grabbed the Game 7 lead on the game’s first at bat. As they built the lead, I sat with my wife on the living room couch with a big glass of good Bordeaux in hand, counting down the outs to victory, ready to toast the occasion, my emotions building.

Then the bottom of the 8th happened. Joe Madden’s earlier pitching changes had backfired. A three run lead was gone. Were the Gods really this cruel? Would the Cubs’ 108 year curse continue?

The answer would have to wait. Rain started falling. The red wine started flowing. Why had I been so confident? Why had I jinxed it by counting down the outs?

When the cloudburst had passed, the tenth inning started. But I was no longer on the couch. My optimism no longer intact. I had taken my glass of wine and walked outside, to stare at the dark waters of Miami’s Biscayne Bay and try to convince myself “It’s only a game. Whatever happens, life goes on.”

I would watch what was left of this World Series from the backyard, the TV clearly visible through the plate glass window. Anything to reverse the juju.

What I couldn’t have known was that Cubs’ right fielder Jason Hayward had gathered the team during the rain delay and delivered a much needed pep talk. The inspired team quickly grabbed a two run lead in the top of the 10th and then again tried to hang on.

One out away from ending this torture, but with the Indians bringing the winning run to the plate, on came Mike Montgomery. Had my Nana been watching with me through the window, she would have known this fact: Montgomery’s career save total was … ZERO.

But a minute later, on a weak grounder, it was all over! Millions of long suffering fans wished Harry Carey had been alive to holler his trademark “CUBS WIN! CUBS WIN!”

I just wished my Nana had been there to see it. I thought of those summer days in her backyard. Bottled up emotions poured out of me. My heart was overflowing with gratitude for the most lasting gift she had given me.

I’m still grateful every day. The path from Nana’s backyard led me all the way to a career describing sports events… and being paid for it. Incredible good fortune.

Soon after my family moved from Illinois to Pennsylvania in the early 70’s, I fell deeply in love with tennis and college football.

Dynamic young Americans Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert arrived and conquered the courts of a magical, far away place called Wimbledon. Tennis seemed glamorous and way cool.

At that time, Penn State offered kids of faculty members football tickets for $1 a game. If you passed the ticket stub through the chain link fence for friends to use, you could make attending games even cheaper.

My baptism to big time football was priceless. The energy of this spectacle was on a scale brand new to me. From the opening game of the 1974 season, a Nittany Lions’ comeback win, I was smitten by the sport. I still am, of course.

The fact that I’ve been able to call the championship events in two of my favorite sports for many years is a source of joy and tremendous pride. The Wimbledon Centre Court bunker and Rose Bowl booth have become familiar and treasured offices. That still feels almost surreal to me. I’m not nostalgic by nature and rarely pause to reflect on bygone times. But when I walk into Centre Court each summer and the Rose Bowl each winter, I feel strongly the friendly spirits of Dick Enberg and Keith Jackson, broadcasting icons who became mentors.

And once in awhile, when watching the Cubs, I am even visited by my Nana. I think she would be pleased and proud. Look where her passion for sports taken her grandson.

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