Parenting Lessons From An Ill-Advised Trip Into The Yankee Stadium Bleachers
1:22 PM EDT on April 15, 2021
The first thing to know about my identical twin boys is that one loves the Yankees and the other the Red Sox. I’ve told them they can’t do this but they don’t listen. For them, there is but one relevant fact to their fandom and it is not that they were born in Boston, less than a half mile from Fenway, or that a short time after their birth in 2011 they moved with my wife and I and their then-2-year-old sister to a suburb outside Hartford, where I took a job at ESPN the Magazine (may it rest in peace). It is not that, on our cablebox, NESN sits right above YES, which I think split the allegiance, all those nights my son Marshall and I watched the Red Sox and, at the inning break, flipped to YES only to see my son Walker lean closer to the TV.
For the boys, the relevant fact isn’t about the teams or their histories or even the rivalry. It’s instead this: Marshall really loves Mookie Betts and Walker really loves Aaron Judge.
Two years ago, in early April, in the last days before the twins' eighth birthday, my wife Sonya and I debated how we might celebrate. On a whim I checked out MLB.com and saw—oh my god—the makings of the GREATEST BIRTHDAY EVER for the boys.
Sonya and I put together a plan. It would be an expensive one, but possibly the greatest day in the boys’ lives, maybe the greatest in all our lives.
Sonya and I laughed at the pure joy we were about to give.
I felt like Father of the Year.
The boys’ birthday arrived. The kids got ready for school and then, five minutes before the bus pulled up, I turned to the twins and our daughter Harper, then 9, and said: “Guess what? You’re not going to school today!”
They were unsure what I meant and so Sonya said, “That’s right! For Marshall and Walker’s birthday we’re all going on a BIG surprise trip!”
The kids screamed and laughed and hugged each other. They wanted desperately to know where. We wouldn’t tell them.
We just loaded them into the minivan and headed out.
A couple hours later they saw the Manhattan skyline.
“We’re going to New York?!” Harper asked.
The kids screamed and laughed and begged to know more.
Sonya and I said nothing.
About a half-hour later we parked in front of a Marriott in Midtown.
“We’re staying at a hotel??” the boys asked.
“Yep!” I said.
“But I didn’t bring an overnight bag,” Harper said.
“I’ve already packed them!” Sonya said, and as she swung open the trunk showed the kids the suitcases she’d hidden under folded blankets.
The kids screamed again.
The rest of the afternoon went like that: We’re going to the Lego store?! (YAY!) We’re eating at this fancy restaurant? (YAY!) Around nightfall we trudged down to the subway for what I billed as The Really Big Surprise. We moved north, toward the Bronx, and got off at 161st Street.
The stadium rose before us, a colossus.
“We’re going to a YANKEES GAME?!” Walker screamed.
Marshall started to throw a shit-fit until I showed him the marquee: Yankees versus Red Sox.
They both hollered.
As we made our way through the concourse, Sonya told Harper she could have as much cotton candy as she wanted. This placated The Girl Who Hated Baseball After That Wild-Hopping Tee-Ball Grounder Punched Her in the Mouth. Harper bled everywhere that day and hadn’t returned to the game. But with cotton candy on offer all night, she’d sit through this one. I was giddy. I still had the Biggest of Big Surprises to show the boys.
We got hot dogs and cotton candy and moved up a walkway and now the whole of Yankee Stadium opened before us, the green expanse of the outfield and soft fading light of the spring afternoon. We walked to our section in right, in foul territory, just off the pole, and descended the cement stairs, moving closer to the grass until we sat down in the third row, our seats looking directly at right field.
Aaron Judge and Mookie Betts played in right.
“So,” I told the boys. “Here’s the big surprise: Allllll game long you guys can stare at your favorite players.”
The boys smiled wider than I’d ever seen them.
The sun dipped behind the stadium. The skies pinkened, then darkened. The soft night brought a brisk breeze, which let us huddle still closer together.
Sonya and I looked at each other and she took my hand.
A perfect day. The best day.
“Play ball!” the umpire yelled.
In the bottom of the first Mookie jogged into right. “Moo-kie SUCKS! Moo-kie SUCKS!” The chant rose from those around us but was organized, even turned into a jaunty rhythm, by the ones in right field proper, on the fair side of the pole, the Bleacher Creatures.
Marshall looked at me, not so much hurt as confused. Mookie was verifiably one of the best players in baseball. “Why are they saying that, Daddy?” Marshall asked.
“Well,” I sighed.
Already the chant transformed: “FUCK you MOO-kie!” Clap, clap, clap clap clap.
Both Marshall and Walker glanced at me, alarmed. They had just turned 8 but were old enough to understand this was something no one should say, much less yell. Sonya, who’d always sneered at sports’ tribalism, looked to me like I was the one shouting.
More and then still more fans joined in: “FUCK you MOO-kie!” Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap.
How did I forget about the Bleacher Creatures?
“This rivalry,” I said to the boys, but they couldn’t hear me. “THIS RIVALRY IS THE BIGGEST IN ALL OF SPORTS.”
“BUT WHY ARE THEY SO MEAN TO HIM!” Marshall shouted, pointing his finger at Mookie, who, it bears adding, looked completely unfazed.
Identical twins carry many similarities in behavior and personality and a few differences. Marshall has a much lower threshold for injustice than his brother. And this was unjust: Mookie was perhaps the best player in baseball. Marshall tracked his stats.
And yet the chant boomed and echoed across the stadium.
“WHY?!” Marshall screamed. His cheeks reddened and the tears fell. Uncontrolled. Already Marshall’s tiny shoulders heaved from the sobs. Sonya shot me another look.
“Bud bud bud,” I said to Marshall, looking back to the diamond. Jesus: Not even one pitch into the bottom of the first yet.
“FUCK you, MOO-kie!” Clap, clap, clap clap clap.
Is YES having to mute this for the broadcast?
“Bud, BUD,” I repeated, and put my hand on Marshall’s knee.
He turned toward me.
“This is just how it goes at Yankee Stadium.”
“Yeah,” Walker said, though his face wondered about the implications of this truth. It was the first time either of the boys had been here.
Marshall didn’t like the answer. “It’s better at Fenway, right?”
He looked at Walker, hoping to score morality points with whatever my response would be.
I grimaced. “Not really.”
I pointed to Mookie. “Here’s the main thing: He’s OK.”
He was. Mookie seemed indifferent, even relaxed. His back to the Bleacher Creatures, hands on his knees, unafraid to occasionally adjust himself.
“If Mookie’s OK, do you think you can ride it out?”
Marshall looked around the stadium. The chant changed, almost as if it were choreographed beforehand: “Bos-ton SUCKS! Bos-ton SUCKS!” When Marshall turned to me his eyes burned with that hatred known to every Red Sox fan.
He would ride this out.
He would not ride this out. In the bottom of the third, the Yankees scored two. Marshall and Walker are super-competitive and what irritated Marshall even more than first Brett Gardner and then D.J. LeMahieu crossing home was his brother cheering the runs. It meant Walker was winning and Marshall was losing.
“It’s just a game,” Walker told him, sitting down after LeMahieu’s run, but too chipper about it, the victor extending to the pillaged a mangy strip of grass after taking the whole of the countryside for himself.
Marshall’s cheeks reddened but held.
Chris Sale looked only marginally better on the mound. A double, two singles, and a walk in this inning alone. The Bleacher Creatures, however, blamed someone else.
“FUCK you MOO-kie!” Clap, clap, clap clap clap.
Now it came, the sobs worse than the first time. I tried the same trick: Look, Mookie’s still fine! It didn’t work. Neither did Walker’s more tonally sympathetic, “It’s not that big a deal.” Sonya ultimately had to take Marshall in her arms while mouthing, “Why did we do this?”
“I didn’t know,” I said, pointing around me, even though I’d been to Yankee Stadium maybe 10 times in my life, and twice in the last year. The truth was I’d let the dream of the perfect birthday drift ahead of the reality of Vinny from Bayside.
We got Marshall quieted down. He seemed to enjoy the top of the fourth but in the bottom half the Bleacher Creatures had a new chant.
“MOOOOO-keeeee. I KnOOOWWW your MAHHHTH-errrr!”
I snorted. The subtlety of I know—I wouldn’t have thought the Bleacher Creatures had it in them.
Marshall didn’t understand but bawled.
“Look,” I said. “This doesn’t really matter. This is just one game in April and we should, if anything, appreciate the comedic restraint of our friends on the fair side of the pole.”
“PAUL!” Sonya said.
“It’s true,” I muttered.
But of course it did matter. This was Marshall’s birthday and it was terrible and, almost as bad, the kid was still too young to know how the thing unsaid is sometimes the thing that’s funny.
On the mound Sale couldn’t control anything but his fastball. The Yankees scored two more runs. Sonya and I looked as pained as Boston’s dugout: While Marshall oscillated between stoic rage and sullen tears, Walker was having quite the evening. Aaron Judge had made eye contact with him in the top of the first and then, at the plate, hit a double. Walker felt bad for his brother, but, as he pointed out when the Yankees went up 4-0 and Marshall stared at him: “What? This is my birthday, too.”
Identical twins carry many similarities in behavior and personality and a few differences. Walker had always been our defiant one. I’d once gotten into a shouting match with him at 2 because the kid wouldn’t back down on the sort of Cheerios he wanted.
“PAUL!” Sonya had said. “Whyyyyyy are you fighting with a two-year-old.”
Because he welcomed it. I think that’s also why he rooted for the Yankees: Because Marshall and I liked the Sox. I secretly loved that. I loved his individualism. It reminded me of, well, me: a farm boy from Iowa who didn’t want to take over the acreage and moved far away to write for a living.
“Walker is so your son,” Sonya had said on more than one occasion. Walker was loud, opinionated—it truly was amazing, the differences between boys who look exactly alike. Tonight accentuated those differences: One of our sons was having the worst birthday ever, the other the best.
Complicating matters further, the boys’ competitiveness—which, OK, I’d cultivated; why play if you didn’t want to win?—guaranteed one of them would be miserable tonight and the other elated. How had I not factored that in?
So much for Father of the Year.
I moved into triage mode. Took all three kids for soda and pretzels, which was fine by Harper. There really are limits to the cotton candy a girl can eat.
When we returned to our seats in the top of the fifth I showed Marshall how to put on a rally cap. I began to fix my own. My Sox fandom had always made me queasy. Growing up in Iowa I’d followed the Cubs but, after college, after I met Sonya in Dallas, we got married and moved to Boston. Our life together began, both of us working as journalists, living in Jamaica Plain, watching the Sox win it all in 2007, growing infatuated not only with the team but the city when our three kids were born there. I wasn’t a native—and Sox fans scorned all who weren’t—but felt an allegiance to the club even when we moved to Connecticut.
So I put on my own rally cap, by that night more an homage to the life we’d known than the team I still supported. The cap did not matter though. James Paxton (!) kept playing the role of ace pitcher, having, like, four career nights in two hours: a one-hit shutout through five. Mookie led off the top of the sixth and Marshall and I stood again, rally caps on, and began to clap alongside the smattering of Sox fans surrounding.
“Sit down!” a guy in a Yankees cap four rows back shouted. Walker snickered with delight. “Yeahhhh, Daddy.”
I looked at Marshall with faux-seriousness. “Hold your ground.” He nodded and kept clapping.
Mookie was 0-2 on the night but Marshall said, “He’s gonna do something,” willing the magic into existence.
Mookie hit a weak wobbler to third and grounded out.
“BOOOM!” Walker said.
I scoffed. At his age, I’d have done that.
“Walker!” Sonya said. “This is your brother’s birthday too.”
Marshall sat down and shook his head, furious. A lone tear ran down his cheek. Walker’s smile faded.
The soft night with the brisk breeze blackened, replaced by a cruel wind that chilled our plastic seatbacks. Harper, bored since first pitch, now clutched her stomach from all the cotton candy. Sonya, a native Texan, had had enough of the rude New Yorkers and their freezing “spring” nights. I was exhausted from mediating the boys’ moods.
God, baseball can take forever.
Sighing, staring at each other, not speaking, we moved into the bottom of the sixth, where Erasmo Ramirez made his major league debut for Boston, called up from Pawtucket that very afternoon. He immediately gave up a double to Gio Urshela. Then walked Brett Gardner. Two batters later, on a 2-0 count, Ramirez threw a no-heat no-break cutter to Mike Tauchman, who took a huge swing and connected. The ball soared toward right, soared higher. Mookie tracked it for a few strides then slowed to watch. Three hundred ninety nine feet later, the ball landed in the second deck, above the Bleacher Creatures.
Yankee Stadium absolutely erupted. Walker stood and yelled and clapped alongside his brethren, a rout now, New York up 7-0.
Tauchman touched home, and fist-bumped and high-fived and moved his way into the dugout. Next to me, Marshall slouched in his cold seat and stared, not at Mookie but some distant point beyond him. He wouldn’t take his eyes off it.
The cheers around us inevitably transformed:
“Moo-kie sucks! MOO-KIE SUCKS!”
Marshall sighed. He would have to sit—and for three more innings—and not only watch his favorite player lose but be mocked for watching him. And on his birthday. A birthday that I’d said earlier would be the BEST DAY EVER. He slouched deeper, turned inward. His lips set in a thin line and he stared at that distant point in the outfield which perhaps he alone saw. I tried to distract him. He wouldn’t budge. He wasn’t sullen but resigned to this diminished fate. Accepting it was how he’d endure what remained of the day.
Walker sat down and looked at his brother.
Identical twins carry many similarities in personality and behavior and a few differences. We focus on them as the distinguishing marks when what defines twins’ lives are often the similarities. Our boys literally developed their own language at nine months old. We have videos of them, facing each other in their high chairs, Marshall babbling something in a baby tongue to Walker and Walker laughing and adding his rejoinder and Marshall making a second point, a little more forcefully, and Walker ceding it as a good one and in a quieter tone starting a new conversation, and making Marshall laugh. They intuit each other so well, can live in their own world so fully that Sonya and I decided when they entered kindergarten to put them in different classes. We wanted them to make other friends. On the first day of kindergarten, Walker stumbled in P.E. and went face-first onto the gym floor. He bloodied his mouth and chipped a tooth. Sonya had to make an emergency appointment at the dentist. Marshall knew none of this, but around the time that Walker stumbled Marshall sat and listened to his teacher read to him, and suddenly got nervous, he later told us.
That sixth sense, that twin sense.
It’s spooked me over the years; I’ve seen it time and again. Their twin sense made each boy’s fandom so very strange to witness. How could they split on something so central to their childhood and young identity? In their Connecticut elementary school, situated where it was in a suburb of Hartford, classrooms divided pretty evenly between Yankees fans and Red Sox fans. The boys seemed not to mind this, seemed to relish even the idea that they could learn to stare down each other. In my more optimistic moments I saw their divided interests as the first step toward an independent life—something like self-actualization. In my more pessimistic moments I saw the Boston-New York rivalry foreshadowing a real hatred, not borne from the playthings of sports but from a more intimate and shared experience, which only they as twins understood, a rising imperious wall, built from their lasting jealousies, through which they could not see each other and over which they refused to climb.
“Moo-kie sucks! MOO-KIE SUCKS!”
There, in the bottom of the sixth, Walker studied his brother’s face, which was also his face, and after a moment he turned to me.
“Daddy,” he said. “I don’t want to watch any more.”
“What?” I gasped. “Are you sure?”
At the plate, D.J. LeMahieu dug in, which meant Aaron Judge would bat next.
“Judge is on deck,” I said.
Walker looked toward home and saw his hero walk out of the dugout and roll his shoulders and lightly swing his bat. Then he studied his brother again.
“No,” Walker said. “I don’t care about Aaron Judge if Marshall is unhappy. If he’s unhappy, I’m unhappy. This is his birthday, too, right?”
Sonya and I glanced at each other. We both fought back tears.
I cleared my throat.
“That’s right, bud.”
Marshall looked at his brother and, for the first time in many innings, smiled.
“Let’s go home,” Walker said.
They rose, together, and looked around a final time.
Then all five of us shimmied out of our aisle and walked up the stairs, our backs to the field and the Bleacher Creatures huddled near it. Just outside Yankee Stadium I muttered to myself: Father of the Fucking Year right here.